Thanks to commenter peter, who pointed out the new book by Thomas Gheogegan: Were You Born on the Wrong Continent? Here's a summary of the main points:
He begins by pointing out all the ways people live better in the
European Union. They don’t have to worry about the Big Five: retirement,
health care, education, transportation and childcare. The government
sees to all of these. Since it buys in bulk, it gets great prices, and
people don’t have to spend their time worrying about any of those
things. Just think how great your life would be if you didn’t have to
think about where you send your kids to school, or health insurance, or
how long your commute is. And think how much better off you would be in
this miserable economy if you didn’t have to worry about the losses in
your 401(k) plan (if you had one), and how you would pay for health care
if you have to pay COBRA on the paltry unemployment benefits you get if
you got fired.
But there is more. In Europe, cities are livable. There are parks,
beautiful buildings, wonderful museums, ancient churches, free or cheap
concerts, festivals, open-air markets, functional subways, buses and
trains, and street-cleaners. Geoghegan references the lovely public
spaces with his comment on the banks of violets he saw in Zurich. There
is café life, which is a gracious way to live, indeed. In Paris, the
cafés are filled with people of all ages, sitting out at all times of
the year drinking coffee and talking to each other, not immersed in
private thoughts in front of a laptop or staring blankly at the third
football game of a Sunday.
They can live this way because they aren’t working themselves to
death. They get real vacations, tons of days off which create lots of
three and four day weekends, and their daily work hours typically aren’t
as long as ours….
How do they live so well, and we don’t? We are the ones with the
great average Gross National Product per capita. It’s simple. They pay
taxes, so they don’t have to pay for health insurance or retirement.
They live in cities, so they don’t have to drive. They get great public
education, so they don’t dump tens of thousands of dollars into private
grade schools, high schools and colleges to give their kids a head
start. The government provides childcare, so both parents can work or
not as they see fit. With all that off their backs, they have time to
[Gheogegan then describes the high unionization among German workers and their strong influence on corporate policy.] With all this participation, workers have a direct stake in the
business, and a real reason to pay attention to government and business.
That means that everyone has a reason to continue their educations into
their adult lives. It explains European TV: there are many talking head
shows, and the discussions are rational. Newspapers are doing fine, at
least compared to ours, and books sales are holding up. Geoghegan
notices that you see people reading everywhere, books and thick
newspapers, and in the homes of the people he visits he sees lots of
From this summary, it looks like Gheogegan's main point of comparison is Germany and, to a lesser extent, France. Needless to say, things would have looked a lot different had he chosen, say, Greece. In this Salon.com interview, Gheogegan makes the crucial argument about social democracy: it is a system in which government policy tilts toward the middle class, not necessarily the poor:
What are we missing when we measure the GDP?
We don’t have any material value of leisure time, which is
extremely valuable to people. We don’t have any way of valuing what
these European public goods are really worth. You know, it’s 50,000
dollars for tuition at NYU and it’s zero at Humboldt University in
Berlin. So NYU adds catastrophic amounts of GDP per capita and Humboldt
adds nothing. Between you and me, I’d rather go to school at Humboldt.
So much of the American economy is based on GDP that comes from
waste, environmental pillage, urban sprawl, bad planning, people going
farther and farther with no land use planning whatsoever and leading
more miserable lives. That GDP is thrown on top of all the GDP that
comes from gambling and fraud of one kind or another. It’s a more
straightforward description of what Kenneth Rogoff and the Economist
would call the financialization of the American economy. That
transformation is a big part of the American economic model as it has
morphed in some very perverse directions in the last 30 or 40 years.
It’s why the collapse here is going to take a much more serious
long-term toll in this country than in the decades ahead.
Who is better off in a social democracy like Germany?
Social democracy is good for the middle class even more than it is
for the poor. We’ve got it completely backwards here. It’s the
relatively educated and well-to-do that do well on European socialism.
What’s the cash value of Humboldt education to people who are high
school grads? Zero. For the German upper middle class, it’s worth 50,000
a year. That’s the difference. You have to remember, even if there’s
universal healthcare, the more educated people always use the system
better than the less educated people. They know how to make it work for
By some measures though, it's good for everybody. America has this
wonderful freedom and openness and this ability to create yourself out
of nothing. We’re just much more individualistic a country. I think we
have overdosed a little bit on that, but I share that. I’m an America
and I’m glad I was born in the U.S. and I always will be. But in terms
of receiving the benefits of economic growth and both in terms of
enjoying life and enjoying the richness of life in a developed country
both in terms of private goods and public goods, quality of life that
comes from that and leisure, I think Germany has an enormous amount to