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Europe versus America
The year was 1776. That year the English American colonies officially denounced their English rule to start a war that would last eight years before ending with the independence of the newly formed nation of the United States of America. Born of European heritage and European ways, this nation would quickly grow to rival all countries in the world, become incredibly wealthy and prosperous, and forever change the world as we know it. Americans were at first reluctant to give up their unity with Europe but quickly grew confident in their self reliance. The nation more then doubled its size, went through several wars and quickly rose to become a competing industrial power with the major European nations. As time passed there was a great cultural drift between the two groups. But just as Americans have made their wayward journey towards their own identity, so to shall they once again return, Europeanizing once more.
Now jump forward roughly 140 years from our independence. The United States comes to the rescue of its own father countries to help bring a decisive victory to the bloody and vicious World Wars of the early 1900’s. From these blood stained, crater strewn battle fields does Europe emerge, still limping from battle scars but brought ever closer together through it all. Out of the ashes of war did both parties rise, the Europeans and the Americans, and from these ashes would an even greater parting of ways take place.
So while America forged on in a fury of what would soon become ever dwindling expansion and wealth, Europe was forced to evaluate its current state of being. After rebuilding Europeans longed for change, more security, freedom, and a return to high culture. But as America constructed her post war infrastructure we turned our eyes to other goals. Bigger families, larger pay checks, and ever increasing house sizes fueled our trend. Some where along the lines a trade off was made. While Europeans decided to take back their time and to gain balance, Americans sought more money and expansion. We forged on, just as we always had, through our forests, mines, factories, and farms to add to the total, more produce, more hours, more things, and more spending. America grew just for the sake of growing.
But, amidst all this growth, space was running out. Forests were running out, fields were running out, and mines were running out. To remedy this problem the solution seemed simple. Import. We sought to control the flow of resources overseas as well as in our own country but damaging other countries’ culture in the process. We obtained plastics, oil, novelties, and the like, all increasingly from overseas. But in all this buying, in all the expansion, there was an end far off on the horizon, approaching ever faster. However, with a frontier mindset still in play the horizon seemed endless and the country was too busy with the now to look forward to the future. Americans, in their vast shortsightedness didn’t want to look toward the future.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in our parent countries, Europeans were already painfully aware of the concept of running out of space. In fact, they’d ran out along time ago. At a time when environmental concerns were in pitch fervor, the 1970’s, they perceived an end and decided to change. As Americans sprinted off to affirm her own economic superiority, Europeans seemed to have gotten some things right. Forced with two choices, working but making less or making more but working more, it is certain they have made the better choice and as Robert Frost once wrote “that has made all the difference” (Graaf, Wann, and Taylor 2005) instead of buying more as their wayward child was, they opted for even less. Cars dwindled from the roads, factories and plants became more efficient, and the masses started to do more in the way of conservation. At the same time, European governments were socializing and programs like universal health care, job security, and cradle to grave support programs were implemented.
Europeans were “by and large” happy to pay higher taxes in return for these socialized services, services which have greatly reduced the stress, worrying of daily European life, and crime while greatly increasing things like life expectancy, health, and productivity (Beenhold). Europeans also turned away from frivolities such as “status quo purchases” and started buying quality of life products like organic foods, energy saving appliances, and biodegradable materials instead. (Katrin) The Europeans traded their longer work hours for less work hours but with a higher pay. It was a remarkable feat really, giving European workers more time for life. They got both bread and roses so to speak. Combined with a new found global and social awareness of the world, Europe has risen to new heights and even become one of the best rated places to live in the world (Reuters).
Today, back in America, our choices have given us a wide range of problems. Consumption has soared creating trash, debt, and recession. Today, with only 5% of the world population we consume 22% of world fossil fuels, produce 24% of the worlds carbon emissions, and account for 33% percent of paper and plastics use (Tilford, Dave). We lock up more of our own citizens per capita than any other industrial nation in the world (Rough Justice). When concerning charitable giving we are also second to last, or sometimes last, among our fellow industrialized nations (OECD). 68% of our adults are obese or overweight (Flegal), much higher than in many European cities, we have higher crime rates, and mandatory workers benefits are minimal at best (Bennhold Katrin). All of these are serious problems that we should be very concerned about. The honest truth is, not only is America lagging behind, but it’s fallen into serious trouble. There is a dire need for change, just as there once was in Europe after the end of the World Wars.
With more trouble than Americans know what to do with, lean times have hit hard. In 2007 a recession began to work its way through the country causing government cut backs, persistent unemployment, and debt up to our necks. This debt is what caused the economic melt down in the first place. But American citizens weren’t the only ones practicing highly irresponsible spending. The government was no better. This year the American government is drowning in a debt of over 14 trillion dollars and rising compared to a 300 billion dollar surplus in 2000 (US. Debt Clock). But even worse is that legislators really have no idea what to do about it.
Our solution, however, is only an ocean away. To fix this crisis we’ll need a new set of rules and our nation will look to none other than our European allies who experienced a similar crisis as ours decades ago. Europeans too began to suffer from deforestization, loss of resources, and an ever burdening infrastructure long ago. But Europeans took the problem seriously. Their solutions were higher efficiency, socialism, and tax reforms. Americans too are headed towards these solutions so, in a sense, our solutions will be very European.
The first problem will be to deal with our ever pressing energy crisis. Already wind power in America grew by 39 percent, largely due to government aid (Goldstein, Katherine). Solar and hydro power is up as well and biofuels are making a big splash. Now Americans are working to catch countries like Denmark, who get’s 19 percent of their power from wind, Spain, 10%, and Portugal, 10% (Goldstein, Katherine). On top of this, the high costs of gas are causing Americans to trade out their traditional pick up trucks and SUV’s for much more European things like small, fuel efficient cars and even electric ones (Moscrip, Lara). Riding bicycles has also become increasingly popular as well as just plain old walking. Yet all these things will take time. We’ll have to tackle zoning issues, build new roads, make more pedestrian walk ways, and just generally redesign our public infrastructure. All this is something our European friends are way ahead of us on.
Next comes the higher regulation and management of industry. Already, over the last few decades, laws such as the clean air act and the clean water act have taken us leaps and bounds towards proper regulation of business. Now Americans are working to create a carbon cap as many European countries have already established. Though initial efforts have been shot down there is still great momentum behind this movement. Similar things will also begin to happen, as they already have, in regulating the safe and responsible handling of toxics or waste products in order to keep harmful chemicals out of our food, water, and air. Unfortunately, our country still has a long way to go in order to tackle our waste problem. Eventually we will run out of landfills and then it will become even more pertinent for us to fix this problem. Concrete solutions have yet to be made.
Socialization of the government also seems inevitable, especially when facing major crisis’ such as ours, like lack of resources, poor management of waste, and destruction of our global ecosystem. Already an attempt at socialization within American government has begun with programs such as national health care and state welfare systems. While these programs have gained much criticism, their real problem lies in poor funding foundations to keep them going and not the programs themselves.
This brings us to one of the larger changes that ultimately must occur, the adoption of a Value Income Tax or VAT. The VAT will be adopted because “it will be impossible for the government to collect enough money for welfare programs with an income tax (Bartlett, Bruce). The VAT is much more efficient because instead of taxing how much you make it taxes the objects of purchase themselves. The tax is much like a sales tax, simple, and it basically covers every process of the production and distribution of a product but ultimately gets paid by the consumer(Bartlett, Bruce). In the 1980’s this tax was viewed by most conservatives as the best possible tax solution before dropping out of popular ideology near the end of the 80’s (Bartlett, Bruce).
But the most important and most appreciated change will be the reduction of work hours and the greater enjoyment of leisure time. It’s true that Americans hold titles for great wealth and a high GDP but as British economist Kevin Dally said, “ you have to ask yourself who really is the odd man out. Leisure is a normal good, and as you become richer, economic theory says that you consume more of it. (Bennhold, Katrin)” Europeans trade in their working time for more opportunities to relax and, with their welfare system, they don’t have to worry nearly as much as those without do. While American economists tend to criticize this model they forget that it’s quite successful as countries like France already outpace the U.S in productivity and countries like Denmark, Sweden and Norway have lower unemployment rates (Bennhold, Katrin). As the saying goes, time is of the essence.
This increase in leisure time will greatly improve things for Americans and is already under way. The “take back your time” campaign advocates for the 30 hour work week, something the workers of the depression more than 75 years ago were calling for (Graaf, Wann, and Taylor). The U.S. senate even passed a bill for the 30 hour work week in 1933. It failed by just a few votes (Graaf, Wann, and Taylor). But companies, like Kellogg, who did end up adopting this strategy found that productivity increased so much that it actually became more profitable to have hours as they were (Graaf, Wann, and Taylor). Though the 30 hour work week was finally ended in 1985, due to higher workers benefits that companies had to pay at Kellogg, its legacy still lives on overseas in Europe, who thought the idea so great they soon adopted it for themselves (Graaf, Wann, and Taylor).
There will be lots of changes sweeping our nation in the next few decades and one can expect a turn out much more along the lines of our European counterparts. Steve Hill, a head at the new American Reform Foundation, sums it up well with his book title Europe’s Promise. Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Future (Rueters). Ultimately the European way offers greater security, more free time, and better practices that save money and leave us with a less polluted, more diverse world. Because of these key differences Europeans are happier, healthier, and generally just more content. Tomorrow, the Streets of Seattle could be today’s streets of London. Today the prodigal son returns and the world becomes a little closer and our futures a little brighter.
1. Bartlett, Bruce. “Support the VAT”. Forbes.com. Forbes, 23 Oct 2009. Web. 18 Feb 2011.
2. Bennhold, Katrin. “Love of Leisure, and Europe’s Reasons”. The New York Times.com. The New York Times, July 2004. Web. 19 Feb. 2011.
3. Flegal, Kathrine and ect. “Prevalence and Trends in Obesity Among US Adults, 1999-2008” jama.ama-assn.org. JAMA, 13 January, 2010. Web. 18 Feb 2011.
4. Graaf, John, David Wann, and Thomas H. Taylor. Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic Second Edition. San Francisco, CA: Berrett Koehler Publishers, Inc, 2005. Print.
5. Goldstein, Katherine. “Wind Power Growth Up 39% Due to Stimulus Investment.” huffingtonpost.com. Huffington Post, 26 Jan 2010. Web. 18 Feb 2011.
6. Moscrip, Lara. “Americans Driving Less.” CNNMoney.com. CNNMoney, 22 Jan 2009. Web. 18 Feb 2011.
7. Reuters. “Who Wins in U.S. versus America Contest?” blogs.rueters.com. Rueters, 12 Feb 2010. Web. 18 Feb 2011.
8.“Statistical Annex of the 2010 Development Co-operation Report.” oecd.org. Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, 08 Dec 2009. Web. 18 Feb 2011.
9. The Economist. “Rough Justice”. economist.com. Economist, 22 July 2010. Web. 18 Feb 2011.
10. Tilford, Dave. “Why Consumption Matters.” sieraclub.org. Siera Club, n.d. Web. 18 Feb 2011.
11. U.S Debt Clock. “US Debt”. usdebtclock.org. US debt clock, n.d. Web. 18 Feb 2011.