Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The Superpower Next Door

Tony Judt, whose output tends to be a little varied for my taste, has a new article in the New York Review of Books called "Europe vs. America" that's sharp, well-written, and timely (something else the NYRB is only infrequently). Robin Sloan's Snarkmarket entry even compelled me to compose a new Schrift (which is sadly even more infrequent).

After Rob's nice critique of the mildly (but decisively) distorting image Americans attach to "welfare state," I just have this to add: when you read the article, don't miss Judt's footnotes. Some of them veer towards inanity (especially the tone-deaf quips about Janet Jackson and David Beckham), but others are juicy and delicious.


[5] "...(T)he steadily rising cost of private medical insurance in the US puts at least as much of a burden on American firms as social taxation and welfare privileges place upon their European counterparts —- while providing none of the attendant social benefits."

[8] "... The collapsing dollar is sustained only by foreigners' willingness to hold it: Americans are currently spending other people's money on other people's products. Were the US any other country it would by now be in the unforgiving hands of the International Monetary Fund."

[16] "... (Garton Ash) cites a popular joke: Britain was promised that Blair's Third Way would bring it American universities and German prisons —- what it is actually getting are American prisons and German universities."
"Spending other people's money on other people's products." I don't know if I've ever seen a better-phrased summary of why simultaneously skyrocketing budget and trade deficits spell disaster for a country's economy.

My favorite passage, however, is the same cited by Robin, albeit for a slightly different reason:
"(T)hese are not deep structural failings of the European way of life: they are difficult policy choices with political consequences. None of them implies the dismantling of the welfare state."
It's the "difficult policy choices with political consequences" line that resonates for me. Both Americans and Europeans today too easily place themselves (and each other) in scenarios they imagine to be both apocalyptic and inevitable. We're all hopelessly cursed by demographics and unmanageable covenants: too many immigrants, too many old people, and too many promises made, with danger (whether global terrorism or environmental and economic collapse) always just around the corner. Instead of making tough choices about adjustments to the system -- politically unpopular, perhaps, but functionally necessary -- both American and European leaders have consigned blame to other quarters and contented themselves with either radically razing the system or going down with the ship, like Ahab bound to the mast.

This is more than the politics of fear -- it's a kind of insanity. What we need are a thousand cool heads -- debunkers who can show us a third way out.

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