Were You Born on the Wrong Continent? Why You'd Probably Be Healthier and Wealthier in Germany
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The following is an adapted excerpt from Thomas Geoghegan's Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?: How the European Model Can Help You Get a Life, (The New Press 2010).
Americans may believe the United States is set up for the middle class, and Europe is set up for the bourgeois. Or let's put it this way: America is a great place to buy kitty litter at Wal-Mart and relatively cheap gas. But it is not designed for me, a professional without a lot of money. That's who Europe is for: people like me.
OK, as a union-side lawyer, Europe's really set up for people like my clients, or those who used to be my clients before the unions in America collapsed. Let's put my own self-interest aside: Where would my clients, who are not poor, who make $30,000 to $50,000 a year and yet keep coming up short, maybe by $100, $200 a month, really be better off?
That's easy: Europe. I can answer that as their lawyer, the way a doctor could answer about their health. The bottom two-thirds of America would be better off in Europe. I mean the people who have not had a raise (an hourly raise in real dollars) in maybe 40 years, and who do not even have a 401(k), nothing but Social Security, and either have no health insurance or pay deductibles of $2,000 or more. Sure, they'd be better off in Europe. When unemployed, they'd certainly be better off in Europe. Over there, even single men can get on welfare. And in much of Europe, contrary to what we hear, unemployment is much lower than over here.
One of the ways Europe is set up for the bourgeois -- including, perhaps, many readers of this magazine -- is the very fact that it is also set up for people who make $50,000 or below. Since it's set up for these people too, the bourgeois -- me, maybe you -- get the political cover to have it set up for them. What the people-in-the-unions get, people-from-the-good-schools also get. (And indeed, in Europe people-in-the-unions are often people-from-the-good-schools.) They get the six weeks of vacation each year and the pension like a golden parachute. And the higher up we are in terms of income, the more valuable these things are. In America, they don't tell us: Social democracy, or socialism, or whatever Europe has, pays off biggest for people in the upper middle class, those just below the top.
Public and private wealth
Take Zurich and Chicago. One looks good and the other, broken down. If America has such a famously high GDP per capita and Chicago is one of America's crown jewels, maybe there is something wrong with using GDP per capita as an index of social well-being. It's not that the numbers "lie" in any crude way, but past a certain point, maybe these numbers mislead us as to where we're better off. For to look at the numbers, who would guess that Zurich looks gloriously like Zurich all over, and that Chicago looks glorious in Lincoln Park, dumpy west of Pulaski Avenue, and gulag-like by 26th and California? But forget the look of the place. It's also the way of life.
The numbers say, on paper, I have a better way of life in Chicago. But are these numbers right? It may be that, past a certain level, an increase in GDP per capita pushes my living standard down. I don't mean this in a spiritual sense -- I mean it in a cold, neutral, out-of-pocket sense. Example: If I make more by working longer, I might subcontract out more of my life and incur other "costs," like losing a trip to Zurich, which may be of far more value than the extra income. Or another example: If I get a raise, I might be worse off. I might widen the gap in income with others around me. Who cares? Well, by doing this, I might be spreading poverty, which, like everything, is relative. I might make my public space more of a hellhole than before.