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America, There Is a Better Way: It’s Called Germany

What anemic America can learn from Europe’s export-happy engine and largest social democracy.

Nearly two years after the financial crisis brought the U.S. economy to its knees, more than 20 million Americans are either unemployed or underemployed and Congress can barely extend jobless benefits. Republicans propose the same old nostrums--tax cuts--while President Barack Obama burnishes his deficit hawk credentials. Nearly everyone in power appears content to return to the status quo, circa 2007, with a few tweaks in place.

Even worse, alternatives to U.S.-style capitalism -- and its attendant inequality, poverty and instability -- are harder than ever to glimpse, as the sovereign debt crisis across the Atlantic distracts U.S media and politicians, once again, from the impressive achievements of European social democracies. That's a shame, because if we can't imagine a better world, our political and economic status quo appears inevitable and uncontestable, much to the benefit of those in power.

Thankfully, we have Thomas Geoghegan's new book Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?: How the European Model Can Help You Get a Life  (The New Press, 2010) to remind us that things like tax cuts for the wealthy, a healthcare system controlled by corporations and privatized retirement schemes are not inevitable.

The book's central mission--to detail a more humane form of capitalism -- couldn't be more relevant to overworked Americans quietly thinking to themselves, there has to be a better way . Indeed, there is: Contrary to apocalyptic U.S. news articles, European-style social democracy is not about to go extinct. Dig a little deeper and you'll discover that Europe is not an undifferentiated mass of debt, socialist profligacy and unemployment.

Germany's unemployment rate is 7.5 percent, below the U.S. rate. In fact, during most of the last decade, Germany was either the world's top exporter or tied for the top spot with China. Yes, a nation of 82 million people outcompeted the United States (307 million) while paying in full for the perks of social democracy. Or, as Geoghegan likes to say, Germans are beating Americans "with one hand tied behind their backs."

The idea that social democracy is both more humane and more competitive is at the heart of Were You Born on the Wrong Continent? , the subtitle of which ought to read "How the German Model Can Help You Get a Life." And that's why all dissatisfied Americans, not just progressives, should read the book. As America's so-called "recovery" begins with few jobs in sight, it would seem a propitious moment to deeply question the country's status quo.

Introducing the world's smallest industrial giant

And what is that status quo? Nearly two years after the U.S. government bailed out some of the country's largest corporations with billions in taxpayer dollars, the jobless rate stands at 9.7 percent with no sign of significantly abating. Fifteen million Americans are unemployed, 8 million part-time workers wish they had full-time work, and another 2 million are so discouraged they've left the labor market altogether. And as Inter Press Service recently reported, the country's 4.7 million millionaires saw their wealth grow by double digits in 2009, even as the U.S. Census and Department of Agriculture noted that 39 million very poor Americans struggled to find sufficient food.

This is America's grim new normal. Thankfully we have Geoghegan -- the tireless Chicago labor lawyer and erstwhile congressional candidate who has somehow found time to write six books during the last 20 years -- to appraise a different sort of political economy, Europe's export engine and labor stronghold: Germany. In his inimitable and hilarious fashion, Geoghegan tries to answer the book's titular question during a series of trips to Frankfurt, Berlin, Bonn, Hamburg and points in between.

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