Byrd: Social welfare and the Muppets

BY MATTHEW BYRD | MARCH 26, 2014 5:00 AM

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This past weekend, with spring break winding down, I decided to take in some light fare in the form of Muppets: Most Wanted. For the most part I got what I expected. Delightfully absurd and somewhat subversive humor, tons of five-second celebrity cameos, and Ricky Gervais and Tina Fey wonderfully being Ricky Gervais and Tina Fey. If I was disappointed by anything, it was that, once again, Swedish Chef and Rizzo the Rat were not given more than five minutes of screen time despite, far and away, their being the best Muppet characters.

Interestingly however, there was a small political bite in the otherwise apolitical extravaganza that caught me by surprise. In the film, French Interpol agent Jean Pierre Napoleon (played by Ty Burrell of “Modern Family”) teams up with the über-nationalistic Sam the Eagle to track down a series of thefts committed at European banks and museums right across the street from the Muppets, World, thefts conducted by Constantine posing as Kermit who has ended up in a Russian gulag. (I was hoping for a timely exploration of Russia’s expansive foreign policy and complete lack of respect for domestic civil liberties, but, alas, I was only treated to the wonder that is Ray Liotta dancing to show tunes.)

Throughout the movie, Jean demonstrates all of the tropes of Europe’s generous left-of-center social-welfare policies. He takes a six-hour lunch break, drives a ridiculously small car, leaves work early, and even leaves near the end of the investigation to take a six-week vacation with his family.

While all these escapades are played for laughs and the Muppets are clearly not launching some sort of crypto-right-wing attack on market socialist economic policies, the film does, to be blunt, lie on cheap stereotypes concerning the European welfare state, which isn’t super horrible because this is, you know, a children’s film. However, American audiences shouldn’t laugh at these seemingly foreign socioeconomic mores. They should celebrate them.

The European social model is badly needed in a country whose income inequality has reached such enormous levels that it’s become almost cliché to point out that we’re more unequal than at any time since the Great Depression. Nearly 80 percent of Americans face near poverty at some point in their lifetimes; our health-care system is an embarrassment with our health outcomes (along with our quality-of-life index) substantially lagging behind our European allies.

With this in mind, why should we laugh at a model that protects its citizens from capitalism run amok with such things as generous unemployment benefits, universal health insurance, and strong labor unions? What’s funny about giving paid vacation time to your citizens and ensuring decent workplace protections so you don’t die at work? Where’s the humor in being guaranteed a pension after a lifetime of work?

The United States is an obscenely rich country. Our economy blows every other country’s out of the water in terms of size, strength, and diversity. The think-tank Demos recently calculated that we could eliminate poverty in the United States by spending $175 billion, which is about a fraction of what we spend on defense. Why don’t we take a cue from the Muppets and just radically alter our social and economic framework so that every citizen can live their lives as comfortably as Jean Pierre Napoleon?

It’s not a joke.

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