Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?

How the European Model Can Help You Get a Life

by Thomas Geoghegan

30 September 2010

Photographer unknown 

Do You Dare To Believe What You See?

That’s what made me gasp: where there’s equality, there’s so much more in an affluent country to see, to taste, to touch—it’s so much easier to roam around. There’s more order. But it’s the order of not having the disorder of mass poverty. And because of this order, in a city like Zurich everything can be perfect. The perfect cup of coffee. The perfect bowl of muesli. Even when something was out of place, it was perfectly out of place, in a certain way. Couldn’t the U.S. be like this?

Of course. But in a country with mass poverty, there has to be disorder, and the disorder makes it impossible for everything to be perfect the way it is in Europe. I was stunned at the way Zurich seemed to work when no one seemed to try. But isn’t Zurich one of the nicer ones? Yes, of course, but there seem to be a hundred cities of which I could say, in the same way: “But isn’t that [Copenhagen, Lübeck, etc.] one of the nicer ones?”

If Zurich looked this good and Chicago looked as broken down as it did when I had left, and if America had such a high GDP per capita and Chicago was one of America’s crown jewels, maybe there was something wrong with GDP per capita.

Up and down I walked in Zurich that afternoon. Block after block. Boutique. Café. Perfumery. Global bank. Bank of violets. Each perfect, in its way. I saw how the lack of poverty can open up a whole city as one’s own, as if it were an art gallery. When there is a relative lack of poverty in a highly developed country, the private sphere can pour out its well-being into the public sphere, which becomes like a bonbon one consumes.

So I had bonbons all day and never bought a thing.

Late in the day, between a perfumery and a boutique, I came upon a tiny bookstore, all in white and yellow. When I went in, the books were all in white and yellow too, as if the books themselves were trying to make a fashion statement.

Then out came a clerk: a young woman, in white, who seemed to have stepped out of the pages of Elle.

Say something to her! (Ah, I couldn’t think!) “I, uh,” I said, “I wonder if you, like, have any books in English?”

“Oh!” she said, “I’m so sorry, but the only books we sell here are… German philosophy.”

Sure: of course. And as I stumbled out the door, I could hear Schopenhauer, in the back, splashing on cologne.

Oh God! How can I leave this for Moscow, which seemed like such a nightmare? I had to call Ms. O. I had to tell her: I’ve stumbled into Eden. I… I went back up, halfway up a mountaintop, to my hotel, and sat on the terrace, and looked down upon peaceful little left-wing Europe, where nothing’s going on.

Call her. “Look, O., maybe . . .”

No, she’s expecting you.

But I want to stay here! In Moscow, there’s bubonic plague. What about Chernobyl? So far as I knew, O.’s apartment, at this moment, could be glowing with radiation. Oh God. Not now. Just in from west of Eden, why must I go east? I would call her: “Look, I need a few more days here.” But I went. And it was worse than I had imagined. There was a coup. Yeltsin sent troops around the parliament. The old guard, inside, opened fire. Why did I leave and go to that? I lost my nerve.

In Moscow, I kept talking to O., to everyone, about what I had seen in Zurich. “You should see how nice it is.” Or: “It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen!” Of course, all they wanted to talk about there was the civil war, the shootings. But how could that compare with what was happening every day in Zurich?

Anyway, being an American, how was I to know that Europe had gotten so nice? For years, in the business section of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, I had read, and I believed, that the whole place was in collapse. The joblessness. High labor costs, etc. “It can’t go on.” That’s all I knew. “The economy’s awful, terrible.” Maybe it was. But now I’d seen the way that Western Europe looked! I mean the part that runs from Milan to Paris and then over to the Rhine and up to the very tip-top of Norway.

And other people say East Asia, or part of it, is even nicer. Maybe it is. But I haven’t seen Asia: I’ve only seen this. And that’s my real case for Europe, aside from the economic data that we Americans can consume like Big Macs without getting any taste. Go over and see it.

Europe’s in collapse? Fine. I’m not going to argue. Go there. See it. Then come back here and look around. And don’t tell me our GDP is higher. Or our GDP per capita. Or our employment. My eyes tell me it’s not. As for Europe, are you going to believe the business page or the travel section? Look at the pictures. Don’t read the words. But on that day in Zurich, it was not just the opulence but the look on people’s faces. It’s the look on the faces of people who speak two or three languages. I wish I didn’t notice that—but over here, I’m used to the look on the faces of kids who have had Lady Gaga or worse blasted into their baby brains.

Aside from that, Europe’s cheap! Let’s put fluctuations of currency aside. That night, I stayed halfway up the mountain, in a place that was like a resort, and ate out on the terrace, under the vines and trellises, and looked down on Zurich, for $125 a night. It’s not that the dollar was so good in 1993, though it was. At that time, a place like this, with a garden, waiters, a stunning view of the city, would have cost $1,000 a night in the U.S. Yes, even a union lawyer like me could live well.

That’s the night I discovered: America may believe it’s set up for the middle class, but, as my friend Lee put it, Europe is set up for the bourgeois.

Or let’s put it this way: America is a great place to buy kitty litter at Walmart and relatively cheap gas. But it’s not set up for me, a professional without a lot of money. That’s who Europe’s for: it’s for people like me and Lee.

Okay, maybe it is.

Still, as a union-side lawyer, it’s really set up for my clients, or who used to be my clients before the unions in America collapsed. Let’s put my own self-interest aside: where would my clients, who are not poor, who make $30,000 to $50,000 a year, and yet keep coming up short, maybe by $100, $200 a month, really be better off ? That’s easy. Europe. I think I can answer that as their lawyer, the way a doctor could answer about their health. The bottom two-thirds of America would be better off there. I mean the people who have not had a raise, an hourly raise, in maybe forty years, and who do not even have a 401(k), nothing but Social Security, and either have no health insurance or pay deductibles of $2,000 or more. Sure, they’d be better off in Europe. When unemployed, they’d certainly be better off in Europe. Over there, even single men can get on welfare. And in much of Europe, contrary to what we hear, unemployment is much lower than over here.

But one of the ways Europe is set up for the bourgeois—including, perhaps, some of the readers of this book—is the very fact that it’s also set up for people who make $50,000 or below. Since it’s set up for these people too, the bourgeois—Lee, others, maybe you—get the political cover to have it set up for them. Besides, what the people-in-the-unions get, people-from-the-good-schools also get. Indeed, often Lee et al. are in the unions. They get the six weeks off, the pension like a golden parachute. And the higher up we are in terms of income, the more valuable these things are. In America, they don’t tell us: social democracy, or socialism, or whatever Europe has, pays off biggest for people in the upper middle class, just below the top.

What are all the ways it pays off? Wait till the next chapter: in my head, at least, I started writing that chapter long ago when I looked around in Zurich. For if Zurich looked this good and Chicago looked as broken down as it did when I had left, and if America had such a high GDP per capita and Chicago was one of America’s crown jewels, maybe there was something wrong with GDP per capita. It’s not that the numbers “lie” in any crude way: GDP, productivity, unemployment. But past a certain point, maybe these numbers mislead us as to where we’re better off.

For to look at the numbers, who would guess that Zurich looks gloriously like Zurich all over, and that Chicago looks so glorious in Lincoln Park, dumpy west of Pulaski Avenue, and gulag-like by Twenty-sixth and California? But forget the look of the place. It’s also the way of life. The numbers say, on paper, I have a better way of life in Chicago. But are these numbers right? It may be that, past a certain level, an increase in GDP per capita pushes my living standard down. I don’t mean this in a spiritual sense: I mean it in a cold, neutral, out-of-pocket sense. Example: if I make more by working longer, I might subcontract out more of my life and incur other “costs,” like losing a trip to Zurich, which may be of far more value than the extra income. Or another example: if I get a raise, I might be worse off. I might widen the gap in income with others around me. Who cares? Well, by doing this, I might be spreading poverty, which, like everything, is relative. I might make my public space more of a hellhole than before.

Now people at the Cato Institute love to scoff: “Oh, our poor in America are so well off in GDP per capita.” Go ahead. Argue. I’ll let you win. But I dare the Cato types, when the argument is over, to go outside and walk around.

In other words, the farther ahead we get, the more our standard of living drops. Let’s say, as a European, I work 1,500 hours a year. Now, let’s put me at 1,800 or even 2,300 hours, like many Americans, and while I’ve moved to higher GDP per capita, I’ve also got:

No six weeks off.

No perfect cup of coffee to sip at some place other than the office.

No city to inhale like a bank of violets.


Photo (partial) by Shelley Anderson

Thomas Geoghegan is a practicing attorney and the author of several books, including the National Book Critics Circle Award finalist Which Side Are You On?, In America’s Court, and See You in Court (all available from The New Press). He contributes regularly to The Nation, the New York Times, and Harper’s and lives in Chicago.

© Thomas Geoghegan
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