European and American democracy: Differences less real than apparent - Mercedes-Benz Forum

 
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post #1 of 2 (permalink) Old 06-23-2009, 02:27 PM Thread Starter
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European and American democracy: Differences less real than apparent

A narrower Atlantic
by Peter Baldwin
Despite America’s move to the left under Obama, it’s still assumed that Europe and America are fundamentally different—in their economies, societies and values. But this is a myth
Peter Baldwin is professor of history at UCLA. His latest book “The Narcissism of Minor Differences: How America and Europe are Alike” (OUP) will be published in September 2009

Discuss this article at First Drafts, Prospect's blog

Talk about upending accepted certainties! While Europe is now in the hands of right-of-centre parties (France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Denmark and David Cameron pacing restlessly in the wings), America has “gone socialist.” Nationalising the financial sector by the back door, considering massive subsidy of production industries, increasing state spending on healthcare and education, promising big investments in all manner of greenery, and limiting executive salaries: is Barack Obama beating Europe at its own game? “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, Dr Strangelove’s nemesis, who fulminated against fluoridation of the water as another of communism’s nefarious advances, must be rotating in his Valhalla.

How quickly things change. It seems 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 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 contrasts: America believes in the untrammelled 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 many 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. Meanwhile 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 faultlines: competition vs co-operation, 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 a 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?

One way of answering this question is to look at the quantifiable evidence. Not all differences can be captured by numbers, but statistics allow us a first pass over the terrain and to compare reliably. If we compare four areas: the economy, social policy, the environment and—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 16 countries of western Europe (which is what we are mainly looking at here) is far 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—call it the west, the Atlantic community, or the developed world.

Much more at: 'A narrower Atlantic', Prospect Magazine issue 158 May 2009 - Printer Friendly Article

The biggest problems we are facing right now have to do with George Bush trying to bring more and more power into the executive branch and not go through Congress at all and thats what I intend to reverse.

~ Senator Barack H. Obama
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post #2 of 2 (permalink) Old 06-23-2009, 02:45 PM Thread Starter
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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 in western Europe. In 1998, for example, the richest 1 per cent of Americans took home 14 per cent of total income, while in Sweden the figure was only about 6 per cent. Wealth concentration is another matter, however. The richest 1 per cent of Americans owned about 21 per cent of all wealth in 2000. Some European nations have higher concentrations than that. In Sweden—despite that nation’s egalitarian reputation—the figure is 21 per cent, exactly the same as for the Americans. And if we take account of the massive moving of wealth offshore and off-book permitted by Sweden’s tax authorities, the richest 1 per cent 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, often portrayed as derisory in the European media, are actually higher than in many European nations. Greece, Britain, Italy and Iceland spend less than the US on unemployment, measured per capita.

The biggest problems we are facing right now have to do with George Bush trying to bring more and more power into the executive branch and not go through Congress at all and thats what I intend to reverse.

~ Senator Barack H. Obama
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