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Friday, October 14, 2005

Chronicles of Ozymandias

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

Part 2

Many readers who’ve borne with me through the first part, and now face this concluding part, of my essay are surely asking themselves why, at the end of it all, I will have spent over 12,000 words to respond to a 750-word column? The glib answer, naturally, would be that lies are built on simple formulas—and the bigger the lie, the simpler (and more simplistic) the formula—but that truth is a complex calculus. But, for me, there’s been a more relevant motivation. A basic cause, and continuing weapon, of the debasement of public life in the United States over the last quarter of a century has been what I can only call the sloganization of public discourse, both by the right and left. Fundamental issues concerning the future of the country (which is to say, of its citizens)—peace and war, constitutional order, social equity—are now all contracted into, reduced to, 30- and even 15-second sound bites. News “features” on the nightly networks take up, at the most, a couple of minutes. Arguing has replaced argument, and what were once “talk shows” long ago degenerated into competitive shouting. Meanwhile, the extreme right—and make no mistake, it is singularly unreconstructed in its reaction—has become the American mainstream. One reason it has so thoroughly subverted American citizenship is because it has been allowed to impose its own rhetorical rules on public debate. There was no clearer—and more dismaying and, in the end, more tragic—example of that than the “debates” between George Bush and John Kerry in the last election. Specifically designed to generate buzzwords and political attack ads, remorselessly structured to suppress analysis and considered judgment, opposed as much to spontaneous intellectual engagement as to abiding (and what should have been welcome) deliberation, they proved to be precisely what they were meant to be: a perfectly premeditated civic crime. The fact that they were aided and abetted in this civic extortion by the mediacracy confirmed their quintessentially illicit purpose. Debates? Sanctioned, and public, constitutional corruption is much closer to the truth.

David Brooks is a past master at distortion through reduction. The only way to fight such strategic deception is to bury it with facts, especially because its effectiveness is so dependent on the assumption that nobody will bother to spend the time to marshal the evidence needed to refute it.


As I wrote in the first part of this article, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) tries to quantify precisely how economic growth leads to human development, and vice versa. While it is not interested, therefore, in tracking economic growth for the sake of “growth” alone, devoid of any social purpose, it does, in fact, record raw economic data and set criteria for purely economic development. For example, according to the UNDP, the US is fifth in R&D in the top 20 countries in its Human Development Index (HDI), with spending equaling 2.8 percent of GDP. Who’s first? Socialist Sweden, with 4.6 percent of GDP committed to research and development, almost two-thirds higher than in the US. Finland (3.4 percent and home of Nokia), Japan (3.1 percent), and Iceland (3.0 percent and site of world-class alternative-energy research) all lead the US in R&D.

Regarding GDP itself, annual growth per capita from 1975 to 2002 has been 2.0 percent for the US, which is the same as Germany and Finland—and worse than the UK and Austria (2.1), Spain (2.2), Japan (2.6), Norway (2.8), Luxembourg (4.0, but admittedly a special case), and, above all, the “Celtic Tiger,” Ireland, whose GDP growth over 27 years has averaged an astounding 4.4 percent per annum. That last fact is not accidental: ask any Irishman or -woman how it happened and the reply will be that the tiger really began to show its stripes with the massive subsidies—including enormous CAP transfers—that the country began to receive after it joined the European Community in 1973.

If we look at the booming (and bubbling) Nineties, however—when, according to conventional wisdom, the US was knocking the rest of the world out of the water—the relative economic picture for the US is actually worse. From 1990 to 2002, US GDP averaged annual per capita growth, again, of 2.0 percent. Not bad, except that, this time, it was equaled or surpassed by virtually two-thirds of the top 20 countries in the HDI, namely: Sweden (2.0 percent); Denmark, New Zealand, and Iceland (2.1); Canada and the Netherlands (2.2); Spain (2.3); the UK (2.4); Finland (2.5); Australia (2.6); Norway (3.0); Luxembourg (3.7); and the Fenian supercat, Ireland, with a truly astounding—and Chinese-level—6.8 percent growth per year. (Greece, by the way, also beat the US during this period, with annual GDP growth of 2.2 percent.) It is true that both France and Germany registered anemic annual growth of 1.6 and 1.3 percent, respectively, during this time. It is also noteworthy, however, that Japan’s growth during this period was a truly insipid 1.0 percent—which confirms what we all know: business and the economy are, by definition, cyclical. Today’s wastrel can be tomorrow’s mogul, while yesterday’s tiger can become carrion for vultures the day after. (A couple of months ago, The Economist’s cover depicted a cartoon of a muscle-bulging German eagle with the title, “Germany’s Surprising Economy.” The lead editorial added the subtitle: “The reviving health of a previously sick country.”)

In Part 1 of this piece, I quoted David Brooks to the effect that, “The Western European standard of living [was] about a third lower than the American...and…sliding.” Not quite. The reason Brooks didn’t provide any data to support his ridiculous statement was because he couldn’t, since it isn’t true. In its measurement of global economic performance, the UNDP records (Table 13) 2002 GDP per capita for every country in the world in purchasing power parity (PPP) in US dollars. As it actually measures what a person can buy, PPP is the relevant magnitude in any discussion of standards of living. As the UNDP explains, “To compare standards of living across countries GDP per capita needs to be converted into purchasing power parity (PPP) terms that eliminate differences in national price levels.” The UNDP adds that, “The GDP per capita (PPP US$) data for the HDI are provided for 163 countries by the World Bank…” (both quotes from p. 138, Human Development Report 2004, UNDP, 2004). So, what do we have for the top 20 countries in the HDI?

What we have (always in terms of PPP US$) is US GDP per capita in 2002 of $35,750, which is very high—but exceeded by, yes, Ireland (a member of the EU), which stands at $36,360 and Norway, at $36,600. Actually, another EU country weighs in at GDP that is almost 60 percent higher than that of the US. As that country, Luxembourg, is a very special case—and, in my opinion at least, a statistical anomaly—I don’t take its $61,190 into account. But in “Western Europe” per se, Denmark ($30,940), France ($26,920), Germany ($27,100), and the Netherlands ($29,100) average out at GDP per capita of $28,515, which itself equals 79.76 percent of the US figure—nowhere near the “about a third lower,” or 67 percent, that Brooks threw out. But that’s just the beginning.

The very notion of a “standard of living,” or a “quality of life,” bespeaks and points to the nature of the society in which one lives, which affects both realities. Sweden’s per capita GDP (again, at PPP US$), for example, is $26,050, or almost 28 percent “lower” than that of the US. Except that Sweden provides all its citizens free, state-of-the-art, medical care and virtually free prescription drugs, all its mothers (and newborns) free pre- and postnatal care, all of its university students a higher education at a fraction of the cost in the US, all of its retirees decent and comprehensive pensions. It also provides culture (theater, music, cinema, dance) that is subsidized by the “state”—that is, by the society itself—and so is affordable to the vast majority of Swedes. Americans, however, have to pay for every social and cultural benefit that Swedes take for granted simply because they’re Swedes. So, Swedes don’t have to worry about IRAs or 401(k)s or the imminent rape of Social Security or a dog-eat-dog dystopian society that Americans grotesquely call “free enterprise” (free to and for whom?) but is actually permanent economic bondage writ “democratic.”

A “lower” standard of living than in the US? In Sweden, or France, or Denmark, or the Netherlands? Only in Eurobashers’ dreams. Visit Stockholm and then visit New York (or Los Angeles or Chicago or Miami), and then let’s talk. As for France’s socialistic, inefficient, and historically doomed $26,920 GDP per capita, it was only $20 lower than Japan’s $26,940 and actually $770 higher than the $26,150 produced by “dynamic,” massively deregulating, Blairite Britain. And, just in case anybody’s interested, the difference between the French and US “HDI value”—i.e., the UNDP’s statistical quantification of “human development,” or, put another way, “standard of living”—is less than four thousandths of a percentage point (0.936 for the US as opposed to France’s 0.932). That’s four thousandths of one percent, not the 33 percent Brooks took out of his hat. If nothing else, what is clear here is that most of the media in the Anglo-American world have become witting transmitters of pure, and the most specious, ideology.

To Davos and back
As opposed to David Brooks, the movers and shakers of global capitalism are nobody’s fools. They know that untrammeled “free enterprise” is an accident waiting to happen, whereas capitalism with a human face—aka the social market—is money in the bank. I began this long excursus with the CIA, then went to the UNDP, and conclude now with the organization that represents (and actually meets on) the commanding heights of capitalist globalization, the World Economic Forum (WEF), which gathers annually in Davos, Switzerland, to parley over where things are going and how they’re getting there.

In 2001, the Forum launched its Global Competitiveness Report and Growth Competitiveness Index (GCI). The GCI ranks a country’s competitiveness according to three factors, or “pillars,” as the WEF calls them: “quality” of macroeconomic environment, state of public institutions, and “technological readiness.” In 2004, the US was ranked second in the world in the GCI; ranked first—as it has been in three of the GCI’s four years—is Finland. More to the point, last year, three of the top five positions, and four of the top six (out of 104 countries surveyed), were held by Nordic countries: Finland (1), the US (2), Sweden (3), Taiwan (4), Denmark (5), and Norway (6). The top 10 were filled out by Singapore (7), Switzerland (8), Japan (9), and Iceland (10), for a total of six Northern (that is, Western) European countries, (only) three Asian ones, and the US. I don’t know about Brooks, but, to me, his “momentum” has a Scandinavian (and socialist) feel to it.

It gets even more interesting when one goes behind the headline numbers. The analysis of each of the WEF’s three “pillars” reveals an unusually frank—one could almost say unsettling—look at the US economy. It’s true that the US ranks first—followed by Taiwan, Finland, Sweden, Japan, Denmark, Switzerland, Israel, Korea, and Norway—in the technology index, which measures technological achievement and preparedness. When we go to the public institutions index, however, which ranks countries according to the quality of legal environment, degree of corporate transparency, and extent of corruption, Denmark places top of the list, followed by Iceland, Finland, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, the UK, Switzerland, Hong Kong, and Singapore. The US, in other words, is nowhere in the top 10. In fact, it’s not even in the top 20. It is Number 21, after Chile, in quality of business and legal environment. Finally, when we go to what many people consider to be the most significant indicator of economic health—at least in the short term—the macroeconomic environment index, Number 1 is Singapore, followed by Norway, Finland, Denmark, Switzerland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, the UK, Taiwan, and Austria. Again, the US is nowhere in the top 10, coming in fifteenth.

Bottom line? Western European countries—both inside and outside the EU—constitute either the plurality or clear majority in the top 10 of every index, with five places in technological innovation, seven in business environment, and—this is truly astonishing and goes against every cliché daily propagated by the US media, from Fox News to the New York Times—eight places in macroeconomic environment, with six of those eight places held by EU member-nations. (What was that about “momentum”?)

The New York Times has consistently had one voice crying out in the wilderness of its op-ed pages for economic reason and, above all, respect for economic reality. On July 29, Paul Krugman wrote a column entitled, “French Family Values,” in which he asked the question,“…[A]re European economies really doing that badly?” His fellow columnist Brooks had answered that query in no uncertain, and thoroughly negative, terms the previous month in the column under discussion here, but it seems that Krugman was not impressed, either with Brooks’s method or knowledge of economics. His own response?

The answer is no. Americans are doing a lot of strutting these days, but a head-to-head comparison between the economies of the United States and Europe—France, in particular—shows that the big difference is in priorities, not performance. We’re talking about two highly productive societies that have made a different tradeoff between work and family time. And there’s a lot to be said for the French choice.

Krugman continues:

First things first: given all the bad-mouthing the French receive, you may be surprised that I describe their society as “productive.” Yet according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, productivity in France—GDP per hour worked—is actually a bit higher than in the United States.
It’s true that France’s GDP per person is well below that of the United States. But that’s because French workers spend more time with their families.

“The point is,” Krugman concludes, “that to the extent that the French have less income than we do, it’s mainly a matter of choice.” That’s exactly right. Krugman then essentially makes the argument I made for Sweden to explain that “less income” or a “lower level of consumption” is not indicative of a “lower” standard of living. Quite the opposite, in a genuinely advanced society, it actually indicates a much higher standard of living, as well as a much more rational society:

Because French schools are good across the country, the French family doesn’t have to worry as much about getting its children into a good school district. Nor does the French family, with guaranteed access to excellent health care, have to worry about losing health insurance or being driven into bankruptcy by medical bills.
Perhaps even more important, however, the members of that French family are compensated for their lower income with much more time together. Fully employed French workers average about seven weeks of paid vacation a year. In America, that figure is less than four.
So which society has made the better choice?

As I’ve already asked that question myself, the reader knows how I—and, I believe, most people—would respond.

What is most frustrating in this ongoing, unceasing, years-long “debate” about American “dynamism” and European “weakness”—and the allegedly “structural” reasons for both—is the fact that the data have existed for decades that confirm that every element in that statement is, literally, false. It is also pointed proof that Pravda and Stalin could never match the editorial writers of The Wall Street Journal, and their minions such as Brooks, in their distortion of an everyday reality that everybody can see and experience, and in their ideological contrivance of a world that is the exact reverse of what the world is in fact.

Regarding the myth of consistent American superiority in GDP per capita, Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, showed several years ago that it was spun totally out of whole cloth. But Baker stands accused of being a “leftist” (although he’s an internationally respected macroeconomist who’s worked for the OECD, the World Bank, and the Joint Economic Committee of the US Congress). So, his analysis—based completely on public data compiled by the OECD, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the US Conference Board (how conservative can you get?)—has been either denigrated or, much more effectively, completely ignored. (Don’t ask me how raw data can be denigrated. In Bush’s America, science is no longer a matter of method, proof, or statistical verification, but of designed intelligence.) Back in 1999, when Bill “Davos Man” Clinton was globally pontificating like some kind of neoliberal Maoist about the productivity “leaps” of America’s “new economy,” Baker took the GDP data of the (then) G7 (Group of Seven advanced industrial) countries from 1979 to 1996 (from the OECD and Conference Board) and published them. Here they are:

Annual Growth Rates
  OECD Business Sector
Productivity 1979-1996
Conference Board
GDP Per Hour Worked 1987-95
Canada 1.0   0.7  
France 2.2   1.7  
Germany 1.1   3.3  
Italy 2.1   2.8  
Japan 2.2   2.9  
UK 1.8   1.8  
US 0.8   0.9  

Are you shocked? Most people are. It’s hard, after all the sheer lies that Americans have been fed about their Olympian economy (in a calculated, “bipartisan” consensus, I might add), not to rub one’s eyes looking at the numbers above. But here are some more, heavily redacted by me (from the data for 35 countries and the eurozone) to save the reader eye-strain, all taken from a recent OECD update (Productivity Database, July 2005).

G7 (G8 minus Russia) annual average growth rates, GDP per hour worked
  Canada France Germany Italy Japan UK US EU11*
1970-1980 1.7 3.7 3.7 3.9 4.3 2.8 1.6 3.7
1980-1990 1.0 3.1 2.4 1.9 3.5 1.9 1.3 2.3
1990-2000 1.9 2.2 2.5 1.6 2.1 2.8 2.0 2.1
1990-2001 1.8 2.1 2.4 1.5 2.1 2.6 2.0 2.1
1990-2002 1.8 2.2 2.4 1.3 2.1 2.6 2.0 2.0
1990-2003 1.7 2.1 2.2 1.2 2.0 2.5 2.1 1.9
1990-2004 1.6 2.1 2.2 1.1 2.1 2.5 2.1 1.9
*EU11 excludes Austria, Greece, Luxembourg, and Portugal.

No further comment on this issue is necessary. Suffice it to say that the numbers above, in their sheer, jaw-dropping starkness, point to the unprecedented barrage of lies to which Americans have been subjected these past many years by all the “expert” economists, economic press and journals, and various charlatans, con artists, shysters, and bandits that now run the US economy and are systematically embezzling the social patrimony—and future—of the vast majority of American citizens. Momentum, indeed.

But the reader will retort that he or she has seen all those statistics endlessly cited in the media about how US GDP per capita is so much higher—but that’s because, as Paul Krugman pointed out in his article about the French, Americans work more hours per year than the French, approximately 17 percent in 2003. Following is another table taken from OECD data for 2003, for the G7.

  PPP for total GDP, US$ Annual average hours worked GDP per hour worked, US$ GDP per hour worked, US=100
Canada 1.25   1718   35.0   80  
France 0.91   1453   47.2   109  
Germany 0.95   1441   40.6   93  
Italy 0.84   1591   40.1   92  
Japan 137.56   1801   30.9   71  
UK 0.62   1673   37.7   87  
US 1.0   1702   43.5   100  

Yes, it’s true: the French are actually the most productive workers in the G7, beating out not only Americans, but Germans and Japanese. And who are the least productive? That’s right, those mythical Japanese, who also work more than anybody else. One other thing: if we look at PPP, the French are only 9 percent below Americans, and the Germans only 5 percent, in standard of living—before factoring in that comprehensive social protection that Americans can’t even fantasize about. Where did Brooks get that one-third lower stuff? But, wait a minute, there is a European country whose PPP is 38 percent lower than that of the US—but it’s nos semblables, nos frères, those supposedly capitalist dynamos, the British. Meanwhile, Canada’s standard of living is a quarter higher than that of the US, and the Japanese, while seriously unproductive, have a standard of living over a third higher than Americans although they only work about 5.82 percent more.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, by the way, is made up of many individual reports that focus on “selected issues of competitiveness and special topics,” to echo the Forum’s chief economist, Augusto Lopez-Claros, who wrote the Report’s executive summary. In that summary, he points to one particular report, written by Andrew Warner, a former member of the board of governors of the Federal Reserve and World Bank, entitled, “International Productivity Comparisons: The Importance of Hours of Work.” I quote Lopez-Claros (p. xxi):

Andrew Warner challenges the traditional measures of productivity, by highlighting the importance of hours worked. He demonstrates that while growth of GDP or GDP per capita puts the United States clearly ahead of most industrial countries during the boom years of the new economy (1995–2000), this supremacy is not quite so obvious when data on growth of GDP per hour is used to quantify productivity growth. Warner also questions the common notion that productivity has suffered a serious decline in Europe over the last decade. Using GDP per hour calculations, he shows the clear lead of some European countries over the United States, and implies that the European “productivity slowdown” may be more myth than reality, when we focus on per hour data.

The only questions left to ask on this matter are: Why don’t Americans know any of these things (and why don’t they want to know), and why do the American media keep these facts from the people they are supposed to inform? (And, of course, a directly related question: How can Brooks and his ilk get away with writing their mendacious and thoroughly disorienting drivel given that some of their editors at least know better?)

Who works, and who doesn’t?
This is not to say that Europe—the EU, specifically—does not have profound structural issues to contend with, and resolve, if its economy is going to provide as it must for most of its citizens. (I purposely do not use the word, “grow,” incidentally, because I believe that the mindless notion of endless, and therefore purposeless, “growth” is what has allowed neoliberal ideology to so skew the debate on economic necessity.) One issue is, of course, the demographic problem of an aging population (and, consequently, of an extensive system of social support for that population), which Europe shares with most of the developed world. I happen to believe that the problem is not insoluble; quite the opposite, Europe could steal a page here from the New World, and easily align its demography with its economic needs through immigration. But immigration is a complex issue, especially at this time, and requires its own, exclusive focus. Suffice it to say that I think the EU will solve its demographic problem, and that it will do so by remaining faithful to its principles of democratic inclusion and social solidarity.

Another issue, of course, which, however, unlike the demographic one, is extremely urgent—is, in fact, the most pressing social problem in Europe today—is unemployment. Here, it is true that most of Western Europe—and Germany and France in particular, since they represent “core” Europe—has much to answer for. It is also true that the US has consistently been more successful during the last many years in employing people.

That said, it must be conceded that unemployment is the most persistent and intractable phenomenon in economic life. Indeed, “mainstream” economists are so loath to even grapple with it that they’ve more or less arbitrarily set the level of effective “full” employment at 5-percent unemployment (although it was 4 percent when I was studying my Samuelson in college back in the Sixties). Indeed, there’s no issue that separates a “left-wing” and “right-wing” economist more than the notion of the “acceptable” level of unemployment. Not being an economist, I can only offer my ignorance, but there’s something very fuzzy to me here about the math regarding American unemployment: namely, if unemployment last year in the US was (according to the CIA Factbook) only 5.5 percent—that is, only half a percentage point above effective “full” employment—why was everybody, from Paul Krugman to George W. Bush himself, decrying the notoriously “jobless recovery” of the US economy over the last couple of years?

In its July 30 issue, The Economist provided the beginnings of an answer in its “Economics Focus” column, which began as follows:

How strong is the American labour market?...Twelve months and one election later, much of the political heat has gone out of the issue. In June, unemployment fell to 5% [!], the lowest rate since September 2001….Alan Greenspan warned…that the “slack” in the labour market was being taken in, and that unit labour costs had “turned up of late.”

The Economist then cited a new study by Katherine Bracken of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, however. “By her yardstick,” the magazine wrote, “there may be as many as 5.1m Americans who do not appear in the unemployment rolls….If so, the ‘true’ unemployment rate could be over 8%…the true number of jobless 12.6m, not 7.5m.”

It seems that Bracken has found that the “labor-force participation rate” has declined in a “striking” way, as The Economist put it, since the 2001 recession. In March of that year, when the economy crested, 67.2 percent of Americans over 16 either had a job or sought one; for the past year and a half, however, labor-force participation has been stuck at 66 percent. As The Economist points out, this seemingly infinitesimal difference alone translates into 2.7 million people who are so discouraged that they have stopped even considering looking for work. As a whole, according to the experience of the last five recoveries, Bracken calculates that the current “recovery” should have generated 5.1 million jobs, but for some reason—which no one can explain—hasn’t.

The infinite mystery of US unemployment figures is, of course, a hoary puzzle familiar to Western economists and statisticians. Notoriously, in the States, once your unemployment benefits run out, you’re summarily expunged from the unemployment figures and cast forever into a statistical limbo and the—oh-so-convenient—indifference of government. For years, American trade unionists, economists, and academic specialists have requested that the Bureau of Labor Statistics improve its data-gathering in order to accurately reflect real levels of unemployment in the country. But that dog’s never been allowed to hunt. In a classic case of American bipartisanship, all such attempts at statistical reform have been systematically squelched, since it doesn’t serve either Republican or Democratic interests to tell the truth to the electorate about the state of its own self.

Which is why I’ve never trusted statistical comparisons between US and European unemployment. Especially because I’ve lived in both the US and Europe, and gone back and forth for the last 20-plus years, I’ve learned to ignore completely both the American and the European media on this issue and trust my own sense of things, listening to people themselves describe their expectations and—very important, this—fears, and observing how they live their lives. I happen to believe that US unemployment is, in fact—and has been, for years—lower than in Europe. Seeing Europe close up for decades, however, and living here now, I know that the difference has been consistently magnified in favor of the US. Unfortunately, all that’s managed to accomplish is to make it that much harder for Americans to understand just how regressive our society, and how stunted our own social existence, has become.


As I said above, I’m not an economist (which I’m sure is obvious to any economist reading this piece). I am, however, resolutely, a man of the left, which means (among other things) that I’ve always believed that if citizens depend on “experts,” let alone the government, to tell them what is good for their οίκος—their household, from which the word οικονομία, or economy, comes—they are condemning themselves to political marginality and social misery. I know that Marx didn’t get it right on everything, even on base and superstructure, but he was certainly right to follow Adam Smith in the belief that economic enfranchisement is the foundation of political equity and, therefore, of social morality. The Greeks have a term for it: “τα κοινά.” Not at all coincidentally, it translates perfectly into a wonderful, and resonant, English term, which links the most glorious moments in the history of Britons’ struggle for self-government with the birth of an American nation: the common weal. This notion crystallizes a mighty Anglo-Saxon tradition that, sadly, is no longer honored, or even respected, in the lands of its birth and development. Put in a more personal way, it is precisely because I’m an American that I live in Europe today.

As my wife and I were walking around Paris in June, what really struck me, above all, were the countless little, anachronistically specialized, shops. This was not a profound observation; anybody who spends just a bit of time in the city comments on it. My wife and I have a standard joke that there’s no place that even comes close to Paris for buying the most exquisitely beautiful and utterly useless stuff in the world. But that’s the point, isn’t it? That’s what the French are talking about when they unite against globalization. They want France to remain France. They want Paris to remain Paris. And they want Europe to continue to be Europe until hell freezes over. One of the sad things for me about living in Greece now is how much the entire country (and not just Athens) has become like the US. (Indeed, as counterintuitive, even bizarre, as this might sound, Greeks are the most “American” people in Europe—but that’s a subject for another day.) Paris, however, is what it is, and that’s what everyone on the planet—in the developing as well as the developed world—adores about it. Back in July, I ran across an article by S. Nihal Singh, a prominent Indian journalist and editor, in the Asian Age. Most of it was taken up with a very critical look at the current French malaise. In the end, however, Singh wrote that “the world still comes to Paris….” He concluded:

France’s saving grace has always been its conception of its own self. It is the way it looks at its history, its famous Revolution, its vast rich contribution to the arts, its leadership in style and fashion and its love of its language, the last under attack in an increasingly English-speaking world….Fashions change, but one invariable quality is the universally held belief that France was made for greatness, in the new world, as it was in the old. (“The World Still Comes to Paris,” Asian Age, July 28)

But David Brooks talks about “a lost decade,” “endurance,” “decline.” And where Singh sees a “world [that] still comes to Paris,” Brooks sees “sliding” standards of living and Paris on an existential and social par with Little Rock.

What Brooks wants, of course, is for Paris to self-destruct, to commit collective suicide. Not only to embrace McDonald’s and Disney and Starbucks, which it has, but—as in the US—to close down every mom-and-pop shop, every antiquarian bookdealer, every little petit magasin selling only puppets, or crêpe de chine, or puzzles, or cheeses from the country’s southwest, or sausages from the country’s northeast, or wines from every hamlet in the land, and for all those innumerable, and therefore economically redundant and pointless, cafés and patisseries and bistrots to cease and desist and roll down their pathetically quaint shutters forever. He wants Paris to become Peoria; he wants it to stop threatening the peace, and viability, of the American model of the best of all possible worlds. Well, Paris is not going to do that, of course. It would rather sink in its own glory than swim in somebody else’s. The good news is, it won’t have to do either.

I wrote in the first part of this essay that France specifically, and Europe as a whole, is undergoing a crisis of confidence, but let’s be clear about what that means. Europeans are not suffering through an identity crisis, nor a crisis of confidence in themselves. Their crisis of confidence—as was starkly illustrated by the French and Dutch referendums—is in their craven, and historically insufficient, leadership, from right to left. Today’s European elites, from social-market right to social-democratic left (and the latter’s “green” allies), are paralyzed by fear lest they finally be compelled by European electorates to abandon their elaborately constructed, politically correct consensus, composed equally of a pusillanimous political deference to the US and of a sham “multiculturalism” that is fundamentally hostile to European social evolution (and history). Just to give an obvious, and supremely fatuous, example: It is now clear to everyone, not only in every French village but in practically every corner of the globe, that Jacques Chirac has been a disastrous steward of French and European interests, and that the sooner he is evicted from the Elysée Palace, the better it will be for France, and Europe in general. In the event, the vast majority of French, and Europeans, are not lacking in any confidence in their own capacities but in those of their elected (and, in the case of the EU, unelected) governors.

Finally, as for all those statistics, data, lies, damn lies, and punditry, I modestly advise sticking with what your eyes can see and your brain can process. It’s always worked for me. Besides—and this is the happy ending to this particular story—my wife and I did end up finding a nice little place, right around the corner from the Rue de Buci. So, no matter what David Brooks says, we’ll always have Paris.


Postscript: This series was written in July and August, and submitted for publication in early September. Since that time and the publication of the second part of this essay, both the UNDP and WEF have released their reports for 2005. Moreover, certain other events have occurred in Europe and the US, most notably—and disastrously—Hurricane Katrina. Everything that’s transpired in the intervening few months has not merely confirmed the analysis above, but made it starker and deeper. Here, now, the depressing update:

In the UNDP’s annual global Human Development Report, the US has dropped two places, from eighth to tenth, while the UK has dropped three places, from twelfth to fifteenth, just ahead of France, which has remained Number 16. Pace David Brooks, in other words, the “Anglo-Saxon” model has led to a deterioration of quality of life in the heart of the Anglo-Saxon world, while the French are no worse off than they were last year. And what about the “socialist” Scandinavian model? Norway remains Number 1, where we last left it in 2004.

More to the point, at a time when the US has named as its ambassador to the UN a man who despises the organization and fundamentally believes in its abolition, the UNDP undiplomatically calls a spade a spade in a rare frontal attack on US domestic and foreign policies. In what the UK newspaper, The Independent, called “statistical proof that…the great American Dream is an ongoing nightmare,” “a stinging attack on US policies at home and abroad,” and “a clear challenge to Washington” (see “UN Hits Back at US in Report Saying Parts of America are as Poor as Third World,” Paul Vallely, September 8), the UNDP discloses that infant mortality in the US is now the same as in Malaysia and that black children in the States are twice as likely to die before their first birthday than white children.

Indeed, the report unusually spotlights the US in two mini-analyses, normally reserved for countries from the developing, or even undeveloped, world. The first “box” (as the report calls these sidebars) is entitled, “Inequality and Health in the United States,” and begins: “The United States leads the world in healthcare spending. On a per capita basis [it] spends twice the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average on healthcare, or 13% of national income. Yet some countries that spend substantially less…have healthier populations. US public health indicators are marred by deep inequalities…[and] are far below those that might be anticipated on the basis of national wealth.”

But the second sidebar is truly “stinging,” to echo the Independent (I actually can’t think of any other way to describe it than as a public slap in the face of the Bush administration), and is entitled, “The Great Society.” Yes, that Great Society. It begins: “US President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society speech in 1964 marked a new era in social legislation. It also set out principles that continue to resonate in debates on aid. Underpinning the…reforms was a simple idea: public action was needed to equip people with the skills and assets to escape cycles of poverty. Growth alone was not enough.” It is truly astonishing that the UN has cited—publicly, respectfully, and, above all, for global emulation—the single domestic policy (and vision) most reviled by the American right (both Republican and Democratic) during the last 40 years. Telling George Bush to emulate Lyndon Johnson on domestic affairs is like telling him to emulate Mikhail Gorbachev on foreign policy.

Meanwhile, back in Davos, the WEF delivered its own spanking of the US, as the world’s capitalist high muckamucks publicly displayed their disappointment in US behavior. While the US remains second in the GCI, Finland remains first, Sweden remains third, and Denmark has moved up a spot to fourth. Indeed, once again, to quote this year’s Executive Summary, “the…Nordic countries continue to do very well in the competitiveness rankings.” The report goes on to say that, “These countries share a number of characteristics that make them extremely competitive, including very healthy macroeconomic environments and public institutions that are highly transparent and efficient.” It then directly rebuts George W. Bush’s notions of intelligent economic design: “There is no evidence that relatively high tax rates are preventing these countries from competing effectively in world markets, or from delivering to their respective populations some of the highest standards of living in the world” (p. xv).

In the event, while the US has improved its standing—it is now 18 instead of 21 in the public institutions index (due more, undoubtedly, to Eliot Spitzer than to George W. Bush)—it has fallen precipitously in what I previously called the category that many people consider to be the most significant indicator of economic health, the macroeconomic environment index, where it has dropped eight places in one year, from fifteenth to twenty-third, one spot below Austria and two spots lower than Kuwait.

Moreover, this year, in a further refinement of their annual analysis, the WEF has reconstructed its initial three “pillars” into a total of nine new pillars. For those interested in the small print, the US now ranks only third in business sophistication (Japan is first), fifth in technological readiness, eighth in infrastructure, sixteenth in institutions, forty-seventh in health and primary education, and sixty-second—that’s right, that’s not a misprint—in the macroeconomy! Of course, thanks to Harvard, Stanford, and all those prep schools, it ranks second in higher education—although social-democratic Finland is first—but one wonders how long it will maintain its number-one rank in innovation being macroeconomically sixty-second? It is true, however, that the US also comes in Number 1 in one other category: market efficiency.

While the global analysts were globally analyzing, European voters in national elections were voting, again, in a way as to make the mediacracy tear its hair out. In Norway, the center-right coalition lost to the center-left opposition. But why would a government that’s led Norway consistently to the top of the UNDP’s Human Development Index be thrown out by the voters? I quote the Financial Times’s correspondent in Oslo, Päivi Munter:

Labour party leader Jens Stoltenberg…promised increased spending on social welfare thanks to the country’s soaring oil revenues….
At 75.9 per cent, turnout was marginally higher than in the previous elections in 2001.
Prime minister Kjell Magne Bondevik, who has led a centre-right coalition since 2001, said the government’s tight fiscal policy had cost it votes. The coalition campaigned on a platform of prudent economic policy to help keep interest rates low and the krone’s exchange rate competitive.
Widespread discontent over public services, however, surprised political pundits because of the strong performance of Norway’s oil-driven economy….Just last week, the United Nations Development Report named Norway as the world’s best country to live in for the fifth consecutive year.
But many voters, especially women, felt that the government needed to spend more of the country’s record revenues from the export of oil and gas to provide better public services. (“Centre-left wins majority in Norwegian election,” September 12)

The better services women specifically wanted were, in fact, improved daycare, which, for some reason unfathomable to their American “sisters,” Norwegian women consider to be a social right—and, therefore, part and parcel of their quality of life.

Just a week later, in Germany, the right-wing opposition blew a 20-point lead in the polls within just a month and managed to squeak by in the end with only three more seats than the SPD. Why did this immense collapse occur, turning an expected landslide for the right into a nail-biter, which eventually led to a grand coalition of the two opposing parties? Well, just a few weeks before, Angela Merkel, Germany’s wannabe Maggie Thatcher and presumptive chancellor, presented—painfully prematurely, as it turned out—her new finance minister, a particularly reactionary academic by the name of Paul Kirchhof, who proceeded to declare his intention of replacing progressive German income taxes with a flat tax. That announcement was greeted with an electoral panic rarely seen in normally boring Western elections and a quick rebound for the SPD; needless to say, Herr Doktor Kirchhof will not be serving as Germany’s next finance minister. (Prof. Kirchhof has many strange beliefs, including the particularly perverse view, given that the right’s leader is Ms. Merkel, that “the mother’s career lies in the family, which doesn’t produce power, but friendship, not money, but happiness.”)

I end with a comment about Hurricane Katrina from The Asian Age written by Jayati Ghosh. I follow the Indian press regularly for two reasons. The first is obvious: India, along with China, is an up-and-coming economic superpower—and seen as such by the rest of the developing world; its perception of global reality, and of the US in particular, is acutely important, therefore. More significant for me, however, is India’s extraordinary history of commitment to democracy since national independence, which gives its voice on international affairs even more weight and substance. Here, then, is an excerpt of what Ghosh wrote on September 14, in an article entitled, “The Destruction of New Orleans”:

Hurricane Katrina, which hit the port city of New Orleans and surrounding areas in the last week of August, was a major natural disaster, which would have qualified as an emergency in most countries. But what has been even more devastating is the abysmal lack of preparedness and appalling state of disaster relief in the richest country of the world, the imperial superpower….
Two weeks after the disaster, basic public order in the city has still not been established, and the US government has still no estimate of the number of dead or dying….
What is amazing is that both the extent of the disaster and the subsequent even worse calamities in New Orleans could have been prevented by relatively modest spending….
Thus, only $2 billion would have provided for immediate reinforcement and upgrading of the levees and canals in and around the city. Longer-term protection against the impact of hurricanes by restoring the ecosystem of the Mississippi delta would have cost only around $14 billion.
But Washington has been obsessed by tax cuts and any additional spending has been diverted to the war in Iraq….
In fact, it is a symptom of the problem that even as the levees in New Orleans collapsed, the US Congress was returning from its August break to take up, as its first order of business, a bill to make permanent the virtual elimination of the estate tax, a measure which would gift hundreds of billions of dollars to only a few thousand families, the richest of the rich….
Instead of quick action to deal with the calamity, there are reports of a “strange paralysis” that had set in among Bush administration officials, who debated lines of authority while thousands died. While the local and state governments were certainly found lacking, the lack of response from the federal government was truly remarkable.
When George Bush finally visited the ravaged area several days later, he reminisced about the wild parties of his youth in New Orleans….
This is partly reflective of the dynamics of social and political power in the US. The victims of Hurricane Katrina were largely black and almost always poor—the ones who simply did not have the resources to leave the city on their own. These are not the US citizens with voice and political clout—just as this category provides the cannon fodder for the Iraq war, it also has less chance of demanding basic rights of citizens in the wake of a natural disaster….
Compare this experience to another American natural disaster, in a very different but neighbouring country. A year ago, in September 2004, a Category Five hurricane battered the small island of Cuba with 160-mile-per-hour winds. More than 1.5 million Cubans were evacuated to higher ground ahead of the storm.
Although the hurricane destroyed 20,000 houses, no one died. The civil defence system in Cuba is embedded in the community, so everyone knew what to do and where to go. And Cuban government leaders were visibly leading from the front in organising the relief.
In Cuba it would have been unthinkable just to push people into a stadium and leave them there for days, as was done in New Orleans. There are neighbourhood-based shelters, all with medical personnel. The evacuation also involves moving animals, TV sets and refrigerators, so that people are not reluctant to leave their homes.
After Hurricane Ivan, the United Nations International Secretariat for Disaster Reduction cited Cuba as a model for hurricane preparation, saying that “the Cuban way could easily be applied to other countries with similar economic conditions and even in countries with greater resources that do not manage to protect their citizens form natural disaster.”

Yes, well….In any case, what’s obvious here is that, for the first time since communism’s implosion, the rest of the world is beginning to consider the prospect of the last remaining superpower collapsing as well. Until recently, most rational people just couldn’t believe that the US could possibly be as pathetic as it seemed. After the truly shocking stupidity and bigotry revealed by Hurricane Katrina, however, the world is slowly awakening to the sheer dysfunction, social incoherence, and pure and calculated disenfranchisement and abuse of the vast majority for the sake of the fewer and fewer, which all define American “core values.” It’s not a pretty picture, and most people, frankly, don’t want anything to do with it.

Peter Pappas is co-founder of
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