Trans-Atlantic Comparisons (2): Why Europeans Have It Wrong About Americans

By Peter Baldwin in Los Angeles

Many Europeans think that the US is full of gun-toting maniacs and illiterate morons. In part two of his series on trans-Atlantic differences, American historian Peter Baldwin shows why Europeans have this -- and plenty of other facts about America -- plain wrong.

In a three-part essay for SPIEGEL ONLINE, American historian Peter Baldwin argues that the EU and the US are much more similar than they think. You can read part one of his essay here.

When compared to Europe, the US welfare state is often portrayed as miserly and undeveloped. And so it is, if the standard is taken to be Sweden or Germany. But if we look at the span of social policy across Europe, a different picture emerges.

Of course, America has no universal system of health insurance -- Michael Moore's 2006 film Sicko will ensure that no one forgets that. Some 15 percent of the American population is not covered. There is no question that being uninsured is unfair and brutal, nor that the lack of universal health coverage is the most pressing problem of American domestic politics. The true disgrace of American health care is that infant mortality is higher than anywhere in Europe. President Obama seems determined not to let the financial crisis sidetrack his promise to improve access to health insurance.

Yet despite the too-large fraction of those who are not insured, if you judge by disease survival rates, Americans are relatively healthy and well-serviced by their health care system. For diabetes, heart and circulatory disease and strokes, the incidence rates and the number of years lost to sickness are firmly in the middle of the European spectrum.

For many cancers, incidence rates are high in the US. This could, of course, indicate noxious lifestyles, but it equally may suggest more vigilant diagnosis. Whatever the reason, cancer mortality rates are surprisingly low. The US has a higher incidence than any western European nation of breast cancer, for example, but the percentage of women who actually die of the disease is at the lower end of the European scale. And for the four major cancer killers (colorectal, lung, breast and prostate cancer), all European nations have worse survival rates than the US.

Family Policy

Looking also at other forms of social policy, we see that the US fits broadly into the lower half of the European spectrum. As with its unemployment assistance, US spending on disability benefits is higher than in Greece and Portugal per capita, and it's practically at the same level as France, Italy, Ireland and Germany. (All figures used for comparison here account for differences in costs of living.) State pensions in the US may fall into the lower half of the European spectrum. But examine, instead, the total disposable income of the retired in America as a percentage of what the still active receive: Only in Austria, Germany and France do the elderly fare better.

It is commonly known that the American state does not help out much in terms of family provision. Parental leave is not statutory, and there are no guarantees that women can reclaim their jobs after pregnancy. Family allowances as such do not exist.

On the other hand, if one counts resources channeled via the tax credit system, as well as outright cash grants and services, and if one measures them as a percentage of GDP, the US ranks higher than Spain, Greece and Italy, and only marginally below Switzerland for family benefits. Public spending on child care (day care and pre-primary education) puts the US into the middle of the European scale. And total spending on pre-primary care per child is higher than anywhere but Norway.

True, public social spending in America -- that is, monies channeled through the state -- is undeniably low compared to many European countries. But other avenues of redistribution are equally important: voluntary efforts, private but statutorily encouraged benefits (such as employee health insurance) and taxes. If we take all of these together, the American welfare state is more extensive than is often realized, and the total social policy effort made in the US falls precisely at the centre of the European scale.

Education

And if we shift our focus to education, the contrasts across the Atlantic are, if anything, reversed. A higher percentage of Americans have graduated from university and from secondary school than in any European nation. America's adults are, in this sense, better educated than Europe's.

And the US lavishes more money per child at all levels of education than any western European nation. Europeans often believe that good US schools are private and only serve an elite. Yet American education is, if anything, less privatized than most European systems. Public education was among the first social programs to receive massive public funding in the US, and this has remained the case ever since.

Simone de Beauvoir was convinced that Americans do not need to read because they do not think. Thinking is hard to quantify; reading less so.

And Americans, it turns out, do read. By European standards, the percentage of illiterate Americans is average. There are more newspapers per capita in the US than anywhere in Europe outside Scandinavia, Switzerland and Luxembourg.

The long tradition of well-funded public libraries in the US means that the average American reader is better supplied with library books than his peers in Germany, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Austria and all the Mediterranean nations. They also make better use of these public library books than most Europeans. The average American borrowed more library books in 2001 than his or her peers in Germany, Austria, Norway, Ireland, Luxembourg, France and throughout the Mediterranean.

Not content with borrowing, Americans also buy more books per capita than any Europeans for whom we have numbers. And they write more books per capita than most Europeans, too.

American popular culture is fascinated by violence, much as Japanese culture is by suicide. Whether in The Godfather or the TV series The Wire, the image America broadcasts about itself is crime-ridden and violent. Most foreigners have been content to accept that analysis at face value. Not that it is entirely untrue: A horrendous number of murders are committed in the US, almost twice the per capita rate of the nearest European competitors, Switzerland, Finland and Sweden. Nor is there any doubt that the US imprisons a far higher percentage of its population than any of its peers.

But in other respects, America is a peaceful and quiet place by European standards. US burglary rates are highish, but below the Danish and British. The incidence of theft is better than in six western European countries. Assault is in the middle, on par with Swedish and Belgian rates. Rape levels are high, but sexual assault rates are moderate. Only Denmark, Belgium and Portugal are lower; Austria suffers three times the American rate.

American drug use is also (no pun intended) on the high side, but still -- excepting cannabis, where the figures are a smidgen above Britain's -- within the European spectrum. American white-collar crime is at the middle-to-low end of the European spectrum. The French suffer over six times the American rate of bribery. And the total American crime figures are in the low middle of the pack. Indeed, only relatively small countries -- Finland, Austria, Switzerland and Portugal -- are less crime-ridden than the US.

In the third section of this three-part essay, to be published on June 6, Baldwin discusses the myth of the over-motorized America, why the US beats Europe in terms of environmentalism and the real issue that separates the two.

Note: This essay originally appeared in the magazine Prospect.

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