European obsessions with the US aren't just mixed up, but feed an unhelthy resentment of the rest of humanity. Peter Baldwin writing in Prospect magazine sums up some of the lunacy of the endless list of rotating European complaints about the USA, Americans, and anything that remotely reminds them of the United States, that fills in the gaps in so many empty heads.
It is universally observed that America is an economically more unequal society than Europe, with greater stratification between rich and poor. Much of this is true. Income is more disproportionately distributed in the US than in western Europe. In 1998, for example, the richest 1 per cent of Americans took home 14 per cent of total income, while in Sweden the figure was only about 6 per cent. Wealth concentration is another matter, however. The richest 1 per cent of Americans owned about 21 per cent of all wealth in 2000. Some European nations have higher concentrations than that. In Sweden—despite that nation’s egalitarian reputation—the figure is 21 per cent, exactly the same as for the Americans.Which means that at some point, that tired old saw will be abandoned. Either way, it’s just a mathematical parlor trick of comparing the assets of the rich to the mean and arbitrarily constructing a political class called poverty, where the fate of the worst off in society is actually ignored. The most amusing part of this is that if the top 1% of the population’s wealth rose appreciably, and the other 98% of the population had their wealth reduced to the bottom 1%, poverty would be technically eliminated. Purpose of this mathematical construct? To construct specious arguments, just like the trite complaint above that has America as the evil antithesis of Scandinavia’s saintly and solidaristic uniformity of wealth and social sameness. The only relief it provides is to the challenged egos of emotional adolescents looking for something outside of fortress Europe to hate.
True, public social spending in America—that is, monies channelled through the state—is low compared to many European countries. But other avenues of redistribution are equally important: voluntary efforts, private but statutorily encouraged benefits (like employee health insurance) and taxes. Given all of these, the American welfare state is more extensive than is often realised: the total social policy effort made in the US falls precisely at the centre of the European scale.In other words, we have solved the problem that Europeans fight over with one another, but that’s not to be ever understood in that way, because in general, the point of most European criticism of America is not to shed light on what they can do better in the society where they live and vote, but evading any need to self evaluate based on who they can hate more than their own political systems or other European societies.
Moreover, Europe’s various cultures are ones still steeped in the lore of national stereotypes and quite happy to wring whatever elixir can be had from them. Who can forget Edith Cresson, Mitterrand’s prime minister, convinced that no Frenchman was gay, while the English were all limp-wristed poofs? Or consider the extent to which no Europeans, however otherwise politically correct, can be shaken in their conviction that the Roma really are shifty and thieving. Having a transatlantic whipping boy is convenient and serves politically useful purposes, especially if there is little else that you can agree on. The purveyors of anti-Americanism in Europe appear to have rediscovered the truism that nothing unites like a common enemy.This is basically how it’s worked, both in present dynamic of the EU evolving into some kind of nation-state and historically. The concencus view is that Americans are detestable, everything that reminds them of us is detestable, and yet as things change in Europe for the better, it’s almost always a case of mimicking the American social or economic model that provides that betterment. So the same bunch of psychiatrically unsound critics gather up another set of issues to beat on for another decade.
Simone de Beauvoir was convinced that Americans do not need to read because they do not think. Thinking is hard to quantify; reading less so. And Americans, it turns out, do read. The percentage of illiterate Americans is average by European standards. There are more newspapers per head in the US than anywhere in Europe outside Scandinavia, Switzerland and Luxembourg. The long tradition of well-funded public libraries in the US means that the average American reader is better supplied with library books than his peers in Germany, Britain, France, Holland, Austria and all the Mediterranean nations. They also make better use of these public library books than most Europeans. The average American borrowed more library books in 2001 than their peers in Germany, Austria, Norway, Ireland, Luxembourg, France and throughout the Mediterranean. Not content with borrowing, Americans also buy more books per head than any Europeans for whom we have numbers. And they write more books per capita than most Europeans too.You’ll recall that 20 years ago we were Nazis and idiots for being health nuts and obsessed with exercise. Once that or any other cultural phenomenon gets adopted, anything else to complain about will do, even if it the inverse of what was apparently yesterday’s of next week’s stunningly huge sin that will sink civilization.
But what about other aspects of the social environment? In ecological terms, America is thought to be a wastrel. Big cars, big houses, long commutes, cold winters, hot summers, profligate habits: such perceptions of the country have combined with the Bush administration’s cosy relationship with the oil industry and its refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol to paint the nation as an environmental black hole. Once again, the numbers tell a somewhat different story. But never mind that, so long as there’s a ‘them’ out there to resent they will, which in spite of that century long pattern, the retort to the occasional American who notices this obsession remain that it has ‘nothing to do with envy’, despite all evidence to the contrary.
Although oil use per capita is high in America, measured as a function of economic production (in other words, putting the input in relation to the output) it remains within European norms, and indeed lower than in Portugal, Greece, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Iceland. Between 1990 and 2002, America’s carbon dioxide output rose, but per unit of GDP it fell by 17 per cent—a greater reduction than in nine western European countries. In its output of renewable energy, the US is middle of the spectrum on all counts, whether biogas, solid biomass energy, geothermal or wind. Only Austria, Denmark, Italy and the Netherlands have higher levels of spending (public and private) on pollution abatement and control as a percentage of GDP than America. Despite the myths of a hyper-motorised nation, Americans own fewer passenger cars per head than the French, Austrians, Swiss, Germans, Luxembourgers and Italians. Per capita, Americans rely on their cars more than Europeans. But adjusting for the size of the country, automobile usage is lower only in Finland, Sweden and Greece. Similarly, Americans produce a lot of waste per head, though the Norwegians are worse, and the Irish and Danes are close competitors. But they recycle as well as the Finns and the French, and better than the British, Greeks and the Portuguese. Since 1990, Americans’ production of waste has scarcely gone up per capita, while in all European nations for which figures are available, there have been big increases—70 per cent in Spain, almost 60 per cent in Italy and over 30 per cent in Sweden.
But then again, there is always something else – some other ‘pull the ring and hear the doll talk’ argument that you hear right after it’s printed on an A4 homemade posterette taped to a lamppost.
And if we shift our focus to education, the contrasts across the Atlantic are, if anything, reversed. A higher percentage of Americans have graduated from university and from secondary school than in any European nation. America’s adults are, in this sense, better educated than Europe’s. And the US lavishes more money per child at all levels of education than any western European nation. Europeans often believe that good US schools are private and serve only an elite. Yet American education is, if anything, less privatised than most European systems.And in spite of that, the American can expect to take flack from university students with no meaningful life experiences of their own, an absolute certainty in Marxism, and a bloodlust to smash anything conventional in their already theoretically superior social order. Yes, the trope even pervades the interpersonal level. Either that, or the whole mess grew out of the dyspeptic grumbling on the “European street”. For example, “The Americas” are a pair of continents, and among the million and one trained-in delusional arguments one gets verbally assaulted with by strangers is the “arrogance” of calling ourselves America. Name the countries on this bright blue ball of ours that have “America” in their name? The person setting the gotcha-trap for you will likely be silent or tell you “all of them”, in abject and smugly confident ignorance.
Then one should ask in reply why they call the EU ‘Europe’ all the time, even making ‘Europe’ the shorthand reference to that cartel in Brussels, when all of the European continent is NOT in the EU. At best you’ll get a dumb stare of a newly found crumb of awareness that civilization does not order itself around their fetishistic little arguments. But the mere fact that someone wants you to address their problem that they is pointless. It’s more or less like teaching a 6 year old a knock-knock joke, and having them repeat it until they fall asleep, the next 10 minutes offer the next request to have you duel with the next unfounded, ill-informed, and ignorant assumption where one little fact they like becomes the center of the next ‘theory’ about a population of 300 million people.
And on and on it goes without end. We will hear this kind of thing forever so long as people seek their own dignity in the cretinizing of others who seem successful. But remember, the criticism of the US are never about envy. Those lessons are simply being dispensed for our benefit based on the notion that a superior society (not simply one respecting different public choices) has an obligation to give.