Were You Born on the Wrong Continent? : How the European Model Can Help You Get a Life

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  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2011-10-04
  • Publisher: Perseus Distribution Services

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Tired of working 'til you drop and not going anywhere? Try to imagine your life in a full-blown European social democracy-especially the German version. In an idiosyncratic, entertaining travelogue written in a "chatty, anecdotal style [that's] appealingly digressive and winning" ( Publishers Weekly), Thomas Geoghegan explains the appeal of "boring" Germany, where workers sit as directors on the big corporate boards and ordinary people have six weeks off and retire with pensions like golden parachutes. Free public goods, a bit of worker control, and whopping trade surpluses-the German version of "European socialism" doesn't sound too bad. Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?explains where you might have been happier-or at least had time off to be unhappy properly. "Written with humor and candor, making for an easy, fun read" ( AARP Bulletin), it is also a "timely, cogently argued, laugh-out-loud-funny book" (Katrina vanden Heuvel). And it tells us why Americans should pay attention to Germany, where ordinary people can work three hundred to four hundred hours less a year than we do and still have one of the most competitive economies in the world.

Author Biography

Thomas Geoghegan is a practicing attorney and the author, of several books, including See You in Court, In America's Court, and the National Book Critics Circle Award finalist Which Side Are You On? (all available from The New Press). He has written for The Nation, the New York Times, and Harper's. He lives in Chicago.

Table of Contents

Preface: I'm No "European Socialist"p. ix
Which Side of Paradise?
I Know No Europeansp. 3
Where You'd Be Happier- Or, the Story of Isabel and Barbarap. 48
I'm Sorry I Picked the Germansp. 90
Berlin Diary
Prefacep. 153
Germany Is Darkp. 155
Clash of Civilizationsp. 234
After the Krise (2009)p. 269
A Diary Postscriptp. 303
Acknowledgmentsp. 317
Indexp. 319
Table of Contents provided by Ingram. All Rights 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,Newsweekannounced: “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 thattheyare 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 creditors—China, Saudi Arabia, even Honduras, God help us—could 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.

May 2010

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