On camera, travel guru Rick Steves appears like a laid-back Clark Kent, who hid his identity behind spectacles.
After readers rip open Steves' book, "Travel as a Political Act," it's as if Superman sheds his identity as a mild-mannered reporter. Steves relates how European social democracies have much to teach the United States. As kryptonite weakened Superman, condemning all aspects of socialism undercuts national fiscal policy, believes Steves. In leads to exorbitant health-care costs, which assist fewer people.
Don't condemn what socialism offers citizens just because, to our provincial ears, the word sounds bad.
"In American politics, 'socialism' is often perceived as an all-or-none bogeyman, evoking the stifling Soviet system of the Cold War," writes Steves. "This thinking, which fixates on a Soviet-style oppression that has nothing to do with today's European socialism, ignores the reality that socialism is a spectrum. Every society on Earth - including our own - includes some socialistic elements (such as our progressive taxation)."
Steves is right about the socialistic dynamics interwoven within the pattern of American capitalism. Whether wealthy or poor, American citizens benefit from handouts, even if we don't call them that.
Who wants to eliminate the 401k exemptions that make it possible to place tax-free dollars in a retirement account? Isn't this a way of redistributing wealth with socialistic features? We just don't like to speak of it this way.
Or how do we regard one of the biggest socialistic policies of wealth distribution in the federal budget? Millions of dollars are transferred from those younger and working to older workers, now retired. Social Security and Medicare cost $1.1 trillion in 2010, roughly a third of the federal budget. These programs spread wealth from people still in the workforce to retirees.
Do we regard the mortgage interest tax deduction we write off as a socialistic program? Real estate owners wrote off $104 billion last year. The poor who can't afford property get zero in tax advantages.
Last spring, we visited the Netherlands, a socialist democratic society. Our niece, her husband and their infant daughter are citizens there. She compared her marriage now with an upbringing in western Michigan in a town where most everyone is Republican and entrepreneurship is praised. My niece said she would never again live in the United States because the medical services in the Netherlands are superior. Socialism works.
Rick Steves in his book explains why most Americans recoil against socialism, even though it's embedded in our major social programs like Social Security and Medicare.
"Like us," he writes, "Europe is enthusiastically capitalistic. Europeans are just more comfortable with a higher degree of socialism. Most Europeans continue to favor their existing high tax rates because they believe that collectively creating the society of their dreams is more important than allowing individuals to create the personal empire of their dreams.
"While American culture tends to be individualistic-inspired by 'up by the bootstraps' and 'rags to riches' stories, Europe is more focused on community."
Isn't Mitt Romney disingenuous when he relies on the private sector for economic growth and constantly warns us against sliding toward European socialism with personal liberties curtailed?
Look at how he mischaracterizes President Obama's welfare reforms. Romney's campaign advertisement lies. It alleges Obama has removed "workfare" from "welfare" and created a society living on Uncle Sam's handouts.
Here's what changed in welfare reform during the Obama presidency. State governors requested an elastic welfare policy so they could construct programs efficiently without federal cookie-cutter rules. Obama's team OK'd such a request, as long as the number of welfare recipients who worked stayed the same. The president sounds very Republican with this policy: Those receiving aid must work for it. Let states closest to their needs tailor-make aid.
Romney doesn't honor the biblical precept to "remove dishonesty from your mouth. Put deceptive speech far away from your lips" (Proverbs 4:24). He feeds a racial stereotype that minorities are lazy and dependent on Uncle Sam. Romney errs, condemning Obama for enlarging the pool of welfare clients who don't work.
President Obama hasn't gutted welfare's workfare requirement. He's made it more flexible. States now meet human need more efficiently. Romney regards welfare as a form of wealth distribution, a sign of creeping socialism.
Isn't it inconsistent that Americans, who like tax breaks which redistribute wealth their way, are offended by forms of socialism that help the poor?
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God's history come alive. Van Ens' book, "How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes," is available in local bookstores for $7.95.