The bogeymen du jour



My Sunday print column, tweaked and expanded:


I can’t fathom the new Republican hue and cry about how Barack Obama is supposedly trying to “Europeanize” the U.S.A.

Think about it: If they couldn’t successfully discredit his ’08 candidacy by linking him to our terrorist enemies, how can they possibly discredit his ’09 domestic agenda by linking him to our friends?

But apparently that’s their message du jour. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell warns of  “the Europeanization of America,” Newt Gingrich warns of “European-style socialism,” 2012 hopeful Mitt Romney warns that America might morph into “government-dominated-Europe,” and the Drudge Report website sounded the alarm recently by posting a jumbo picture of the Swedish flag, which perhaps is intended to warn us that, failing vigilance, we too will be saddled with onerous unAmerican concepts such as cradle-to-grave health care.

So here we go again with the Euro-bashing, an update of the ’03 campaign to ridicule the French and Germans for failing to back our invasion of Iraq, to speak derisively (as Donald Rumsfeld did) of “old Europe,” to boycott Euro wines and eat only “freedom fries.” The allegation now is that Obama will compel Americans to mimic those effete and lazy Europeans, for whom (in the words of conservative commentator Mark Steyn) “nothing is certain except death and welfare.”

As we all know, the credo of “American exceptionalism” requires that we never entertain the possibility that the Europeans might ever be capable of outperforming us in any sphere. To suggest otherwise – to suggest, for instance, that well-subsidized trains might make more sense than rotting roads choked with SUVs – is akin to slurring our nation’s manhood. But one need not endorse every plank of Obama’s ambitious domestic agenda – some of which may never come to fruition anyway, given our projected budget deficits – in order to argue with factual evidence that the GOP’s “Europeanization” is overwrought.    

I’ll certainly concede that our pals across the pond have some weird habits. The denizens of Madrid tend to finish dinner around one in the morning, the Dutch put their hookers in shop windows and slather their fries with mayonnaise, the Brits don’t clean up after their dogs (I once lived there, dodging the sidewalk detritus), and the French worshiped Mickey Rourke long before The Wrestler.  The French don’t even care if their female senior citizens bestride the Riviera beaches with breasts exposed, a scene in Provence that fascinated my kids when they were little.

And yes, on the macroeconomic front, the Europeans have higher taxes, somewhat higher unemployment (the Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook pegs Germany’s December jobless rate at 7. 9 percent, the French rate at 7.4, and ours at 7.2),  and they have higher government spending as a percentage of GDP. Nevertheless, before we reflexively recoil at the GOP’s new bogeymen, let’s check the statistics and concede that, with respect to emulating the Europeans just a little, perhaps we should be so lucky.

Consider, for instance, average life expectancy. According to the CIA Factbook, we rank 49th in the world – worse than Portugal, Ireland, Denmark, the U.K., the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, and France (where everybody smoked everywhere until a ban was enacted in 2007). Yet despite our inferior life expectancy, and a higher infant mortality rate than anywhere in western Europe, we spend more money on health care - 15.3 percent of GDP - than any of our friends.

Speaking of health, the World Health Organization not long ago assessed the quality of health care in 190 nations. We showed up at number 37, sandwiched between Costa Rica and Slovenia. Those Jerry Lewis lovers in France came in at number one. And I haven’t even mentioned the various reports which conclude that France has outpaced America in science literacy, math literacy, and reading literacy. (Remember when the Republicans skewered John Kerry by suggesting that he “looked French?” Maybe he should’ve taken it as a compliment.)

Granted, it’s widely stipulated that our economy is generally more dynamic, that we outpace Europe on GDP growth per citizen. Not all those measurements are a slam dunk, however. According to the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, whose 30 members include America and the European nations, our GDP growth from 2006 to 2007 was actually lower than in Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, the U.K., Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.
The thing is, Obama is not gazing rapturously at all these stats, nor pining to impose the Euro model upon us. When Mitt Romney promised “to make sure that America stays America,” he was wasting his breath. The conservative outcry about “full-scale Europeanization” doesn’t square with factual reality, as evidenced by even the most cursory examination of Obama’s agenda.

He’s not suggesting a 60 percent income tax rate for all (the Netherlands) or 55 percent for all (Sweden). He just wants to return the top two tax rates to 36 percent and 39 percent, as they were during the Clinton era. Nor is he emulating the European social democrats on health care; rather than push for a government-sponsored universal program, he’s pitching a system run by the private sector.

On the global warming issue, Obama isn’t giving us Euro-speak about the need for government regulation; rather, he’s talking up a market-based program of cap and trade. And even though we rank 57th in the world on education expenditures as a percentage of GDP, Obama doesn’t want to gain ground by emulating Europe and having the government pay for college. Instead, he’s just pitching a plan for universal access to college loans.

These moves bear no resemblance to European social democracy; Obama has said so himself. When quizzed recently about why he has refused to nationalize the banks, Swedish-style, he replied: “Obviously, Sweden has a different set of cultures in terms of how the government relates to markets, and America’s different.”

And what’s particularly ironic is that some of the European nations in recent years have tiptoed away from classic social democracy, tweaking their economies by introducing more free-market practices. I saw this in France 14 years ago, when voters spurned the Socialist party's presidential candidate and moved rightward.  The Swiss now have a market-based system of universal health care. The Dutch, who believe in a strong safety net, have loosened labor-market restrictions during the past decade, and compelled their unions to relax wage demands. And even the Swedes have refused to bail out their troubled Saab car company; as their non-socialist economic minister said recently, "The Swedish state is not prepared to own car companies." My point is, the GOP's caricature of western Europe is actually somewhat dated.

So, do Republicans really believe that our can-do culture, nurtured since the 18th century, is so weak as to wilt in the face of a nonexistent peril? Of course not. “Europeanization” is merely their latest exercise in cartoon hyperbole, a substitute for thought, a bumper sticker slogan aimed at the emotions. Pay no attention, and rest assured: America does not face a grave and gathering threat of excellent trains and universal preschool.

On the other hand, if our beaches start filling up with topless seniors talking up Mickey Rourke’s lost movies, feel free to sound the alarm.

- With research assistance from UPenn political writing student Emily Schultheis.