By Rick Steves
Throughout northern Europe, as populations age, governments are tightening up on "cradle to grave" security. While a bit tighter, the government's generosity survives. For instance, college used to be free with living expenses included. Now you pay $1000 a year and find your own room and board. Many post-baby-boom Dutch, who foresee a Holland with half its population over 65, sense a need to provide for their own retirement. The Dutch, in spite of the prostitutes lounging in windows and the sweet smell of pot filling many of the coffeeshops, are conservative people. And true to form, the Dutch are sitting on their money. That's the government's one gripe, people are saving too much.
The same spirit which drove the Dutch to create their land drives them to carefully manage the life on it. Their "live and let live" attitude is actually a practical answer to many of their social problems. Their answer to cultural problems? Subsidize them to death. Hells Angels get a free place to park their bikes (if they behave). There's a "union" for the unemployed. With rookie prostitutes having trouble with drugs and disease, there's even a hookers' union. Giving "park and ride" a whole new meaning, a special reststop with campground-like stalls provides a safe place for drivers who pick up roadside prostitutes to grab a little privacy just off the highway outside of Amsterdam.
Holland, with few natural resources, welcomes the world with a commercial smile. Readily accepted immigrants contributed to the rich Dutch economy. When the Jews — fleeing from the Spanish Inquisition — were welcomed in the 16th and 17th centuries, they brought trading connections and banking savvy. Dutch trade boomed with Jewish help. Today, this openness continues. Hungarians (who fled to Holland after their failed revolution in 1956), Spanish and Portuguese have all found ways to weave their lives into the more colorful than ever social tapestry of Holland.
Dutch call Americans the "seeing blind" when it comes to understanding class differences. Americans are so convinced Marx was wrong they can't see the class struggle in their midst as employers are leaving the workers in the economic dust. While Americans fear a race war, what we're heading for is a class war. Class differences in Europe are much smaller. Workers enjoy more job security, longer vacations, and higher wages than their American counterparts.
In Holland, where being ordinary is prudent, locals say "If you grow above the grains, they'll cut your head off." A Dutch "Madonna" would be inconceivable in this land where even the queen prefers to do her own shopping.
In the USA rich business owners robbing workers of their pension plan is hardly an outrage. The American dream is of impossible wealth. I recall being stuck in traffic with a Chicago cabby who was going nowhere in the land of promise. He drummed happily on the wheel of his ramshackle car declaring, "America!...where else can women dance on tables and go home with $500. Think of it, you could win the lotto and be a millionaire."