The Magazine

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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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.

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