Lawmakers looking in the wrong direction

   This summer, Sen. Lisa Brown (D-Spokane) told the State Labor Council convention recently that she intends to push the family leave bill, supports union-backed unemployment insurance changes, and suggested our health care system is inadequate.
   Brown, who was part of the governor’s trade mission to Europe, also said the Europeans passed mandatory family leave, and we ought to be "embarrassed" that we haven’t. She pledged to pass it in 2006.
   But is Europe really the place lawmakers should look for policies to make Washington competitive and help people find jobs?
   Basically, workers have it good in Europe — if they can find a job. For example, Germany is the European Union bellwether nation. Like most European countries, it is heavily unionized with stifling work rules, costly government-provided health care, generous unemployment benefits, and expensive welfare systems.
   Germany’s unemployment rate is 11.6 percent, more than double the U.S. rate. There are five million German workers who can’t find work. At last check, Washington’s jobless total was 5.7 percent, nearly a point higher than our national average.
   In fact, Timbro, the Swedish think tank, issued a stunning report last year showing that Germany, France and Italy would be the fifth poorest states in the United States as measured in per capital GDP (gross domestic product). They only would rank ahead of Arkansas, Montana, West Virginia, and Mississippi.
   The unemployment rate in France is also twice that of the U.S., and France has one of the highest tax burdens in all of Europe. And it’s GDP (gross domestic product) is half that of the U.S.
   Italy? The overall jobless rate there is only 170% of the U.S., if you don’t count the rural areas, where the unemployment rate exceeds 20 percent. As a comparison, the peak unemployment rate during the Great Depression was 24.9 percent.
   So, do we really want to be more like Europe? In fact, Europe is taking steps to be more like America, slowly implementing regulatory reforms and government spending cuts to make their economies more competitive.
   Even German unions and workers have belatedly recognized the need to change, grudgingly accepting longer hours and wage cuts. Thanks in part to this new flexibility and cost savings, Germany, long the most costly place in Europe in which to do business, has a new competitive edge over France, Italy, the Netherlands and even Britain.
   There is a basic economic truth lawmakers should not overlook. Worker benefits, salaries, generous health and welfare programs, and shorter work weeks and longer periods away from the job come at a price. When the price gets too high, the companies and the jobs they provide disappear. The key is balance: treating workers with respect and support, while ensuring that employers remain agile and competitive in the world marketplace.
   Finally, remember the tough competition is across the Pacific, not the Atlantic. It is China, India, South Korea, Singapore, Japan and Taiwan. If we are to compare programs that impact jobs and make us more competitive, we ought to look to the west, not to the east.

Don Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business.

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