Saturday, November 29, 2014

Europe -- Are You Kidding?

     Sometimes I hear people make the argument that we here in the United States should do something because so many other developed countries, especially in Europe, are doing it. Social welfare programs. Universal health care programs. Higher minimum wages; stronger unions; longer vacations; more civil political discourse; certain attitudes about sex, drugs, education, homosexuality, military power, immigration.

     I believe the United States does need to reform many of its systems and develop more civil discourse. And I think everyone should have access to a good public education and at least a basic level of medical care . . . and a decent job and decent housing and decent everything else, for that matter.

Europe then
     But, with apologies to my European friends . . . come on, we should never do anything just because the Europeans are doing it. After all, most of our ancestors left Europe, and not because it was a great place to live, with equal opportunity for all. They left because there was little or no economic opportunity, and very little ability to move up in a stratified, petrified class system. Governments were dysfunctional, religions were intolerant; armies were threatening -- and the place was generally a rotten place to live.

     My own grandparents, on my father's side, left the Austra-Hungarian Empire back in the late 1800s. No one knows for sure, but family rumor has it that my grandfather sneaked away just as he was about to be conscripted into an army he wanted no part of. On my mother's side, my ancestors left Ireland, circa 1850, because they had no land, no crops, no job, no prospects -- and they were starving to death.

     And then what happened? Europe brought us World War I, thousands of people dying every day at Verdun and the Marne and a lot of other places. Then the Europeans brought us World War II, costing roughly 60 million lives. Then there was the Cold War, and Northern Ireland, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. And whenever the Europeans weren't arguing, squabbling and fighting amongst themselves, they were setting sail to the Americas or Africa or Asia to bully any other people they could possibly take advantage of.

     We Americans feel a collected guilt about slavery and the slave trade. But who were the biggest slave traders? Not the Americans. It was in this order: The Portuguese, then the British, French, Spanish and Dutch.

     I remember my first trip to Europe, as a college student in 1969, bumming around with a friend of mine. Yes, the trains were good. Everyone says the trains are good in Europe, and they are right. But the bathrooms were totally antiquated. It was hard to get hot water. And do you know what they used for toilet paper over there? Stiff brown paper that was about the same texture as a paper bag from a grocery store. I really don't know what they use now; but I was back to Europe in the 1980s and again in the 1990s, and the toilet paper wasn't much better.
Europe now

     Okay, you say. But the Berlin Wall came down, and the Europeans are so sophisticated, and socially progressive, and we hear that the education system in Finland is so effective and forward-leaning.

     Maybe. But remember, a lot of those countries still have royalty -- kings and queens and princes and such -- including those so-called progressive Scandinavian countries of Norway, Denmark and Sweden. And as for the socially progressive economies that reward employees with so much vacation time? Some of that is true. But first you have to get a job. The unemployment rate in France is 10%. In Ireland it's 12%. In Italy it's 13%; in Spain it's 24%; and in Greece it's 26%!

     As for the educational system in Finland? The population of Finland is 5.4 million people. That's smaller than the state of Wisconsin. Smaller than Maryland or Missouri. How can you compare a system that works for a population of 5.4 million fairly homogenous people with a system that has to process 60 times that many people of all different races, creeds and colors?

     There are a lot of things we could do to improve our public education system, starting with more early education and including longer school days, longer school years, and more emphasis on academics and less emphasis on sports.

     But the idea that we can look to Europe as a model is ridiculous. I'm not saying Europe is bad; I'm saying it is no better than the U.S., and for all its social programs, it is in many ways a backward, conservative place, full of people who are every bit as self-interested and self-centered as we are.

     Europe is a great place to visit. Lots of museums and tourist spots. But I wouldn't want to live there. And I certainly wouldn't recommend using Europe as a model on which to build our own political, educational or social system.


Anonymous said...

I visited Europe for the first time in 1969, also, and remember the toilet paper. Yuck!

But, the architecture, wow! Nothing like that in the USA.

As for places to live, there's nothing like Hawaii. I love it here.

DJan said...

I think we all look at other systems and other ways of living and think it must be better than what we have. You have made a good case for rethinking this premise, Tom. It may not be perfect, but I am happy to be an American. :-)

Barbara Bomberger said...

As some one whose actually lived in Europe for half her life (as opposed to a quick backpacking trip), you know I'll have a counterpoint to this, right? Some information for the misinformation? Lol

Kirk said...

The "socially progressive" countries operate with high tax rates and nanny state governments. I recommend watching the series "Lillyhammer" on netflix to see how they skewer government pretensions in Norway.

I've visited Europe many times and like it, but not as a place to live permanently. However, your memories of 1969 are not that relevant today in Europe.

Meryl Baer said...

The grass always seems greener on the other side of the fence - or the Atlantic, in this case. The toilet paper is much better nowadays, but the European adoption of American-style malls and traffic-clogged roads is not a plus. But you can't beat the architecture, history, and in many places, the food.

Jono said...

I was in Europe for the first time in 1966 when much of it was finishing up recovery from WW2. I have been back several times, 2013 being the most recent. It has changed quite a bit since then, as have we. They are doing what works for them, but with more homogeneity in the smaller countries it is a bit easier to do. They have learned things from us and we from them, but we are all different and adapt (or not) in our own ways. My parents left a war-torn Europe for opportunity, but their siblings didn't, so I get a look at the bigger picture. Lucky me. Nearly all of my family is over there and I hope to spend much more time there in the future. I found it very comfortable, but since I have lived in the U.S. for all of my life (so far) I must call this home.

Anonymous said...

My husband was in Germany during the Vietnam war and in Vietnam too..He disliked the country of Germany being jewish most just lied about being in the German army, the places to visit were lovely but the towns antiquated and old and falling apart..One must have tons of money to live there now and many think to be a Nazi okay! What??? Vietnam was lovely the wore tore the country to shreds and many American and Vietnamese were killed for what??? We have been watching Lyllehammer, I love Norway and it's people and a wonderful country but would not live in scandanavian countries the taxes are more than Israel which are pretty steep, it is cold most of the year bone chilling cold in Norway and Sweden and Denmark, no thank you, nice to visit but never to live..Our only travels the world in her line of work, she rejoices coming into NYC on a cold and snowing night, she loves NYKC and America, many women she meets in the work she does beg her to take them with her to NYC what does that tell you about Europe??? they are educated & have means and hate the taxes and the discrimination in work and life in Europe, nice places to visit but would never ever live there and unemployment in most of the countries for young and older people is absurd educated or not!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

My Dearest Tom,
Thank you so much, from the bottom of my heart on finally! having someone (other than myself) tell it like it is. I am so sick and tired of people bashing America and chanting that Europe, especially Germany is better than America. It simply isn't. Period.
With all our American faults, we have it very good over here, when compared to Europe. My family is from Italy and my dad escaped from Italy (the Black Hand) to start a successful life here in America. Italy is in such bad shape now (when I visit my relatives they are wearing the same clothes they wore 4 years ago) it's scary. They all have cars but can not drive them because they can't afford the gas.
Greece is in a sorry state, as is England, France and Germany just missed going back into a recession.Japan is already in a recession due to high VAT taxes. Did you know that BMW has relocated many of their factories out of Germany and into America because energy in America is 80% less than Germany?
Europeans may put up a brave face, but start reading their blogs written by real residents of the countries. You'll be in for culture shock. Most can only heat their homes for a few hours a day. And, as for what they tell 1000 words. Many have resorted to eating parts of animals we Americans wouldn't feed to our own dogs.
Nope. I like America. Regardless of who is elected, we Americans are very, very blessed.
End of rant. Thank you, Tom.

Stephen Hayes said...

Thanks for this interesting perspective. I'd never change our laws to be like Europe's, but I do enjoy the history and culture. But like grand kids, Europe is fun to visit and even more fun to go home.

Janette said...

Your first trip to Europe was probably as a pretty middle class kid in 1969. Europe was only 20 years from a war that destroyed most of the structure of their countries. That you largest complaint was Tp, and not the rationing that occurred on the other side of the Berlin Wall, actually says a great deal about the Marshall plan and the generosity of the US! Can you imagine the amount of people you ran into who had a family member killed by the blanket bombings? Just something to put that trip in perspective :)

I have not visited a country I would prefer to live in. It was wonderful having "free" health care in Germany and Hong Kong, but I knew my neighbors paid well into the 40% of their income in taxes - before the VAT.
We are messy, but we have a pretty good, functioning Republic. I hope we can figure out how to keep it moving forward!
Nice post on this Thanksgiving weekend.

Anonymous said...

One cannot really compare the US to any of the countries in Europe. A closer comparison would be to compare one of our states to one of their countries. The US can only be compared to the totality of Europe.

Linda Myers said...

I've been to Europe half a dozen times in the last 15 years: Ireland, UK, Iceland, France, Italy and Turkey. I've enjoyed every visit, most particularly my conversations with locals. Most of my talks were in English because that's the only language I speak. I'm embarrassed that other speakers, who are fluent in two or more languages, have to go along with my choice of language.

Rita said...

I don't agree with your analysis at all.

My daughter lives in Spain, and I've traveled there more than a dozen times.

The food, the heat, and the toilet paper are all very modern. The rate of obesity is much less than in the United States. There are few homeless people on the streets. Tuition for college students is provided.

But perhaps one of your biggest misconception is about war. Yes, World War I and II started in Europe. But how about American involvement in wars? Korea, Vietnam, Iraq I, Iraq 2, Iraq 3, Afghanistan, and even Granada.

Europe is different. It has a long history with its own traditions and culture. Like America, it has some things that work well and some that don't.

I don't think it's necessary to bash Europe.

The United States is a young country. Right now it's leaders are in gridlock because a wave of conservatives want to reduce the size of government and let corporations do whatever they want.

The way things are going here, our leaders aren't going to take any ideas from Europe or any other place. I don't think you need to worry about that at all. The corporations will continue to have as a top priority making money for themselves and their leaders, while keeping the wages for workers stagnant and reducing their benefits. Life is tough for the young in America today, as it is for older workers. I don't see it improving.

I think your critique of Europe is shortsighted.


Kathy @ SMART Living said...

Hi Tom. I think you make a good point about not jumping to conclusions about anything. But I do believe that we can learn something from absolutely every person AND every country on the planet by either what they do or what they aren't doing. Although I am proud to be an American and choose to call it home for a number of reasons, there are MANY great countries in the world offering a variety of positive attributes. Plus, in 2014 I think it is essential that we remember we are all connected in good AND negative ways (think ebola on an airplane) and it is time we learned that what happens in one country can positively or negatively effect us in more ways than we know. Let's never stop learning from others. And remember, we all live on an "island" called Mother Earth and there is nowhere else to go if we screw this one up! (Thanks for letting me rant a bit!) ~Kathy

Tom Sightings said...

Rita and Barbara, I didn't write this post to bury Europe -- I know there are some good things about the Old World -- but only to point out that Europeans have plenty of their own difficulties, and I don't think it's a good idea for us to follow in their footsteps. Maybe we do want to do a few things, like health care for example,, but we should do them b/c we think they're good for Americans, not because those "civilized" people in Europe do them.

And perhaps I agree with you, Rita, on one other point. Maybe the USA shouldn't be taking over the colonialist mantle from the Europeans. Maybe we shouldn't be trying to project our power all over the world. But that's another subject for another day.

P.S. Stephen, I got a few more visits from Ukraine, Germany, France and Russia, but no comments, and nobody from Romania. So go figure ...

Rosy Brewer said...


Barbara Bomberger said...

Well, if this post was in response to my original note the other day about retiring in Germany, I would say it's inaccurate, among other things.

I know you did not mean this to be judgmental, but it sounds an awful lot about quick e Rita that some real facts might help on this one.

I do agree with the poster who said it was more realistic to compare the US to the EU as a hole.

And for the record, where do you suppose we got our educational, political systems and other systems from originally. Almost nothing we do in the US is "original". They were all taken from European systems after all-and then cut up and put back together again!

Barbara Bomberger said...

Sorry, my cursor is totally jumping all over the place, feel free to edit or do what you need to do here. sheesh

Anonymous said...

Still Europeans enjoy longer life expectancy than Americans, are fitter, have less visible poverty. And Cindi, bear in mind that even if some of them do not look well dressed they do not buy their clothes or much other stuff on credit, their financial position is generally better that a US resident's. Most of Italians for instance own their homes, their net assets worth especially in Northern Italy is higher than that of most Americans. How about far less violent crime as well?

Anonymous said...

Soft toilet paper??!!! That's your idea of "quality of life"?

Anonymous said...

The only reason Europe appears so attractive today is because Yankee dollars rebuilt it after WWII. Remember the Marshall Plan? The Tentieth Centepury was an unmitigated disaster. Many Americans died trying to make it a better place. That there is one building left standing in much of Europe is owing to Capitalism and trade.

On the other hand wise governors, like Angela Merckle and David Cameron understand the benefit to their respective countries of doing business with the United States.

Good piece Tom. It takes a brave person to tackle this thorny topic.

PS you should read Tony Judt's last book. You would enjoy it. We read it for one of my grad history classes..Europe since WWII.

Anonymous said...

Twentieth Century....

Anonymous said...

Postwar, A History of Europe Since 1945...tony Judt

Dick Klade said...

Thoughtful piece, Tom. I always cut to the bottom line in these discussions: America is such a woeful place that millions from all over the rest of the world are lined up waiting to come here to live. That includes a substantial number of Europeans.

bdines said...

We have been expats living in Europe for the past 14 years. When we come back to the States every summer, we are very dismayed at the crumbling infrastrure,crime, lack of job opportunities, and how hard Americans work for so little in return. In contrast, we and our European friends pay more taxes, but have great roads, health care, extended vacation time, job security, safe communities, and extensive opportunity for travel and recreation. We should be sending hundreds of policty makers, in all areas, to come and see what Europeans are getting right, and then adapt it back to the US culture and current programs.