TCS Daily

Are Americans Becoming Europeans?

By James K. Glassman - October 21, 2005 12:00 AM

MILAN - I have just finished a two-week trip to Europe -- my honeymoon, if you must know -- and, as usual with a European trip, I have come away with two completely different impressions.

Europe, or at least the parts I go to, is a wonderful place to live and to visit. It's beautiful; the food is great; the people are generally warm and relaxed. If there is a greater pleasure than eating a plate of Insalata Caprese (tomatoes, mozzarella, basil and cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil) on a sunny terrace on the Amalfi Coast with the islands where the Sirens lured Ulysses in the distance, then I haven't found it yet.

But, when it comes to public policy, Europe has taken a wrong turn. Its welfare state has sapped initiative and driven jobs abroad; its treatment of immigrants is shameful; unemployment is in the double digits; health policy is making people sicker; and foreign policy is based on isolationism and moral posturing.

The results are predictable: The countries that use the euro will grow 1.2 percent this year, according to The Economist; the U.S. will grow 3.5 percent. Similar disparity has prevailed for a decade, and Americans today have a living standard about one-third higher. The notion that Europe will be able to compete with resurgent China and India in the next 30 years is laughable.

Certainly, however, there isn't just a single Europe. The countries on the outer edges -- Britain, Poland, Ireland, Portugal, Estonia, and so on -- remain fairly aspirational, leaning in the direction of American liberalism (in the best sense of that word -- a tendency to place freedom, economic and personal, number-one on a list of values). They haven't given in to the smug complacency of France, Germany, Belgium and (I'm sad to say) Spain. Italy, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries are somewhere in between.

It's also true that Europe is changing. By a whisker, Germany just elected a new coalition government, headed by Angela Merkel, a woman who understands that her country's welfare and tax system can't endure. There are signs that even the French recognize the dangers of nationalized industries and 35-hour work weeks imposed from above.

Still, don't expect much soon in the way of European economic transformation. This is the life they have chosen -- one in which, they believe, the state relieves them of the stress of a market society. But the price is very high. Surveys show rampant European unhappiness and pessimism. European birth rates have fallen so sharply that populations are headed for steep declines. Why? Sadly, couples don't place a high priority on bringing children into the paradise they've created.

But Europeans will have to find their own path. My concern is with Americans. Is it inevitable that, as we grow more prosperous, we will become more like Europe -- losing initiative, insisting that our governments coddle us?

I worry that we are beginning to see the initial signs of just such a turn for the worse. A distinguished 20-member panel of experts convened by the National Academies, America's top science advisory group, has warned in a new study that the U.S. "could soon lose its privileged position" as the world's top innovator and growth engine. With competitors "who live just a mouse click away," we stand to lose high-paying jobs, especially to Asia.

Key statistics: The number of U.S. doctorates in science and engineering peaked in 1998. In 1970, the U.S. accounted for more than half such degrees; by 2010, just 15 percent. By 2010, China will produce more science and engineering doctoral graduates that we will.

The whiners think that we can opt out of a globalized world, cocoon ourselves in protectionism. In fact, if we take that course, the crack-up will come sooner.

The Academies panel takes a more constructive course, with a list of that focuses on science teaching in high school and college and on more government spending on basic research in science. I agree. It's also imperative that we cut our lofty corporate tax rates, which are sending thousands of good jobs abroad.

But government action is only part of the solution. The personal counts more. America has a choice: more like Europe, or more like Asia. Actually, Asia has become more like America in recent years, so the real choice is whether we want to be complacent Europeans or to our hard-working, compassionate, imaginative American selves.



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