Editorial board member and former economics reporter Eduardo Porter's Monday "Editorial Observer" column, "Race and the Social Contract," argued that America's ethnic diversity stands in the way of Porter's obvious idea of Valhalla - increased government spending.
For all the appeal of America's melting pot, the country's diverse ethnic mix is one main reason for entrenched opposition to public spending on the public good.
Among the 30 nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a club of industrial countries, only Mexicans, Koreans and Greeks pay less in taxes than Americans, as a share of the economy. The United States also ranks near the bottom on public spending on social programs: 19 percent of the nation's total output in 2003, compared with 29 percent in Sweden, 23 percent in Portugal and almost 30 percent in France.
Americans are not less generous than Europeans. When private charities are included, they probably spend more money for social purposes than Europeans do. But philanthropy allows them to target spending on those they personally believe are deserving, instead of allowing the government to choose.
Freedom of choice evidently isn't a high priority in Porter's utopia.
Mr. Glaeser's and Mr. Alesina's work suggests that white Europeans support a big welfare state because they believe the money will probably go to other white Europeans. In America, the Harvard economist Erzo F. P. Luttmer found that support for social spending among respondents to General Social Survey polls increased in tandem with the share of welfare recipients in the area who were in their own racial group. A study of charity by Daniel Hungerman, a Notre Dame economist, found that all-white congregations become less charitably active as the share of black residents in the local community grows.
This breakdown of solidarity should be unacceptable in a country that is, after all, mainly a nation of immigrants, glued together by a common project and many shared values. The United States has showed an unparalleled capacity to pull together in challenging times. Americans have invested blood and treasure to serve a broad national purpose and to rescue and protect their allies across the Atlantic.
Predictably, Porter lambasted Republicans and praised Obama:
Politicians, from Richard Nixon to Tom Tancredo, have long exploited racial tensions. But there is nothing inevitable about ethnic animosities, as Senator Obama argued in his speech, which came at an important moment.
Globalization presents the United States with an enormous challenge. Rising to the test will require big investments in the public good - from infrastructure to education to a safety net protecting those most vulnerable to change. Americans must once again show their ability to transcend group interests for a common national cause.
Mark Finkelstein at Newsbusters summarized Porter:
If only we were all Norwegians, we'd have the high taxes we need and all the welfare we want. But because America is diverse, we selfishly worry that members of other ethnic groups might benefit from our tax dollars. As a result, our taxes aren't high enough and our welfare spending too low.