Sophisticated Europeans, Obese Americans?
One side is home to red wine-sipping Europeans, the other to gun-toting Americans: A whole slew of stereotypes can be found on both sides of the Atlantic. But, as American historian Peter Baldwin argues in a three-part essay for SPIEGEL ONLINE, the EU and the US are much more similar than they think.
Talk about upending accepted certainties! While Europe is now in the hands of right-of-center parties (see France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Denmark and the UK’s David Cameron pacing restlessly in the wings), America has “gone socialist.”
Nationalizing the financial sector by the back door, considering massive subsidization of production industries, increasing state spending on health care and education, promising big investments in all manner of greenery, and limiting executive salaries: Is Obama beating Europe at its own game?
A banker on Wall Street: There are a number of stereotypes about differences between Europe and America. One of the most popular is that America believes in the untrammeled market, while Europe accepts capitalism but curbs its excesses.
“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, Doctor Strangelove’s nemesis, who fulminated against fluoridation as another of communism’s nefarious advances, must be rotating in his Valhalla.
How quickly things change. It seems like 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 on both sides of the Atlantic 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 alleged contrasts:
- America believes in the untrammeled 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 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.
- While 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 fault lines: competition vs. cooperation, 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 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?
People demonstrating in California for universal health coverage: Part of the European stereotype of the US is that America’s lack of universal health insurance means that people die young and live miserably.
One way of answering this question is to look at the quantifiable evidence. Not all differences can be captured in numbers. But statistics allow us a first pass over the terrain and give us the opportunity to compare reliably. Let us compare four areas: the economy, social policy, the environment and finally –the 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 countries of western Europe (which is what we will be looking at here) is much 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 — whether you 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 it is in western Europe. In 1998, for example, the richest 1 percent of Americans took home 14 percent of total income, while in Sweden the figure was only about 6 percent.
Billionaire financier Warren Buffett: Another stereotype is that inequality and social contrasts are greater in America than in Europe.
Wealth concentration is another matter, however. The richest 1 percent of Americans owned about 21 percent of all wealth in 2000. Some European nations have higher concentrations than that. In Switzerland in 1997, the richest percent owned 35 percent, and in Sweden — despite that nation’s egalitarian reputation — the figure is 21 percent, exactly the same as for the Americans. And if we take into account the massive moving of wealth offshore and off-book permitted by Sweden’s tax authorities, the richest 1 percent 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, which are often portrayed as derisory in the European media, are actually higher than in many European nations. When measured on a per capita basis, Greece, Britain, Italy and Iceland spend less than the US on unemployment.
Full article and photos: http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/0,1518,628381,00.html
Why Europeans Have It Wrong About Americans
Many Europeans think that the US is full of gun-toting maniacs and illiterate morons. In part two of his series on trans-Atlantic differences, American historian Peter Baldwin shows why Europeans have this — and plenty of other facts about America — plain wrong.
When compared to Europe, the US welfare state is often portrayed as miserly and undeveloped. 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. Some 15 percent of the American 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 health care 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.
Weapons confiscated in a gang raid by police in Los Angeles: Europeans also like to believe that crime is a bigger problem in the US than in Europe.
Yet despite the too-large fraction of those who are not insured, if you judge by disease survival rates, Americans are relatively healthy and well-serviced by their health care system. 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.
For many cancers, incidence rates are high in the US. This could, of course, indicate noxious lifestyles, but it equally may suggest more vigilant diagnosis. Whatever the reason, cancer mortality rates are surprisingly low. The US has a higher incidence than any western European nation of breast cancer, for example, but the percentage of women who actually die of the disease is at the lower end of the European scale. And for the four major cancer killers (colorectal, lung, breast and prostate cancer), 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 it’s 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.
A Hispanic activist holds an American flag at an immigration reform rally: Americans are commonly regarded as more patriotic than Europeans.
On the other hand, if one counts resources channeled 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, and only marginally below Switzerland for family benefits. Public spending on child care (day care and pre-primary education) puts the US into the middle of the European scale. And total spending on pre-primary care per child is higher than anywhere but Norway.
True, public social spending in America — that is, monies channeled through the state — is undeniably low compared to many European countries. But other avenues of redistribution are equally important: voluntary efforts, private but statutorily encouraged benefits (such as employee health insurance) and taxes. If we take all of these together, the American welfare state is more extensive than is often realized, and 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 only serve an elite. Yet American education is, if anything, less privatized than most European systems. Public education was among the first social programs 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. By European standards, the percentage of illiterate Americans is average. There are more newspapers per capita 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, the Netherlands, 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 his or her peers in Germany, Austria, Norway, Ireland, Luxembourg, France and throughout the Mediterranean.
Not content with borrowing, Americans also buy more books per capita 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 TV 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 highish, but below the Danish and British. The incidence of theft is better than in six western European countries. Assault is in the middle, on par with Swedish and Belgian rates. Rape levels are high, but sexual assault rates are moderate. Only Denmark, Belgium and Portugal are lower; Austria suffers three times the American rate.
American drug use is also (no pun intended) on the high side, but still — excepting cannabis, where the figures are a smidgen above Britain’s — within the European spectrum. American white-collar crime is at the middle-to-low end of the European 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.
Full article and photos: http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/0,1518,628385,00.html
Is the US Really a Nation of God-Fearing Darwin-Haters?
Is it only Europeans who want to save the environment and only Americans who discount Darwin? In the final part of his series on trans-Atlantic differences, American historian Peter Baldwin explains why these stereotypes don’t work – and what the real differences between Old Europe and America are.
In ecological terms, America is thought to be wasteful — big cars, big houses, long commutes, cold winters, hot summers, profligate habits. Such perceptions of the country have combined with the Bush administration’s cozy 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 different story.
A job center in London: In 2000, there was a higher percentage of poor people in England than there was in the United States.
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 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 percent — a greater reduction than in nine western European countries.
In its output of renewable energy, the US is in the middle of the spectrum on all counts, whether biogas, solid biomass energy, geothermal or wind. American spending (public and private) on pollution abatement and control as a percentage of GDP is bested only in Austria, Denmark, Italy and the Netherlands.
Despite the myths of a hyper-motorized 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 capita, 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 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 percent in Spain, almost 60 percent in Italy and over 30 percent 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 chemicalized 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.
Nationalism and Religion
Despite perceived differences in its economy or 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 admits that there are aspects of their country that shame them than there is in Germany, Austria, Spain, France, Denmark and Finland. And the Finns, Danes, Norwegians and Swedes are all more willing to fight for their country than the Americans.
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 it 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 than the Irish and Portuguese.
Moreover, sociologists tend to explain high American church attendance as the outcome of market as much as spiritual forces. 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. Thus, if the issue is thus of supply and less of demand, the contrast between Europe and America may not be between religious and secular mindsets but, rather, 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. 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 (genetically modified) movement. In several European nations, astrology is more widely believed in 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 understand the world than in any European nation other than Italy and Portugal.
The Individual vs. the State
They may be scientific, then, but Americans are also thought of as die-hard 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, demonstrates 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 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 and 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.
The Real Difference
These are just a few examples of how 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 — even though a sober look at its empirical basis suggests that it is an inverted pyramid, a lot of conclusions perched on flimsy premises?
For one thing, the European press wants the juicy, titillating low-down. And America certainly dishes that up. It is not a culture accustomed to putting its best foot forward. Is there another nation that washes its dirty laundry so publicly? British tabloids aside, is there one where the seamy underbelly is more readily proffered for inspection? Hence that genre of such fascination to the European chattering classes: the tedious travelogue by the sophisticated European — whether Bernard-Henri Lévy, Jean 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 from them whatever elixir can be had.
One genre of much fascination to the European chattering classes is the tedious travelogue by the sophisticated European — whether Bernard-Henri Lévy, Jean Baudrillard or Borat — observing American yokels and reporting back with the smug assurance of superiority to other sophisticated Europeans. But what they fail to notice is the reality: Europeans and Americans are growing more and more alike.
Who can forget Edith Cresson, Mitterand’s prime minister, who was 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 trans-Atlantic 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, in this case, for combined science literacy in 2006) come above every European nation other than Finland and the Netherlands.
This is not meant 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 and its tragic modern consequence 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 separates the US from Europe, Europeans should pay notice. In this respect, their societies are rapidly becoming more like America’s. 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 policies, highly regulated labor markets and redistributive fiscal policies in the belief that they were all — so to speak — being kept “in the family,” Europe may weather the expansion of its social community. On the other hand, it may be that the social fabric will fray.
No one is arguing that America is Sweden. But neither 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, skeptical of a strong state, unenthusiastic about voting and allergic to high taxes. In other words, from the vantage point 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.
A Note on Sources: The data in this essay comes mostly from a handful of organizations that devote significant efforts to presenting 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.
Full article and photos: http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/0,1518,628389,00.html
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