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East Meets West

Europe and America are divided by a common language.

May 17, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 33 • By TOD LINDBERG
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The Narcissism
of Minor Differences

East Meets West

Photo Credit: Getty Images

How America and Europe Are Alike
by Peter Baldwin
Oxford, 336 pp., $24.95

At last, we have the essential complement to Robert Kagan’s Of Paradise and Power, and its subtitle—“How America and Europe Are Alike”—will surely evoke protest from those on both sides of the Atlantic who have become vested advocates of the differences between the United States and Europe and the manifest superiority of one side over and against the other.

Kagan encapsulated his provocative dual thesis, propounded at short-book length in 2003 as transatlantic relations were blowing up over the Iraq war, in the phrase, “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus.” Critics have been trying to chip away at him ever since, but he really did pin down something essential about how power shapes attitudes and attitudes shape power in the United States and Europe. His argument remains the lodestone for debate over transatlantic relations and will continue to do so until the underlying configurations of power and ideas about power change.

It is hardly on questions of power alone that the op-ed pages on both sides of the Atlantic bristle with accusations predicated on a sense of self-superiority amidst fundamental difference between Europe and the United States: “Jungle capitalism” vs. a strong social safety net, American moralism vs. European sophistication, religious believers vs. the secular heirs of the Enlightenment.

The contention of Peter Baldwin is that all of the difference-mongering about the United States and Europe is wildly overblown—that, in fact, across a panoply of quantifiable social characteristics and policy outcomes, the United States generally falls not outside the European range, but squarely within it. In 212 charts, 60 pages of footnotes, and a crackling prose style refreshingly at odds with the statistical material under consideration, he proves the case beyond a reasonable doubt.

Europeans are overtaxed by American standards, no? Well, it’s true that total tax revenue per capita (adjusted for purchasing power parity) is higher in France and Sweden than in the United States; but as it happens, it’s lower in Italy, the United Kingdom, and Germany. Still, income taxes are more progressive in Europe, aren’t they? In Germany, Spain, and France, yes; in Denmark, Italy, and the Netherlands, no. Rich Americans get away with paying little, right? In fact, the richest 10 percent of Americans pay 45 percent of total taxes, a higher percentage than any country in Western Europe, and about twice as much as in Switzerland.

What about the massively bureaucratic welfare states of Europe? Actually, public employment is higher in the United States, at just under 7 per 100 workers, than in Germany, Spain, or Italy, though it is lower than in dirigiste France (which is nevertheless below 8 per 100). Total government expenditure as a percentage of GDP in 2004 was lower in the United States than in most of Europe, but not lower than in Ireland or Switzerland. The 2007 unemployment rate in the United States of just over 4.5 percent (those were the days) was indeed lower than in France, Greece, Spain, and Germany at over 8 percent. But the American rate was higher than that of the Netherlands, Denmark, and Austria.

But Europe is greener-than-thou, right? Well, true, the United States recycles much less waste than Germany or the Netherlands, but about the same percentage as France and more than Britain. American greenhouse gas emissions have increased since 1990 whereas Germany’s and Britain’s have gone way down, but the U.S. increase is not much more than that of Italy and lags behind Austria, Ireland, and Spain.

We have all heard tell of the vast concentration of wealth among the richest of the rich in the United States, a tale of rampant and increasing inequality. If you find this scandalous, wait until you hear what’s been going on in the cradle-to-grave welfare state of egalitarian Sweden. To begin with, the raw figures are not dissimilar: The wealthiest 1 percent of Swedes owned 21.9 percent of total wealth in 2000, compared with 20.8 percent for the wealthiest one percent of Americans. But, Baldwin notes, the figures for Sweden appear to be grossly underestimated because of the propensity of rich Swedes to take their fortunes offshore to avoid Swedish tax rates and of countervailing government tax incentives to try to keep privately owned mega-firms at home: 

If we add in the wealth moved from Sweden and factor in the tax breaks for closely held family firms granted by the Swedish tax authorities, the net worth of the richest percentile of Swedes increases by 50 percent. A similar calculation for the top percentile of Americans ups its net worth a mere 3 percent. .  .  . This brings the overall share of wealth held by those in the top Swedish percentile to 42 percent for 2000. That is twice as intense a concentration of wealth as is found in America for the same year.

The point is not that there are no differences between the United States and Europe; it’s that there is no good basis for assigning the United States and Europe to fundamentally different categories. On most measures presented here, the United States falls somewhere within the European range—some European countries higher, some lower. When the United States does occupy a top or bottom position, which occurs occasionally but not necessarily more frequently than other particular European countries, it is usually not by much. Baldwin offers some comparisons that break the “United States” ranking down by state, illustrating the regional variations within a country that spans a continent, and demonstrating that some American states are more “European” than many European countries. The United States has high murder rates. But Maine, New Hampshire, and North Dakota have lower murder rates than England, France, and Sweden. Europe is more highly unionized, but the state of New York has a higher percentage of workers who are union members than does Germany. In general, the United States hews closest to the profile of an archetypal southern European country. 

If you’ve noticed that Baldwin’s examples compare the United States with Western European countries, you are correct, and there’s a reason for it: “Were I to include the new members of the EU as well, Europe and the United States would be even less distinguishable and my argument would be won almost by default.”

Baldwin is dismissive of the “tub-thumpers on the right wing, for whom the United States is the greatest nation and comparisons are drawn merely to underline that preeminence” as “predictable .  .  . and intellectually of no consequence.” He finds conservatives to be generally uninterested in Europe as such, noting that Mitt Romney got no traction among potential Republican presidential primary voters from his attacks on the French social welfare system. 

Yet he reserves more scorn for the other side: 

The vast majority of Americans’ comparisons are undertaken by social scientists with liberal leanings who hope that the United States will some day approximate Europe when it comes to family allowances, universal health insurance, parental leave, and the like. For them, Europe means northern Europe. They either ignore the south or see it too as aspiring to north European status. Stockholm is the mecca toward which the social science faithful pray.

In so doing, they fail to note that “the jockeying for position takes place at the very pinnacle of the totem pole” of prosperity as measured by the U.N.’s Human Development Index, “within a section that is less than 2 percent of its total length.” Thus, the narcissism of minor differences. 

Does Baldwin finally overstate the similarities between the United States and Europe? If so, perhaps it is because he focuses on the quantifiable and material and accordingly underestimates the role ideas play in the formation of the social and political reality around us.

One suspects, for example, that Baldwin would regard the passage of Barack Obama’s health care reform initiative mainly as more evidence of American and European similarity. There wasn’t that big a difference in health outcomes before Obamacare (though Americans spend much more), and there probably won’t be that much afterward. What’s the big fuss?

Yet this doesn’t quite do justice to the politics of the moment, where the debate for both sides is about more than the specifics of the schemes by which one obtains insurance coverage and care. There are, indeed, competing visions of how society ought to be organized: Neither side is likely to prevail definitively, and outcomes reflect the give-and-take. This is true in the case of American liberals and conservatives, and other societies likewise strike balances between contending positions, producing the comparative outcomes Baldwin lays out.

But let us not try to expunge all differences. “American” and “European” continue to have resonance as “ideal types,” in Max Weber’s old term. To say that the “social scientists with liberal leanings” and “tub-thumpers on the right wing” are confused or intellectually irrelevant is almost to say that political debate and the means by which it takes place (the Internet, for example) don’t really matter. That’s rather a lofty perspective. Baldwin’s facts and figures do, indeed, point to the fundamental similarities in American and European social and political arrangements. But if you want to know what went into the making of those outcomes, you need to take into account the aspirations of the tub-thumpers and the Stockholm-worshippers, not just what they are missing.

There are some of each on both sides of the Atlantic, but there are relatively more tub-thumpers in the United States and more Stockholm-worshippers in Europe. That’s where Mars and Venus come back in.

Tod Lindberg is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, research fellow at the Hoover Institution, and editor of Beyond Paradise and Power: Europe, America and the Future of a Troubled Partnership. 

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