Jewish World Review Oct. 6, 2004/ 21 Tishrei, 5765
Old Europe thinks it knows the U.S. it doesn't
PARIS It's not news to stop anyone's press that if Old Europe could vote, John Kerry would win in a landslide. In one poll of French preference, the senator ran up 90 percent of the vote. Saddam Hussein didn't do much better than that in the bad old days in Baghdad.
But all the reasons why aren't always obvious.
The day after Sept. 11, the Paris newspaper Le Monde famously declared that "Today we are all Americans." That reads now like a dispatch from the War of 1812. Sit down for an espresso in a sidewalk café on the Champs Elysees today and you're more likely to hear, "Today we all hate America."
The collapse of the Soviet Union created an intellectual void that has yet to be filled. Socialism was crushed by harsh reality, and there's nothing left to argue with capitalism. The French have their own reasons. (Jacques Chirac habitually sneers at "le Anglo-Saxons.") The Germans, who scorn Americans as mercenary materialists, have been exposed as featherweight thinkers with a welfare-state economy burdened by an unemployment rate that would set off riots in Pittsburgh, Perth Amboy and Peoria. America's economy is growing far, far faster than the German economy. If you're a Frenchman, an Italian or a German, what's not to envy?
Unfortunately, Europeans take ideology a bit more seriously than Americans do, and perceive American capitalism as more rigid than it really is. Europeans have never quite understood the American willingness to find problems, whether with their cars, planes, cuisine or the economy, and fix them.
The Americans have a welfare state we are reluctant to call a welfare state. Bill Clinton understood the appeal of the welfare-reform legislation, offering incentives to get people off the dole, and was pleased to steal a reliable Republican campaign issue.
A book by Olaf Gersemann, the Washington correspondent for Wirtschaftswoche, Germany's largest economic and business weekly, stirred disbelief and controversy last year, challenging misconceptions Germans hold about the American economy. Now it's out in an updated edition, challenging those misconceptions in France and Italy as well, and controversy is simmering again.
A lot of the things Europeans, particularly the Germans, know about us aren't so, and it upsets a lot of people here when someone tells them that. Many Europeans, particularly in Berlin, believe that things revealed in "Cowboy Capitalism: European Myths, American Reality" (published in the United States by the Cato Institute), can't possibly be true. Europeans are embraced by what they call "comfy capitalism" and prefer denigrating what's dynamic about the American economy and ignoring what's wrong with theirs.
One young woman who prides herself on "the superior integrity and quality of life" of the German worker, scoffs that Americans must work at three different jobs to support their necessities."
Wrong, writes Olaf Gersemann, who does the math: "As of May 2001, only 1.5 percent of all working Americans held multiple jobs to stay afloat." Furthermore, only 1.5 percent of working Americans who work at multiple jobs do so because they need to feed themselves. Most work to earn extra money.
More surprise: He tells his skeptics that multiple job holders are not unskilled laborers but typically teachers, professors, psychologists and accountants who have the professional credentials and flexible hours that make it possible to earn more money with more work.
Another Berliner boasts smugly that it's difficult to fire a German worker, no matter how lazy or incompetent. But one consequence is that employers are reluctant to hire new employees. Start-up companies require an investment in manpower and Germans lag far behind Americans in developing new information technologies. Germany's version of Silicon Valley, for example, is more a shallow ditch than a valley, boasting only one native-born software company that has become a global player.
Germans boast of generous unemployment benefits, but these cost so much that the job market is chronically depressed. There's an incentive to stay unemployed rather than go to work in a shop or factory in an "unattractive" town where the jobs may be.
When German politicians refer to Amerikanische Verhaltnisse --- "the American way" - they do it with a sneer. Olaf Gersemann, noting the wild popularity of Michael Moore's film screeds, scolds his countrymen for naively swallowing his stereotypes and economic prejudices. This gives new meaning to the insult "Stupid White Men."
John Kerry is whistlin' Dixie if he think his love of all things French would be returned by the Europeans if he should become the 44th president of the United States. Old Europe would gleefully transfer its loathing of George W. Bush to him. Europe suffers from a collective inferiority complex, seeming to be helpless against the tides of the new century. Europe is heavily armed, but only with envy.
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