A couple of years ago the Jeremy Rifkin wrote a book called The European Dream: How Europe’s Vision of the Future is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream. An essay in which he summarizes the main points is here.
Rifkin praises many European values — a more family-friendly balance of life and work, emphasis on environmental sustainability, foreign policy that focuses on non-violent conflict resolution — the usual suspects. The book is uneven (a fair-minded critique of Rifkin’s rosy view of Europe can be found here) but one of the parts of the book I found convincing is the beginning, in which Rifkin critiques contemporary American values. His point is that "traditional American values" of hard work, thrift, postponement of gratification, etc. have been weakened in the U.S. over the past few decades under an onslaught of consumerism and superficiality. Here, he’s in Christopher Lasch and Neil Postman territory, two American culture critics whom he repeatedly cites. (In the spirit of true Kulturkritik, both of these authors’ critiques don’t break down neatly along conventional political lines — Lasch especially can sound like a European conservative in his praise of family, tradition, and community).
Sure, Americans work harder than Europeans, but, Rifkin asks, how much of this hard work is triggered by low wages and high living expenses (i.e., the need to have 2 jobs to finance the basics of life)? How much by the fact that most Americans carry thousands of dollars in consumer debt that must be paid off month-by-month? Puritan thrift also can’t really explain the explosion in legal gambling the U.S. has seen in the past few decades: now 70% of Americans have played some form of legal gambling regularly, 47 states have legalized casino gambling in some form, and Americans "are now now spending more money on gambling than on all movies, videos, DVDs , music, and books combined." (28). Fifty-five percent of Americans under thirty believe they are going to become rich, but closer questioning reveals they have little idea precisely how. Rifkin argues that values of postponement of gratification, moderation in spending, and a distrust of get-rich-quick schemes have survived in Europe just as they have been weakened in the U.S.
The latest evidence that Rifkin may be on to something here is the subprime mortgage fiasco. "Subprime" lending is a euphemism for lending to people who have bad credit. Either they’ve defaulted on loans in the past, or they can’t give reliable information about their income. The idea behind loaning these people money to buy houses was that the value of the house they bought would continue to rise dramatically, which housing prices in the U.S. were doing until recently. In fact, some of these homeowners — usually ordinary lower-middle-class people — took out second mortgages on their homes, or even "leveraged" their properties to acquire additional ones. The loans were structured so that the payments would rise dramatically if interest rates increased, or if housing prices stopped increasing. Despite everyone crossing their fingers and hoping for the best, those things have now happened, and hundreds of thousands of these loans are going bad. The U.S. press is now awash in articles like this one, wondering whether the damage will be limited to a wave of foreclosures, or whether it could have wider effects on the economy.
I cannot imagine something similar happening in Europe. First, many Germans I know do not expect or want to own a home in their lifetime. The ones who do assume that they will have to put a large down-payment on a home, and save for at least a decade before having enough money to do so (the government helps a bit). Second, I have hard time imagining that European banks would deliver hundreds of thousands of Euros to people based solely on their own unverified statement of how much they make per year, or give loans with no downpayment whatsoever. (Two practices common in the U.S.). Third, I can hardly imagine any German taking out debt grossly out of proportion to their income, especially under circumstances in which monthly payments could rise dramatically based on unpredictable future events. Cultural memories of families driven to ruin by debt and inflation persist in Germany. It’s a country in which credit cards are still rare, and ones with revolving credit (where the total balance is not paid off monthly and gathers interest) rarer still.
I’m certainly not qualified to judge whether the sub-prime lending "debacle" will lead to a larger economic downturn in the U.S. But I think I’m on solid ground to say cultural attitudes and regulatory structures rule out something similar happening in Germany.