Power Across the Pond

Book cover
Europe's Promiseby By Steven HillUniversity of California Press. 488p $24.95 (paperback)

If we wanted to know what a society and economy molded by Catholic social teaching since Rerum Novarum would look like, a sage observer of the church once told me, we would not do badly by observing Western Europe, meaning what some now call Old Europe. The never-Communist West of the Old World underwent a remarkable, if largely peaceful, social and economic revolution after World War II.

Britain introduced its National Health Service in 1948. A year later the American Medical Association and the Republicans definitively killed President Harry Truman’s national health insurance plan in a Congressional committee.


In the 1950s West Germany’s Christian Democrats introduced Mitbestimmung (codetermination) into labor relations. The practice led to the inclusion of workers and unions in private sector decision-making, from the plant floor to the boardroom. Flaws are flagged by observant workers in Mercedes and B.M.W. plants. The workers know their voices will be considered at the highest level and the product will be improved.

In contrast, in the United States, under punishing business campaigns and freewheeling federal encouragement, unionization declined from the postwar era’s peak of 32 percent of the workforce to a mere 12.5 percent at present. The curve parallels the widening gap in income and corporate decision-making between workers and executives, a phenomenon to which some experts attribute the collapse in quality of the U.S. auto industry—not to mention its loss of market share.

Steven Hill, director of the political reform program at the New America Foundation, based in Washington, D.C., is not satisfied with even these disparities. In this beezily written and well-documented book, he argues not only that the Europeans can build cars that are better, made by workers who have a better safety net, and that the vehicles can be more profitably sold (often enough to Americans), but that European public transportation, heating and energy generation systems, from windmills to “smart” buildings, are well on the way to reducing the influence of the combustion engine and pollution.

Indeed, Hill describes what he calls European social capitalism at the outset of Europe’s Promise, in these glowing words:

Imagine a place where doctors still do house calls, or where everyone has quality, affordable health care and child care is affordable, professional, and widely available. Or where all new parents are paid to stay home and care for their newborns, and receive a monthly stipend for diapers, food, and other daily needs. Or imagine a place where a young person doesn’t have to mortgage his or her future by going into debt to pay for a college education. Or where all workers receive two months’ worth of paid vacation and holidays every year, and paid sick leave, too, as well as generous retirement benefits, and if laid off receive helpful levels of unemployment compensation and job retraining.

Hill ably demolishes a series of common myths concerning differences between Europe and the United States, among them the notion that Europeans are more heavily taxed than Americans and that, all told, Americans are wealthier. You’ll have to read the book to get the full-blown story, but here’s a teaser: U.S. child and elderly poverty rates, 20 and 23 percent, respectively, are so far above Western Europe’s as to match those of Russia and Mexico.

Granted, Europe is not quite paradise. Hill acknowledges the continent’s challenges in facing up to racial and national prejudices, especially regarding much-needed immigration. He also nods in the direction of Europe’s below-replacement birth rate. In this case, however, he attempts to argue that Europe’s economy will be kept going by productivity gains. In other words, fewer people will make more goods. His reasoning and evidence on this score do not satisfy.

Hill also comes across as something of a Polyanna in his treatment of the European press. As a journalist who has worked in Europe, I am painfully aware of European government restrictions of the press, from the British Defense Advisory notice quashing embarrassing stories to the bullying and bribing of reporters in France and Italy. Worse, all European newspapers traditionally hold to an editorial “line,” a point of view dictated by the publisher and enforced by mid-level editors—even in material intended as straight news.

Carried away with his amazement at the circulation figures of European print publications, Hill, a former journalist, does not touch on either of these serious problems.

To anyone wondering whether by 2099 the current era will be viewed as a second “American century,” Hill’s warnings are worth considering. If the competitive advantages he ably enumrates continue to evolve in Europe’s favor, the claim to the century may well cross the Atlantic.

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C Walter Mattingly
9 years 11 months ago

One country in Europe which has the most powerful unions and developed social programs has had some extraordinary successes in providing social benefits for their people. Retirement comes to many at 50 or 55.  All sorts of subsidies exist. Out of 11 million citizens, only 4.5 million work, and about half of those work in the government sector.  That means about 1 in every 5 citizens is producing revenue in the private sector. Most are not working.It has been in many ways a socialist paradise.

The country is Greece.  Their economic circumstance is currently much in the news.

We in the US have complained about our terrible health care compared to our European counterparts. Recently Thompson/Reuters did an extensive poll of the 22 countries which collectively make up the greatest part of the world economy.  The question asked to the 20+ thousand surveyed was, "If one of your close relatives were to contract a serious illness, are you confident that your country's medical system would provide him with good medical care?" The US was mediocre, near the bottom of the 2nd quartile, with 51% responding positively. Britain was right above us, at 55%.  Germany was in the third quartile, at 45%; Italy, at 38%.  And this is supposedly our worst- performing area (excepting of course our disastrous public school system, which has been dominated by powerful unions for 2 generations, with the results one would expect.) It is worth noting what the citizens of the country think of their own health care.

These countries are also suffering, as noted in the article, from the huge problem of declining birth rates and slowing economic growth rates. I don't think you will find many Americans who would trade out with these folks. Singapore, South Korea, also up and coming Chile, now there are some better comparisons of well-being that is self-sustaining and improving.



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