Archive for January 2nd, 2011

Misunderstanding Europe

Americans generally do not understand Europe or European politics very well, believing in stereotypes and caricatures, often warped for political purposes.   For instance, during the health care debate horrible stories of long waits and “rationed care” were given as why we don’t want to “be like Europe,” but those stories painted a false idea of what health care in Europe is like.  The reality is that almost everyone gets quality health care, usually with a doctor they know, and without long waits or denial of services.   That’s one reason why Europeans in no way want to give up their health care systems.   After all, you can find as many if not more stories of poor health care or insurance company nightmares cherry picking the US news.

And that’s the problem with lack of knowledge.  If you don’t know a subject well, be it climate change, health care, foreign policy, the nature of Islam, or whatever, it’s very easy to grab on to short often emotive polemics and take them as reality.   If they are well written and the author seems certain, then the reader often accepts it as true, especially if it feeds into existing stereotypes or ideological biases. A coherent world view can be made up of these bits, strung together uncritically, especially by people who like simple straight forward explanations for a complex world.

If you read pundits on the right, Europe is a wimpy pseudo-socialist set of states, unable to field a quality military, and being overtaken by Muslim immigrants.  Some even claim sharia law is gaining traction, as Europeans give into Muslims in hopes that they’ll be satisfied (fitting the ‘appeasement’ meme many ascribe to Europe).  Moreover, the social welfare programs of Europe are dismissed as obsolete, doomed to collapse because of demographic change as Europe ages.   This view of Europe is utterly misguided, yet persists almost as a “matter of course” amongst may conservatives.

On social welfare programs, there is a broad consensus throughout Europe (varying by degrees between countries) that modern industrialized states should guarantee the basics needed for relatively equal opportunity to succeed: education, health care, protection from unemployment, nutrition, and pensions for old age.   The latter, of course, is a reward for contributing to society for decades, and presumably raising children who now become productive.   If you look at any health statistic, EU states usually out perform the US, even though the US pays 16% of its GDP for health care, while Europeans pay 8-10% (and the US GDP is higher per capita).    European health care systems do have to be reformed to remain viable, but an American style system would be too expensive — and unlike theirs, ours doesn’t even cover everyone!

The militaries in Europe are very well trained and well equipped.   True, the forces are smaller in number than those of the US, but this reflects a European view that warfare has changed.  The era of major armies battling in large numbers is a thing of the past, at least in the first world.  They emphasize mobility and intelligence.   If a credible threat emerged, the Europeans could expand their forces, but at this point it seems like a waste of money — after all, even spending half the world’s military budget the US stumbled in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Europe has no desire to get involved in conflicts like those.

What about demographic change?  EU fertility rates are low, about 1.5 (as opposed to 2.04 for the US).  These vary, Germany is at 1.34, Great Britain at 1.7, Italy at 1.28, but France is up at 2.0.   The French have done this in part by giving very generous protections for new mothers.   Recognizing the dangers of population decline (fewer workers supporting more pensioners), states give benefits to mothers women her could only dream of.   Guarantees that the job will be there, longer maternity leaves, increased pay, and child care services are provided.   And though the post-war “boomers” are now turning 65, it will take awhile for the cost to get to be so high that the system would become unsustainable.  Pensions now cost the French 12% of GDP, and by 2030 that will rise to 16% if reforms are not made.

That’s expensive, but not debilitating.  And throughout Europe reforms are being made.   They know that the systems created in the sixties were based on having a large productive working population alongside a small group of retirees likely to live less than a decade after retirement.   Europeans understand that they need to adapt it to new demographic realities.   Yet it won’t require draconian cuts, modest timely reforms can make a significant impact.    Countries are already making these reforms, and have been for some time.   While one reads about protests in France, the reality is that the French government has the support of the people to make changes, and overall political systems in Europe are less prone to gridlock than the US system.   Moreover, outside of a few problem countries, their debt and deficit problems are under control, and unlike in the US, private debt is not a problem.  Indeed, European countries still have net savings, meaning that overall they do not have the massive total debt that the US has.  For us, private debt is as severe or more severe than government debt.

Another factor that could help Europe is immigration.   Despite the hype, Islam really isn’t something Europeans should fear.   Right now Muslims number about 20 million in Europe, or about 4% of the population.   The largest number, 5 million, are in France, about 8% of the population, the Netherlands is next with 5%.   The numbers could double in the next twenty years, and some say that 20% of Europeans could be Muslim by 2050.    This is a significant minority, but not large enough to “take over.”

Some claim that “Sharia law” is spreading in Europe.   It’s not.  France, in fact, is flexing its secular state by banning religious symbols from schools and public buildings, and President Sarkozy even talked about banning the burka completely.   Anti-clerical traditions from the French revolution persist, and affect attitudes towards Islam.  Only in Great Britain in very specific cases within the Muslim community has Sharia law been allowed, and that’s primarily due to a loophole in British law which may be closed.  Fear of Sharia is a red herring, designed to appeal to the emotions of those who want to see Islam as some kind of dangerous enemy.

The Europeans do have to overcome their ethnic based notions of identity in order to allow integration of minorities into their societies.  That has been difficult to do, as “blood” so long has defined European self-identity.  Yet immigration can provide labor needed to support the growing number of elderly and Muslims in Europe tend to modernize.  For all the stories of some radical knocking off a Dutch film maker or groups in London selling violently extremists tracts, most Muslims adopt western ideals and adjust their religious practices to fit their new surroundings.   Since Islam as a religion is struggling to adopt to the modern era, European Muslims may lead the way and provide a model for the rest of the Islamic world.   Better integration into European societies could help bridge cultural gaps.

These are not minor problems.   French riots in 2007 show the dangers of ghettoizing and marginalizing immigrants.   Muslims that come to Europe, usually from Africa, are not especially religious or radical.   But there are forces wanting to radicalize the youth and foster a war between Islam and the West.  It’s important that the Europeans don’t make the extremists’ job easier by pushing immigrants into separate communities where they do not have a chance to integrate.  The fact these issues are being debated and discussed openly and realistically give me no reason to think the Europeans won’t be up to these challenges.    In any event, the next time someone drones on about how horrible things are in Europe, don’t believe it.