Europe and America: Hissing or Kissing Cousins?

Peter Baldwin is professor of history at UCLA.  His book, The Narcissism of Minor Differences: How American and Europe are Alike, is out in paperback in September.

One presidential administration is a long time in trans-Atlantic relations.  Four years ago, the chasm between Europe and the U.S. seemed unbridgeable.  Bush was the anti-Christ in European eyes, the swaggering Texan who had invaded Iraq while blithely presiding at home over a sharp-elbowed, inegalitarian society.  Europeans in return were viewed by conservative Americans as under-worked, over-taxed, molly-coddled spongers, oblivious if not skeptical of the dangers American soldiers and tax payers were protecting them from.  To punish them we stripped our favorite food—French fries—of any association with the perfidious continentals, just as during the First World War frankfurters were Americanized as hot dogs, lest the Krauts fondly imagine we still thought of them while ordering lunch.

How quickly things change!  Today, it is America whose government spends on a heroic scale—more Keynesian than Keynes—while the British and Germans trim back the state and the Mediterraneans have austerity imposed on them.  Thanks to Obamacare, the most important gap that separated American social policy from its European peers has been largely filled.  By September, UK universities will cost British students on average as much tuition as the American ones do theirs.  In foreign policy, it is the French and the British whose militaries led the Libyan campaign.  In America a Democratic president was lambasted by his Republican adversaries for getting us too involved in overseas adventures while the former leader of the otherwise famously pacifistic Greens, Joshka Fischer, rebuked the German chancellor for not going to war.

Only the DSK farce has marred the relentless approximation across the Atlantic.  And even there, before its resolution, the U.S. and Europe had in effect agreed to split the difference.  First, the continental objections hinged on peculiarities of the court system of New York City, the one place in America that Europeans will always forgive because they consider it an outpost of their own continent.  Second, on the big issue—gender, race and class relations—the US commanded the moral high ground.  And finally, however valid the criticisms of the U.S. judicature, what would the Europeans do in the evenings without the Anglo-American system of adversarial court proceedings and its theatrical appurtenances—juries, neutral judges, police investigators, private dicks—to fill their TV and cinema screens?  Farewell Colombo!

If we cast an unjaundiced eye on the differences that separate America from Europe, only a few divergences stand out from the quantifiable data that are truly stark.  The spectrum of differences within Europe is quite wide—as we now know from the revelations prompted by the financial crisis of just how lax the Greek system is.  In the majority of instances, the U.S. falls within this expansive spectrum.  That holds for matters economic (for productivity, for employment, for working time, but not for vacations), for health care (where our outcomes are surprisingly good considering how many are uninsured), for social policy (especially if all avenues of redistribution are considered), for education (where we lead the pack in the university sector and are no worse than average in primary and secondary), in cultural matters (books read, piano sales, sexual tolerance, gender equality), in the environment (waste, recycling, conservation, pollution levels, and even car ownership, though less so on energy efficiency), and in inequality (better on equality of wealth than income).

Of course there remain differences across the Atlantic.  What they tell us about ourselves is interesting.  He who knows only one knows none: the dictum of the sociologist Max Müller applies as well to countries as religions, his subject.  Without something for comparison, how do we know what we are?  That goes doubly for those who insist that we are somehow exceptional.  Take taxes, a hot button issue of the day.  Compared to most European nations, our tax system is quite progressive.  The share of taxes paid by the richest 10% of Americans is higher than almost anywhere in Europe.  And we rely on property taxes—that hit especially the affluent—more than most.  But at the same time, our tax system produces comparatively little revenue.  As a percentage of GDP, it brings in as much as the Greek system—to which, as we now know, few Greeks actually contribute.  This counter-intuitive combination of progressive income taxes and low tax take arises largely because our overall tax mix includes no national sales or value added tax and our other consumption taxes, especially on gasoline, are low.  In other words, we are squeezing the income tax system for all it is worth while ignoring the low-hanging fruit offered by higher consumption taxes.  To get out of our current fiscal hole, it would therefore make more sense to levy all citizens through indirect taxes than to milk income and property taxes for the little that remains there.  Such a conclusion, however, violates taboos on both sides of the aisle.

In a more general sense, comparing ourselves to the Europeans also suggests what our most pressing issues are.  Amongst the quantifiable data illustrating the trans-Atlantic chasm, three points document night-and-day differences.  Americans own more firearms than any Europeans—close to twice as many per capita as the most fervent European gun nuts, the Finns, the Swiss and the Swedes.  Our murder rate is proportionately twice that of Europe’s most violent nations, again the odd troika of Switzerland, Sweden and Finland.  And most shocking, the relative percentage of our population in jail is five times that of the closest European nations, Spain, the UK and Luxembourg.  This cluster of malignant exceptionalism is unlikely to be a coincidence.  It is not, however, the outcome of some peculiarly crime-ridden nature of American society.  The US is actually a fairly peaceful and tranquil place with middling rates of crime incidence by European standards for most violations other than murder.  Our pathology is not generically violence or crime, but the more specific—and solvable—problem of our urban underclass—poor, ill-treated, heavily armed and inflicting damage largely on itself. 

In fact, it seems a fair bet that, could one separate out the underclass from the statistics, Europe and the U.S. would be all-but indistinguishable.  That is not an attempt to excuse the problem, but to identify it.  If true, it follows that the U.S. and Europe are not divided by broad socio-economic differences or by a grand opposition of ideologies and worldviews.  What distinguishes us is the persistence of the legacies of slavery and the racism and social injustice that have followed in its train.

On military spending the U.S. is also an outlier.  Per capita, we keep company once again with only the Greeks, while the more pacific Europeans spend but a small fraction of our outlays.  For all their criticism of America, however, do the Europeans really want us to adopt their military habits?  The groundswell of neo-isolationism among the Republican presidential aspirants suggests they may get what they claim they want.  If the U.S. spent the same percentage of its GDP on defense as the Germans we would have almost half a trillion dollars extra annually to play with.  That could cover health premiums for every uninsured American, pick up the tab for all university students (half private, half public) and still allow us to quadruple NASA’s budget.  Or we could give every employed person four weeks vacation, hire half the unemployed on WPA-style schemes at the average income and still have money left over for the California high speed rail system.  For that change of approach all we need is to be convinced that our German allies are right:  that there is no antagonism so fraught and no enemy so malevolent that we cannot talk our way to a solution.  It is no wonder that isolationism is back in America.  The miracle is that it took so long.

But perhaps the trans-Atlantic rapprochement is fuelled by what makes the West collectively most nervous:  the rise of the new potential superpowers, India and China.  From their vantage, as indeed from anywhere else in the world, the talk of trans-Atlantic differences must seem the nattering of pointless detail, what Freud memorably called the narcissism of minor differences.  Approached globally, whatever separates the two shores of the Atlantic fades to insignificance.  Take as an example of the potent fear of cultural decline attendant on relative economic slippage, our collective fretting at educational prowess.  For all the talk of how our pupils are faring compared to our immediate peers and competitors, the observation that leaps from the aggregate statistics of the latest PISA study is how we in the West share a boat. 

Below us in the PISA rankings comes, as one would expect, the developing world.  Above us are a few Asian sprinters (three city-states whose demography and thus results are the outcome of selective processes we can only guess at:  Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore) and two nations properly speaking, South Korea and Japan.  Then comes the West, from Finland and Canada at the top to Austria, or Lithuania if we want to include it, trailed by a few Balkan nations, at the bottom.  The span within the West is no greater on education than in almost every other respect.  We have always been a broad church.  And to whatever extent it reassures our own doomsayers, the US—for all its failings—ranks indistinguishably along with its peers, whether the UK, France, Germany, or Sweden.  There we are, smack dab in the center of the Western pack, where we belong. 

As we in the trans-Atlantic West take stock of the fearsome competitors emerging to jostle with us at the top of almost every spectrum, it is worth keeping firmly in mind that our commonalities are far more pronounced than whatever foreign policy tiffs of the moment may divide us.  For better or worse, we are, as the Germans say, a Schicksalsgemeinschaft, a community of fate.

comments powered by Disqus
History News Network