Who wins in U.S. vs Europe contest?

By Bernd Debusmann
February 12, 2010

In these days of renewed gloom about the future of Europe, a quick test is in order. Who has the world’s biggest economy? A) The United States B) China/Asia C) Europe? Who has the most Fortune 500 companies? A) The United States B) China C) Europe. Who attracts most U.S. investment? A) Europe B) China C) Asia.

The correct answer in each case is Europe, short for the 27-member European Union (EU), a region with 500 million citizens. They produce an economy almost as large as the United States and China combined but have, so far, largely failed to make much of a dent in American perceptions that theirs is a collection of cradle-to-grave nanny states doomed to be left behind in a 21st century that will belong to China.

That China will rise to be a superpower in this century, overtaking the United States in terms of gross domestic product by 2035, is becoming conventional wisdom. But those who subscribe to that theory might do well to remember the fate of similar long-range forecasts in the past. At the turn of the 20th century, for example, eminent strategists predicted that Argentina would be a world power within 20 years. In the late 1980s, Japan was seen as the next global leader.

The latest pessimistic utterances about Europe were sparked by a debt crisis in Greece which raised concern over the health of the euro, the common currency of 16 EU members. Plus U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to stay away from a U.S.-EU summit scheduled for May in Madrid, with a new EU leadership structure that should have made it easier to answer then U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s famous question: “Who do I call when I want to talk to Europe?”

There are still several numbers to call in the complex set-up, giving fresh reasons to fret to those crystal-gazers who see the future dominated by the United States and China, the so-called G-2.

Pundits who see the European way of doing things as a model for the United States (and others) to follow are few and far between, not least, says one of them, Steven Hill, because most Americans are blissfully unaware of European achievements and, as he puts it, “reluctant to look elsewhere because ‘we are the best.’”

As foreigners traveling through the United States occasionally note, the phrases “we are the best” and “America is No.1″ are often uttered with deep conviction by citizens who have never set foot outside their country and therefore lack a direct way of comparison. (They are in the majority: only one in five Americans has a passport).

Hill, who heads the political reform program at the New American Foundation, a liberal Washington think tank, has just published a book whose title alone is enough to irk conservative Americans: Europe’s Promise. Why the European Way Is the Best Hope in an Insecure Future.

It marshals an impressive army of facts and comparative statistics to show that the United States is behind Europe in nearly every socio-economic category that can be measured and that neither America’s trickle-down, Wall Street-driven capitalism nor China’s state capitalism hold the keys to the future.

While China’s growth has been impressive, says Hill, the country remains, in essence, a sub-contractor to the West and is racked by internal contradictions.

“When I talk to American audiences,” Hill said in an interview, “many find the figures I cite hard to believe. They haven’t heard them before. U.S. businesses making more profits in Europe than anywhere else, 20 times more than in China? 179 of the world’s top companies are European compared with 140 American? That does not fit the preconceptions.”

Such preconceptions exist, in part, because U.S. media have portrayed Europe as a region in perpetual crisis, its economies sclerotic, its taxes a disincentive to personal initiative, its standards of living lower than America’s, its universal health care, guaranteed pensions, long vacations and considerably shorter working hours a recipe for low growth and stagnation. “In the transmission of news across the Atlantic, myth has been substituted for reality,” says Hill.

He is in good, though numerically small, company with such views. The economists Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman, both Nobel prize winners, also have positive outlooks for Europe. In a recent column in the New York Times, Krugman said that Europe is often held up as evidence that higher taxes for the rich and benefits for the less well-off kill economic progress. Not so, he argued. The European experience demonstrates the opposite: social justice and progress can go hand in hand.

The relative rankings of countries tend to be defined by gross domestic product per capita but Hill points out that this might not be the best yardstick because it does not differentiate between transactions that add to the well-being of a country and those that diminish it. A dollar spent on sending a teenager to prison adds as much to GDP as a dollar spent on sending him to college.

On a long list of quality-of-life indexes that measure things beyond the GDP yardstick — from income inequality and access to health care to life expectancy, infant mortality and poverty levels — the United States does not rank near the top.

So where is the best place to live? For the past 30 years, a U.S.-based magazine, International Living, has compiled a quality-of-life index based on cost of living, culture and leisure, economy, environment, freedom, health, infrastructure, safety and climate. France tops the list for the fifth year running. The United States comes in 7th.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

@ProwdLiberal: the “40 million uninsured” number was debunked months (if not years) ago. The accurate number is approx. 10M, and many of those are voluntarily uninsured. Then compare real access to healthcare services by socialist state citizens versus the uninsured in the US (who still must be treated by law, regardless of insurance status), and there is little difference in actual overall access to healthcare between the two regions.

Posted by TheOracle | Report as abusive

As long as Europe is comprised of many different states, each with their own military, we can expect American domination of the continent and a future in which Europe will have even less significance than today. What’s more, Europe’s population is in serious decline (so much for their population being larger than the US) and their economy grows at 1-2% during the good years (you can thank their over-burdened with pension plan budgets for that…) For more, see this article: http://www.philosoguy.com/169/whats-all- the-hype-about-europe/

Posted by pcasinelli | Report as abusive

How silly to try and dispute the fact of Europe’s being thought of as a cradle-to-grave nanny state, since that phrase precisely describes Europe. With no economic future, it’s no wonder job security is such an overwhelming political concern in, to take the most desperate example, France. The euro is headed for the dustbin, and so is the idea that the comically self-important apparatchiks in Belgium can run a pan-european government that has almost no connection to those whose lives the bureaucrats would purport to control.

Posted by reggie55 | Report as abusive


In your comment not only do you show yourself a stereotypically ignorant American in lumping in all countries of Europe based on your limited experience, but it boggles the mind as to where exactly you traveled to to make the ignorant statement that Europeans “live in boxes” or “can’t afford to shower”. I live in Belgium and travel/work regularly in The Netherlands, France and Germany. I have also lived in the US. I can assure you that no one I know in lives in a “box” or rations their showers. And what’s this about waiting in line days to see a doctor? The longest I’ve ever waited was 20 minutes! What exactly are you basing this claim on?

I think as the article suggests, Americans have a hard time taking in the fact that their way of life isn’t necessarily “the best” or “the greatest”. There are good things about living in America but there are also good things about living in Belgium or France or Sweden or Spain. The only difference is the citizens of those countries don’t feel the need insist that they are “the best” all the time.

Posted by Gardyloo | Report as abusive

The Europeans have been getting a free ride from the Americans since they were saved from the Nazi’s. Take away the American security umbrella today and you will see the Europeans bicker and kill each other. So this needs to be factored in the comparison. The only reason there is anything in Europe that is worth comparing with the US is because we are enabling the existence of the European Union. Otherwise there is nothing over there to compare to the US.

Posted by Dela | Report as abusive

Well, this is sure an interesting subject. 2 indecently rich continents battling out who is the richest. I live in Norway and are therefore not a member of the EU, but are part of the same market. I guess Norway scores a lot higher than the US in every economical aspect(and others) worth mentioning, per capita. It doesnt mean that I think Norway necessarily is a better country.

Im a public school teacher, can travel 3 – 4 travels abroad a year, buy what I want, why would I need more? If the american dream is to become richer than you would ever need, its a foolish dream. A typical dream here would be to see the world, educate in what interest you. One could argue that this mentality will backfire on our economy, it probably will. And is the welfare state sustainable in the extent we see now, I doubt it.Is work just something we do between our spare time? How many social anthropologists can we feed?

Some argue that urban flats in southern european cities are too expensive and small. But, for me, I would change my big suburban house for a small central apartment in Barcelona if I had the chance. Aircon or no, who cares, put up a big fan! Point is, its personal. Some people like comfort, and some people are looking for something else.

Ive been in the states for a summer and I liked it. Climate in california, the people were nice and polite. I ve met a lot of americans in other countries, travelling alongside europeans and others. I ve also met the occasional cowboy, and started wondering. When it comes to values, LOTS of people on both side of the atlantic share a lot more between themselves than each residence does with many of their countrymen.

Posted by Whitepele | Report as abusive

@ LucidOne
UK has terrible weather and food?
Its warmer than Germany, drier than France and high or low extremes are relatively rare
and the food- top cities for world class restaurants Tokyo -1 Paris -2 London – 3
Not to mention London was named centre for international dish dishes
You have never lived in the UK so you cant judge it like that
and as for Euro-American society, that is false.
The UK is different from the continent because its lifestyle is more similar to the UK than anywhere else in Europe,
America – UK/EU society I think you will find
The capitalist ideas etc have always been at the core of British society, the foremost and most influential peoples to the US were British hence the similarity.
As a Parisienne chef once said “we make fun of British food because we know it annoys them, but US food is so bad its not even worth mentioning”

Posted by Animesis | Report as abusive

@ Raidiant
Americans may come out with many Gadgets but the most advanced tech usually comes from Europe,
The industrial revolution happened in UK/Europe, look into the history of the advancement of mankind and you will quickly see it was Europe that brought civilisation to its current high point
Look into CERN, TransRapid, History of Steam/Jet/Car
Americans tell us the plane, light bulb and electric are from there, they are all from Europe, as is democracy.
Dont let Americans false advertising fool you.

Posted by Animesis | Report as abusive

Comments from an 80 year old high school dropout United States of America citizen. Fortune smiled upon me and allowed me to receive a “technical” education as an aviator. I traveled and worked my trade throughout much of Africa, Asia, and Europe for almost forty years. In my obvious ignorance of the superior ways of life that these places had to offer, I was always satisfied to return to my unsophisticated and humble origins in the country of my birth. While I recognize our many faults, I am also aware of the many advantages that were offered to me as an ordinary citizen of an extraordinary country. Through my own effort and with minimal assistance or interferance by my government I was able to aquire and hold extremly interesting and gainful employment as a “technical” and learn some of the customs and culture of the world, and retire quite comfortably mostly as a result of my own effort. Allow me one comment concerning the “Educated” persons of our world that tend to feel a bit superior to the technical workers. With some notable exceptions I have found that while highly educated people may be rich in theory, they have little ability in day to day practicality and given the opportunity cannot fasten a nut to a bolt without damaging the threads.

Posted by u206 | Report as abusive

Hi. I am an European currently living in Madrid. I’ve been previously living in London and Berlin. In these three cities and associated countries I have enjoyed electricity and hot water 24/7.

I am an IT professional, and thanks to that I have travelled quite frequently to the US, specifically to SF, Oakland, NY, Newark and Philadelphia.

I really don’t want to play ‘who’s got it bigger’ – Both lifestyles (america/europe) have advantages and disadvantages, but something that called my attention is the far more violent society and lack of safety in America, specially between young people. I think the fact that deadly weapons are easily accessible in the US plays a big role in this.

Maybe it’s you’re more advanced (USA), have more immigration, love guns … i don’t know. But I do know in Europe we’re rarely afraid of each other, happy to go out and interact, be it 3PM or 3AM.

And for me this is the biggest point in Europe nowadays. I won’t trade this for anything.

Posted by robert34 | Report as abusive

As a UK/US dual citizen I am very happy to live in the UK, a truly great nation. I have travelled extensively in the US and I understand the desire of many Europeans to travel and work in the US. I have come across the ugly “the US is the greatest” attitude from Americans who, frankly, should know better. That 80% of Americans have not travelled outside the US, and given US cultural imperialism in Europe and across the world, a perceived bias toward the US is understandable. The US ‘may’ be a better place to forge a career, but it most definitely does not compare to Europe on many levels (as the indices demonstrate – on crime, education and health it simply does not compare). The food is dreadful; US influence on UK society has been devastating. Personally, I am willing to work for less money if it means I can work with well-educated people with whom I can discuss, for example, Libyan self-determination and the Renaissance (for personal development reasons), live in a lower-crime society and spend valuable holiday time with family members and friends, contributing to society, rather than pursuing selfish materialistic aims. Americans here deign to discuss the size of their fridges? Having travelled in sub-Saharan Africa I find discussion about the size of fridges frivolous to the extreme, and if I may say so, pretty disgusting.

Posted by cardew | Report as abusive

Zach have you been listening to this guy or what?


Posted by mrcwill | Report as abusive

It appears to me that both groups are exceedingly biased to their side of the atlantic. europeans living in boxes while americans work their lives away. also, quality of life depends on what the person thinks, one might think knowing your neighbor and having a lot of friends is the best, while another might like a bigger house and nicer car. Its not for you to decide.

also saying that their is nothing in america is completely wrong. Its like staying in the bronx and calling New York a horrible place. Not all the beauty is in the cities. Don’t forget we were the ones who invented national parks.

Posted by mostlyneutral | Report as abusive

Jajaja…I just wish Everyone but europe get to dominate the world…They still think they should have colonies all over the world…old culture, old continent, old people, old ideas, will never succeed. Europe has done well just because americans have done badly….by the way I do live in Europe (Spain) I hate it I want to go to America to get a job at least, since there is nothing but lazyness, coruption an lack of inspiration to make things work over here.

Posted by EUROPESUCKS | Report as abusive

Neither side is perfect. I think Americans can be ignorant of other cultures. However, I also think European’s can be terribly snotty about being European. The only reason european countries have clout is because of the EU. They applaud their economy claiming it is bigger and subjectively better. Let’s not forget the U.S. made those economies after WWII. We were the only country to come out on top of WWII. We poured mounds of money on Euro nations. To this day, those debts have gone uncollected (most countries believe time has canceled those debts. No, they technically still exist, yet are not factored into national debt). Both sides should get off their high horse.

Posted by elliottbenton | Report as abusive

This article is well done and objective. The comments of the readers are disturbing in that many of them reflect the same old rhetoric and seem to convey the sentiment: “Don’t confuse me with facts; America is best. Europe lags behind us. The end.” As an American living in Europe for many years, I find the American ignorance remarkable. With that said, I frequently find myself laughing at some of the European notions about USA.

Americans have no clue what it means to have free access to quality medical care, a months vacation every year (or more) and a safety net if you lose your job. We are so invested in believing that working ourselves to death is meaningful and the word “socialized” is a dirty word that would decrease our quality of life. It’s sad.

Posted by Truth4all | Report as abusive

I read a lot of posts which are unrefined. This rivalry between Europe & USA is useless. Yes, we’re very different but we will need each other in this century. We share values: free trade and democracy.
Superpower (to be) China does not. Europa & USA as we know it will prevail together of die alone. America position isn’t untouchable anymore.
I am European myself (Belgian) and I acknowledge what the USA has done for us in the past (and present), just to let you know I am not a hater. Europe’s biggest problem is the diffused/shared leadership. We need a strong leader but our institutions prevent it.

Posted by Tuvia | Report as abusive

Why is this writer pretending like Europe is one big country? If that’s the case, throw Canada in with the U.S.

Posted by Gonewiththewind | Report as abusive

EU has today also the largest military by Libon treaty and the most dangerous weapon on Earth set on french SSBN:The M51.

Posted by vindobona | Report as abusive

I’ve just visited the US with my son and it was his first time. His first reaction was that America is like the djungle and have a somewhat dangerous feel to it..
That feeling is true for most europeans, ceartainly for us Scandinavians who live in probably the safest part of the world. The quality of life in Scandinavia is way better for the ordinary man than in the US, because we have more important values in life than just money.
Money is of course important to earn too, so we can travel the way we do and be influensed by other cultures. This is of course very important for a people..
Many americans are so ignorant and totally uninterested about anything outside America.
Strange it is to hear many americans say that Sweden or Norway is just socialistic reactionary countries.. Nothing could be more wrong, just take one look at all top 10 lists of welfare, innovation, economy and “good places to live in”.
I’ve have been to America many times because I love to come here, you meet a lot of stressed and angry guys but also a lot of friendly people once you give them a smile..
I don’t know if I would like to live in the djungle though.. ;-)

Posted by boberg | Report as abusive

what struck me most when I visited the USA was the great divide between rich and poor, surely that is more doomed to fail than the so called “nanny states”, nationalism is way to high there as well, you can’t walk around for 10 seconds without seeing at least 2 flags (they’re literally everywhere). When we went to San Fransisco we saw a guy with a gun in his pants (just in the middle of the streetand clearly visible!), needless to say I’d rather live anywhere else

Posted by Petertel | Report as abusive

I am a citizen of the Netherlands. One of the richest nations within the European Union. Currently I am working in Germany. I have been in the U.S.A. for 2 months exploring the South, West and East side of the United States. You can´t really say which one is better.
Americans can enjoy certain freedoms Europeans cannot. However the United States felt a bit like a controlled environment and especially the uneducated Americans have no clue what goes on outside their borders, making their perception of everything quitte blurred.
Europeans act more socially, which can be frustrating if your next door neighbour is a lazy guy and you work very hard for a salary that eventually is being taxed for 52%. So the Americans are more driven by personal success, which I personally favour.
However when I look at the Netherlands, Germany, U.K. and Belgium. Our infrastructure is infinitely better then the American one. Good public transport especially in Germany, environmental policies (the air in L.A. is so filthy, unbelievable) and better highway systems in especially in Germany and The Netherlands. When I take my own country as an example we are truly more technologically advanced then the U.S. but we are around the same size as the state of New York so that is no suprise and no comparison.

Posted by Nevz | Report as abusive

This is extremely bias towards America and China, I like how the writer is so proud that EU has a larger economy than one country…lol some of the things he says are just so wrong, let see America has more billionaires, lower unemployment rate better economy, more medals as Olympics, more top universities, just as much alpha+ cities as EU. Better highway system, more powerful, higher oil production and gas, better landscape, we have most of the fame, actors, music and movies, and we are more diverse country in people.

Posted by JC1235 | Report as abusive