The United States can only get get better with better laws (right?), so we’ve pulled together some of the best legislative ideas from around the world.
This is not to say that the U.S. isn’t already No. 1. We cannot say that, because we might still run for president some day. You don’t get to be president unless you go around hollering about the U.S.’s general world dominance. Just ask the current president, eh?
On this point, President Obama agreed. “Look, there’s no American politician, much less an American President, who’s…going to say that we’re not the best country on Earth,” Obama said in a 2013 speech at a Democratic National Committee event.
The president went on to call the notion a “cliche,” while also listing the reasons that the U.S. is, in fact, the greatest nation on the planet. You just can’t escape it. But what do presidents and lesser politicians mean when they say we’re No. 1?
A few national stats can help us with this question. The U.S. is plainly—demonstrably—first in some categories. We put more people in jail than any other nation. We have the most expensive health care in the world (somehow, that hasn’t bought us better health).
We are also really amazing at income inequality, with 20 percent of total gross income going to the top 1 percent of earners in 2012. Our nearest competitor in this department is the UK, with around 13 percent of gross income funneling into the pockets of the 1 percent.
Okay. So maybe the question is: How do we get to be a little bit less No. 1? Adopting some of the laws that have worked for other nations would be a good place to start. Note that we are under no illusions that our legislature will actually introduce, let alone pass, any of these laws. Still, it’s nice to indulge in the odd wish fulfillment fantasy — another thing in which the U.S. ranks first.
Anyway, onto the laws:
1. Estonia’s Paid Parental Leave Law
The United States joins Papua New Guinea and Suriname in its lack of laws mandating paid parental leave for new parents. (That’s it, by the way. We’re the only industrialized nation without paid parental leave.)
That leaves moms and dads in the U.S. at the mercy of private companies, who may or may not offer maternal leave. Or paternal leave. Or, better yet, both. (Virtually every nation that offers paid paternal leave also offers paid maternal leave.)
And if these companies do offer parental leave of any sort, it often isn’t paid, is only paid at half the normal rate, or you only get about two weeks total. Not exactly helpful when you need to take care of a brand new human.
Most countries in the world, industrialized or not, legally require employers to give new moms and dads a period of paid time off to take care of their infants. Some of that time is over a year off and in many countries, that time is paid at 100 percent.
Estonia, on the other hand, takes the concept to a whole new level. According to the Pew Research Center, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development says that Estonia mandates 87 weeks of 100 percent paid leave for every new parent. That’s more than a year and a half.
In the U.S., we’ve got time to make up for, so we choose Estonia’s paid parental leave laws as the ones we should import. Thanks, Estonia.
2. New Zealand’s Restorative Justice Laws
When young people commit crimes in the U.S., they go to jail. That’s why the United States has an incarceration rate of 716 per 100,000 people (the world average is around 160 per 100,000). And that’s just offenders over the age of 18.
According to the Department of Justice, there are around 70,000 offenders in juvenile facilities in a given year. American youth incarceration rates are shockingly high at approximately 300 per 100,000; the next highest developed country on the list is South Africa with 69 per 100,000. It’s clear that something isn’t quite right here.
However, in New Zealand, when young people commit crimes, they enter the “family group conference” system. This model of restorative justice is based in part on the indigenous Maori culture’s method of dealing with wrongdoing, and it has kept many youths from the more punitive system of prisons and halfway houses.
In a family group conference, state officials bring together victims and perpetrators, along with their families. Victims and suspects discuss the harm, plan to make things right, and decide how to avoid similar wrongdoing in the future.
In New Zealand, this practice has even begun creeping into the adult criminal justice system. There’s no reason to think it wouldn’t work in the United States, even on the federal level. It has to be better than throwing more and more folks in jail with excessively harsh sentences for non-violent or misdemeanor crimes.
3. Finland’s Sliding Scale for Fines
If you’re rich, you don’t want to get caught speeding in Finland. In 2015, a successful businessman named Reima Kuisla was pulled over for going 64 mph in a 50 mph zone. His fine? A cool 54,000 euros, equivalent to more than $60,000 USD.
That may seem draconian (or, as the Finns say, “TROLL!“) but don’t you worry; Kuisla can afford it. That’s because Finnish police departments calculate fines based on the speeder’s income. They determine your average daily expenses, cut that number in half, then multiply by a number of days between 1 and 120, depending on how serious your infraction was.
That means most of us would get hit with lowish fines that would still hurt. The difference between Finland and the U.S. is that, there, fines hurt just as badly for the wealthy.
4. Bolivia’s “Law of the Rights of Mother Earth”
In the United States, as we know, corporations have the rights of individuals. That is, companies are people.
In Bolivia, they prefer to personify Mother Earth. A major piece of legislation recognizes seven distinct rights of the planet itself. Under this law, Mother Earth has the right to life, to diversity of life, to water, to clean air, to balanced equilibrium of power, to restoration from harm caused by humans, and to freedom from contamination.
Now that’s how you ecology. Maybe we should take a recycled, hand-made page out of Bolivia’s vegan-bound book and start giving rights to the life-system that hosts us all.
5. The Netherlands’ Bicycling Safety Laws
In 2015, 818 cyclists were killed by motor vehicles in the United States. The American people gave a collective shrug. The prior year, 185 cyclists in the Netherlands suffered the same fate, and the Dutch government freaked out.
That’s because the Dutch had already done so much to try to protect cyclists. In 1999, the government created the Dutch Bicycle Master Plan, which codifies traffic laws that privilege vulnerable cyclists over invincible drivers.
If a car and a bicycle collide in the Netherlands, for instance, the driver’s insurance is immediately on the hook. Meanwhile, Dutch cities continue to take steps to make cycling even safer. After all, while 185 fatalities is better than 818, the number we should all be shooting for is zero.
6. France’s Nationalized Health Care System
Over here in the United States, we just can’t seem to get health care right. No matter which side of the aisle you stand on, it’s hard to argue with the fact that we spend more on health care than any other country, and we don’t have the healthiest citizens. Far from it.
To add to that mess, our legislators’ most recent attempts to fix the situation has resulted in a dismal 17 percent approval rate, according to a NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll. Since we love to spend money on health care that just isn’t working, perhaps it’s time we turn to one of the next highest-paying nations who actually gets it right: France.
Make as many Frenchy jokes as you’d like; the difference between our health care systems is that France actually gets excellent care for patients for its expenses.
The nation ranks first in the World Health Organization’s 2000 World Health Report. The government simply handles most medical bills, although citizens can buy supplemental private insurance if they prefer. We realize that a single-payer health market will probably never happen in the United States. But, seeing how they work in France, we just have one question: Why not?