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A better life in Western Europe

President Barack Obama has been maligned as a European socialist so often by his tea party critics that one would think he put French-style cafe tables on the White House lawn and took to wearing a beret.

Obama's mildly progressive agenda isn't close to that of a European social democracy. But one has to wonder whether all the people who so reflexively oppose European-style socialism have any idea what it is and how their lives would be different if they lived in a place that has it.

Americans see comparisons all the time in the media. Lists are almost a mania: Top 10 safest car models, best cities to retire to, most streak-free self-tanners, you get the idea. But rarely is there an honest assessment of something really consequential: comparing our lives to those of average people in a European social democracy such as Germany, Denmark or France.

Which system gives people who are not in the top 1 percent of wealth a fairer deal? Which provides average folks better opportunities to make a living wage, achieve a comfortable work-life balance, enjoy income mobility, and a secure retirement? Where is there less stress in day-to-day life?

Were You Born On The Wrong Continent?, a new book (available in stores later next month) by Chicago labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan, makes those comparisons, and they are truly eye-opening.

Geoghegan focuses much of the book on Germany, a country that explodes the myth that European socialism invariably leads to anemic economies and persistently high unemployment.

Since 2003, Germany and its 82 million people have either beaten China in export sales or about tied China for first place. The country is arguably the world's leading industrial power, even as its workers enjoy high wages, six-week vacations and other benefits that an American worker only dreams about.

Why is it that Germany's industrial base hasn't moved overseas to find the most exploitable labor sources, as has happened in the United States? (We've closed more than 40,000 manufacturing plants on U.S. soil in the last 10 years.) It's called socialism — and in Germany it includes a system of labor rights encouraged by American New Dealers who occupied the country after World War II.

Germany's co-determined boards grant workers half the seats on corporate boards of large companies. Worker councils are elected bodies that give the rank and file input into company decisions even in small workplaces.

When companies are considering massive layoffs and plant closures, workers have a say. Needless to say other options are explored first. This has led Germany to invest in a highly skilled workforce — people not easily replaced.

And for those who claim that the cost of European socialism is endemic high unemployment, German unemployment at 7.7 percent is lower than the U.S. rate.

Germany's rival form of capitalism has succeeded in making the country highly productive — making things as opposed to making new ways to package debt — with a trade surplus and a stable middle-class even for people with no college education.

Critics of Germany can still point to the fact that German per capita GDP is lower than that in the United States, which is true. But a fascinating part of the book suggests that what drives our economy and inflates our GDP actually makes our lives less comfortable.

Part of America's higher per capita GDP is due to our lack of land-use planning. Americans spend huge sums on sprawl and the inefficiency it spawns. Without sprawl, traffic and all the wasteful spending they engender, our GDP can't keep ahead of France, Geoghegan writes.

Our lower taxes boost per capita GDP but also mean that we are on our own for collective-type goods like college education, retirement, health care, transportation and child care — things that are efficiently bought with taxes for everyone in European social democracies.

Americans work hundreds more hours per year than their European counterparts, and so burdened, have to outsource duties of life. We eat out more, because who has time to make dinner. We hire outside help to clean, provide lawn care and care for children. To make ourselves more essential so as not to be laid off, we buy computers to work at home.

All this boosts GDP and our stress levels at the same time.

Geoghegan's book pulls back a curtain. We starkly see what happens when workers are given a modicum of power over their working lives compared with when they are not. Americans worry and struggle, battered by globalization and yawning income disparity, while Europeans enjoy their security and time. Tea baggers should be so lucky.

A better life in Western Europe 06/26/10 [Last modified: Thursday, June 24, 2010 9:01pm]

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