Reviews

'Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?' Short Answer: Probably

Geoghegan's thesis is that, while everyone knows Europe does socialism better than America, the fact is it does capitalism better, too.


Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?: How the European Model Can Help You Get a Life

Publisher: The New Press
Length: 318 pages
Author: Thomas Geoghegan
Price: $25.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2010-08
Amazon

Imagine a country where workers at the lowest levels are active participants on their company's board of directors, where floor managers and rank-and-file workers exercise genuine influence over the operations of the corporation they work for. Imagine too that unions represent something like 60 percent of all workers nationwide, and have real power in negotiating wages and benefits. Imagine a country with extraordinarily high rates of newspaper readers—because in order to exercise all this power, people need to have a clear sense of what's going on, both economically and politically. According to Thomas Geoghegan, a self-decribed union lawyer, this country actually exists. It's called Germany.

Geoghegan’s book Were You Born on the Wrong Continent? is a lengthy comparison of the type of capitalism practiced in the United States with the type practiced in Europe, more specifically Germany. Europe is of course the bogeyman for American conservatives, a sinful den of free-thinking, godlessness and socialism, not necessarily in that order. Conventional wisdom places Europe's business acumen well below America's, though well above such self-described socialist states such as Cuba and China. How ironic, then, that these European socialists are doing rather better economically than America--and have been for some time.

Geoghegan produces numerous statistics to prove his point, and also goes to some lengths to show that current US economic policy is in fact following China's model, rather than Germany's. In seeking to contain costs by driving down wages, the US is following the footsteps of low-wage, low-value producers in the developing world, rather than Germany's high-end engineering skills. One result: Germany has the largest trade surplus in the world; America has its largest deficit.

Geoghegan's thesis is that, while everyone knows Europe does socialism better than America, the fact is it does capitalism better, too. Its citizens work shorter hours, enjoy more benefits, and indulge in a standard of living that is higher than experienced by their American counterparts. (They live longer, too.) His second main thesis ties in with the first: not only does this model benefit the working class and the poor, but also the middle class and even the upper-middle class of executives and professionals. The only people who benefit more from the American model are the super-rich.

Even more ironically, socialism wouldn't cost much more than what Americans experience already. As he says on the very first page: "We're paying for European-type socialism, without getting the equivalent payback." Some would argue that Europeans pay through the nose for their benefits with extortionate tax rates, but Geoghehan points out that Europe's average rate of tax is 47 percent. America's is 40 percent.

That seven-percent difference accounts for a lot: education, including college education, as well as health care, maternity leave, child care, old-age care, and six weeks paid vacation per year. At this point, for many of us in America working multiple jobs or simply longer hours at one job, with no discernible rise in benefits and huge bills to pay for education, health and child care, the European model is starting to look pretty good.

But what about GDP? This measure of per-capita wealth is often trotted out to compare how individuals in different countries are doing relative to each other. It's true: America's GDP is considerably higher than Europe's, which indicates that we Americans are spending more money. So we must have more to spend. Ergo, we're doing better, right?

Well, yes and no. Geoghegan makes the intriguing argument that spending more money is not always a sign that you are doing better; sometimes it's a sign that you're doing worse. Consider, for example, someone living relatively close to his/her job who can take public transport to work while the children go to public school (because the state maintains the public transport system adequately, and because it still puts money into the schools and into making the city center liveable). Now compare that person to someone living in a city like, say, Phoenix, where the city is falling to pieces and the schools are lousy and the parents want the kids to go someplace better. What to do?

In the US, the family moves, if it can possibly manage to do so. It buys a house, possibly overextending its finances; it needs a car or possibly two to commute to work, since the public transport is unreliable; and it avoids the urban center as much as possible, preferring to stay home at night. This family is contributing a great deal to GDP—it's bought a house and furnishings, a car or two, gas for the commute, and plenty of entertainment gadgets to play with at home. But is it really better off? Or is it just more in debt, more stressed from all the commuting, more overworked, more tired, more likely to eat at McDonald's because it saves a lot more time than shopping for and cooking dinner at home?

Geoghegan's argument is that in places like Germany, the State assumes much of the financial burden that individuals and families take on in the US. As a result, Europeans spend less and save more. They live closer to their jobs, i.e., in the cities, because the cities are better taken care of. Ironically, these citizens are not contributing to GDP, which makes them appear poorer. But with fewer expenses to pay, Europeans are actually better off.

Not everyone is convinced. Although his views are clear from the get-go, Geoghegan makes it clear that there are things about the American system that he prefers, and he isn't shy about quoting people—including Europeans—who prefer the American system. But as this thoughtful and engagingly written book makes clear, there are many advantages on the other side of the Atlantic worthy of serious consideration. Alas, the political leadership in America continues to lack the will—or the brains—to at least consider them.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image