The tale of two nations

May 29, 2006 | By | 6 Replies More

In the United States, we often hear that the U.S. is the world’s greatest place to live.  There is still much good to be said about the United States, but there is also increasing dysfunction.

In his 2004 article, “The European Dream,”  Jeremy Rifkin dared to compare the U.S. way of life to that of the European Union.  He wrote “[I]t saddens me to say that America is no longer a great country. Yes, it’s still the most powerful economy in the world, with a military presence unmatched in all of history. But to be a great country, it is necessary to be a good country.”

Many other people have expressed concerns with the direction of the U.S., of course. Rifkin’s article goes further by letting the objective facts do most of the talking:

[The European Union’s] $10.5 trillion gross domestic product now eclipses the U.S. GDP, making it the world’s largest economy. The European Union is already the world’s leading exporter and largest internal trading market. Sixty-one of the 140 biggest companies on the Global Fortune 500 rankings are European, while only 50 are U.S. companies.

[I]n the European Union, there are approximately 322 physicians per 100,000 people, whereas in the United States there are only 279. The United States ranks 26th among the industrial nations in infant mortality, well below the EU average. The average life span in the 15 most developed EU countries is now 78.01 years, compared to 76.9 years in the United States.

Children in 12 European nations now rank higher in mathematics literacy than their American peers, and in 8 European countries children outscore Americans in scientific literacy. When it comes to wealth distribution — a crucial measure of a country’s ability to deliver on the promise of prosperity — the United States ranks 24th among the industrial nations. All 18 of the most developed European countries have less income inequality between rich and poor. There are now more poor people living in America than in the 16 European nations for which data are available. America is also a more dangerous place to live. The U.S. homicide rate is four times higher than the European Union’s. . . . Although the United States is only 4 percent of the world’s population, it now contains one-quarter of the world’s entire prison population. While the EU member states average 87 prisoners per 100,000 people, the U.S. averages an incredible 685 prisoners per 100,000 people.

Europeans often remark that Americans “live to work,” while Europeans “work to live.” The average paid vacation time in Europe is now six weeks a year. By contrast, Americans, on average, receive only two weeks. Most Americans would also be shocked to learn that the average commute to work in Europe is less than 19 minutes. When one considers what makes a people great and what constitutes a better way of life, Europe is beginning to surpass America.

The EU Constitution contains a clear commitment to “sustainable development . . . based on balanced economic growth,” a “social market economy,” and “protection and improvement of the quality of the environment.” The EU Constitution also promotes “solidarity between generations,” a provision that encourages the current generation to leave a usable planet for the following generations. The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights also promises each citizen preventive health care, guaranteed time off from work, parental leave, social and housing assistance.

What strikes me about Rifkin’s comparison is that it will evoke two very different types of reactions from two types of people.  The first type, including many of the readers of this blog, will react with concern–they will take these facts as a wake-up call to consider what can be done to improve the United States.  The second type, including those now holding political power in the United States, will react with anger and derision. The will fire off incessant ad hominem attacks.  They will attack those who promulgate these ideas and they will condemn and deride Europeans because, well, they are Europeans. They will flee to their spin-meisters to figure out new ways to cover up these problems and shut down the discussion.  In the meantime, the United States continues its long slow slide.

Ideas really do have consequences.  Rifkin writes that much of America’s condition arises from a peculiar conception of “freedom.” For Americans,

freedom has long been associated with autonomy. An autonomous person is not dependent on others or vulnerable to circumstances beyond his or her control. To be autonomous one needs to be propertied. The more wealth one amasses, the more independent one is in the world. One is free by becoming self-reliant and an island unto oneself. With wealth comes exclusivity, and with exclusivity comes security.

Europeans have a different conception of “freedom”:

For Europeans, freedom is found not in autonomy but in embeddedness. To be free is to have access to many interdependent relationships. The more communities one has access to, the more options one has for living a full and meaningful life. It is inclusivity that brings security — belonging, not belongings.

In short, the current American version of freedom is (unwittingly) limiting, apprehensive, untrusting, short-sighted and self-consuming.

The first step toward solving critical problems is to recognize those problems–to have the courage–yes, and the patriotism–to look those problems straight in the eye. 

It is not clear that Americans are ready to do this difficult work. Until they do, Einstein’s advice is apropos:  “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.


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Category: Culture, Economy, Politics

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (6)

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  1. grumpypilgrim says:

    Many of the differences between American and European lifestyles became apparent to me years ago when I did some work for a German subsidiary of an American company that I was working for. Referring to European vacation practices, the head of the subsidiary once told me, "I can do twelve months of work in eleven months, but I *cannot* do twelve months of work in twelve months." After hearing this seemingly odd assertion, I did some research into the productivity statistics for Europeans and Americans. According to the data, the "average" American worker will produce more total output *per year* than the "average" European worker; however, the European worker will produce more total output *per hour* than the American worker. In other words, the European worker works more efficiently ("work smarter, not harder"), while the American worker simply works more hours per year (the "brute force" path to productivity). Thus, it can be said that Americans take just as much "vacation" time as Europeans do, but Americans spend that time "vacationing" at their jobs a little bit every day.

    Another thing that struck me about Europe was how much more "quality time" European parents seemed to spend with their children, compared to parents in America. Europeans have relatively high tax rates on earned income compared to income tax rates in America, and these high taxes discourage people from working overtime hours. Thus, Europeans have little incentive to abandon their families in favor of their offices. I found this enlightening, because the Republican party in America is constantly campaigning to "cut taxes," yet they are also the party that is constantly campaigning to support "family values." My experience in Europe showed me that these two campaign goals are, to some extent, mutually exclusive. High income taxes encourage people to stay home more with their families, rather than slave longer hours in the office.

    This discussion opens up another topic that perhaps I will write about at a future time: the extent to which political parties (not just American Republicans) support political goals that are self-defeating, mutually exclusive and, ultimately, nonsensical.

  2. Jake says:

    these are interesting points. i especially like grumpy's quote about doing 12 months of work in 11 months versus 12 months.

    When I think of the UK work culture, I think it is somewhere between the US and continental countries like France and Italy.

    … But, at least US can take some comfort when they or the poor guys working in Japan!! These guys have awful productivity at work but they seem to spend their whole lives in the office/at work!! So, there does seem to be a trade off between productivity and annual vacation time/working hours.

    The other thing is that I think that the US feels it has more to lose by reducing its productivity for quality of life. I think that when you are the most powerful nation (in every sense), you feel you have a whole lot more to lose by being substituted for that top spot…. Perhaps this explains part of the motivation for the US work ethic and their foreign policy in the last few years.

  3. Erika Price says:

    I have to disagree with Rifkin and Grumpypilgrim on one facet of this subject: the American idea of freedom. I think Rifkin has misrepresented the American concept of freedom by focusing just on the economic aspect. This creates exactly the kind of image to suit his comparison, of course: an America full of money-hungry, overworked, bloodthristy brutes who suffer on behalf of their desire for 'independence'. But that "freedom" as Americans see it also involves, or used to involve I should say, a freedom from the ties of an overly dominating or potentially oppressive government. In this regard, both the US and the EU have moved in the opposite direction, both with enourmous, expensive governments that dominate more and more of how people choose to live their lives.

    But that freedom concept also involves the freedom to enjoy the same legally protected rights as everyone else. Now in that regard, most of the EU has the US beaten black-and-blue, with the US constantly regressing.

    So, other than that semantic complaint, I agree with everything. Good luck writing about the contradiction in political parties, Grumpypilgrim- somehow I suspect you'd need at least a three-parter to even skim the surface of political parties' myriad logical infractions.

  4. grumpypilgrim says:

    Further to Erika's comment: indeed, it would be a big challenge to even skim the surface of the illogic in politics. What intrigues me about the subject is the way America's two-party system divides up the various issues. People have their choice between just two parties — Democrats and Republicans — yet most voters have a laundry list of political issues that they care about. Often, a voter's position their list of issues does not correspond closely to either political party. Thus the question: why do the two parties divide the issues the way they do, and who decided that the issues should be divided the way they are? A good example is the environment: environmentalists typically are associated with the Democrats, but evangelical Christians (who typically support the Republican) have apparently been starting to push for more environmental protections, to safeguard what they believe is God's divine creation. Likewise, some poor and minority voters (who typically support the Democrats) have apparently been voting Republican for religious reasons even though it is contrary to their own economic self-interest. Doesn't this seem strange? Given how diverse American society has become since its founding, would it not make more sense for America to have a multi-party (i.e., parliamentary) system of government, to better enable voters to find a party that matches their particular combination of issue preferences, instead of having to try to shoehorn themselves into a crude two-party system?

    The reason this is an issue for me is that I am a social progressive and a fiscal conservative; thus, I am annoyed by Democrats who don't understand basic economics, and also annoyed by Republicans who don't give a damn about helping the poor and underprivileged. Why has neither party embraced sensible social change (i.e., a meritocracy), while at the same time recognizing the importance (indeed the advantages) of paying for it?

    Likewise, a good example is Erika's comment about freedom. Republicans campaign against an "overly dominating and potentially oppressive government," yet they are the same ones who have been trying to ram oppressive legislation into virtually every corner of peoples' private lives — including hospital rooms (Terri Schiavo), bedrooms (contraception bans, gay marriage bans, abortion bans, etc.), family rooms (television censorship, Internet censorship, warrantless wiretaps, warrantless library records searches, etc.) and backyards (the perennial, and utterly ridiculous, call for a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning). How can a nation realize its goal of internal freedom for its citizens (e.g., a less intrusive government) when even the party that campaigns specifically in favor of that point is infamous for destroying it?

    This leads me to the question that I so often find myself asking: are the problems that we see over and over again in democratic government inherent in all forms of democratic government, or are they unique to the particular flavor of democracy that the given nation is using? To what extent can "the system" be reformed to eliminate some of its illogic and other weaknesses, without simultaneously eliminating its many inherent strengths?

  5. Jason Rayl says:

    The thing about America is…

    I've never been to Europe, so making comparisons on any basis other than hearsay or flow charts is difficult if not absurd. But–from conversations with some (a limited pool, admittedly) Europeans, I'd still rather live here because I feel free to complain–at length and in detail–about any damn thing I want.

    The list of assumptions upon which that particular freedom rests is vast. That alone, for me, still makes this The Place.

    The biggest problem–as well as possibly the main benefit–we have is the poor participation of voters here. It is the cause of a lot of drawbacks, from school board elections to presidential elections. We theoretically have Majority Rule, but in reality it works out to Minority Veto. Those consistent voters who always turn up, who always scream loudest, who in fact establish what will or won't be a plank in a platform–basically ride rough-shod over the so-called majority.

    Partly this is because of our diversity–in some issues there simply are no majorities in the sense of being able to field a candidate or viewpoint. But the other part of this is that there so much here to distract people that politics is little more than an annoying chore one must attend to, like renewing one's drivers license or taking the books back to the library.

    One observation about Europe, though–just a part of it–the magnificent social welfare states erected after WWII are now turning into crosses for these countries to bear. Really, there does come a point where a state JUST CAN"T AFFORD EVERYTHING. France is going through that in a big way as if Germany. I am not one of those who thinks welfare is a bad thing, but too much of anything and not enough of something else can be crippling. And right now, they're crippled. And the higher political participation of their constituencies is hampering their governments abilities to actually take corrective measures. (Which leads me to observe that, in their own way, they, too, vote with their wallets.)

  6. Sujay says:


    This leads me to the question that I so often find myself asking: are the problems that we see over and over again in democratic government inherent in all forms of democratic government, or are they unique to the particular flavor of democracy that the given nation is using?


    Seeing the problems that the Indian democratic system faces, this is a question that I too always ask of myself. And at this point in my life, I am much more inclined to agree with the FIRST assertion…..

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