Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

How bad is 'European'?

By Claude Fischer

GOP Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has been, as have other GOP candidates, castigating President Obama for presumably wanting to “Europeanize” the United States. On January 6, 2012, for example, Romney asserted that the President was “dragging ‘the soul of America’ toward a ‘European-style welfare state’.” Romney and others have accused the President of loving America too little and loving Europe too much. One question that this line of criticism raises (whether it does or it does not correctly reflect Obama’s views) is: What’s so bad about Europe?

In this post, I compare life for Americans to life for Europeans on a variety of dimensions. To simplify matters, let us look just at the U.S., Sweden (the country that most represents to Americans the European welfare state), and a large nation that conservatives also dislike, France. And then, let’s ask how the three nations stack up. Perhaps there are some things European that America might actually want to emulate. (I drafted this post before recent columns on the Europe question by Nicholas Kristof and by E.J. Dionne — both worth reading.)

Quantity and quality of Life

First up: How long do people live? (Unless otherwise noted, the data come from OECD statistics, available online.) The graph below shows that the French and Swedes live longer than Americans do. Other evidence (pdf) shows that about 40 percent of Americans skip getting medical care or drugs because of cost, over three times the percentage in Europe.

Life Expectancy chart

Europeans also live safer lives. Rates of interpersonal violence are much higher in the United States. This graph shows the most accurately measured indicator, rates of homicide:

Homicide Rate chart

We also know that Europeans do not have to work as hard as Americans do. They have more legislated vacations and usually retire earlier. This graph shows how many hours a year workers in the three countries are on the job.

Hours Worked chart

Here’s another dimension of social life: honesty. According to the agency that systematically explores corruption, the United States and France rank about the same, below Sweden.

Transparency Index chart

Then, there is civic participation (source). Overall, Americans belong to as many associations per capita as do Swedes, although there are complications: Swedes are much more likely to belong to unions and Americans to belong to churches. When those two types of associations are set aside, there is, again, no difference between the two nations.

Association Membership chart

Over a variety of measures, then, the Swedes and French seem to have it as good or better than Americans do.


But there is one area in which the United States is clearly superior to France and Sweden, one which Gov. Romney has stressed: On average, Americans make more money. And so, they can buy more than Europeans can.

Median Household Income chart

We need, however, to temper this difference by realizing, first, that, as we saw above, Americans work more hours for their income. Second, there is great inequality in American income. The following measure, the gini coefficient, is the main way economists measure income inequality. The U.S. is the most economically unequal developed nation.

Inequality Index chart

What the greater inequality means is that Americans who are well above-average in wealth can afford the best in the world – the best medical care, best schools for their kids, and the safest (gated) communities – but at the same time Americans who are well below-average get notably lousy medical care, schools, and dangerous neighborhoods. The French and the Swedes tend to be more bunched in the middle – in large measure because many of the good things in life, like medical care and childcare, are provided equally to all.


But the key difference, Romney stresses, is that the United States is an opportunity society. We may not have — we shouldn’t even want, he says — a society of equal outcomes; what Americans have is a society of equal opportunity.

For a while, the assumption that America had the advantage over Europe in the opportunity to move up the economic ladder could be asserted in public discussions without much challenge. But sociologists have known for decades that this is not true. Studies show that the chances of children moving up from their parents’ statuses were no greater or even lower here than in Europe. Now the news has finally reached the general media (e.g., here and here) and it is harder to make the equal opportunity vs. equal outcome claim.

The graph below is illustrative. It shows the odds that a young Swedish or American man whose father was in the bottom one-fifth of the national income distribution would himself end up in the top two-fifths of the income distribution (from pdf, table 12; French data were not available). Sweden seems to be the real “opportunity society” in this comparison.

Moving Up Chances chart


All this is not to say that the United States is worse than France and Sweden. One could compile other measures that would be more to the advantage of the U.S. (For example, our hypertension levels are lower; our suicide rate is lower.) It is to say that the facile dismissal of European societies as some kind of failure is foolish.

And all this is not to say that the United States should become Europe; we couldn’t even if we wished to. But a wise leader would consider what we might learn from, what we might advantageously borrow from, the Europeans.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.