The United States of Europe

The United States of Europe


In heaven, the police are British. The cooks are French. The engineers are German. The administrators are Swiss and the lovers Italian.

In hell, the police are German. The cooks are British. The engineers are Italian. The administrators are French and the lovers Swiss. – Anonymous


As the Obama administration embarks on a domestic and geopolitical change agenda that is redefining America and our role in the free world, critics are warning that America is moving dangerously toward becoming Europe.  However, given that less than 10% of Americans possess passports and have never actually visited Europe, let alone Chicago, it’s interesting that there is such high anxiety about moving closer to a social and economic model that many have never experienced.


Conservatives argue that the US like Europe is setting itself up for dire consequences of more liberal social policies – inflation, economic stagnation, income redistribution and social safety nets that become hammocks for people who chronically refuse to take personal responsibility for anything. The Lefties argue that the last eight years was a drunken orgy benefiting the elite, enabled by the elite and now being cleaned up by people that were not even invited to the party.   Perhaps, they argue, a little bit more egalite might get us on to a better track.


While America is clearly my home and has better cable TV, I have lived abroad and believe the US could learn a thing or two from Europe. The traditional arguments of Europe as a failed welfare state just don’t hold up well as Americans wake up to the aftermath of our own excesses. The nascent European Economic Community was forged out of historically liberal, autonomous countries to better compete with Asian tigers and American bulls.  The result has been nothing short of miraculous and while the seams of the Euro-zone quilt are visible to the naked eye, it is a work of art to be admired.


Just consider the unique benefits of being more European:


In Europe, governments are often formed through the alliance of many political parties.  These coalition governments allow for the existence of multiple interest groups.  In coalition countries, a person can align with Greens, Conservatives, Liberals, Socialists, Agnostics, Fiscal Conservatives, or even start a party for people who have fetishes for string. The down side of coalition governance is perpetual turmoil and in cases such as Italy, some governments have the life span of a housefly.  But hey, at least you can find a party that really represents your views.


Life is healthier across the pond. Refrigerators are smaller forcing you to buy your food fresh and eat smaller portions resulting in fewer overweight people.  Because continental Europeans eat less, they need smaller bathrooms. This is particularly true of the UK where the absence of roughage in the English diet requires the average Brit to use the loo about once a week. The French believe in portion control, which explains why your duck l’orange entree is the size of a postage stamp. Meals are consumed over several hours and spiced with great conversation where sex, religion and politics are as politically correct as driving a hybrid. In Europe, you never eat in your car, standing up or alone at your desk. You sit down with others and stop grazing when you are full. There is not much of a market for bariatric surgery.  XXL is a Roman numeral.


Protecting the environment is a priority and there is recognition that an abused earth will eventually beginning to poison us.  Europeans do not trust genetically altered food or reality TV.  A trans-fat is not a food additive but a Rubenesque cross dresser that hangs out at train stations.


Humility is a sign of social maturity and it is considered dignified to disguise one’s social standing, especially around tax collectors.  In Europe, you tend to move back to the community where you grew up. Multiple generations of families spend Sundays together.  Outdoor cafes spill into piazzas and squares that serve as the heart of every village and town. People eat family style. You can bring your dog into a restaurant and leave your crying baby outside the cafe in a pram. There are no curfews for teens and dinner reservations can be made at midnight. Childcare is provided by live-in in-laws, your employer or by relatives who reside within a ten-mile radius.  Public transportation is outstanding and if you do own a car, it is the size of a phone booth and gets 55mpg.


There are more per capita museums, bicycles, and best of all, nude beaches – although the majority of topless women are 55 year old Germans whose bodies have long since stopped cooperating and who have more facial hair than Fidel Castro. There is one sport – soccer.  It is called ” the beautiful game”. It requires physical stamina, intelligence and the ability to flop to the ground feigning injury.  Most great floppers grew up as younger siblings in large Catholic families and are highly skilled at implicating others for false contact.


You are much freer to be stupid in Europe than the US and society doesn’t have to pay for it.  If you ski off a mountain, get hit while crossing a street, spill hot coffee on yourself or decide to put your motor home on cruise control and then go back to make yourself breakfast because you mistakenly think cruise control is auto-pilot, you are considered a moron and you deserve what you get.  In the US, the same outcomes result in lawsuits galore and liability that inflates the price of everything from lift tickets to lattes. In Europe, there are no victims, only those that have bad luck or make bad choices. In the US, everyone is a victim as long as there are deep pockets and slick plaintiffs attorneys.


The violent crime rate is low because the only guys that have guns in Europe are Russian mobsters and you can smell them coming from a mile away, literally. Property crime is the main problem and there is an old saying in Germany, ” if your car is stolen, it’s probably in Poland”.  Healthcare is free but extremely Spartan. Take a number, lie on this gurney and if you are dying you get to go to the head of the line. If you have good insurance today, you will hate national health.  If you are uninsured, underinsured or a hypochondriac, you’ll love it. Despite the obvious shortcomings of nationalized healthcare, many European countries enjoy higher public health scores than the US – greater longevity and lower infant mortality rates. This is generally due to lifestyle compression where the wealthy do not live ten years longer than the indigent and since everyone has access to care, the median life span increases.  The lower cost of care is due to lifestyles, an emphasis on preventive care, red wine and six weeks of paid vacation.


Everything is collectively bargained.  Even the unions have unions.  The best job in Europe is not CEO but being the head of the employee work’s council.  This tenured power position means you get to review all raises and vote down unfair management systems where your performance might actually be monitored.  If you actually get fired, you are eligible for three years severance and something called ” garden leave ” where you get to plant flowers and listen to opera in your back yard courtesy of your former employer.  Unions are also great for your social life as frequent strikes mean surprise holidays and business savings as airport and transportation actions often mean staying home.


The best part of being European is your name. I would much prefer to be called Michel than Michael.  Michel is a guy who can wear a beret and not look dumb. If I were John, I would prefer Juan. Juan can win a sword fight and can wear tight pants without ripping them in the crotch.  Many European names indicate what kind of person you are.  If you go by the name Vlad, odds are you enjoy impaling things.  Fabio?  Say no more.  The Dutch are very predictable.  A man is either Aad or Ruud.  It is possible to be “odd and rude” at the same time but only if you are from Rotterdam and drunk on corn wine.  As you head north and east, you meet Henriks, Dominiks, Theos, Jorgens, Hans Eriks or Dags – all strong names suggesting a person who could easily hold off a hundred Russians with only a hunting knife.


In the end, America remains a land of unprecedented possibility.  The main lesson here is to not fall prey to the myopic belief that we are the most evolved of all societies.   It is human nature that when contrasting America to others, we notice differences first and often reject alternative ideas for the mere fact that they are different.  Older societies have obvious blemishes but have had more time to evolve and learn. Ultimately history will judge what defines a great society.  It stands to reason that a great society is not just built on a polarized distribution of wealth between very few haves and many have-nots.  However, it is not defined by colorless socialism or suffocating regulation.  Perhaps, the new US and the new Europe might actually find themselves meeting in the middle and in doing so, forging a brave new world model that offers a balanced combination of the best that we can be – – socially, economically, legally, religiously and collectively. 


And, if that happens, I’m getting that beret

Playing The Culture Card


Česky: West Germanic kingdoms (460AD)
Česky: West Germanic kingdoms (460AD) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


As I returned from visiting Europe this past summer, I was reminded of the cultural chasm that separates us.  Aside from political and foreign policy rifts which have gouged this divide, there has and always will be a separation between the US and Europe. To understand it and to effectively bridge it, one must acknowledge that it exists.


I recall attending a cultural sensitivity seminar conducted by a Dutch consultant.  She shared that the DNA of any culture is comprised of densely packed chromosomes of tradition, social class, its geography, history, priorities, values, way of life, weather, sports, music, religious composition, tendency toward tribalism, regionalism or nationalism and resources.  In Europe, a few cultural axioms always prove true:


1)    Smaller neighbors always resent larger neighbors


2)    Larger neighbors tend to patronize smaller neighbors


3)    What you see, is not necessarily what you get


4)    There is no culture of blame, focus is usually on the issue not the person


5)    The smaller the country, the longer the memory


In Holland, I was always fascinated by the Dutch and their attitude toward the Germans.  These countries are economically tied to the hip and there is a saying, “ if Germany gets a cold, the Dutch get pneumonia”.  However, those that live in Rotterdam will never forget their city being destroyed in WWII.  I recall a Dutch cab driver telling me that he always gave German tourists the wrong directions and he cannot wait for the men in Orange to beat the Germans in any national match.


To an average Dutchman, a German is fat, drives a Mercedes, nationalistic, arrogant, obsessed by details, inflexible, humorless, dig big holes in the sand on vacation and always arrive at 6am to stake out their area on the beach for the entire day.  They get up at 6:30 am and “ ja” always means “ja”.  Once they get a “no”, the Germans stop. The Germans arrive ten minutes early to meetings.  They are prepared. There are different definitions of quality.  For some in Europe, “ good is good enough”.  For the Germans, “ The best is just about enough”. Does this description sound familiar to you ? In WWII US soldiers commented that the one country whose citizens most resembled Americans in terms of work ethic, community stewardship, focus on initiative and directness were – -The Germans.


The Dutch are a trading nation where the Germans are an industrial nation. The Dutch speak in diminutives and constantly downplay their success.  “Oh, that little car.”  “It’s not much, that tiny house.” “ That is a nice dress you are wearing,” to which the response is always immediate, “ I bought it on sale “.  The Dutch do not show a lot of emotion.  When a Dutchman is upset, he/she has three phases of anger : “ I am surprised”, “ I am worried”, “ I am quietly furious “. The Dutch spent 80 years fighting Spain and have spent centuries fighting against the North Sea, and as a result they are by nature, stubborn, doubting Thomases that once convinced, loyally and effectively execute. After fighting together so long to hold back the sea, they are team players.  There is a deeply developed sense of consensus.  Decisions take a long time but commitment is also more sustained once the decision is determined.


Then there are the Belgians.  Belgium does not really exist as we know it – – it is in fact, two nations, Dutch Flanders and French Wallonia.  To a French Waloon, “oui” means yes in principal to be changed at any time in the future.  Where the Wallonians might be made aware of an obstacle, they will suggest that it be only be confronted when it presents itself.  The Flemish Belgians will insist that provisions be made now for the bridge that is 500 kilometers away. The French Belgians consider their neighbors the Dutch: arrogant, blunt, direct, stingy, assertive, always selling hot air, uneducated know-it-alls…Wait, isn’t that what the Dutch say about their neighbors the Germans?


Europe views the US as unaware of any other culture. We are viewed as arrogant and prone to shoot first and ask questions later.  We are seen as superficial, focused on quantity instead of quality, simplistic, naïve, prone to blame versus focus on issues, top down, poorly educated, dictatorial, mono lingual and short term focused.  Hmmm.  Seeing a pattern developing here ?  The US views Europe often as protracted decision makers, untidy, not result oriented, burdened with an unrealistic social system, confused over the difference between history and tradition, ambiguous, multi-lingual and passive/aggressive.


As we have seen in this continental food chain, the larger country in the end, always views the smaller one as passive aggressive and the smaller country views the larger as unilateral and arrogant.  It is important when trying to bridge these natural fault lines and cultural footfalls with humility and honesty.  In discussing expectations or intentions with someone from another culture, acknowledge your ignorance and think of the social opportunity as a small child.  The child must be nurtured and spoon fed.  Children adapt but we must recognize that culture is emotional and part of one’s identity.  To diminish the culture is to diminish the person.  To denigrate the person is to broaden the divide you ultimately will want to cross.


Whenever the culture card is played, acknowledge it and be direct about differences of opinion.  Those differences can be bridged.  The shifting loyalties and alliances that exist within Europe and the world are forever changing and it does not take much to move an entire continent into a direction where we are celebrating similarities instead of magnifying differences. As Thomas Freidman so aptly shares, the world is indeed flat.  However, to get from one end of the world to the other safely and intelligently, you need to understand how important the deck of culture cards is to your success.  We can either engage in an enlightened game of global understanding or end up playing “Fifty-Two Card Pick Up”.