Despite America's move to the left under Obama, it's still assumed that Europe and America are fundamentally different: in their economies, societies and values. But this is a mythby Peter Baldwin / May 4, 2009 / Leave a comment
Talk about upending accepted certainties! While Europe is now in the hands of right-of-centre parties (France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Denmark and David Cameron pacing restlessly in the wings), America has “gone socialist.” Nationalising the financial sector by the back door, considering massive subsidy of production industries, increasing state spending on healthcare and education, promising big investments in all manner of greenery, and limiting executive salaries: is Barack Obama beating Europe at its own game? “We are all socialists now,” Newsweek trumpeted in February, predicting that, “as entitlement spending rises over the next decade, we will become even more French.” General Jack D Ripper, Dr Strangelove’s nemesis, who fulminated against fluoridation of the water as another of communism’s nefarious advances, must be rotating in his Valhalla.
How quickly things change. It seems just a few months ago that the presidency of the younger Bush—unilaterally going to war, refusing to submit to international treaties, disparaging the seriousness of global ecological catastrophe—convinced bien pensant opinion that the gulf between the US and Europe was stark and growing ever wider. Indeed, old and well-worn mental ruts are hard to steer out of. It remains a staple of political discourse on both sides of the Atlantic that Europe and America are worlds apart. Everyone knows this.
The “wide Atlantic” thesis claims that there are fundamental differences between Europe and America. These are the contrasts: America believes in the untrammelled market, Europe accepts capitalism but curbs its excesses. Social policies either do not exist in America or are more miserly than in Europe. America’s lack of universal health insurance means that many people die young and live miserably. Because the market dominates, America’s environment is less cared for. Since social contrasts are greater in America, crime is much more of a problem than in Europe. Meanwhile Europeans are secular; Americans are much more likely to believe in God and accept a role for religion in public life. The two societies are thus divided along several faultlines: competition vs co-operation, individualism vs solidarity, autonomy vs cohesion.
This is all familiar. But is it true? With the Obama administration moving the US to the left there is a perception of the Atlantic narrowing again, to the dismay of American conservatives—being “too European” is a stick Obama’s opponents are fond of beating him with. But were the contrasts between Europe and the US ever as great as both sides imagine?
One way of answering this question is to look at the quantifiable evidence. Not all differences can be captured by numbers, but statistics allow us a first pass over the terrain and to compare reliably. If we compare four areas: the economy, social policy, the environment and—hardest of all to quantify—religion and cultural attitudes, the evidence in each case allows two conclusions. First, Europe is not a coherent or unified continent. The spectrum of difference within even the 16 countries of western Europe (which is what we are mainly looking at here) is far broader than normally appreciated. Second, with a few exceptions, the US fits into this spectrum. Either, then, there is no coherent European identity, or—if there is one—the US is as European as the usual candidates. Europe and the US are, in fact, parts of a common, big-tent grouping—call it the west, the Atlantic community, or the developed world.
It is universally observed that America is an economically more unequal society than Europe, with greater stratification between rich and poor. Much of this is true. Income is more disproportionately distributed in the US than in western Europe. In 1998, for example, the richest 1 per cent of Americans took home 14 per cent of total income, while in Sweden the figure was only about 6 per cent. Wealth concentration is another matter, however. The richest 1 per cent of Americans owned about 21 per cent of all wealth in 2000. Some European nations have higher concentrations than that. In Sweden—despite that nation’s egalitarian reputation—the figure is 21 per cent, exactly the same as for the Americans. And if we take account of the massive moving of wealth offshore and off-book permitted by Sweden’s tax authorities, the richest 1 per cent of Swedes are proportionately twice as well off as their American peers.
What about poverty, not the same thing as inequality? Because inequality is greater in America, relative poverty is by definition also higher. But absolute poverty rates look different. If we take absolute poverty to be living on the actual cash sum equivalent to half of median income for the original six nations of the EU, we see that many western European countries in 2000 had a higher percentage of poor citizens than the US; not only Mediterranean countries, but also Britain, Ireland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Finland and Sweden. Unemployment benefits in the US, often portrayed as derisory in the European media, are actually higher than in many European nations. Greece, Britain, Italy and Iceland spend less than the US on unemployment, measured per capita.
The US welfare state is often portrayed as miserly and undeveloped compared to Europe. And so it is, if the standard is taken to be Sweden or Germany. But if we look at the span of social policy across Europe, a different picture emerges.
Of course, America has no universal system of health insurance. Michael Moore’s 2006 film Sicko will ensure that no one forgets that. As a result, 15 per cent of its population is not covered. There is no question that being uninsured is unfair and brutal, nor that the lack of universal health coverage is the most pressing problem of American domestic politics. The true disgrace of American healthcare is that infant mortality is higher than anywhere in Europe. President Obama seems determined not to let the financial crisis sidetrack his promise to improve access to health insurance.
Yet despite the too large fraction of those who are not insured, Americans are relatively healthy and well-serviced by their healthcare system—to judge by disease survival rates. For diabetes, heart and circulatory disease and strokes, the incidence rates and the number of years lost to sickness are firmly in the middle of the European spectrum. And for the four major cancer killers (colorectal, lung, breast and prostate), all European nations have worse survival rates than the US.
Looking also at other forms of social policy, we see that the US fits broadly into the lower half of the European spectrum. As with its unemployment assistance, US spending on disability benefits is higher than in Greece and Portugal per capita, and practically at the same level as France, Italy, Ireland and Germany. (All figures used for comparison here account for differences in costs of living). State pensions in the US may fall into the lower half of the European spectrum. But examine instead the total disposable income of the retired in America as a percentage of what the still active receive. Only in Austria, Germany and France do the elderly fare better.
It is commonly known that the American state does not help out much in terms of family provision. Parental leave is not statutory and there are no guarantees that women can reclaim their jobs after pregnancy. Family allowances as such do not exist. On the other hand, if one counts resources channelled via the tax credit system, as well as outright cash grants and services, and if one measures them as a percentage of GDP, the US ranks higher than Spain, Greece and Italy for family benefits. Public spending on childcare (daycare and pre-primary education) puts the US into the middle of the European scale. Total spending on pre-primary care per child is higher than anywhere but Norway.
True, public social spending in America—that is, monies channelled through the state—is low compared to many European countries. But other avenues of redistribution are equally important: voluntary efforts, private but statutorily encouraged benefits (like employee health insurance) and taxes. Given all of these, the American welfare state is more extensive than is often realised: the total social policy effort made in the US falls precisely at the centre of the European scale.
And if we shift our focus to education, the contrasts across the Atlantic are, if anything, reversed. A higher percentage of Americans have graduated from university and from secondary school than in any European nation. America’s adults are, in this sense, better educated than Europe’s. And the US lavishes more money per child at all levels of education than any western European nation. Europeans often believe that good US schools are private and serve only an elite. Yet American education is, if anything, less privatised than most European systems. Public education was among the first social programmes to receive massive public funding in the US and this has remained the case ever since.
Simone de Beauvoir was convinced that Americans do not need to read because they do not think. Thinking is hard to quantify; reading less so. And Americans, it turns out, do read. The percentage of illiterate Americans is average by European standards. There are more newspapers per head in the US than anywhere in Europe outside Scandinavia, Switzerland and Luxembourg. The long tradition of well-funded public libraries in the US means that the average American reader is better supplied with library books than his peers in Germany, Britain, France, Holland, Austria and all the Mediterranean nations. They also make better use of these public library books than most Europeans. The average American borrowed more library books in 2001 than their peers in Germany, Austria, Norway, Ireland, Luxembourg, France and throughout the Mediterranean. Not content with borrowing, Americans also buy more books per head than any Europeans for whom we have numbers. And they write more books per capita than most Europeans too.
American popular culture is fascinated by violence, much as Japanese culture is by suicide. Whether in The Godfather or the television series The Wire, the image America broadcasts about itself is crime-ridden and violent. Most foreigners have been content to accept that analysis at face value. Not that it is entirely untrue. A horrendous number of murders are committed in the US, almost twice the per capita rate of the nearest European competitors, Switzerland, Finland and Sweden. Nor is there any doubt that the US imprisons a far higher percentage of its population than any of its peers. But in other respects, America is a peaceful and quiet place by European standards. US burglary rates are fairly high, but below the Danish and British. The incidence of theft is lower than in six western European countries. Assault is in the middle, on a par with Swedish and Belgian rates. Rape levels are high, but other sexual assault rates are moderate. Only Denmark, Belgium and Portugal have lower rates; Austria suffers three times the American rate.
American drug use is quite high too, but still—excepting cannabis where the figures are a smidgen above Britain’s—within the European scale. American white-collar crime is at the middle to low end of the spectrum. The French suffer over six times the American rate of bribery. And the total American crime figures are in the low middle of the pack. Indeed, only relatively small countries—Finland, Austria, Switzerland and Portugal—are less crime-ridden than the US.
But what about other aspects of the social environment? In ecological terms, America is thought to be a wastrel. Big cars, big houses, long commutes, cold winters, hot summers, profligate habits: such perceptions of the country have combined with the Bush administration’s cosy relationship with the oil industry and its refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol to paint the nation as an environmental black hole. Once again, the numbers tell a somewhat different story.
Although oil use per capita is high in America, measured as a function of economic production (in other words, putting the input in relation to the output) it remains within European norms, and indeed lower than in Portugal, Greece, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Iceland. Between 1990 and 2002, America’s carbon dioxide output rose, but per unit of GDP it fell by 17 per cent—a greater reduction than in nine western European countries. In its output of renewable energy, the US is middle of the spectrum on all counts, whether biogas, solid biomass energy, geothermal or wind. Only Austria, Denmark, Italy and the Netherlands have higher levels of spending (public and private) on pollution abatement and control as a percentage of GDP than America. Despite the myths of a hyper-motorised nation, Americans own fewer passenger cars per head than the French, Austrians, Swiss, Germans, Luxembourgers and Italians. Per capita, Americans rely on their cars more than Europeans. But adjusting for the size of the country, automobile usage is lower only in Finland, Sweden and Greece. Similarly, Americans produce a lot of waste per head, though the Norwegians are worse, and the Irish and Danes are close competitors. But they recycle as well as the Finns and the French, and better than the British, Greeks and the Portuguese. Since 1990, Americans’ production of waste has scarcely gone up per capita, while in all European nations for which figures are available, there have been big increases—70 per cent in Spain, almost 60 per cent in Italy and over 30 per cent in Sweden.
“The old world developed on the basis of a coalition—uneasy but understood—between humanity and its surroundings,” the Guardian reassures its recycling readership. “The settlement of the US was based on conquest, not just of the indigenous peoples, but also of the terrain.” Yet, despite such common European conceptions, American conservation efforts are strong by European standards. The environmental activist Jeremy Rifkin insists that Europeans, unlike Americans, have “a love for the intrinsic value of nature. One can see it in Europeans’ regard for the rural countryside and their determination to maintain natural landscape.” Actually, the percentage of national territory protected in the US is about double that of France, Britain or even Sweden. And conventional American farmers are far less “chemicalised” than their European colleagues. Thanks partly to their use of GM crops, they use pesticides sparingly. The Italians use over seven times as much, the Belgians even more.
Despite perceived differences in its economy and care for the environment, perhaps the most fundamental assumed gap between the US and Europe is in values. Americans are said to be nationalistic and religious, while Europeans are post-nationalist and secular. But even here there is reason to doubt the stereotypes.
Yes, Americans are patriotic and nationalistic, but according to the World Values Survey, undertaken between 1999 and 2001, not more than some Europeans. Unsurprisingly, Germans are least proud of their nation, and rather unexpectedly, the Portuguese—not the Americans—are most, with the Irish tied for second place. Granted, Americans are more likely to think that their country is better than most others. But more Portuguese, Danes and Spaniards feel that the world would be improved if other people were like them, and a larger fraction of Americans admit that there are aspects of their country that shame them than do the Germans, Austrians, Spanish, French, Danes and Finns.
Even on religion, there is reason to question an absolute polarity between the US and Europe. “Religion is palpable in US schools, places of work and public institutions,” claims the Guardian. “God is invoked by soldiers and politicians in a way that would seem inappropriate in Britain.” Puzzling, then, that Britain’s head of state is known as the “Defender of the Faith,” and the established church has 26 seats in the upper legislature. The American observer of Europe is often baffled at European claims to secularism since official expressions of religion are so public, and yet—apparently—so taken for granted. A 10th-century depiction of the crucifixion, for example, is part of every Danish passport, regardless of whether its bearer is, as many nowadays are, a pious Muslim.
American church attendance and religious belief is not off the European scale if one compares them with Europe’s Catholic regions. A smaller percentage of Americans consider themselves religious than the Portuguese and Italians. Proportionately fewer Americans say they believe in God and always have than the Irish and Portuguese. Moreover, sociologists tend to explain high American church attendance as the outcome of market forces as much as spiritual ones. Greater competition has led to a richer variety and higher quality of offerings, while Europe’s state-monopoly religions struggle to provide for their citizens’ spiritual needs. If the issue is thus one of supply and less of demand, the contrast between Europe and America may not be between religious and secular mindsets, but between how—if at all—largely equivalent spiritual needs are fulfilled.
This is certainly a conclusion suggested by looking at attitudes to science across the Atlantic. Without question, Americans are more likely to believe in creationism than Europeans. Yet the modern American creationist, interestingly enough, no longer takes scripture as sufficient reason to believe the biblical account of the origins of the world. The debate is instead conducted on the turf of science, with creationists attempting to argue the fine points of the age of the fossil record, suggesting that orthodox evolution has gaps as a seamless explanation, and otherwise indicating their acceptance that the modern world speaks the language of science. The realm of scientific quackery in Europe, on the other hand, is much wider than in the US. Consider the sway of self-evidently daft positions like anti-vaccinationism among the Hampstead Bildungsbürgertum, or the equally irrational rejection of the fruits of scientific reasoning, like the anti-GM movement. Astrology is more widely believed in several European nations than in the US, and homeopathy is relied upon much more often in Europe.
So if Americans are, on the whole, more religious than most Europeans, it does not follow that they have less overall faith in science. Societies with a strong faith in science can also have strong religious beliefs. True, proportionately fewer Americans firmly agree with the Darwinian theory of evolution than any Europeans other than in Northern Ireland. But in other respects, Americans believe in the Enlightenment project of human reason’s ability to understand and master nature. They fall in the European middle ground in approving animal testing to save human lives. Perhaps most tellingly, more American pupils agree with the statement that science helps them to understand the world than in any European nations other than Italy and Portugal.
They may be scientific, then, but Americans are also thought of as diehard individualists who live in a society of sharp elbows and an ethos of live and let live. They are imagined to be unusually anti-governmental in their political ideology; practically anarchists by European standards. Yet a Pew Foundation survey in 2007 found that proportionately fewer Americans worried that the government had too much control than did Germans and Italians, with the French at the same level and the British just a percentage point lower. And a higher percentage of Americans trust their government than all Europeans, except only the Swiss and the Norwegians (although no people, truth be told, demonstrate much faith in their elected representatives.)
But talk is cheap, and these findings may indicate desire as much as reality. The trust of Americans in their state apparatus, then, can be measured more concretely by their willingness to pay taxes. Unlike many Europeans, Americans pay the taxes required of them. Only in Austria and Switzerland are the underground economies as small. Tax avoidance is over three times the American level in Greece and Italy. The archetypal Montana survivalist—so beloved of the European media—holed up in his shack, determined to resist the government’s impositions, is as uncharacteristic of America as the Basque or Corsican separatist, ready to kill for his cause, is of Europe.
These are just a few examples of the way in which the presumed chasm dividing the Atlantic is not, in fact, nearly as deep as opinion among the chattering classes and their mouthpieces believes. Why, then, does this notion persist? For one thing, the European press wants the juicy, titillating lowdown. And America certainly dishes that up. Is there any other nation that washes its dirty laundry so publicly? Hence that genre of such fascination to the European chattering classes: the tedious travelogue by the sophisticated European, whether BHL, Baudrillard or Borat, observing American yokels and reporting back with the smug assurance of superiority to other sophisticated Europeans.
Moreover, Europe’s various cultures are ones still steeped in the lore of national stereotypes and quite happy to wring whatever elixir can be had from them. Who can forget Edith Cresson, Mitterrand’s prime minister, convinced that no Frenchman was gay, while the English were all limp-wristed poofs? Or consider the extent to which no Europeans, however otherwise politically correct, can be shaken in their conviction that the Roma really are shifty and thieving. Having a transatlantic whipping boy is convenient and serves politically useful purposes, especially if there is little else that you can agree on. The purveyors of anti-Americanism in Europe appear to have rediscovered the truism that nothing unites like a common enemy. And the Bush administration played into their hands by serving up caricatures by the spadeful. It will be interesting to see how the European pundits deal with Obama once he does something they do not like. While Bush could be portrayed as an ignorant cowboy, which of the available stereotypes will they dare lambast Obama with?
Here, we come to the grain of truth to the Atlantic divide. If there is anything that most separates American society from Europe, it is the continuing presence of an ethnically distinct underclass. Even as other outsiders have successfully assimilated, the tragic resonances of slavery in the black urban ghettos of America continue to prevail. Indeed, take out the black underclass from the crime statistics and American murder rates fall to European levels, below those in Switzerland and Finland, and even squeaking in under Sweden. Child poverty rates, which are scandalously high in the US, fall to below British, Italian and Spanish levels if we look at the figures for whites only. PISA scores for American whites (ranking secondary school proficiency) come above every European nation other than Finland and the Netherlands. This is not to excuse the atrocious negligence with which the problems of racism have been dealt in the US. But it does suggest that, far more than any grand opposition of worldviews or ideologies, it is the still unresolved legacy of slavery that distinguishes—to the extent anything does—America from Europe. Whether Obama’s election will mark a turning point in this respect remains to be seen.
And if it is this distinct urban underclass that most distinguishes the US from Europe, Europeans should take notice. Europe’s birthrates have plummeted and immigration continues unabated. It is a demographic certainty that an ethnically and religiously distinct lower class in Europe will grow in the decades to come. Perhaps Europe will turn out to have been lucky. Having instituted universalist social policy, highly regulated labour markets and redistributive fiscal policy in the belief that it was all, so to speak, being kept “in the family,” Europe may weather the expansion of its social community. On the other hand, the social fabric may fray.
No one is arguing that America is Sweden. But nor is Britain, Italy, or even France. And since when does Sweden represent “Europe”—at least anymore than the ethnically homogenous, socially liberal state of Vermont does America? Europe is not the continent alone, and certainly not just its northern regions. With the entrance of all the new EU nations, it has just become a great deal larger. These new entrants are not just poorer than old Europe. They, like Europe’s many recent immigrants from Asia and Africa, are religious, sceptical of a strong state, unenthusiastic about voting and allergic to high taxes. In other words, from the vantage of old Europe, they are more like Americans. And so as Europe expands, the argument made here for western Europe—that the differences across the Atlantic have been exaggerated—will become irrefutable.
The data in this article comes mostly from those organisations that provide internationally comparable figures: the UN, Unesco, Unicef, WHO, the IMF, the World Bank, Eurostat, the Sutton Trust, the World Values Survey, the ILO, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the International Association for the Study of Obesity, the World Resources Institute, the International Energy Agency, the International Social Survey Programme and, above all, the OECD.