Europe vs America

By Paul Gonzales,2014-07-24 18:27
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Europe vs America


    Consider a mug of American coffee. It is found everywhere. It can be made by anyone. It is cheapand refills

    are free. Being largely without flavor it can be diluted to taste. What it lacks in allure it makes up in size. It is the most democratic method ever devised for introducing caffeine into human beings. Now take a cup of Italian espresso. It requires expensive equipment. Price-to-volume ratio is outrageous, suggesting indifference to the consumer and ignorance of the market. The aesthetic satisfaction accessory to the beverage far outweighs its metabolic impact. It is not a drink; it is an artifact.

    This contrast can stand for the differences between America and Europedifferences nowadays asserted with

    increased frequency and not a little acrimony on both sides of the Atlantic. The mutual criticisms are familiar. To American commentators Europe is ―stagnant.‖ Its workers, employers, and regulations lack the flexibility and adaptability of their US counterparts. The costs of European social welfare payments and public services are ―unsustainable.‖ Europe‘s aging and ―cosseted‖ populations are underproductive and self-satisfied. In a

    globalized world, the ―European social model‖ is a doomed mirage. This conclusion is typically drawn even by ―liberal‖ American observers, who differ from conservative (and neoconservative) critics only in deriving no pleasure from it.

    To a growing number of Europeans, however, it is America that is in trouble and the ―American way of life‖ that cannot be sustained. The American pursuit of wealth, size, and abundanceas material surrogates for

    happinessis aesthetically unpleasing and ecologically catastrophic. The American economy is built on sand (or, more precisely, other people‘s money). For many Americans the promise of a better future is a fading hope.

    Contemporary mass culture in the US is squalid and meretricious. No wonder so many Americans turn to the church for solace.

    These perceptions constitute the real Atlantic gap and they suggest that something has changed. In past decades it was conventionally assumedwhether with satisfaction or regretthat Eu-rope and America were

    converging upon a single ―Western‖ model of late capitalism, with the US as usual leading the way. The logic of scale and market, of efficiency and profit, would ineluctably trump local variations and inherited cultural constraints. Americanization (or globalizationthe two treated as synonymous) was inevitable. The

    bestindeed the onlyhope for local products and practices was that they would be swept up into the global vortex and repackaged as ―international‖ commodities for universal consumption. Thus an archetypically Italian productcaffè espressowould travel to the US, where it would metamorphose from an elite

    preference into a popular commodity, and then be repackaged and sold back to Europeans by an American chain store.


    But something has gone wrong with this story. It is not just that Starbucks has encountered unexpected foreign resistance to double-decaf-mocha-skim-latte-with-cinnamon (except, revealingly, in the United Kingdom), or that politically motivated Europeans are abjuring high-profile American commodities. It is becoming clear that America and Europe are not way stations on a historical production line, such that Europeans must expect to inherit or replicate the American experience after an appropriate time lag. They are actually quite distinct places, very possibly moving in divergent directions. There are even thoseincluding the authors of two of the books

    under reviewfor whom it is not Europe but rather the United States that is trapped in the past. America‘s cultural peculiarities (as seen from Europe) are well documented: the nation‘s marked religiosity, its

    1selective prurience, its affection for guns and prisons (the EU has 87 prisoners per 100,000 people; America has 685), and its embrace of the death penalty. As T.R. Reid puts it in The United States of Europe, ―Yes,

    Americans put up huge billboards reading ‗Love Thy Neighbor,‘ but they murder and rape their neighbors at

    rates that would shock any European nation.‖ But it is the curiosities of America‘s economy, and its social costs, that are now attracting attention.

    Americans work much more than Europeans: according to the OECD a typical employed American put in 1,877 hours in 2000, compared to 1,562 for his or her French counterpart. One American in three works more than fifty hours a week. Americans take fewer paid holidays than Europeans. Whereas Swedes get more than thirty paid days off work per year and even the Brits get an average of twenty-three, Americans can hope for something between four and ten, depending on where they live. Unemployment in the US is lower than in many European countries (though since out-of-work Americans soon lose their rights to unemployment benefits and are taken off the registers, these statistics may be misleading). America, it seems, is better than Europe at creating jobs. So more American adults are at work and they work much more than Europeans. What do they get for their efforts?

    Not much, unless they are well-off. The US is an excellent place to be rich. Back in 1980 the average American chief executive earned forty times the average manufacturing employee. For the top tier of American CEOs, the ratio is now 475:1 and would be vastly greater if assets, not income, were taken into account. By way of

    2comparison, the ratio in Britain is 24:1, in France 15:1, in Sweden 13:1. A privileged minority has access to

    the best medical treatment in the world. But 45 million Americans have no health insurance at all (of the world‘s developed countries only the US and South Africa offer no universal medical coverage). According to the World Health Organization the United States is number one in health spending per capitaand

    thirty-seventh in the quality of its service.

    As a consequence, Americans live shorter lives than West Europeans. Their children are more likely to die in infancy: the US ranks twenty-sixth among industrial nations in infant mortality, with a rate double that of Sweden, higher than Slovenia‘s, and only just ahead of Lithuania‘s—and this despite spending 15 percent of

    US gross domestic product on ―health care‖ (much of it siphoned off in the administrative costs of for-profit

    private networks). Sweden, by contrast, devotes just 8 percent of its GDP to health. The picture in education is very similar. In the aggregate the United States spends much more on education than the nations of Western Europe; and it has by far the best research universities in the world. Yet a recent study suggests that for every dollar the US spends on education it gets worse results than any other industrial nation. American children

    3consistently underperform their European peers in both literacy and numeracy.

    Very well, you might conclude. Europeans are betterfairerat distributing social goods. This is not news.

    But there can be no goods or services without wealth, and surely the one thing American capitalism is good at, and where leisure-bound, self-indulgent Europeans need to improve, is the dynamic generation of wealth. But this is by no means obvious today. Europeans work less: but when they do work they seem to put their time to better use. In 1970 GDP per hour in the EU was 35 percent below that of the US; today the gap is less than 7 percent and closing fast. Productivity per hour of work in Italy, Austria, and Denmark is similar to that of the United States; but the US is now distinctly outperformed in this key measure by Ireland, the Netherlands,

    4Norway, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, …and France.

    America‘s longstanding advantage in wages and productivitythe gift of size, location, and history

    alikeappears to be winding down, with attendant consequences for US domination of the international business scene. The modern American economy is not just in hock to international bankers with a foreign debt of $3.3 trillion (28 percent of GDP); it is also increasingly foreign-owned. In the year 2000, European direct investment in the US exceeded American investment in Europe by nearly two fifths. Among dozens of emblematically ―American‖ companies and products now owned by Europeans are Brooks Brothers, DKNY,

    Random House, Kent Cigarettes, Dove Soap, Chrysler, Bird‘s Eye, Pennzoil, Baskin-Robbins, and the Los

    Angeles Dodgers.

    Europeans even appear to be better at generating small and medium-size businesses. There are more small businesses in the EU than in the United States, and they create more employment (65 percent of European jobs in 2002 were in small and medium-sized firms, compared with just 46 percent in the US). And they look after their employees much better. The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights promises the ―right to parental leave following the birth or adoption of a child‖ and every West European country provides salary support during that leave. In Sweden women get sixty-four weeks off and two thirds of their wages. Even Portugal guarantees

    maternity leave for three months on 100 percent salary. The US federal government guarantees nothing. In the words of Valgard Haugland, Norway‘s Christian Democratic minister for children and family: ―Americans like to talk about family values. We have decided to do more than talk; we use our tax revenues to pay for family values.‖

    Yet despite such widely bemoaned bureaucratic and fiscal impediments to output, Europeans appear somehow

    5to manage rather well. And of course the welfare state is not just a value in itself. In the words of the London

    6School of Economics economist Nicholas Barr, it ―is an efficiency device against market failure‖ : a prudential

    impediment to the social and political risks of excessive inequality. It was Winston Churchill who declared in March 1943 that ―there is no finer investment for any community than putting milk into babies.‖ To his self-anointed disciples in contemporary America, however, this reeks of ―welfare.‖ In the US today the richest 1 percent holds 38 percent of the wealth and they are redistributing it ever more to their advantage. Meanwhile

    7one American adult in five is in povertycompared with one in fifteen in Italy. The benefits don‘t even trickle

    down anymore. To many foreigners today this is a distinctly unappetizing vision: the ―American way of life‖ is

    8at a steep discount. As an economic model the US is not replicable. As a social model it offers few redeeming

    qualities. One is reminded of Oliver Goldsmith‘s mordant reflections upon an earlier age of private greed and

    public indifference:

    Ill fares the land, to hast’ning ills a prey,

    9Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.


    This is the case put forward by Jeremy Rifkin and T.R. Reid. Rifkin is the more ambitious of the two, rather too much so: his book, The European Dream, is replete with efforts to summarize everything from church history

    to Enlightenment philosophy, all to the end of demonstrating that it is individualist America that is stuck in a time warp and cooperative Europe that represents the future. I think he is fundamentally right: but the case can only be hurt by the jejune summaries of the ―Making of the Bourgeoisie‖ or the ―Rise of the Nation-State,‖ as

    well as by a crassly reductionist account of American materialism, and a hodgepodge of ill-advised allusions to chaos theory, the ―Great Chain of Being,‖ Hobbes, Descartes, Hegel, and the Enclosure Acts.

    The European Dream isn‘t as bad a book as some reviewers have suggested and it has something important to

    say. Of contemporary America Rifkin writes:

    With only our religious fervor to hold on to, we have become a ―chosen people‖ without a narrative—making

    America potentially a more dangerous and lonely place to be.

    But the book would have been a whole lot better had Rifkin stuck to what he knows about and not tried so hard to say something ―important.‖

    T.R. Reid is a journalist and his account of European superiority, which covers much the same territory as Rifkin‘s, is shorter, sharper, more readable, and less pretentious. It has some amusing vignettes: notably of American innocentsJack Welch, George W. Bush (and most recently Bill Gates)caught up in a brave new

    world of European regulations they can neither understand nor ignore. And Reid, like Rifkin, demonstrates very effectively just why the European Union, with its regulatory powers, its wealth, and its institutional example, is a place Americans will need to take extremely seriously in coming decades.

    But though their books are timely, neither writer is saying anything very new. Their damning bill of particulars regarding the United States is fam-iliar to Europeans—it was in 1956 that Jimmy Porter, in John Osborne‘s

    Look Back in Anger, sardonically observed that ―it‘s pretty dreary living in the American ageunless of course

    you‘re American,‖ and one way or another that thought has echoed down the decades to the present day. But

    just because there is something profoundly amiss in the US today, and something no less intuitively appealing about the European social compact, this does not license us to tell fairy stories.

    Anyone seeking in these books an account of the origins of the EU will be led badly astray. Reid and Rifkin trip over themselves to praise the founding fathers of Europe for their foresight and wisdom in guiding Europe to its present eminence. According to Reid, in ―the years following the Schuman Declaration, the European Movement took the continent by storm.‖ The European Coal and Steel Community was a ―rip-roaring

    economic success.‖ Rifkin goes further: Europe, he writes, is ―a giant freewheeling experimental laboratory for rethinking the human condition…‖(!)


    10These claims are absurd. The European Union is what it is: the largely unintended product of decades of negotiations by West European politicians seeking to uphold and advance their national and sectoral interests. That‘s part of its problem: it is a compromise on a continental scale, designed by literally hundreds of

    committees. Actually this makes the EU more interesting and in some ways more impressive than if it merely incarnated some uncontentious utopian blueprint. In the same vein, it seems silly to write, as Rifkin does, about the awfulness of American ―cookie-cutter housing tracts‖ as yet another symptom of American mediocrity

    without acknowledging Europe‘s own eyesores. This is a man who has never stared upon the urban brutalism of Sarcelles, a postwar dormitory town north of Paris; who has not died a little in Milton Keynes; who has avoided the outer suburbs of modern Milan. Reid is right to insist that Europe has the best roads, the fastest trains, the cheapest plane fares. And yes, the EU is indeed closer, as Rifkin notes, ―to the pulse of the changes that are

    transforming the world into a globalized society.‖ But it isn‘t perfect by any means.

    Indeed, Europe is facing real problems. But they are not the ones that American free-market critics recount with such grim glee. Yes, the European Commission periodically makes an ass of itself, aspiring to regulate the size of condoms and the curvature of cucumbers. The much-vaunted Stability Pact to constrain national expenditure and debt has broken down in acrimony, though with no discernible damage to the euro it was designed to protect. And pensions and other social provisions will be seriously underfunded in decades to come unless Europeans have more children, welcome more immigrants, work a few more years before retiring, take somewhat less generous unemployment compensation, and make it easier for businesses to employ young people. But these are not deep structural failings of the European way of life: they are difficult policy choices

    11with political consequences. None of them implies the dismantling of the welfare state.

    Europe‘s true dilemmas lie elsewhere. In the Netherlands, in Paris and Antwerp and other cities, antagonism and incomprehension between the indigenous local population and a fast-growing minority of Muslims (one million in the Netherlands, over five million in France, perhaps 13 million in the EU to date) has already moved on from graffiti and no-go zones to arson, assaults, and assassinations. Turks, Moroccans, Tunisians, Algerians, and others have been arriving in Western Europe since the 1960s. We are now seeing the emergence of a third generation: in large part unemployed, angry, alienated, and increasingly open to the communitarian appeal of

    12radical Islam.

    For nearly four decades mainstream European politicians turned a blind eye to all this: to the impact of de facto segregated housing; isolated unintegrated communities; and the rising tide of fearful, resentful white voters convinced that the boat was ―full.‖ It has taken Jean-Marie Le Pen, the assassinated Dutch politician Pim

    Fortuyn, and a flock of demagogic anti-immigrant parties from Norway to Italy to awaken Europeans to this crisisand it augurs badly that the response of everyone from Tony Blair to Valéry Giscard d‘Estaing has been to cry ―Havoc!‖ and wind up the drawbridge.

    For the other problem facing Europe, and the two are of course connected, is the pressure on its outer edges. The European Union is almost too attractive for its own goodin contrast with the United States, which is

    widely disliked for what it does, the EU appeals just by virtue of what it is. Refugees and illegal immigrants

    from half of Africa periodically drown in their desperate efforts to cross the Straits of Gibraltar or beach

themselves on Italy‘s southernmost islands—or else they land safely, only to get shipped back. Turkey had been

    trying for nearly forty years to gain admission to the European club before its application was (reluctantly) taken up last month. Ukraine‘s best hope for a stable democratic future lies inside Europe—or at least with the

    prospect of one day getting there, which would greatly strengthen the hand of Viktor Yushchenko and his supporters in the aftermath of their recent victory. And the same of course is true for the remnant states of former Yugoslavia. But while Brussels is all too well aware of the risks entailed in ignoring Africa or leaving Ukraine or Bosnia to fes-ter at its gatesmuch less casting 70 million Turkish Muslims into the fold of radical

    Europe‘s leaders are deeply troubled at the pros-pect (and the cost) of committing the EU to extending Islam

    itself to the edges of Asia.

    These are Europe‘s real challenges. The EU may be, as Reid and Rifkin suggest, a luminous model of

    13trans-state cooperation, justice, and harmony. But it will not be easy for the EU to integrate its ethnic and

    14religious minorities, regulate immigration, or admit Turkey on workable terms. Yet should it mismanage the

    permanent crisis on its eastern and southern borders, Europe is going to be in very serious difficulties indeed. And that, not some sort of atavistic anti-Americanism or rocket-envy, is why many reasonable Europeans and their leaders are utterly enraged by President George W. Bush.

    To the Bush a