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.

STUBBORN PRECONCEPTIONS
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.

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