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Thursday, September 08, 2005

Chronicles of Ozymandias

Whose Fear, Whose Rejection?  A Response to David Brooks from an American Living in Europe.

Part 1


The reader should keep in mind that this two-part article was written several weeks before New Orleans was struck by Hurricane Katrina, which confirmed, in the most tragic, and ugliest, way the continuing, and criminal, disarticulation of American society.
P. P.

Who you gonna believe? Me or your eyes?
—Chico Marx, Duck Soup

So, back in June, I logged on to the New York Times one morning, as I do every day, and scrolled down the menu of news, semi-news, and quotidian blather. The latter category, of course, notoriously encompasses both the lighter-than-air musings of multiple-Pulitzer Prize-winner Thomas Friedman and the systemically obtuse (and invariably hypocritical) sermons of Pulitzer Prize-winner-in-waiting, and Bobo anthropologist, David Brooks. I normally don’t read either—at my age, you can’t afford to waste time on bullshit (if I can use the hermeneutical term recently made famous by Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt)—but the title of Brooks’s column that day, “Fear and Rejection” (New York Times, June 2), caught my eye, coming as it did right after the vote in France and the Netherlands on the EU’s constitutional treaty. Brooks’s lead had me reeling immediately: it was the smell of all that bullshit.

Introduction
“Forgive me for making a blunt and obvious point,” Brooks began, “but events in Western Europe are slowly discrediting large swaths of American liberalism.” Excuse me, I thought. Blunt and obvious as the point was to Brooks, it escaped me entirely. I tried to recall what had transpired in the last few days, or weeks, in Europe—where I live—that had been so inimical to, let alone “discrediting” of, “large swaths” (as opposed to small patches?) of “American liberalism.” Had Europeans had an epiphany, and decided to dispatch tens of thousands of troops to Iraq? Had they, perhaps, finally seen the wisdom of remorselessly attacking an entire people, and pitilessly undermining their society, and thus joined the US blockade of Cuba? Maybe they’d all decided that national health insurance was in fact a slippery slope to Bolshevism and had, suddenly, renounced it as a moral aberration and an act of irremediable violence against “freedom.” Or, maybe, most damning of all to American liberals (aka “secular humanists”), Europeans had returned to Jesus, raised Him as the continent’s Savior, restored Him to His Seat of Authority, in the very core of European purpose and identity, and superseded the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen with the New Testament as the irreducible text of the Old World’s self-definition. I mean, what exactly had happened?

Nothing, as it turned out. Or, rather, it had already occurred long before. I quote Brooks:

Most of the policy ideas advocated by American liberals have already been enacted in Europe: generous welfare measures, ample labor protections, highly progressive tax rates, single-payer health care systems, zoning restrictions to limit big retailers, and cradle-to-grave middle-class subsidies supporting everything from child care to pension security. And yet far from thriving, continental Europe has endured a lost decade of relative decline.

That last sentence speaks volumes about Brooks’s “analytical” method.

Far from thriving. Enduring. A lost decade. Relative decline. With such preposterous, and transparent, circumlocutions (and calculated abuse of language) is “objective” journalism writ today in the United States and published in its newspaper of record. Before I even begin trying to parse Brooks’s Pravdaesque paragraphs—which “describe” a “Europe” as alien to me as it is fictitious in fact and intention—let me give some personal backstory.

Four days after reading Brooks’s piece, my wife and I flew to Paris (from Greece, where we live). We were there ostensibly on (my) business for greekworks.com, but had decided that, since we were going anyway, to also look for a place to rent, as we were thinking of setting up a pied-à-terre there. We thus took the opportunity to do some old-fashioned apartment-hunting; every morning, we hit the pavement of a different neighborhood we thought we might like to live in, walking up and down innumerable main and side streets. At week’s end, we had pretty thoroughly scoped out the several neighborhoods on our list, as well as a couple we’d only discovered after we began searching. If nothing else, we got a chance to see Paris up close and personal, and in a way that is impossible when one is just a tourist or visiting (which I’ve been doing for over 30 years).

What really struck me, from the first day—checking out neighborhoods, making mental notes of local supermarkets and dry cleaners and pet shops (for Sam, our dog), trying to gauge vehicular noise and pedestrian traffic, seeing if there were places where I could pick up an Economist or FT—was…David Brooks. I swear: this is absolutely true. The more my wife and I walked, the more we fell in with the daily street-life of Paris, the more we actually saw, and began to understand, what constituted the everyday reality of the city, the more livid I became with Brooks, whose column was banging around the inside of my skull like a horrible intellectual migraine. I seethed, and exploded regularly. My wife had to put up with me loudly swearing at Brooks as we walked down Rue St-Sulpice or up Rue du Cherche-Midi or down Rue Monge or across the Pont St-Louis or up Rue des Rosiers or down Rue de Buci. It was like a curse: I could not get my mind off the sheer, appalling fraud of what he had written.

“Far from thriving,” is the first thing that hits you, like a sharp jab square on the face. Far from thriving?!? Far from thriving? The judgment itself is, literally, insane. Brooks writes that: “Western Europeans seem to be suffering a crisis of confidence. Election results…reveal electorates who have lost faith in their leaders, who are anxious about declining quality of life, who feel extraordinarily vulnerable to foreign competition….” (There’s that weasely “seem” again; what really “seems” to be going on here is Brooks’s evasion of any straightforward, declarative statement. Brooks lives in the permanent analytical conditional.)

There is decidedly a crisis of confidence in Europe (more on that at the end of this series), but it actually has nothing to do with “declining quality of life.” (Is Brooks for real?) How can it, after all, when, to a lifelong New Yorker like me, Paris “seems” to be—indeed, is—an astounding, almost far-fetched distillation of what can only be described as the purest essence of what Western bourgeois sensibility has defined as “quality of life.” And, of course, Brooks makes enough money at the Times and at all his other gigs as everybody’s favorite “intellectually sober” right-wing pundit to know that, since he’s undoubtedly stayed at the Bristol, lunched at Lucas Carton, and done some last-minute shopping on the Place de la Madeleine, before jetting off to the next unfortunate site of his ideological condescension. Which is why, after his inane remark regarding European “anxiety” about “declining quality of life,” he immediately backtracks (to the conditional). “Anybody who has lived in Europe knows how delicious European life can be,” he assures us (implying, naturally, that he’s one of the fortunate few who’s sampled such “delicious” fare). But wait, it’s not that simple—and here social anthropologist Brooks becomes moral philosopher Brooks—for it’s not the “absolute standard of living that determines a people’s morale,” Brooks rushes to clarify and enlighten. It’s “the momentum” (ah, yes, Big Mo). And then comes his incredible conclusion: “It is happier to live in a poor country that is moving forward—where expectations are high—than it is to live in an affluent country that is looking back.”

Can someone run that by me again? Last time I checked, the most acute example of a poor country “moving forward” at a pretty fast clip, where expectations were higher than the moon, was a place called…the Soviet Union. (It’s maddening to know that Brooks gets paid a lot of money to write this stuff.) As for the “happiness” of the people who lived in Soviet “expectation,” the question will undoubtedly be debated for hundreds of years, but suffice it to say that even if some (or many) people considered themselves happy, I—and I’m sure Brooks—would rather have been living in Paris.

But ideology wouldn’t be ideology unless it were ideological. Brooks’s very sentences are models of mystification. “…[I]t is not the absolute standard of living that determines a people’s morale, but the momentum,” he says. But what does that mean? It is, in fact, as the Brits say, “a nonsense.” “Morale” is a psychological, philosophical, or moral term; “standard of living” is a term denoting just that, a social standard. It is a socioeconomic measurement, a developmental gauge, an admittedly nebulous but nevertheless honest attempt to quantify empirically a society’s anecdotal sense of itself. Morale? Has Brooks ever heard of the “Vietnam syndrome” or the “malaise” of which Jimmy Carter spoke—and for which Carter was crucified by Brooks’s right-wing comrades-in-punditry? Morale? If morale had anything to do with it, the US today would be the last place in the West in which one would want to live. Except that the US also has a standard of living that’s none too shabby. Not to mention that one man’s demoralization is another man’s “momentum.” “Morale” might be as low as Death Valley among most working people in the US today, but all those Central American and South Asian immigrants pouring into the States know that an “absolute standard of living” counts for something.

More than meets Brooks’s eye, for sure. Which is why he’s so big on “momentum.” Talk about the road to nowhere. Brooks is moving so fast he can’t be bothered with trying to explain where it is, exactly, that he’s going, or, more to the point, where he wants Europeans to follow. Let’s take a look again at his bill of particulars above: “Most of the policy ideas advocated by American liberals have already been enacted in Europe,” Brooks says, rightly. He then stipulates: generous welfare measures; ample labor protections; progressive tax rates; single-payer health care systems; zoning restrictions to limit big retailers; and cradle-to-grave middle-class subsidies supporting everything from child care to pension security. (Incidentally, European tax rates are not “highly” progressive, as Brooks says, since they’ve all been seriously adjusted downward during the last two decades—something that I happen to believe is fundamentally misconceived. Indeed, in 2004, the average top rate for the EU 15—that is, before the entry of the low-tax eastern European countries—was, according to Eurostat, 46.2 percent for individuals and a mere 31.4 percent for corporations. Until Ronald Reagan, the top rate was 70 percent in the US; it was 39.6 percent until George W. Bush.)

Needless to say, a big—a humongous—question arises here, looming at least as awesome as the Alps (and I have no doubt that the reader has already anticipated it.) Namely, what human being on the face of the planet, of sound mind and even sounder sensibility, would not wish to be part of a society whose foundations have been laid, and continually reinforced, with the aforementioned social bonds? With the obvious exception of David Brooks and a few other right-wing Republicans, I can’t think of many. Momentum? Sorry, but I think most people would prefer the Luxembourg Gardens.

And do. Which is why Brooks’s stubborn, right-wing refusal to face reality reminds me of the kind of left-wing self-delusion so famously lampooned in Ninotchka. When Melvyn Douglas (playing a roué aristocrat) kisses Greta Garbo (portraying the eponymous heroine) and then asks her if she’s felt anything, Garbo responds, “a chemical reaction.” In fact, whenever Douglas tries to commend the pleasures of Paris (where most of the film takes place) over the rigors (to say the least) of Moscow, Garbo retorts, with conviction (another sign of ideology), that what seem to be the “advantages” of the French vie en rose over the Russian vie en rouge is symptomatic of the moral and intellectual flabbiness, and capitalist underdevelopment, of the French, and that, in any case, one day, the whole world will see the wisdom of the Soviet Union’s ways. (Douglas is skeptical: at one point, he tells his Soviet interlocutors that their five-year plan has fascinated him for the last 15 years.)

If you believe that pleasure is a chemical reaction, you will also believe, with Brooks, that “quality of life” is a matter of “momentum.” The truth is that the United States today is, in many ways, akin to the erstwhile Soviet Union, particularly in the moral link between its imperialism abroad and its Stakhanovism at home. One of the sadder side effects of the puritanism that is so deeply entrenched in American life is the sanctification of busyness. This goes beyond any notion of a Protestant ethic. Half of Germany, after all, is Protestant; in France, the Protestant minority has, for centuries, notably constituted a dynamic business elite. But a German or French Protestant still believes that lunch, every day of the week, should be eaten slowly, and perhaps even accompanied by wine, perhaps even of a decent vintage. And a German or French (or Dutch or Swedish) Protestant will still look upon his faith as a guidepost to social purpose—and, therefore, social construction—and not as the most direct (and convenient) escape from wider social engagement. Most important, Europeans do not believe that either their nations separately or, even more so, their integrated European culture as a whole can ever be defined solely (or even largely) by GDP or “productivity” or—and this, I believe, is the crux of the issue and the most pernicious resemblance between today’s US and yesterday’s USSR—“throw-weight,” as it used to be called, or “lethality,” as it is now described. Because, let’s face it, all this Americans-are-from-Mars-but-Europeans-are-from-Venus idiocy is nothing but American penis-pumping on a Himalayan scale.

Location, location, location
When it’s obvious that the damn lies can only carry him so far, Brooks rolls out the “statistics.” He cites London Times columnist Anatole Kaletsky to the effect that European “unemployment has been stuck between 8 and 11 percent since 1991 and growth has reached 3 percent only once in those 14 years,” and then adds: “The Western European standard of living is about a third lower than the American standard of living, and it’s sliding. European output per capita is less than that of 46 of the 50 American states and about on par with Arkansas.”

There’s nothing more pointless than statistical mudfights. It’s a classic mug’s game. Besides, there’s very little that any European isn’t aware of in the figures cited by Brooks. I don’t know of any European, “mere” citizen or member of the political elites, who hasn’t been obsessed for the past many years with the continuing viability of what Americans and Tony Blair call European “competitiveness,” but what Europeans themselves call their “social market” model.

The problem with Brooks, as always, is that his tendentiousness verges on self-parody. Not only is Western Europe’s standard of living “about” a third lower than that of the US, but—gadzooks!—“it’s sliding.” Indeed, “European output is…about on a par with Arkansas”! How does one even respond to such a cartoonish notion? I’m sorry, but the last place I’ve ever thought of comparing France to, the last few years my wife and I have been visiting, has been…Arkansas.

Apparently, I’m not alone. Anybody who reads the New York Times knows that it has had France on the collective editorial brain for a number of years now. Hardly a day goes by when it doesn’t feature the country (and especially its capital) somehow, in the fashion section, or in dining or travel, or even in the book review (French Women Don’t Get Fat). Maybe it’s media globalization or the fact that it is now sole owner of that icon of la vie Américaine in Paris, the International Herald Tribune, but you can’t pick up the Times anymore without coming across some breathless report on France hier, aujourd’hui et demain. Three weeks to the day after Brooks’s column appeared, his paper ran a story by Deborah Baldwin, entitled, “In Paris, Romancing the Deal” (New York Times, June 23). I quote:

Paris, that fantasy destination for so many expats and luxury goods connoisseurs, has become an unlikely destination for Americans hoping to acquire second homes. The prospective buyers are so plentiful, in fact, that they have spawned a cottage industry of local fixers who specialize in ushering Americans through the…bewildering rituals of French real estate.

Never mind that typical Times touch of “bewildering rituals of French real estate.” (Has the Times checked out the bewildering rituals of American real estate lately, including the bizarre insertion of the Patriot Act into all property deals?) Revealingly, Baldwin went on to comment that, “A strong euro has scared away some buyers, but others have clearly decided that it’s a sign to buy in.” A strong euro? Brooks didn’t mention anything about a strong European currency in comparing Europe to Arkansas. But maybe that’s because of the euro’s (passing) “weakness.” His Times colleague was unfazed, however. “Though the euro has sagged a bit in recent months,” she stated, “many economists see it bouncing back, indicating that now may be the time to buy.” Baldwin ended with what any semi-sensate human being would consider a self-evident observation: “Of course, when the alternative is investing in municipal bonds, who wouldn’t prefer a private hideaway stocked with French armoires and raw-milk Camembert?”

Who, indeed? Only Brooks, it seems, is invulnerable to the seductions of the “fantasy destination” now corrupting so many of his fellow citizens. As for the tens of thousands of Brits who’ve made France their permanent home over the last 20 years, their existential schizophrenia has by now become a bitter joke in their new country of residence (they lecture us incessantly on everything that’s wrong with us, the French say, but they’re all living here). American Richard Chesnoff, the author of the recent screed, The Arrogance of the French: Why They Can’t Stand Us—And Why the Feeling is Mutual, admits in his book that he, too, lives in France! (There’s no other place he can so cheaply luxuriate in a comparable quality of life, he shamelessly admits.) So, what is really going on here? And what is all this Euro-scolding and finger-wagging about?

Smoke and mirrors, mostly. With the hoary Anglo-American superiority complex thrown in pour encourager les autres. That’s the irony. While the French are consistently bashed for their arrogance, it’s actually the Anglo-Americans who are hopelessly self-satisfied to the core of their cultural (and social) being. The further, and more relevant, irony is that the French, as individual citizens and as a nation, have been the most self-critical and self-searching people in Europe in the last decade. That’s what that extraordinary debate, and massive turnout in the referendum, on the EU “constitution” was all about: France’s role as France in Europe and in the world as a whole. And the French had the magnificent, democratic audacity to defy their entire political and social “leadership”—all the major parties, all the trade unions, all the politically correct conclaves of the great and the good—and demand a voice for themselves as masters of their own fate. Across the Channel, meanwhile, those who work for a living ceaselessly (and uncomplainingly) bite the bitter dust of New Labour’s old Thatcherism. As for the US, let’s not even bother. Arkansas may be, according to Brooks, “about on par” with Europe in “output per capita,” but common sense tells us all that a place in which “intelligent design” serves as the governing educational and intellectual model is, quite literally, a fool’s paradise and, as such, a generation away from bitter disappointment and inevitable decline.

But don’t take my word for it. I cite one of Brooks’s Times op-ed colleagues, albeit somebody who knows considerably more about economics (and of what he’s talking about generally) than any autodidact neocon. To wit:

Modern American politics is dominated by the doctrine that government is the problem, not the solution. In practice, this doctrine translates into policies that make low taxes on the rich the highest priority, even if lack of revenue undermines basic public services. You don’t have to be a liberal to realize that this is wrong-headed. Corporate leaders understand quite well that good public services are also good for business. But the political environment is so polarized these days that top executives are often afraid to speak up against conservative dogma.
Instead, they vote with their feet….
There has been fierce competition among states hoping to attract a new Toyota assembly plant. Several Southern states reportedly offered financial incentives worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
But last month [June] Toyota decided to put the new plant, which will produce RAV4 mini-SUVs, in Ontario. Explaining why it passed up financial incentives to choose a US location, the company cited the quality of Ontario’s work force.
What made Toyota so sensitive to labor quality issues? Maybe we should discount remarks from the president of the Toronto-based Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association, who claimed that the educational level in the Southern United States was so low that trainers for Japanese plants in Alabama had to use “pictorials” to teach some illiterate workers how to use high-tech equipment.
But there are other reports, some coming from state officials, that confirm his basic point: Japanese auto companies opening plants in the Southern US have been unfavorably surprised by the work force’s poor level of training.
There’s some bitter irony here for Alabama’s governor. Just two years ago voters overwhelmingly rejected his plea for an increase in the state’s rock-bottom taxes on the affluent, so that he could afford to improve the state’s low-quality education system. Opponents of the tax hike convinced voters that it would cost the state jobs.

Thus wrote Paul Krugman a couple of months ago (“Toyota, Moving Northward,” New York Times, July 25, 2005). I’ll return to Krugman later, but, first, I want to readdress the issue of Brooks’s data.

The CIA on the USA

As I said above, I’m not interested in statistical mudfights, especially since Brooks doesn’t give any sources for his “data” other than the Kaletsky quote. I, too, will cite some statistics, but, as opposed to Brooks, I’ll give my sources: the CIA’s World Factbook, the World Economic Forum’s 2004 Global Competitiveness Report, and the UN Development Program’s 2004 Human Development Report. Trying to be “objective,” I’ve avoided any sources that might even appear to be vaguely “left-wing” (except for an important one in Part 2 of this essay, which I’ll identify). Indeed, my first two sources are immaculately hegemonic (although the US’s main spy agency has its own credibility issues). As for the UN, I’ll let readers judge for themselves. Suffice it to say that its annual Human Development Report is, in fact, the only systematic attempt to quantify global development in actual social and human terms as opposed to merely economistic (and almost metaphysical) terms of “production,” which is precisely why it has quickly become the most respected, and credible, such index in both the developed and developing worlds—and why, of course, only Washington’s neocons have consistently disparaged it.

But I’ll start with the CIA. What struck me instantly was how much more honest its World Factbook is than Brooks. Its statistical survey of the EU begins with a “preliminary statement,” which itself begins:

The evolution of the European Union (EU) from a regional economic agreement among six neighboring states in 1951 to today’s supranational organization of 25 countries across the European continent stands as an unprecedented phenomenon in the annals of history. Dynastic unions for territorial consolidation were long the norm in Europe…but for such a large number of nation-states to cede some of their sovereignty to an overarching entity is truly unique.

In other words, the agency is saying, because the EU is “an unprecedented phenomenon in the annals of history” and, therefore, a “truly unique” historical experiment, it should not (cannot) be judged by the statistical standards of a nation-state, as that would be akin to comparing apples and oranges. In case the reader hasn’t gotten the agency’s analytical drift, however, the Factbook’s overview of the EU’s economy clarifies that, “Because of the great differences in per capita income…and historic national animosities, the European Community [sic] faces difficulties in devising and enforcing common policies.” Furthermore, “In 2004, the EU admitted 10 central and eastern European countries that are, in general, less advanced technologically and economically than the existing 15.” As the agency knows that its data are used for all kinds of political purposes, it has set an analytical framework for all headline comparisons with the EU, pointing to the Union’s fundamental structural distinction.

Since so much has been made the last few years of the alleged monumental waste, and cost, of the EU’s CAP (Common Agricultural Policy), the first thing I did was go to the farming data. Right off, the numbers jumped out at me. Total irrigated land in the EU is 115,807 square kilometers as against 214,000 square kilometers in the US. Although the US figure is almost 80 percent higher, however, agriculture constitutes 2.2 percent of EU GDP, but only 0.9 percent of US GDP. Much more important, agriculture accounts for 4.5 percent of the EU’s labor force, while only 0.7 percent of Americans work in farming, forestry, and fishing, the closest comparative category.

There is an obvious fact and one a little less obvious, but just as relevant, hidden in these data. The obvious fact is that many more Europeans work in agriculture as Americans—although Europeans work on 80 percent less land and with a labor force 68 million larger than in the US (215 million to 147.4, respectively). That translates into 9.675 million Europeans in agriculture compared to 1.032 million Americans in farming, forestry, and fishing. The more interesting fact hidden in these data, however, is the comparatively spectacular extent of US farm holdings. If one divides American acreage (and again, we’re talking about farming, forestry, and fishing as a whole) into American workers, you get 4.8 workers per square kilometer of irrigated land. In the EU, the comparable ratio is 83.5 workers per square kilometer. If one goes one step further and assumes a (minimal) family of four per worker, that adds another 29.025 million people to the agricultural economy, for a total of 38.7 million people, or almost 8.5 percent of the entire EU population.

We see here plainly that—despite its huge distortions and unjustifiable subsidization of Europe at the expense of the developing world—the CAP does indeed, in the end, affect tens of millions of Europeans. Easily extrapolating from the figures above, we also see something else, as two competing social truths suddenly reveal themselves behind the numbers. Clearly, agriculture is still overwhelmingly a matter of family farms in Europe; by contrast, enormous properties operated with so little manpower mean that the vast majority of farming in the US is now in the hands of agribusiness. (The Blairite bashing of the CAP has become such second nature to the globalizationist punditocracy that nobody even bothers anymore to try to determine the truth behind the self-serving headlines. And what is the truth? That, according to the OECD, the CAP took up only 1.3 percent of EU GDP in 2002, a mere 0.4 percent more than the 0.9 percent of the US—and 0.1 percent less than Japan’s 1.4 percent.)

Given that oil has reached $70+ per barrel, I decided to check some energy data next (2001 figures). These are so eloquent in their condemnation of the US that further commentary is hardly necessary. Again, keep mind that the EU’s population is roughly 457 million and that of the US about 296 million. Oil consumption for the EU was 14.54 million barrels/day and natural gas consumption 467.7 billion cubic meters. For the US, the corresponding figures were 19.65 million barrels/day and 640.9 billion cubic meters. (An interesting detail in the CIA’s survey is that while the EU declares its imports—15.69 million barrels/day in 2001, which meant stockpiling of a little over a million barrels a day—when you go to find the comparable figure for the US, the data are…“NA.”) The environmental criminality here is manifest. But here’s one more piece of information: the EU has a total of 222,293 kilometers of railway, while the US has a little over 5,000 kilometers more, or 227,736 kilometers—although the US is the third largest country in the world and almost two and a half times the size of the EU.

Here are three more series of data, specifically designed, it seems, for Brooks. The first has to do with that “strong” currency Deborah Baldwin wrote about. Specifically, in 2001—when the Supreme Court appointed George Bush president—the dollar bought 1.12 euros. It has been falling ever since: 1.06 euros in 2002, 0.89 in 2003, and 0.81 in 2004. Currently, even after its meteoric but (very) temporary rise earlier in the year, the dollar has fallen back to 0.81.

Next, although, according to Brooks, the “Western European standard of living is about a third lower than the American…and…sliding,” EU exports were, according to the CIA, $1.109 trillion last year while America’s were $795 billion—almost a third lower. While Brooks doesn’t provide any data to support (or sources for) his assertion of a “sliding” Western European standard of living, it’s obvious from CIA figures that the EU is producing, and selling, to the rest of the world—including, strangely enough, to the US, which is the EU’s largest single market, gobbling up 23 percent of its exports. What was that about “momentum,” and about how it’s better to live “in a poor country…moving forward…than…in an affluent country…looking back”?

And, since we’re talking about poverty and affluence, and—the one thing Brooks, along with most of his ilk, hate to talk about—poverty amid affluence, here’s one last series of devastating data: distribution of family income according to the Gini Index. What is the Gini Index? The CIA explains it with admirable concision:

This index measures the degree of inequality in the distribution of family income in a country. The index is calculated from the Lorenz curve, in which cumulative family income is plotted against the number of families arranged from the poorest to the richest….The more nearly equal a country’s income distribution…the lower its Gini index, e.g., a Scandinavian country with an index of 25. The more unequal a country’s income distribution…the higher its Gini index, e.g., a Sub-Saharan country with an index of 50. If income were distributed with perfect equality…the index would be zero; if income were distributed with perfect inequality…the index would be 100.

Although the Gini Index has become a standard measurement in all attempts to track social development (which is why the UN uses it extensively), I confess that I was surprised to learn that the CIA also uses it. The agency obviously considers it to be an accurate indicator of social success, or stress. In the event, while I was not surprised to learn that the EU’s Gini Index was a pretty decent, social democratic 31.2 (2003 estimate), even I was taken aback to learn that, according to the CIA itself, the index for the US was a virtually Sub-Saharan 45 (2004)—almost fifty percent more inequitable than Europe.

Last of the first
And since we’re now on the real subject of genuine quality of life, social equity, and human development, I’ll proceed to the 2004 Human Development Report of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). It makes for some shocking reading. First of all, the top rank out of 177 countries in the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI), which basically attempts to quantify all those factors that lead to livable societies (for lack of a better phrase), went to a European (albeit non-EU) country, Norway. The second spot went to another Scandinavian (but, this time, EU) country, Sweden. Australia was third, Canada fourth (both countries with deep, social democratic traditions), the Netherlands and Belgium (both EU) fifth and sixth, respectively, Iceland seventh, and, finally, the US at the eighth spot. I should also add that the UK came in twelfth, and that Finland (13), Austria (14), Luxembourg (15), France (16), Denmark (17), Germany (19), and Spain (20)—all EU countries—made the top 20, beating out such darlings of neoliberal globalization as Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea. But this is where it begins to get interesting.

The UNDP has also designed a Human Poverty Index (HPI), both for developing and developed countries. Its HPI-2 index, restricted to the 17 richest nations in the OECD, is calculated on four major factors: probability at birth of not surviving to age 60; functional adult literacy; long-term unemployment (lasting 12 months or longer); and the percentage of the population living in poverty (using several variables). Well, guess which nation comes in dead last, Number 17 out of 17, in this index? That’s right, the US. And the Scandinavian social democracies take up four of the first five spots, with Sweden first, Norway second, the Netherlands squeezing in at third, Finland fourth, and Denmark fifth. France, by the way, comes in at Number 8, way ahead not only of the US but also of the UK, which is third from the bottom.

Regarding “probability at birth of not surviving to age 60,” the US is first (in other words, worst), with 12.6 percent of the population not reaching 60. It is third worst in functional illiteracy (an astounding 20.7 percent, confirming Paul Krugman’s point above), preceded, interestingly enough, by the UK (21.8 percent) and Ireland (22.6 percent). Finally, the US is, again, first in poverty, defined as 50 percent of median income over a 10-year period, with 17 percent of the population (Finland is last, with 5.4 percent and France at a decent 8 percent, with the UK, again, at the very high end, with 12.5 percent).

The only category in which the US excels, with a rate of only 0.5 percent (which, however, is beaten by Norway’s 0.2 percent) is in long-term, or “structural,” unemployment. Interestingly, supposedly statist and (permanent scapegoat) France with 3 percent is not the worst of the OECD 17, with Belgium recording 3.4 percent, Germany 4.1, and Spain 4.6. (At the time the report was released, by the way, Spain had been ruled by the relentlessly deregulating, aggressively right-wing government of José María Aznar for most of the previous nine years). Yet, even in this category, the data are ambiguous. The Human Development Report contains 33 different tables that chart various categories; if one goes to Table 20, Unemployment in OECD Countries, one sees, once again, that the US is in a far more nebulous position when put within a comprehensive framework. Over a 10-year period (1992-2002, which is actually overly kind to the US historically because it mostly parallels both the technology boom and the stock-market bubble of the Nineties), US unemployment stood at 5.4 percent. That is manifestly better than most of the top 20 OECD countries monitored by the UN, but not the best. Switzerland, Norway, the Netherlands, and Austria all beat the US, with unemployment of 3.3, 4.4, 4.8, and 5.3 percent, respectively. More to the point—and because these small European economies might seem marginal when compared to the “robust” global standards of US hyperpowerdom—during the same period, which was the time of its worst postwar economic crisis, Japan had an unemployment rate of 3.8 percent, over 40 percent lower than the US.

And then we get to healthcare. The astonishing figures here reveal an American exceptionalism that verges on collective—I can think of no other word—retardation. The US is the only society ranked in the top 20 in the HDI without national health insurance, and yet—are Americans congenitally incapable of understanding the economics of healthcare?—spends far more on health per capita, $4,887 in 2001, than the others. Switzerland (interestingly enough) is second, with $3,322 in expenditures, which still translates into US spending that is 47 percent higher. For the other 18 nations, healthcare costs range from a Spanish low of $1,607 to a Norwegian high of $2,920 per capita. (France, once again, far from being the socialist economic cripple it is portrayed to be, is actually almost at midpoint, ranking ninth out of 20 in spending, with $2,567 per capita.)

Moreover, even in relative terms, the US far outstrips any advanced country in health costs, wasting a whopping 13.9 percent of GDP on them. Again, Switzerland is second, with 11 percent of GDP, and Germany third, with 10.8 percent—the only two other nations in double digits. What is most interesting, yet one more time, is the relative frugality of the actually existing European socialism Brooks abhors. Sweden, the classic US social bogeyman, spends 8.8 percent of GDP on health, lower than nine other countries in the top 20.

And now comes the worst news of all, of which every American is deeply aware but also, it appears (because of the bizarre nature of American “self-reliance”), profoundly indifferent. Of the 13.9 percent spent on US healthcare, 7.7 percent is “private expenditure”—i.e., paid by individuals. The nearest comparable outlay of private funds comes from—whom else?—the Swiss, with 4.7 percent. The Dutch spend 3.3 percent, Germans 2.7, French 2.3, Japanese 1.8, British 1.4, Swedes 1.3, and Norwegians 1.2 percent—which is finally to say that Americans spend almost six and a half times of their own, personal resources on healthcare than Norwegians do. Of course, it’s not exactly “healthcare” that Americans are buying with their wages and life’s savings. Rather, they are providing the windfall profits of the insurance companies, drug companies, and HMOs, as well as of more than a few multimillionaire doctors who pride themselves on their “entrepreneurship.” (An article in the New York Times on August 16, “Doctors’ Links With Investors Raise Concerns” by Stephanie Saul and Jenny Anderson, reported that, on top of everything else, nearly 10 percent of doctors today in the US are “consultants” to investment companies.) In his remarks about “…electorates…anxious about declining quality of life…[that] feel extraordinarily vulnerable to foreign competition…,” Brooks thought he was talking about Western Europe. He should have been looking closer to home.

I ask readers’ indulgence for burying them in all these data, but both God and the devil are in the details. Furthermore, the actual details are necessary to expose the Anglo-American attack on Europe, which is, almost exclusively, ideological and only passingly economic; in truth, it has very little to do with issues of either economic efficiency or rationalization—let alone “quality of life,” which is now, and has been for many years, manifestly superior in Europe, and “Old Europe” in particular.

Here are three more (groups of) facts, all of them scandalous. Of the top 20 countries in the HDI:

• The US is second to last in life expectancy (77.1 years), beating out Ireland by 0.1 year. It is noteworthy that the Japanese—who are supposed to be so “similar” to Americans (but whose society is radically different, and much more socially integrated and coherent than the US)—are first, living, on the average, an impressive four and a half years longer than Americans (81.6 years). The “socialist” Swedes are second, with 80.1 years. (I don’t know about you, but socialism is beginning to look better and better to me with each passing statistic.) Even Greeks—despite their smoking and overeating—have a longer life expectancy than Americans, at 78.3 years.

• The US is last, both in infant mortality (7 per 1,000 live births, tied with a US-embargoed Cuba that has had minimal access to state-of-the-art medical equipment for the last four decades) and in under-five mortality (8 per 1,000 live births). Again, socialist Sweden is tied for first (with equally social-democratic Iceland) for infant mortality (3 per 1,000 live births) and is first in under-five mortality (again, 3 per 1,000 live births). I wish Brooks—and his fellow “pro-lifers”—would humbly reflect on that last statistic, which hides a vast infant’s graveyard. Think about it again: five children per 1,000 who would not have died had they lived in Sweden will die before they reach the age of five because they were born in the US. Socialism, indeed.

• The US is dead last (no pun intended) for both women and men in “probability at birth of surviving to age 65.” American women have only an 86.4 percent chance of reaching 65, while American men have a truly dicey 78.1 percent chance of reaching retirement age—although, even if they do reach it, there’s no guarantee anymore that they’ll be able to survive financially. Sweden is, again, first in both categories, with a 91.6 percent chance for women and an 86.1 percent chance for men to survive to 65, at which point, not at all coincidentally, a decent pension and a full range of social services await them to ensure that they can continue to live healthy lives well past that age. (Greece’s corresponding figures are also impressive: 91.5 for women, 82.3 for men.)

This extraordinary social regression, which defines American “exceptionalism,” did not just happen. In politics, as in life, there’s no such thing as virgin birth. It was all the specific outcome of concrete policies over a period of many decades. Of the eight major international treaties on fundamental labor rights negotiated since the end of the Second World War—namely, 1) the 1948 convention on the freedom of association and protection of the right to organize; 2) the 1949 convention on the right to organize and collective bargaining; 3) the 1950 forced labor convention; 4) the 1957 convention on the abolition of forced labor; 5) the 1951 equal remuneration convention; 6) the 1958 convention on discrimination in employment and occupation; 7) the 1973 minimum age convention; and 8) the 1999 worst forms of child labor convention—15 of the top-20 HDI countries have signed all eight, three (Australia, Japan, and New Zealand) have signed six, Canada has signed five, and the US has signed…two! Moreover, neither of these two—on abolition of forced labor and worst forms of child labor—are related to labor organizing or collective bargaining per se, but more properly concern fundamental human rights.

What we see here is the foundation of the edifice, the bedrock of American “self-reliance,” “individual initiative,” and, above all, “freedom.” It is not a pretty sight, and the deeper one digs, the uglier it becomes.

Next: Part 2

Peter Pappas is co-founder of greekworks.com.
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