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Perfect Strangers

Are America and Europe really all that different?

In the popular imagination, the United States and Europe are assumed to be radically opposing poles--"Mars" and "Venus"--on issues such as market regulation, public education, social policy, health care, crime, and the environment. But is that really the case? The numbers would suggest otherwise. My book, The Narcissism of Minor Differences: How America and Europe are Alike, presents quantifiable data on a wide array of social conditions on each side of the Atlantic. Of some 500 data points, only half a dozen, at most, present a contrast between the United States and Europe that is as clear as night and day. In every other respect, conditions in the United States fall somewhere between those in the surprisingly wide span of Western Europe's nations. Click through this slideshow to get a look at some of these striking figures.

Inequality and poverty. Because of America's reputation for no-holds-barred capitalism, it is often assumed that the country's poverty and inequality problems are worse than in "post-capitalist" Europe. This is only partly correct. America is indeed more economically stratified than most European nations, although some countries, including Switzerland and Sweden, have allowed an equal or larger proportion of wealth to fall into the hands of the richest than is the case in the United States.

Yet inequality and poverty are not the same thing. If we want to have a sense of how many people are actually having a hard time making ends meet, rather than just how many have proportionately less than the affluent within their own country, then we will want to look also at absolute poverty. If we measure poverty as the equivalent--including cash and other benefits--of 60 percent of the median income for the original six nations of the EU in 2000, this is what we get. Many Western European countries have a higher percentage of poor citizens than the United States--not only the Mediterranean countries, but also the UK, Ireland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Finland, and Sweden. These and all other figures are intentionally rendered in comparable terms, usually Purchasing Power Parity, so that cost-of- living differences are factored out.

Automobile use. Despite the perception that America is a hyper-motorized nation, its citizens own fewer passenger cars per head than many Europeans. And even if one includes the figures for all road motor vehicles (to account for American drivers’ use of SUVs and light trucks), the U.S. figures are lower than Portugal's and in the same league as Luxembourg's, Iceland's, and Italy's.

What's more, contrary to what is commonly supposed, the United States has a well-developed rail system. True, Americans do not themselves travel on this extensive rail network. But it does transport the country's freight, and at a rate over three times the highest found in any European country (Sweden). Ecologically speaking, there's no advantage in sending passengers by rail if freight is sent by road, and all European countries send more goods by truck than by rail. The upshot is that the number of trucks per capita is lower in America than anywhere in Europe--one-third, for example, of the Norwegian, French, or Austrian levels--so the European virtue of taking the train is offset by the fact that their dishwashers, turnips, and cornflakes are being driven around on the road.

Social welfare. Everyone has heard that America's welfare state is minimal and paltry compared to those found in Europe. And it is, if the standard is taken to be Sweden or Germany. But compared with the span of social policy within Europe as a whole, by most measures, the United States fits comfortably into the lower half of the European spectrum, alongside Italy, Switzerland, Ireland, and the Netherlands.

Of course, when you tally public social spending by measuring monies channeled through the state, America appears at the low end of the European spectrum. That makes sense, because the United States has no universal system of health insurance, nor does it have family allowances, as Europeans do. But other avenues of redistribution are equally important: voluntary efforts, private but legally mandated benefits, and tax-based social benefits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit. If we take all these together, the American welfare state is more extensive than is often realized. The total social-policy effort made in the United States falls precisely at the center of the European spectrum. The Swedes allot almost twice the fraction of GDP that Americans allocate to social policy, but the actual spending per citizen in the United States is only about 30 percent less than in Sweden.

Crime. It is true that a horrendous number of murders take place in the United States, almost twice the per-capita rate of the nearest European competitors, Switzerland, Finland, and Sweden. It's also true that the United States locks in prison a far higher percentage of its population than any of its peers. But, in most other respects, America is a peaceful and quiet place by European standards.

The percentage of the population victimized by property crime, for example, is lower than in the UK and Italy. For assault, the rate is in the middle of the European pack. Drug use in the United States is also well within the European scale; opiate abuse is at the center of the European spectrum, as is the rate of white-collar crimes such as fraud. When it comes to the fraction of the population victimized by all forms of crime, the United States figures in the bottom half of the European scale. In other words, the contrast across the Atlantic is not as great as one might think.

Reading and thinking. Simone de Beauvoir was convinced that "in America … no one needs to read because no one thinks." Thinking, of course, is hard to quantify--and there's no accounting for some parts of New Jersey--but Americans certainly do read. The percentage of illiterate Americans is average by European standards. There are more newspapers per head in the United States than anywhere in Europe outside Scandinavia, Switzerland, and Luxembourg. Due to the longstanding tradition of well-funded public libraries in this country, the average American reader is better supplied with library books than her European peers, everywhere outside of Scandinavia and a few other small nations. Americans also make better use of this reading material: The average U.S. citizen borrowed more library books in 2001 than most of her European peers. What's more, Americans write--or at least publish--more books per capita than most Europeans, and they buy more books per head than any Europeans for whom we have numbers.

Peter Baldwin is Professor of History at UCLA and author of several books on the comparative development of the modern state in Europe and the United States.

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