Trans-Atlantic Comparisons Sophisticated Europeans, Obese Americans?

One side is home to red wine-sipping Europeans, the other to gun-toting Americans: A whole slew of stereotypes can be found on both sides of the Atlantic. But, as American historian Peter Baldwin argues in a three-part essay for SPIEGEL ONLINE, the EU and the US are much more similar than they think.

By Peter Baldwin in Los Angeles

Talk about upending accepted certainties! While Europe is now in the hands of right-of-center parties (see France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Denmark and the UK's David Cameron pacing restlessly in the wings), America has "gone socialist."

Nationalizing the financial sector by the back door, considering massive subsidization of production industries, increasing state spending on health care and education, promising big investments in all manner of greenery, and limiting executive salaries: Is 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, Doctor Strangelove's nemesis, who fulminated against fluoridation as another of communism's nefarious advances, must be rotating in his Valhalla.

How quickly things change. It seems like 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 on both sides of the Atlantic 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 alleged contrasts:

  • America believes in the untrammeled 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 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.
  • While 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 fault lines: competition vs. cooperation, 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 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 in numbers. But statistics allow us a first pass over the terrain and give us the opportunity to compare reliably. Let us compare four areas: the economy, social policy, the environment and finally --the 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 countries of western Europe (which is what we will be looking at here) is much 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 -- whether you call it the West, the Atlantic community or the developed world.


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 it is in western Europe. In 1998, for example, the richest 1 percent of Americans took home 14 percent of total income, while in Sweden the figure was only about 6 percent.

Wealth concentration is another matter, however. The richest 1 percent of Americans owned about 21 percent of all wealth in 2000. Some European nations have higher concentrations than that. In Switzerland in 1997, the richest percent owned 35 percent, and in Sweden -- despite that nation's egalitarian reputation -- the figure is 21 percent, exactly the same as for the Americans. And if we take into account the massive moving of wealth offshore and off-book permitted by Sweden's tax authorities, the richest 1 percent 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, which are often portrayed as derisory in the European media, are actually higher than in many European nations. When measured on a per capita basis, Greece, Britain, Italy and Iceland spend less than the US on unemployment.

In the second part of this three-part series, Baldwin compares strengths in terms of family and education -- and shows why Americans are better-read than Europeans.

Note: This essay originally appeared in the magazine Prospect.


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