From Nicholas D. Kristof, the New York Times: The Republican candidates unleash these attacks on Obama because so many Americans have in mind a caricature of Europe as an effete, failed socialist system. As Romney puts it: “Europe isn’t working in Europe. It’s not going to work here. . . .”
But the basic notion of Europe as a failure is a dangerous misconception. The reality is far more complicated.
What is true is that Europe is in an economic mess. Quite aside from the current economic crisis, labor laws are often too rigid, and the effect has been to make companies reluctant to hire in the first place. Unemployment rates therefore are stubbornly high, especially for the young. And Europe’s welfare state has been too generous, creating long-term budget problems as baby boomers retire.
“The dirty little secret of European governments was that we lived in a way we couldn’t afford,” Sylvie Kauffmann, the editorial director of the newspaper Le Monde, told me. “We lived beyond our means. We can’t live this lie anymore. . . .”
It’s absurd to dismiss Europe. After all, Norway is richer per capita than the United States. Moreover, according to figures from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, per-capita G.N.P. in France was 64 percent of the American figure in 1960. That rose to 73 percent by 2010. Zut alors! The socialists gained on us!
Meanwhile, they did it without breaking a sweat. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that employed Americans averaged 1,741 hours at work in 2010. In France, the figure was 1,439 hours.
If Europe was as anticapitalist as Americans assume, its companies would be collapsing. But there are 172 European corporations among the Fortune Global 500, compared with just 133 from the United States.
Europe gets some important things right. It has addressed energy issues and climate change far more seriously than America has. It now has more economic mobility than the United States, partly because of strong public education systems. America used to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world; now France and Britain are both ahead of us.
Back in 1960, French life expectancy was just a few months longer than in the United States, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. By 2009, the French were living almost three years longer than we were.
So it is worth acknowledging Europe’s labor rigidities and its lethargy in resolving the current economic crisis. Its problems are real. But embracing a caricature of Europe as a failure reveals our own ignorance — and chauvinism. (photo: AP)