Actually Existing Social Democracy

A review of Thomas Geoghegan’s Were You Born On The Wrong Continent?

Every red-blooded American knows the Europeans are a bunch of effete, latte-sipping, wine-swilling communists. We’ve got it way better over here. Just look at the poor bastards, with their sky-high unemployment, graying populace, and shriveled GDP. My God, how can they live like that?

Of course these days our unemployment rate is worse than many of their larger nations, but still, we’ve got the better of them, right?

Not according to Thomas Geoghegan’s new book Were You Born On The Wrong Continent? In the showdown between the American and European (specifically German) economic models we come out looking the worse.

And don’t fret if you aren’t the type of person whose blood quickens at the sound of the words “economic model.” Wrong Continent isn’t one of those damn’d thick, square books you dozed over in your dorm room. Think of Geoghegan as the antidote to those burdensome texts. His writing is fluid, conversational, and witty. The argument is largely framed by his personal European travels, giving his prose a genuine, lived-in feel.

Take Geoghegan’s argument against using GDP per capita, a statistic which shows Americans dramatically outperforming Europeans, as the primary measure of progress. Usually, this is a subject that has no right being interesting to anyone other than scholars, policy wonks, and their grudging students. But Geoghegan’s accessible prose gives his argument — past a certain point GDP can be a misleading indicator of societal well-being — a staying power the usual crowd often lacks. Here’s a sample:

The numbers say, on paper, I have a better way of life in Chicago . . . People at the libertarian 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 some Chicago neighborhoods.

In other words, the further 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. While I’ve moved to higher GDP per capita, I don’t have:

+ Six weeks off.
+ A perfect cup of coffee to sip at some place other than the office.
+ A city to inhale like a bank of violets.

The first half of Wrong Continent is the strongest. Geoghegan frontloads his polemical priorities: most of the book’s few charts and statistics are found in the opening hundred pages, as is the brunt of his argument. If you haven’t bought into his claims by the end of part one, you aren’t going to buy into them.

Geoghegan’s basic case for Continental social democracy over Anglo-American neoliberalism is best distilled in his comparison of Isabel and Barbara, prototypes representing average European and American citizens. He artfully maps out their lives, succinctly showing that while Barbara technically brings home more money, partially due to lower taxes, she ends up spending much of this discretionary income on goods that the state provides for Isabel. While Isabel pays higher taxes, she doesn’t have to plow her income into college education, nursing homes for her parents, and endless car payments, because higher education, elder care, and transport are all paid for by the state at bargain prices (they are buying in bulk after all). Meanwhile, Barbara works longer hours, giving her little time at home with her family. In turn, she has to pay others to cook and clean for her. She probably lives in the suburbs, which means an interminable commute and higher fuel costs. All of this personal spending — on gas, higher ed, constantly eating out — contributes to America’s huge GDP, but it doesn’t contribute to her quality of life.

Conservatives are constantly claiming that America’s relative lack of social welfare laws is more than made up for by the fact that we have far more “disposable income” than Europeans do, partially because they pay so many taxes. But while our taxes are lower, we still pay 41 percent of our GDP to the state, according to a Newsweek article cited in Wrong Continent, while the Europeans pay 48 percent. A mere 7 point difference. “Are we getting 41/48ths of what the Europeans get?” our narrator asks. Let me answer that for him: Not even fucking close. Mostly, we just get a grossly inefficient health care system and a bunch of tanks for that land war with Russia we never got around to fighting.

Of course, the European social democracies aren’t all sunshine and roses. The problems of an aging population, and a subsequently shrinking tax base, are very real. Immigration is the obvious solution, but European societies have traditionally been relatively homogenous racially, culturally, and spiritually (making solidarity an easier sell than in the diverse US) and many nations have been struggling with the issue in a disconcertingly inflamed fashion. Geoghegan repeatedly acknowledges the problems of the European system — including higher unemployment levels, etc. — but he also rightly notes that these critiques are often the sole account most Americans ever hear. The positive outcomes of the social democratic system are never, but never, acknowledged outside the cloistered sanctums of the American left.

The second portion of the book largely focuses on Geoghegan’s travels and his firsthand experiences, and it is much weaker than the first half. His broad, sweeping points are now interspersed throughout the narrative, instead of dominating it. The second half of the book also highlights the flaws of Geoghegan’s laidback style. He jumps around from scene to scene, rarely pausing to flesh out a point made in passing. The characters he interacts with are usually dubbed “S.”, “V.”, or “Mr. G”. The American reader could use some grounding in these Teutonic surroundings, some characters with actual names for instance. Geoghegan used the same stylistic quirk in his superb memoir Which Side Are You On?, a reflection on his time in the American labor movement, and in that context the single-letter nomenclatures fit. Dissident Teamsters and striking miners might need code names. It’s harder to see why retired German public servants do.

Geoghegan finds his stride when discussing the place of workers in Germany. He recently told Salon: “Germany has the highest degree of worker control on the planet since the collapse of the Soviet Union.” (Without that system’s stultifying conformity and brutal totalitarianism.) The labor movement in Germany is still powerful, and they boast more influence in the political system than their American counterparts ever could. The manufacturing sector, which is still booming, is 80 percent union, and overall the labor movement bargains for the wages of 60 percent of the German population. They bargain regionally, including most employers in an industry, a style of operation once common among the Steelworkers, the Teamsters, and the UAW, until they were beaten down in the 1980s.

Labor organization in Germany doesn’t end there, as Geoghegan is rapturously delighted to inform us. Workers are brought into the system in a fashion rarely tolerated in the US. In any German company with upwards of 2,000 people on payroll, elected workers make up half the board of directors. They can influence how the company is run, and who runs it. On the microcosmic level, work councils elected workers get to weigh in on day-to-day operations. They handle the nitty-gritty stuff that most US union locals spend the majority of their time doing, leaving the unions to focus on national politics and regional bargaining. From firings (!) to safety practices the employees have a say. With influence from the shopfloor to the highest echelons of national politics, Germany’s workers have power the US labor movement can only dream of. The one-sided class war of the 1980s would have been unimaginable here.

Irving Howe once claimed that the central objective of democratic socialism should be “extending popular controls over economic as well as political institution . . . The democracy that prevails, more or less, in our political life should also prevail in our economic life.” Wrong Continent shows us an advanced capitalist economy that is far closer to that laudable goal than our own. But Geoghegan offers us no real hint of how we could get there.

Not that he can be faulted for that. It is doubtful that anything remotely resembling the European model can be exported to this side of the Atlantic.  Our political system makes passing social welfare programs of any kind exceedingly difficult, as anyone who paid even passing attention to the recent clash over healthcare reform can attest. Worse still, the American left is starting off from a position of weakness. The emergence of social democracy was dependent, in most cases, on strong labor movements and mass socialist parties, and the US had neither, so our welfare state is the weakest in the Western world. Now we have no socialist party and anemic unions and, subsequently, a bizarre, haphazard overhaul of the healthcare system, based on ideas popular among conservatives three years ago, is the best the center-left can do.

My god, how can we live like this?