As I am reading the late great Tony Judt’s “Ill Fares the Land” (jumping up and shouting YES! every couple of pages…) , out comes another book comparing European social welfare states with the American model: Tom Geoghegan’s “Were you born on the wrong continent?”
Based on Geoghegan, I was born on the right continent, but must have temporarily lost my mind and moved to the wrong one. How could I leave a place providing guaranteed vacation time, free education, free child care, free nursing home care and generous unemployment payments?
I have lived in the United States for many years now and “the country” has been good to me. I have been able to pursue a diverse career of my choice, changing jobs and locations in a way that would have made me an outcast on the German labor market. I have been able to make a decent living (in large parts thanks to that free German education putting me ahead of Americans, financially and in terms of basic skills), raise a family and live in a beautiful place of my choice. Working in the nonprofit sector, my work has made real change in local communities, people and policies in a way that would not have been possible in the more static German welfare and political system.
The country has been good to me. So I will not join too loudly the choir of people on all the social media networks and the press who took the publishing of Geoghegan’s book as another opportunity to complain about how terrible this country is. I feel more at home in Tony Judt’s camp: Looking at the welfare systems through his vast historical perspective (a European who lived in the US by choice, like myself) many of the paradoxes on both sides of the ocean make more sense. For example, he reminds the reader that neoliberalism hasn’t always ruled American political thought and decision making: “ …, much that was best in American legislation and social policy over the course of the 20th century – and that we are now urged to dismantle in the name of efficiency and “less government” – corresponds in practice to what Europeans have called ‘social democracy’.” He explains why even in countries like Germany, middle-class support for the social democratic model is now waning. And he chastises our generation with having missed a great opportunity: After the fall of communism, “we sat back and congratulated ourselves upon having won the Cold War: a sure way to lose the peace. The years from 1989 to 2009 were consumed by locusts.” Thirty years of erosion of social policies in the US have made the country more unequal “ … - in incomes, wealth, health, education and life chances - than at any time since the 1920s.”
And here’s a big point (one of several) on which Judt and Geoghegan “agree”: Poverty (Geoghegan) and inequality (Judt) corrupt society, endanger democracy, and ultimately undermine the economy: “Inequality is corrosive. It rots societies from within.” Judt explains the emergence of the social democratic systems after two world wars in Europe partially as a way to avoid another catastrophe. Geoghegan shows that poverty carries a tremendous cost to US society and economy.
Here's a West-German Cold War quote a fellow German expatriate reminded me of “ Geh doch nach drüben!” which is what German conservatives used to say if someone in post-war West-Germany was too lefty, meaning, go to Communist East Germany. The reviewers that have praised Geoghegan’s little book are now getting the same comment: “go there, if you like it so much better than the home of the brave and the land of the free….”
Meanwhile, I am running out of the benefits my European free education provided me: A large portion of my salary goes towards the private education of my younger children, because where we live, school districts are too underfunded to provide a solid public education. Our teenagers go to the local college to make up for what high school does not offer. This means, I am putting away no money for my retirement, let alone a graduate education for our children. The secondary education they get here does not adequately prepare them for the (free) higher education programs in Europe. So, is it “Geh doch nach drüben” time? should we move our family back to Europe?
We have not made that decision. Maybe the question is not, where is it better, or, where would we be happier. One of the challenges for us 21st century homeless cosmopolitans might be to find a way to be at home in both worlds. Not only from an individual perspective, taking advantage of the best of both worlds and avoiding the worst. But also from the perspective of ambassador between the worlds, showing our fellow citizens on both sides of the Atlantic what is dear to us and worth transferring to the other side. The freedom of making creative choices in one’s life and one’s community from the US, and the solidarity of social democracy that affords everyone the chance to do so, from Europe. Judt the European and Geoghegan the American do a good job bridging the Atlantic for this discussion. Everyone should read their books.