Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving 2010 and Morning in America

On the eve of Thanksgiving 2010 sitting here in Paris, my thoughts not unnaturally turn to my native America. And since our view here is from the street I have to think a bit unhappily about why is it that we in this great country do not seem to be able to let go of "old mobility" – i.e., whenever you spot a problem you build something to solve it (also known as the Edifice Complex) – as the highest-possible cost, least civil, one size fits all solution to our problems of efficient transport and fair access in and around cities. Of course we Americans invented old mobility a long time ago -- and at the time it seemed like such a logical and dynamic solution to the connection challenges of a vast growing nation. As indeed it was. But suddenly it's 2010, the twentieth century is long behind us, and if we look carefully at the low quality of what we are seeing on our city streets across the nation it would strike one that perhaps it is time to rethink OM from bottom to top and come up with something a lot better. For example New Mobility, which without our having to define it here is the basic strategy and value set that is behind the far more successful city transport arrangements we can see in hundreds of leading cities around the world – and none of them sadly are American.

Why and how have we arrived at this sad state of affairs? Well, let me ask a foreigner working in this field who has long lived in and long admired America to tell us about what he thinks is going on. Sometimes when you are lost it helps to stop the car, roll down the window, and ask for some directions. Let's try.

Morning in Europe

I am writing this piece to acquaint my friends with an intriguing book that offers a useful perspective on our bewildering economic and political times. Imagine a trip to Europe – then look back, from 30,000 feet, at the United States . . .

Let me start with my personal story: Coming from Germany and leaving behind memories of war and post-war, I arrived in Philadelphia in the fall of 1965 to attend graduate school on a German government scholarship. Some time thereafter, I felt Americans - and the United States as far as I knew it then – were years “ahead” of Europe in many important ways. To me American ideals appeared enlightened and the system of governance remarkably effective. Half a century later, I feel that the situation is very much the opposite. 65% of Americans think that the country is in decline. The public debate sadly short-changes this country with its narrow focus on lower taxes, less government and fewer regulations.

On October 11, 2010, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the city faces a $533 million backlog of street repairs. If my city’s streets are in such a state of disrepair, what does that tell me about the country’s overall infrastructure, and about the state of education, health care, poverty and the environment? One ponders if current problems and perceptions are just manifestations of the usual boom and bust cycles, or are we facing more deeply rooted, systemic problems?

American scholar Steven Hill’s book EUROPE’S PROMISE/Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age, just published by the University of California Press, is an enlightening read. The author spent 10 years researching and traveling modern Europe. Many of his findings are little known to the American general and voting public; not surprising since the U.S. press is, according to Steven Hill (and my own observation) frequently misleading, unsympathetic and condescending toward “old Europe.” Importantly, much of the author’s informed and insightful perspective adds to the public debate about where American policy is - or should be - heading. I feel moved to share some of Steven Hill’s salient facts, comparative figures and views, acting as what we used to call in graduate school a “rapid reader.”

Hill’s 472-page (100 of them resources and index) book is a page-turner, rich with observations and comparative statistics. It depicts in essence the E.U.’s “European way,” i.e. its economic and social systems, its communal values and lifestyles, its search for environmental, social and economic sustainability, energy productivity, and foreign policy. All in the context of a world of open borders, rapidly multiplying international competition and increasing planetary perils, including peak oil. The evolving differences between the world’s two superpowers of 325 (U.S.) and 500 million (E.U.), respectively, have become remarkably profound, and significant. As much as the old continent - after two devastating world wars - had to learn from its younger cousin, it appears that time has come for the U.S. to take a closer look at the E.U., for the good of this country and of planetary life.

Consider some of Steven Hill’s most pertinent observations, facts and comparisons between the European Union and the United States, as excerpted below:


“The various western European nations embarked on a journey together that has led to the most egalitarian and democratic societies the modern world has ever seen, all the while producing robust capitalist economies with competitive businesses and a productive work force.” (p. 20)

“Europe maintained its growth by having one of the consistently highest levels of productivity in the world, producing more goods and services per hour worked than just about any other economy.” (p. 22) “…with $16 trillion in gross domestic product (GDP) (Europe is) the largest economy in the world. “ (p. 33) “Of the Global Fortune 500 rankings (published in 2009), 179 of the top 500 companies were European and 140 were American…” (p. 35) “…Europeans owned eight of the top fourteen auto companies…” (p. 38)

“Europeans, on average, are enjoying the highest of living standards and the most economic security, with health care for all, paid parental leave (following the birth of a child), affordable child care, monthly kiddie stipends, paid sick leave, free or inexpensive university education, ample retirement security, supportive elderly care, generous unemployment compensation, vocational training, efficient mass transportation, affordable housing and more. They have an average of five weeks of paid vacation (compared with two for Americans) and a shorter workweek… In some European countries, workers on average work a full day less per week than Americans do, yet enjoy the same standard of living.” (p. 20)

Responding to frequent U.S. critics and “Euroskeptics,” Hill stresses that European countries are not “welfare states,” but embrace what he calls a “social capitalism,” as opposed to “Wall Street capitalism”. He states that the E.U. “has become the largest, wealthiest trading block in the world, producing nearly a third of the world’s economy – almost as large as the U.S. and Chinese economies combined.” (p. 2), with still more growth potential due to new member states. “By 2020, the E.U. could have a lead over the U.S. of about 45%.” (p. 70) “The European Union is China’s largest trading partner, having taken over that role from the United States and Japan in 2004.” (p. 224) And: “The E.U. is China’s most important source of foreign investment capital and its biggest source of technology imports.” (p. 224)

Further responding to U.S. critics who contend that Europeans are - by comparison with the United States - too highly taxed, Steven Hill observes: “When you sum up the total balance sheet, including all the different types of taxes paid and benefits received, you discover that many Americans pay out just as much as Europeans, but we receive a lot less for our money.” (p. 23) “Europe’s more modest income level mainly reflects a series of conscious policy choices that have tended to put a premium on leisure, economic security, and equality at the expense of greater individual wealth.” (p. 68)

Moreover, following the example of post-war Germany, the E.U. now mandates a 50% worker representation on all corporate boards (“codetermination”). It has brought about greater social and economic equality and labor harmony, and supports the middle class in many tangible and intangible ways. “…the World Economic Forum in 2008-9 ranked Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Germany, and the

Netherlands in the top ten for having the most competitive economies in the world. All these countries also employ some degree of codetermination…” While acknowledging the wealth-generating capacity of capitalism, Hill observes: “What is at issue is our ability to harness that wealth-generating capacity for the good of the many instead of the enrichment of the few.” (p. 54) The U.S., was ranked first in competitiveness, but is “near the bottom of the pack in workfare supports, health care, and quality of life indicators.”

Hill states that European nations prove “that you can have it all…” (p. 58) “Europe is staunchly capitalist, but as one European businessman said to his American counterpart, ‘I believe in capitalism, but you believe only in making money. There’s a big difference.’” (p. 64)


Being unemployed in the U.S. can be life-changing. Steven Hill: “…once people get laid off they lose whatever measly benefits they had at their jobs. But in Europe, the jobless still have access to health care, generous replacement wages, job-training programs, housing subsidies, and other benefits. In the United States, by contrast, the unemployed can – and do – end up destitute and marginalized.” (p. 66)


“They also have fewer poor people; indeed, ‘old Europe’ shows more economic mobility than does the American ‘land of opportunity,’ completely turning convention on its head.” (p. 21) “The poverty rate has increased in recent years to include thirty-seven million people in the United States, 12.7% percent of the population compared with 6 percent in France, 8 percent in Britain, and 5 percent or less in Germany, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Belgium. The rate of child poverty is nearly 20 percent and the rate of elderly poverty 23 percent, the highest by far in the Western world with the exception of Russia and Mexico.” (p. 99)


Steven Hill observes that poverty breeds crime: “…the United States has the highest incarceration rates in the world – 2.3 million people behind bars, 1 of every 100 adults, an astounding seven to ten times the incarceration rates in Europe...” (p. 67)


“It is difficult for the United States to put our money where our rhetoric is when doing so is derided as ‘welfare’ or ‘creeping socialism,’ instead of being seen as support for working families and family values. Too often in the United States, ideology trumps common sense.” (p. 79)

“According to the OECD Social Expenditure data base, Europe spends three times more per capita on families than does the U.S.” “In Europe, paid parental leave from work for both mothers and fathers is the norm…” “But the U.S. is one of only 5 countries out of 173 that does not guarantee some form of paid maternity leave (the others being the impoverished African nations of Lesotho, Liberia and Swaziland…” (p. 75) “A majority of Americans are not even eligible at their jobs for unpaid parental leave, and the proportion of U.S. companies offering paid maternity leave fell from 27% in 1998 to 16% in 2008.” (p. 76)

“A 2007 study by Harvard and McGill university researchers found that the United States lags far behind virtually all countries with regard to workplace policies, such as maternity leave, paid sick days, and length of workweek, among others.” (p. 91)


“While Americans work on average 1,976 hours per year, German and French workers average some 400 fewer hours, the equivalent of fifty extra full-time days off (about seven weeks), for the same standard of living.” (p. 79) “(Europeans) receive anywhere from four to six weeks of vacation per year compared with about two weeks for Americans, prompting Europeans to call the United States the ‘no-vacation nation’” (p. 79)


“According to a Federal Reserve study, the wealthiest 10 percent of people in the United States now owns 70 percent of the wealth, and the wealthiest 1 percent owns more than the bottom 95 percent, compared with Germany, where the top 10 percent owns 44 percent. The ratio of CEO pay to average manufacturing employee pay is 475:1 in the United States, compared with 24:1 in Britain, 15:1 in France…the average CEO earns more in one day than the average worker earns all year. But that is not because U.S. workers haven’t been plenty productive. In fact U.S. productivity levels have been among the highest in the world.”

“Little of the substantial corporate profits has trickled down to American workers in the form of bigger paychecks or more workfare supports. Whether Democrats or Republicans have been in control, politics have been trumped by economics.” (p. 99)

“A United Nations survey of 120 major cities in the world found that Atlanta, New Orleans, Washington DC, and Miami had inequality levels similar to those of Nairobi, Kenya, and Abidjan, Ivory Coast.” (p. 100)


“Forty-seven million (Americans) are without health insurance… …including an estimated eight million children – and more than one-third of Americans go without health insurance for long periods of time.” (p. 82) “…the World Health Organization (WHO) has ranked the United States 72nd of 191 countries for ‘level of health’ and 37th for ‘overall health system performance,’ just behind Costa Rica and Dominica and just ahead of Slovenia and Cuba, countries with a fraction of our wealth.” (p.137)

According to the WHO, the U.S. spends 16.5 percent of our economy on health care, about $6,100 per person, compared with an average of 8.6 percent in European countries. France (the country considered to have the world’s foremost health care system) spends far less, just $3,500 per person, or 10.7 percent of its economy.” (p. 137) Yet, the Rand Corporation found that “middle-age people in Britain are ‘much healthier’ than their U.S. counterparts…” (p. 148)

Steven Hill observes: “Providing quality health care and maximizing profits pull in opposite directions, like two yoked oxen.” (p. 138) Hill notes that except for England the other major European countries do not use “socialized medicine” or a “single payer” system. The health care systems are run by many and competing private insurance companies, albeit non-profit, similar to California’s Kaiser Permanente.

He concludes: “…we Americans are not getting our money’s worth. It is only our patriotic and ideological blinders that prevent us from learning from the French - or the Swiss, the Germans, or the Belgians – when it comes to health care.” (p. 153)


"Europeans are the most educated and informed people in the world about both their own domestic politics and international affairs, while Americans are some of the least informed.” “…American college students rank near he bottom among students around the world in math and science proficiency.” (p. 105)

“Rising tuition costs and cuts in college aid have made it increasingly difficult for young Americans even to complete their university program, causing the United States to rank fifteenth among twenty-nine nations in the proportion of college students who complete university degrees or certificate programs, falling behind most European nations. Unlike American college graduates, European students do not have to mortgage their future by going into exorbitant debt to pay for a university education. That allows them to begin building their careers more quickly than U.S. students can.” (p. 84)


“Each American generates about forty-five thousand pounds of carbon dioxide a year, twice as much s the average European or Japanese…” (p. 188) “Our ‘ecological footprint,’ the measure of the earth’s capacity consumed by a population, is twice that of Europe even though we have the same standard of living.” (p. 189) “While the United States has seen a 21 percent rise in oil consumption since 1980, most European countries have seen significant drops,…Germany’s by 20%” (p. 180)

Europeans have engaged in serious efforts, bordering on sci-fi, to save energy, develop renewable sources of energy and to achieve environmental sustainability. For example, “The fuel standard of European vehicles is set to rise to fifty miles per gallon by 2012, with Japan already averaging forty-five miles per gallon.” (p. 159) By contrast, the U.S. announced in May 2009 that we “reach an average of 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016.” (p. 159)

“Europe leads the world in the production of wind power, and Germany leads Europe.” (p. 161) Likewise in solar power. (p. 161)

The U.S. spends nearly as much on its military as the rest of the world combined and, according to Steven Hill, maintains 700 military bases around the world. (“A build-up…the vastly less militarized European system has managed to avoid.” (p. 25) “The amount spent by the U.S. government on research and development for alternative energy in 2006 was only $4 billion, while the amount spent on R&D for new weapons was $76 billion.” (p. 25)

“The European Union overall is nearly on track for reaching its 2010 target of generating 21 percent of its electricity needs (excluding transportation) from renewable energy sources.” (p. 166) “Meanwhile the United States generates a paltry 6 percent… “ (p. 167) “Sweden’s goal of generating 60 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2010 (it already generated 40 percent… in 2005.)” (p.167) “Austria’s goal or 78 percent, Portugal of 45 percent, and Spain’s and Denmark’s of 29 percent.” (p.167) “Europe has pioneered the use of natural lighting, cogeneration, solar power, fuel cells, advanced ventilation, motion sensors to switch off lights and control fans, special glass that allows daylight in but keeps heat and ultraviolet light out and minimizes heat loss in winter, and much more.” (p. 173) A beneficial effect: “Germany’s entire renewable industry, including wind, solar and biomass power, shot up to 249,300 new jobs in 2007 (i.e. the potential equivalent of about two million U.S. jobs), a 50 percent jump over 2004.” (p.164)


“Beyond the array of criteria and measurements used by these various indexes, what stands out is that in nearly every index the United States is rated at the bottom among developed countries, with a few ratings the U.S. in the middle of the pack. None of them rates the U.S. at the top. Meanwhile, European countries always occupy the top ratings. Such side-by-side comparisons reveal Europe’s greater success and undermine the credibility of American claims of superiority and leadership. Europe easily surpasses the United States because its brand of social capitalism has produced results that make a difference in people’s lives. The U.S. government has not even begun to try to measure quality of life in a more sophisticated, comprehensive fashion beyond gross domestic product, average income, tax rates, and unemployment. Instead, American leaders continue to rely on cherry-picking data and citing misleading economic measurements, which allow the United States to maintain the fiction that it is the world’s leader.” (p. 101)

“To this day, the patriotic U.S. media continue to shield Americans from injections of reality that are badly needed to understand our country’s relative decline in the world.” (p. 31)


Steven Hill’s EUROPE’S PROMISE enlarges our perspective by presenting us with a still evolving philosophy and model of governance: “…Europe has forged institutions and methods that foster inclusiveness, participation, authentic representation, multiparty democracy and majoritarian policy based on a consensus of viewpoints. These methods include proportional representation electoral systems, public financing of campaigns, free media time for candidates and parties, universal voter registration… and other techniques that foster pluralism and consensus building.” (p. 360)

“Ironically, ‘old Europe’ is a political youngster with relatively new institutions and laws, whereas the United States is the country that is looking increasingly sclerotic with outdated institutions and laws, many of them rooted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.” (p. 30)

He remarks: “One can’t help but wonder at what point it will dawn on Americans that patriotism and massive armaments are a pale substitute for real improvements in their quality of life.” (p. 106)

It is hard for most Americans to conceive that in important substantive - and moral - regards the United States cannot possibly be anything but good and noble, and the world leader. In many ways it is, or perhaps it was, respectively.

Today, there is overwhelming evidence that Europeans’ greater appreciation of government and its active role has shown remarkable results. By contrast, Americans’ popular tendency of government-bashing and all-to-frequently rendering it impotent has not helped solve the country’s core problems.

Furthermore, the European system of regulating corporate overreach and excesses, and providing extensive consumer protections has been highly successful.

America’s challenge may well be to contemplate if in the 21st century our once highly effective and reliable tradition of rugged individualism (including the Supreme Court’s sanctioning of corporations as individuals) and Wall Street capitalism can sufficiently compete as an engine for economic and social progress with European capitalism’s more communal and compassionate approach to policy-making and problem solving.

Our government is faced with financially strapped states, cities and communities, insolvent school boards, a crumbling public infrastructure, an eroding middle class, the poor and the incarcerated, the millions of uninsured, the unemployed and under-employed, the indigent people sleeping on our streets - and a populous asking for answers and help.

Will it be “Morning in America again” if we choose to ignore lessons to be learned from our competitors?

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About the author:

Born in Germany but having lived most of his professional life in the United States, Hartmut Gerdes is an an urban designer by profession; Dipl.-Ing. (University of Karlsruhe, Germany), M. Arch. and M.C.P. (University of Pennsylvania). His career has encompassed urban design, urban design/environmental filmmaking and video production, architectural photography, video and photomontages, and the production of animated walk-throughs. About his work he writes; "My current professional and personal goals are directed at climate change and appropriate city building, and are best expressed in my habitat2media mission statement: habitat2media aims to put forth exemplary, sustainable and highly successful urban design models, i.e. housing and infrastructure, contemporary and traditional, on the Internet and other new media. Its objective is to present consumers and policymakers with persuasive alternatives to suburban sprawl and excessive car dependency."

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