Monday, September 26, 2011

Living in Europe

Preface: I can understand why I've had people accuse me of being "anti-American", but they're wrong. There are many wonderful things about the US, but I believe patriotism should not be blind. It should be the love a parent has for a child: unconditional, but action should be taken when they do something wrong. The "America right or wrong" attitude is repugnant. So what follows is going to sound to some people like it's anti-American, but it's not. It's anti- a certain section of America who thinks they can get something for nothing.

On Saturday, while at a friend's birthday party in the De Baarsjes area of Amsterdam, I think I nailed down a key difference between the US and Europe. For the day to day life, you really won't notice much of a difference. You'll get up, have breakfast, go to work, go home, have dinner, hang out with friends at a pub or their house, and so on. On Saturday, we were drinking beer, talking about my friend's job and how his company is struggling, watching their children laugh and play, snacking on chips and cheese. Aside from lots of Dutch and French also being spoken, you wouldn't have seen much of a difference here.

It's when you step out of day to day activities that things change. Time and time again my European friends are amazed at how Americans are so insistent on not letting the government help people. While Americans give more to charity than other nationalities, many in Europe don't feel as much need to give to as much charity because that's what their taxes are for. And more importantly, they're happy to pay those taxes. Sure, you'll here the usual grumbling about the tax rates, just as you do in the US, but when directly asked, I've had plenty of Europeans tell me that of course they should pay those taxes: you're supposed to help one another.

A typical American response other's suffering might be "get a job, hippie". The Protestant individualist culture which grips America has created a nation of people who often equate money with personal value. If you don't have a job or don't make much money, you're obviously not very important. That it's gotten to such blatant class warfare as Republicans fighting like mad to ensure that millionaires keep their tax breaks (guess who votes for Republicans?) is a bit of a head scratcher.

So this boils down to:

USA: government is there to promote individual liberty
Europe: government is there to protect and promote the welfare of its citizens

Interestingly, while many Americans strongly object to the government helping people, they're pretty quiet about the government helping the individual states. Specifically, the states whose residents are more likely to vote Republican, object to universal health care or other government subsidies of social programs states who receive more aid money from the federal government than they pay in taxes. In Europe, it's the other way around. People don't mind helping people in their own country; they complain bitterly about helping people in other members of the EU on grounds that often sound rather similar to the Americans who don't want to help the poor.

So as you enjoy the fruits of your education — probably paid for with tax dollars — while driving to work on roads — paid for with tax dollars — and enjoy police protection — tax dollars — and living in a country protected by a vast military — tax dollars — or read mail delivered by your mailperson —educated with tax dollars — or marvel that your cabin on the lake in the middle of nowhere has electricity — tax dollars (Rural Electrification Act) — or are happy that so many criminals are behind bars — tax dollars — or enjoy that park — tax dollars — or admire the courage of the 9/11 first responders — tax dollars — perhaps you should ask yourself why you want your already low taxes lowered even more?

About the book I linked to, "Europe's Promise", I keep hearing good things about it and it's been on my radar for a while. However, many Americans are brainwashed into thinking that theirs is the only way. I don't expect any serious change from the US in my lifetime, barring a complete economic collapse.


  1. We're also relatively happy to pay taxes to support poor EU states because if they are stable and we are trading with each other we all get to live better and it prevents war. Now that may not sound much, but it's pretty important to understand that America has never been invaded and trashed by an outsider (okay, you had a civil war, but it was not a resource war by people speaking different languages) whereas Europe has had two hideous wars in a century.
    Here we all know the horrors that WW2 caused in France, Germany, the Lowland countries, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine, Russia. In some cases 1/3 of the population of a country died.
    The reason for WW2 was the punitive reparations imposed by the Versailles treaty. Where you have poor, starving people on one hand, and food and wealth on the other, then sooner or later you will have a resource war.
    In Europe, where we can so easily reach each other by land or sea, we cannot really put up a barricade or border police zone like in Arizona, so the only practical solution is to support and live with each other.
    I certainly don't think the EU Parliament is ideal, I think it gets too much money (and sure wastes enough!) but that cost is vanishingly small compared to the cost of another war within Europe.
    The most recent war, in the former Yugoslavia, was down to the break up along ethnic lines of an artificial country once the communists collapsed (similar to Iraq post-Hussein) and that was awful enough that even the peaceniks in the German Green Party voted to send in troops to restore order.
    What would scare me is if the EU ever created a unified EU army. I hope we never see that day.

    Within Europe itself, I think attitudes towards the level of state support for a person varies a lot by country. Nowhere will you starve, but I suspect you are better looked after in Scandinavian countries than in the UK, which has lower taxes and more of that Protestant work ethic "get a job" attitude. It's certainly no holiday living on benefits here and I would say the UK is generally regarded as Conservative in nature.

  2. Thank goodness both the US and most of Europe now allow the freedom of travel and expatriation. So those who like the US way can live in the US and those who like the European way can live in Europe.

    Remember, too, that the courts in the US regularly say it is not the responsibility of the police to ensure you are protected. They investigate crime and will venture to stop it when they can, but there is no obligation to prevent it. It is still upon the individual and their community to take care of actual protection. So "police protection" is a very limited sort of protection no matter the taxes spent on it. Much of what the police busy themselves with in the US is surveillance and investigation of people just wanting to self-medicate because the medical system and public health system are so terrible.

    Perhaps the real difference is that in Europe when you pay more taxes, you get more helpful services. In the US when we pay more taxes, they go not to extra schools and hospitals, but to more police and judges to persecute those being failed by the schools and hospitals.

    Taxes and services are not only about amounts. They are also about focus and results. Give me federally funded drug research that doesn't result in private patents. Give me privately paid doctors but publicly funded malpractice insurance with sane limits on suits. Give me affordable drugs and FDA studies on natural or herbal medications that don't result in monopolies. Stop paying more taxes to take more people out of the workforce and put them into prison for smoking a plant that grows in their back yard.

  3. Well said. There is a further tragic irony in a common American mindset that while individual citizens are responsible for their own welfare and promoting themselves without government support, businesses and corporations large-to-small are entitled and deserve every tax-funded benefit they can get.

  4. Criticism in not being unpatriotic. I get so tired of people that paint any criticism they don't like as anti-this or anti-that. Meanwhile if they don't like the current President or last President they criticisms are justified. One of the many things that makes America great is that we are free to criticism bad practices. If we win enough support for our position we can change those practices.

    There are also plenty of things about the USA that are bad. And plenty of things elsewhere that are good. Luckily for the USA even with all the bad things the USA compares favorably to many other places. But instead of, for example, defending an obviously vastly inferior and vastly more expensive health care system we should say we can be at least average and strive to improve.

    We need more Americans to learn about the rest of the world. And to bring back good idea that we can adopt. Many other countries have been adopting our good ideas - such as cultivating a strong science and technology community (that the USA is losing interest in - very unwisely in my opinion).