The Continental Plan

Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?: How the European Model Can Help You Get a Life
By Thomas Geoghegan
New Press, 2010

Reviewed by Thomas Greven

This should be a good time for a book that essentially asks Americans to learn from Europe, and especially from Germany. Few Western countries have managed the global financial and economic crisis as well as Germany, it seems, and its successful crisis management has a lot to do with those features of the German model that Thomas Geoghegan highlights as “blueprintable.” During the crisis, the institutional strength of the unions led to measures designed to maintain the high-skills backbone of the German economic model of high-quality exports. For Geoghegan, German industrial relations (and similar systems in other European countries) explain why not only the bottom two thirds of Americans would be better off in Europe; for him, that is a given, especially regarding the unemployed and people on welfare. No, he argues, “Europe is set up for the bourgeois,” too (p. 11), for the upper middle class, who get the same benefits, like six weeks of vacation, maternity leave, good pensions, and so on. His thesis is “that even people who are at the top or are in the top 20 percent by income are better off in a European social democracy than in a country like the U.S.” (p. 260).

While U.S. per capita GDP is higher than in most European countries, the quality of life is not. Just “go outside and walk around,” Geoghegan wants to tell the “Cato types” (p. 12). Thanks to the strength of the European unions, there is an “invisible GDP” (p. 14) of lower inequality, better public services and goods, and perhaps most importantly from the perspective of an American professional, lower working hours—the average German worked almost four hundred fewer hours than the average American in 2006. Geoghegan marvels at the fact that, with these far fewer hours, Europeans manage to get to nearly the per capita GDP of Americans, and he ponders the question of what could be done with all these saved hours—reading, traveling, learning foreign languages? As someone who once unsuccessfully tried for months to find a co-worker in the congressional office of Bernie Sanders—an American socialist after all—to go have an actual lunch break in a restaurant instead of eating microwave-heated noodle soup at the desk, I am definitely with him.

Writing well before the 2010 midterm elections, but already in the midst of the Tea Party frenzy, Geoghegan must have known his arguments would be a hard sell in the U.S., even without the Greece crisis. He thus opens his book by repeatedly assuring his readers that he is “no European socialist.” I doubt very much that this will help him in a country where a sizable minority of the population, without being ridiculed daily in the media, upholds the belief that a harmless middle-of-the-road Democrat like Barack Obama is, indeed, a socialist. And, of course, American exceptionalism is not an ideology reserved for the right. So there is definitely the danger that this treatise will be a case of preaching to the choir.

Now, as a European socialist, am I part of that choir? Let’s just say I would very much like to agree with Geoghegan, but I do have my reservations. First, like almost any American liberal that I have ever talked to about his or her European experience, Geoghegan goes somewhat overboard in his description of the achievements of European unions, the wonders of the welfare states, the quality of life, and so on. “In a way, Germany of today is where the New Deal went on to live,” he states (p.119). Without much reference to scholarly debate, Geoghegan identifies what is at the heart of the German success story and embraces it wholeheartedly for the U.S.: “In the end, it’s socialism that is the reason Germany is competitive. Because German workers are at the table when the big decisions are made, and elect people who still watch and sometimes check the businessmen; they have hung on to—well, a highly skilled tool—making culture” (p. 112). In turn, the industrial base sustains (social) democracy as unions make sure that people have a stake in the big decisions. Unfortunately, Geoghegan omits the costs of the export-driven economy that is the direct consequence of the German emphasis on manufacturing, both internally—where workers have had to accept meager wage increases for decades (only to see Germany’s competitiveness being eaten away, time and again, by the strong Euro)—and externally, in terms of foreign governments complaining bitterly that Germany is exporting not just goods but unemployment.

In fact, all the achievements he mentions have been under constant attack and all of their foundations are suffering from erosion. Under pressure from global competition, Germany and Europe have deregulated, neoliberalized, and privatized, and are bound to do so even more. Recent EU-level court rulings clearly put the freedom of capital above the right to organize, and while unions remain strong in many individual European countries, they remain weak at the EU level. Or, to imitate the personable style of the book—which I would like to see more of (or, rather, at all) in the German book market—the Berlin system of commuter trains that Geoghegan raves about has been in total shambles lately and I, like many, have switched to the subway. Why, you ask? Management had all but stopped maintenance in order to deliver profits ahead of a planned privatization of parent company Deutsche Bahn. Well, at least they did get caught—by a government agency. In sum, it does not appear that the German model of social democracy, with its emphasis on strong unions and human capital development, is going to be the role model for a unified Europe.

Geoghegan does concede the erosion of European social democracy, but is right to point out continuing and important differences from the U.S. He finds a good contrasting image—“And here’s the real clash of civilizations: ‘Christian America,’ where churchgoers work and shop on Sunday, and ‘post-Christian Europe,’ where Ascension Thursday is [a day] off” (p. 240). Only, given the fact that even a unified Democratic government in the U.S. was unable (or unwilling) to break the Republican hegemony of low taxes, any blueprintable ideas from Europe are a moot point now that the Republicans are back.

An inspired debate is all Geoghegan can hope for now, I think. And while his research and writing style, focused on personal experiences, makes for a good read and produces many valuable insights, he cannot fully avoid dealing in clichés (though, as we know, clichés can be helpful). More importantly, I cringe at easily avoidable factual errors. A fact-checking intern with a web-browser could have found out that the German left party is called “Die Linke” and not “the Links.” The German word for law is not “Gerecht.” German unions, until very recently, have not had organizers. Düsseldorf is not the heart of German manufacturing. The IG Metall has its problems with organizing highly skilled workers. All in all, Geoghegan’s story is too much centered on the powerful metalworkers’ union. In the service sector, most of what he writes about the power of unions, centralized bargaining, and the division of labor between unions and works councils is no longer true, if it ever was. There is something to be said for caution and humility when one lacks local language skills. Still, given Geoghegan’s apparent lack of these skills, I marvel at the many profound insights he is able to provide. It is, indeed, the “very existence of the CDU [Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands]” (p. 120)—the German conservative party with its adherence to Catholic social teachings—that explains the ingrained social dimension of German capitalism, which persists even when the SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands) is weak. And, yes, the German political conversation is more about collective decisions of “big things” than it is about horse races and celebrities—at least for now.

As I am writing this, sitting by the pool at my temporary home in West Africa, where the state does not exist in the sense we talk about it in Europe, or in the U.S. for that matter, I ponder my luck of being born on the right continent. Here, the privatization nightmare has come true; you are seemingly fine as long as you can afford to buy privately the goods that should be public. But, in the end, nobody can escape the fallout from the exclusion of the many, which results in poverty, crime, and the careless burning of trash at the roadside, the smell of which wafts over the pool. But Geoghegan’s enthusiasm for the European way of life, and his American optimism, help to balance my German gloom and pessimism. So I endorse his call to “help European social democracy… [i] n the 1930s people on the left went to die in Madrid. In the same way, it’s our duty to spend in Berlin” (p. 234). All right, I am thinking, come to Berlin, we will have a good time. Just don’t spend your dollars at places like “I mog di” on Oranienburger Strasse, which caters almost exclusively to clueless Americans who can see nothing wrong with a glitzy fake Bavarian outfit in the heart of Berlin’s Mitte.





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