Try to imagine your life in a full-blown European social democracy, especially the German version. Free public goods, a bit of worker control, and whopping trade surpluses? Social democracy doesn’t sound too bad. Were You Born on the Wrong Continent? reveals where you might have been happieror at least had time off to be unhappy properly. It explains why Americans should pay attention to Germany, where ordinary people can work three hundred to four hundred hours a year less than we do and still have one of the most competitive economies in the world.
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About the Author
Thomas Geoghegan is a practicing attorney and the author of several books, including the National Book Critics Circle Award finalist Which Side Are You On?, In America’s Court, and See You in Court (all available from The New Press). He contributes regularly to The Nation, the New York Times, and Harper’s. In 2009, he ran as a progressive candidate for Rahmn Emanuel's congressional seat and was endorsed by Barbara Ehrenreich, James Fallows, Thomas Frank, James K. Galbraith, Hendrik Hertzberg, Alex Kotlowitz, Sara Paretsky, Rick Perlstein, Katha Pollitt, David Sirota, Garry Wills, and Naomi Wolf, among others.
Born in Cincinnati in 1949, Geoghegan is a graduate of St. Xavier High School, Harvard University, and Harvard Law School. He has worked as a contributing editor at The New Republic, a lawyer in the United Mine Workers's legal department, and a policy analyst for the U.S. Department of Energy. He is a partner at the law firm Despres, Schwartz, and Geoghegan, where he has worked since 1979. As a public-interest lawyer, he has filed lawsuits to enforce child labor laws, expand voting rights, crack down on the payday loan industry, and require public health measures to stop the spread of tuberculosis among the homeless. As a labor lawyer, he has represented nurses, machinists, railroad workers, steelworkers, teachers, truck drivers, the rank-and-file anticorruption group Teamsters for a Democratic Union, as well as workers who lack the protection of a union.
Geoghegan has been awarded a Fulbright scholarship, a German Marshall grant, and fellowships at the American Academy in Berlin and the Institute of Politics at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
Read an Excerpt
Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?How the European Model Can Help You Get a Life
By Thomas Geoghegan
New Press, TheCopyright © 2011 Thomas Geoghegan
All right reserved.
Preface: I’m No "European Socialist”
I had better say: I’m no "European socialist.”
A few months ago the uproar d’jour was: is Barack Obama a socialist? Yes, he was to the extent that, like George Bush, he wanted a bailout of the banks. The cover of the February 16, 2009, Newsweek announced: "WE ARE ALL SOCIALISTS NOW.” The argument is that U.S. government spending is nearly as high as Europe’s. A decade ago, the U.S. government was spending 34.3 percent of GDP, compared with 48.2 percent in the "euro-zone,” which is Europe without the UK. Now, while the Continent is at 47 percent, we have gone up to 40.
And, in fact, I think the U.S. will close the gap. But in a sense, the more we spend, the less socialist we become. For whether it is health care or education, we use the private market to pay for the distribution of public goods. In other words, we pay socialist-type taxes so that the private insurance companies, drug companies, and, yes, doctors can profiteer.
That’s the crisis of our time: we’re paying for European-type socialism, without getting the equivalent payback.
Still, isn’t it worth it to keep capitalism?
Yes, of course, but if we took Europe as a guide, we would do a lot better at capitalism. The Germans make money off the same global economy that leaves us in hock. And the longer the hours we work to be competitive, the deeper in debt we seem to go. How is it that they are the ones who aren’t in debt when they get six weeks’ holiday every year?
I have to say again: I’m no European socialist. But as a patriot I would like to ask: which model, ours or theirs, is more likely to keep us out of the clutches of foreign creditors?
It’s bad enough that, with the Wall Street crack-up and the war in Iraq, we are no longer a superpower. What worries me even more is that we have compromised our sovereignty. One day our creditorsChina, Saudi Arabia, even Honduras, God help uscould assemble into a creditors’ committee that tells us what to do.
What bothers me is that Europe does better than us both at capitalism and socialism. It’s unfair that they seem to be beating us at both.
Still, I’m no European socialist. On the other hand, I think back to one of the original arguments against socialism. The case against socialism, Oscar Wilde wrote, is that it takes up too many evenings. We end up going to political meetings instead of going out to dine. But in my own personal life, I have to say the case against our capitalism, our kind and not Europe’s, is that it takes up too many evenings, working late at the office, and it takes up weekends, too. What fascinates me about Europe is the possibility of having an interesting job and still leaving the evenings free.
On what continent is it easier to go out and dine?
Still, even if I could start over, I’d hate to make the choice between soaring to the top in a free-fall U.S. or putt-putting in neutral in a cozy little EU democracy. Is it possible to have a world where we get a bit of both?
In most of what follows I will be talking about the Germans. Like all of you, I deeply regret I didn’t write about the French. Yet for all the lack of sex appeal, it’s still Germany that presents the starkest alternative to the way we live today. It’s the only country with a system that, after the collapse of Communism, continued to push for a certain very limited form of worker control.
That’s only one reason why I picked the Germans. After all, I’m a union-side labor lawyer. But at the moment I also worry about the future of my country. The Germans seem to have the secret for getting out of debt.
I hope I have cleared up that I’m no European socialist. Now let me explain how I ended up in darkest Germany when I might have had my evenings free in France.
Excerpted from Were You Born on the Wrong Continent? by Thomas Geoghegan Copyright © 2011 by Thomas Geoghegan. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
Preface: I’m No “European Socialist”
Part One: Which Side of Paradise?
1. I Know No Europeans
2. Where You’d Be HappierOr, the Story of Isabel and Barbara
3. I’m Sorry I Picked the Germans
Part Two: Berlin Diary
4. Germany Is Dark
5. Clash of Civilizations
6. After the Krise (2009)
Afterword to the Paperback Edition