America, There Is a Better Way: It’s Called Germany
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Of course, anyone who knows Geoghegan's mind can easily guess his answer. (His classic book Whose Side Are You On? chronicled the decline of America's labor movement, while the brilliant Secret Lives of Citizens lamented the country's eroding civic life.) But that doesn't mean he's about to retire to Berlin and shred his U.S. passport. To the contrary, he goes out of his way to say he's no "European socialist."
But what he also says that in almost every quality-of-life measure, the German system surpasses America's. Yes, what you've heard is true: With six weeks of vacation time, Germans work less. Poverty rates for children and the elderly are less than half that of the United States. Unlike most Americans, the average German isn't perpetually indebted because basic "public goods" (healthcare, education, childcare, public transit, etc.) are paid for by the state. This last point is crucial for understanding the paradox of how Germans can pay much higher taxes and be able to save money. As Geoghegan notes,
Over here, only some of our taxes come back to us. A lot of them go to the private market It's not just that Europeans spend more; unlike us, they know how to spend the money effectively. Even the least efficient health care systems, like Germany's, take up only 11 percent of GDP. In America, by contrast, health care takes up over 17 percent.
That's why they call it socialism: not hung up on the word, they have a competitive advantage in the efficient distribution of public goods.
This argument for the state to negotiate lower prices for citizens en masse should be familiar to anyone in favor of a single-payer healthcare system, or even just a "public option." In fact, although its style is wholly original--Geoghegan is unable to write in cliches -- much of the ground covered by the first two chapters of Were You Born on the Wrong Continent? may be familiar to any committed progressive, or most people who ever spent a semester studying in western Europe. (Excepting a brilliant argument about why the one clear advantage America has over Europe and the rest of the world, its per capita GDP, has plenty to do with how unhealthy and unequal the country is.)
The real value of the book comes a bit later, when Geoghegan explains why he is in love with Germany: It vigilantly protects its industrial base, and it does so because it has a vibrant labor movement and civic life. "Without an industrial base," he writes, "a democracy dies." In its eccentric and roundabout way, the book is a bold rebuttal to Thomas Friedman and other acolytes of globalization, so enamored with our brave new world and comfortable "reforming" every labor market "rigidity." To those "flat" earthers, and to millions of Americans being pushed out of the middle class, Geoghegan pleads:
You don't care about industry? Fine. You don't care about labor? I understand. But what about "character"? The existence of an industrial base and a labor movement may determine what that will be. Will people be independent and skill oriented, the way highly skilled industrial workers tend to be? Or will they be like our college grads: service oriented, dependent, trying to please, seducing us, giving us big smiles,and never registering to vote? Industry is destiny.
'Germany is industry!'
If industry is in fact destiny and "Germany is industry" (as Geoghegan proclaims), then the country's future should look pretty good today, like industrializing China's. And indeed, a June 21 New York Times story headlined "Debt Crisis in Europe Not All Bad," tells us: "Germany is arguably the big winner from the financial crisis in the form of lower interest rates and a more robust stock market." As sovereign debt concerns morphed into crisis in April and the Euro's value slid downward against the dollar, Munich-based electronics and engineering giant Siemens raised its 2010 profit forecast to $9.3 billion.