Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Lest Europe's Fate Be Ours

As I was wrapping up my workout this morning I happened to catch a small segment of the BBC News that highlighted Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Parliament to officially recognize the results of the recent UK elections. They discussed the House of Lords and the House of Commons over images of the Lords in session dressed in regal robes that looked rather silly to me. This brief experience suddenly combined with a lifetime of experience as well as articles I have read over the past few days to create a stark realization of the significant differences between Europe and the US.

My dad came to the US from Germany at age 25. It has taken me a lifetime to begin to grasp my dad’s motives for leaving Europe, despite my having lived in Norway for two years in the early 80s. Two years ago my parents returned from serving a mission for the LDS Church in Germany. Minutes after returning to their home my dad remarked that it was very good to be back “home” in America. He said that returning to Europe reminded him of all the reasons he left in the first place. The people there are “completely screwed up,” according to him. I have always known that my dad never quite saw eye to eye with his family members, but now I understand that part of the reason for this is his unwillingness to accept the established social structure in Europe.

In a previous post I analyzed a July 2004 Wall Street Journal article (requires registration) that outlined the differences between Canadians and Americans in a very entertaining manner. Canada’s staid thinking is strongly tied to that of Europe while Americans have a strong independent streak. When I was a kid in the 60s and 70s there seemed to be a love of things European and a desire to vacation in Europe. I feel like a lot of that sentiment has long since gone by the wayside, fueled in its retreat by post-9/11 European anti-American sentiments and the weakening dollar.

WSJ Opinion Journal editor James Taranto’s blog last Friday (registration required) included a response from reader Jonathan Kahnoski to a previous post about elitist class warfare rhetoric. Mr. Kahnoski said:

When the American intelligentsia bought the whole Marxist-Leninist vocabulary back in the 1920s and 1930s, they bought into the idea of social classes. Marxism-Leninism is a product of the European experience, with its long history of often rigid social classes (royalty, nobility, bourgeoisie, etc.). This vocabulary has had great appeal to Europeans, especially on the Continent. Today, Europeans claim their societies are more egalitarian than America's because of their social welfare programs, while completely overlooking how stationary their citizens are both geographically (what Frenchman will leave his birthplace to take a better job?) and socially (can a "working class" German aspire to a university education or obtain a bachelor's or master's later in life?).

The American experience has been quite different. From the colonial period on, the ideal of America was to free the individual from the artificial constraints of social class.

The same working stiff who takes offense at being called "working class" is quite comfortable being called "blue collar." It is easy to understand why. A class is something you are born into, and trapped in--concepts completely antithetical to the American self-image. A collar, blue or white, is something a person chooses for himself--a concept congruent with the American ideal.

Thus, as you say, some janitors and secretaries and carpenters are insulted when they are referred to as "working class." However, perhaps most ignore the term because they don't associate themselves with "working class" or any other "class." They may agree they wear a white collar or a blue collar, practice a trade or a profession, but these they do by choice. They also will insist they are born-free, "jen-u-ine" Grade A, USDA Choice Americans and they don't know what class you are talking about.
Mr. Kahnoski suggests that the elitists that inhabit many posts in our colleges and universities might “feel more at home in Europe.”

Brian M. Carney, editor of the WSJ editorial page, had an op ed piece (registration required) in Saturday’s edition that discussed Europe’s dismal economic condition. He mentions post-WWII Europe’s economic growth and low unemployment rate prior to sliding into the abyss of the welfare state. In 1965 Europe’s 26% level of government spending was on par with the 25% US level. But in 2002 government spending had increased to 42% for Europe, while the US rate was only 26%.

Carney notes that the problem is less severe in the UK. He says that while the worldwide economy went south in the 70s, the Reagan policies in the US and the Thatcher policies in the UK rescued those countries from economic disaster. He says moreover that the continent has no hope of recovery from its nasty death spiral; a cycle of constant simultaneous increases in taxes and unemployment.

It works like this. Government increases spending, so taxes must increase. The increased (usually payroll) taxes result in job losses. With fewer workers to pay the taxes, rates must go up, decreasing “the benefit of working rather than collecting unemployment or welfare checks.” The problem is exacerbated by high welfare rates, such as they have in Europe. I have a German relative that has been out of work for two years, but thanks to lavish state benefits he continues to enjoy a decent lifestyle--work free. Once locked in, this cycle continually repeats itself resulting in a constantly worsening economy.

Regarding the question of whether the European social model can continue, Carney says:

Given that Europe's streak of economic underperformance can now be measured in decades, perhaps a better question to ask is: Why does anyone think that a system of generous welfare benefits, high taxes and harsh restrictions on hiring and firing would ever produce anything like a dynamic, growing economy? Why does anyone assume that there is such a thing as a "European model," rather than just a collection of ill-conceived policies having a predictably depressing effect on the economy and job creation?
I believe that Europe’s social structure lends to its current problems. My dad left Europe when the economy was booming. He didn’t leave for lack of a job; he left because he didn’t think along the lines of the accepted European social structure and way of thinking. Had he not found a sponsor in the US he would have gone first to Australia, but he was getting out one way or another. The European Union has an economy that should compete with the US, but it doesn’t show any signs of doing so anytime in the foreseeable future.

While I pride myself on being a genuine American, I believe that Europe’s experience should be a clear warning for us. The other day John Derbyshire had a particularly dour article in the National Review suggesting that the US is in lock step with Europe (well – especially the UK) in matters of declining conservatism. I don’t fully agree with him, but he has a point.

There is no end to the “good” that people argue that government ought to do, but government should only do what it 1) truly should do (check out the Constitution regarding enumerated powers) and 2) can afford. President Bush and Congress have gone hog wild with spending over the last 4½ years. That hasn’t been reflected in taxes yet, but we can’t put off paying for it forever. It is better to be wise up front than to leave the bill for today’s programs to be paid off by future generations. Bush and some Congressional leaders have given some lip service to this idea as of late, but their actions are far from the hold-the-line-on-spending tactics of the (much disdained by some) Newt Gingrich era Republicans. Where have all the fiscal conservatives gone?

1 comment:

Slam smith said...

I remember that from my time in Germany. Germans didn't seem as "hungry" as Americans. My impression was that Americans are just more motivated. Back then the unions of Germany were pushing for a 35 hour work week. And the summer vacations that go on for 5 weeks.