In a New Yorker book review (16 Feb, 2015), Nathan Heller describes the places of several nordic countries on various happiness indices. He offers some reasons why these peoples measure their own happiness so positively (good schools, free tuition, effectively free health care, an unfrayed safety net, before offering the opinion of Michael Booth, author of The Almost Nearly Perfect People, that the services one receives in exchange for an upper tax rate of over 70% are ‘patchy’.

Heller delves deeper into Booth’s arguments, pointing to alcohol consumption, employment rates, bureaucracy, and cuisine, and ultimately shreds both Booth’s approach (let an expert speak at length, then quote without fact-checking and present everything in a quasi-Innocents Abroad ‘aren’t these foreigners quaint’ fashion) and his conclusions. Finally he moves from discussing Booth’s take on Scandinavia to an assessment of the current changes to the social order in many of these countries as a result of immigration and rising inequality.

While it’s a shame that the welfare state aspect of many such countries is being undercut by US-style “free-market” “improvements” (see the privatisation of the rail system and tuition requirements at formerly free higher education facilities in the UK, for example, not to mention the pillage of the NHS that not even Maggie Thatcher would have dreamed of), these things are not trivial. I’m not the first to suggest that I don’t mind my taxes paying for education even though I don’t have children: I don’t want to live in a society surrounded by the uninformed. The review describes a Swedish couple, the wife of which didn’t pay any tuition to become a neurosurgeon. Fantastic. I’d rather any doctor I see to have gone through medical school on merit and without the worry of how to pay back hundreds of thousands of dollars/euros/etc. in student loans.

The introduction of tuition to previously taxpayer-funded universities is a tradition pioneered by Ronald Reagan when he was governor of California and, as noted, now followed by Cameron and his cronies in the UK. Like the privatisation of the rails and the NHS, it is nothing but a transfer of wealth from the lower and working classes to the bankers and other members of the 1%. Calling it anything but a handover to the City of London is to miss the point.

Rachel Maddow this week told of how Wisconsin’s Governor Walker is on a quest to slash funding for his state’s renowned public university system by hundreds of millions of dollars. Same thing. Please the bankers, and your next campaign is funded.

At the same time, Germany is offering free tuition to its universities to anyone who can pass the entrance exams. My sister told me of a couple she knows with two kids, eight and ten, if I recall rightly, who are moving there, though this new plan does not require German residency or citizenship. Language, yes, but if you can get in, Berlin will pay your tuition.

This is the choice we’re after – we can educate and take care of the next generations or we can continue to mess it up. In the US, the war on education has taken a number of forms – one the age-old battle against teachers’ unions and the despicable salaries we pay to those who spend the vast majority of their waking hours either looking after our children or finding ways to make sure they know enough to get to the next level. Another is the fight against teaching science in all its forms, but primarily the teaching of evolution. I share the belief that no questions for which science provides an answer have been better answered by religion. (I’m sure there’s a better quote from someone like Sagan or Tyson, but that’s the gist.) In some regions, I’m distinctly in the minority and 90 years after the Scopes trial, we’re still fighting the same battle.

Yes, I’ve gone from discussing free education to useful education, but surely these things go hand in hand. We had a short period during which we as a culture recognised not only a right to an education, but a responsibility to educate the next generation. It’s possible that period ran only from the GI Bill to (in California) Proposition 13, but with the slashing of tax revenues from a variety of places (Governor Brownback’s Kansas fiasco being a major one), public education takes a big hit.

The upshot of this is that people in states with very high tax rates are still happier and better off by a number of measures than those in the low-tax United States. My guess is that a secure education and worry-free medical care play a very large role in that.