As Jeremy Rifkin argues in his dense and contentious new research-driven tome "The European Dream," the United States remains ahead in per-capita GDP, but the difference is not as significant as it looks.
Much of American "productivity," Rifkin suggests, is accounted for by economic activity that might be better described as wasteful: military spending; the endlessly expanding police and prison bureaucracies; the spiraling cost of healthcare; suburban sprawl; the fast-food industry and its inevitable corollary, the weight-loss craze. Meaningful comparisons of living standards, he says, consistently favor the Europeans. In France, for instance, the work week is 35 hours and most employees take 10 to 12 weeks off every year, factors that clearly depress GDP. Yet it takes a John Locke heart of stone to say that France is worse off as a nation for all that time people spend in the countryside downing du vin rouge et du Camembert with friends and family ...
Whatever your intellectual and emotional responses may be to this burgeoning transatlantic conflict, it's difficult for any American to read Rifkin's book and not feel ashamed. The U.S. has fallen significantly behind the EU's Western European nations in infant mortality and life expectancy, despite spending more on healthcare per capita than any of them. (While 40 million Americans are uninsured, no one in Europe -- I repeat, not a single person -- lacks some form of healthcare coverage.)
European children are consistently better educated; the United States would rank ninth in the EU in reading, ninth in scientific literacy, and 13th in math. Twenty-two percent of American children grow up in poverty, which means that our country ranks 22nd out of the 23 industrialized nations, ahead of only Mexico and behind all 15 of the pre-2004 EU countries. What's more horrifying: the statistic itself or the fact that no American politician to the right of Dennis Kucinich would ever address it?
Perhaps more surprisingly, European business has not been strangled by the EU welfare state; in fact, quite the opposite is true. Europe has surpassed the United States in several high-tech and financial sectors, including wireless technology, grid computing and the insurance industry. The EU has a higher proportion of small businesses than the U.S., and their success rate is higher. American capitalists have begun to pay attention to all this. In Reid's book, Ford Motor Co. chairman Bill Ford explains that the company's Volvo subsidiary is more profitable than its U.S. manufacturing operation, even though wages and benefits are significantly higher in Sweden. Government-subsidized healthcare, child care, pensions and other social supports, Ford says, more than make up for the difference.
As anyone's who's travelled abroad knows, the US is quickly becoming a banana republic, becoming increasingly like Guatemala with an armed forces on steriods.