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August 17, 2011
 by Steven Hill

THE DEBATE OF THE CENTURY IN THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT...I recall the time I sat in the public gallery of the European Parliament in Brussels, observing a heated debate among hundreds of members of the European Parliament (or MEPs, as they are called). It was October 2005, and the MEPs had come from all across the European continent, representing a half billion people. In typical European fashion the debate was being translated simultaneously into twenty-two different languages, including the usual English, French, Italian, Spanish, German, Swedish, and Dutch, but also Magyar, Romani, Maiti, Latvian, and Czech, among others.

The MEPs sat with their headsets on, listening intently to the translations, as one by one they sparred over pressing political and economic issues that, at the time, you would have heard only faint echoes of in the halls of the United States Congress. Yet, once the American economy collapsed three years later in the fall of 2008, dragging the rest of the world into its vortex, these issues suddenly were center stage all across the globe. The challenges being debated by the MEPs boiled down to the following: To what extent should a capitalist economy and its core institutions—the banks, the financial institutions, the corporations—be regulated to maintain stability as well as sufficient economic growth? How do you harness global capitalism so that it not only produces wealth but also contributes to a broadly shared prosperity? How does an economy ensure that employers provide high enough wages and sufficient workfare security so that families and individuals can live a good life, but without squashing entrepreneurship and damaging the competitiveness of the economy itself? Finally, how do you make that kind of dynamism ecologically sustainable in a world staring into the face of global climate change, burgeoning populations, and finite natural resources? These and other questions weighed heavily on the minds of the MEPs.

To an unfamiliar American, this debate would have sounded like the age-old one of socialism versus capitalism, but nothing was further from the truth. All of the various European nations have capitalist economies and vibrant, competitive businesses; in fact Europe has more Fortune 500 companies than the United States and China combined, and more small businesses creating a far higher percentage of jobs. But while it’s true that free market forces and global trade have made America and Europe’s high quality of life the envy of the world and also lifted millions of people in developing economies out of poverty, it also is true that in the short term the “creative destruction” of global capitalism produces both winners and losers.

So Europe’s parliamentarians knew a lot was at stake; it was as if they were anticipating the economic crash to come. MEP after MEP stood and delivered with passion, each followed by ripples of applause. This was no idle conversation; the future of Social Europe was wavering in the balance. In fact, the post-World War II consensus—the social contract itself—was in play. I listened to the English translation through my headset, marveling that this continent which had fought two horrific wars in the previous century now was leading the world in debating the best way to enact a peace founded on the three pillars of broadly shared prosperity, economic security, and ecological sustainability. Disagreements abounded, but even the “conservative” MEPs were less conservative than the Democratic Party in the United States, which remained too timid after retaking Congress in the 2006 elections to raise substantive debate about rampant inequality in the United States, a speculative housing bubble, global climate change, or a failing health care system (and, as it turned out, President Obama was not to be the transformative, FDR-like “game changer” that many had hoped he would be, failing to substantially change the American narrative around these issues).

The MEPs’ intense debate, which now is occurring all around the world, sheds important light on one of the preeminent challenges of the 21st century. The overarching task today is to fashion institutions and practices that are capable of fostering a desirable quality of life for a burgeoning global population of over 6.5 billion people. The addition of resource depletion and global climate change—the prospect of an overheating atmosphere, tumultuous weather patterns, rising sea levels and subsequent mass dislocation—to the usual mix of geopolitical tensions has resulted in an even greater sense of urgency. If we don’t succeed, the future of our world is in jeopardy. We are living in a make or break century.

Unfortunately this sophisticated level of discussion was quite beyond the American conversation during the George W. Bush years, and regrettably has been disappointing under the Obama administration as well. America seems stuck in gear. But Europeans have been confronting these issues head on for some time now. The various nations of Europe and their unique adaptations and institutions have much to offer as we attempt to chart a steady course during an anxious and insecure 21st century. Our transatlantic cousins are showing the world a new face, a new way of structuring the economy, work, health care, family values, energy, transportation, democracy, foreign policy, and other crucial sectors that, on balance, augur the best future for the world.

Steven Hill 11:06 AM Permalink | Trackbacks
August 15, 2011
 by Steven Hill

MEDITATION OVER ROMAN RUINS...Gazing over the ruins of the Roman Forum, eye-scanning the archeological levels of the grandeur that once was, I am gripped by a melancholy that provides a moment to reflect on the wonder as well as the horror of the human experience. It’s chilling to think that Julius Caesar was assassinated here, no more than a few steps from where I am standing, a dictator ambushed by other men of ambition. Victorious Roman legions marched through the ornately-carved arches of triumph and empire, their conquered victims in tow, entire towns in chains (women, men, children, livestock). But Rome itself eventually fell, the sites of empire abandoned, weeds growing between the cracks, the marble from its magnificence eventually pilfered by the Catholic popes to adorn St. Peter’s basilica. Oh, the stories that marble could tell if it could talk…or if we could listen.

I reflect on the tragedies and crimes that humans have inflicted upon each other, rotating with saner moments in which we have fostered the laws, institutions and policies to protect ourselves…from ourselves. I experience a moment of extreme sadness as I realize how long these struggles have been going on, and that we have not yet succeeded in our task. Perhaps we never will. No wonder religion has such a hold over so many humans; it offers a gossamer veil of relief from the storm. Humans long have appealed to a higher power to protect us from ourselves. But god never arrived, not with sufficient presence anyway, to settle this tragic wandering in the desert. Either that or, as Woody Allen once observed, God is a drastic underachiever. No, g(G)od(s) has not saved us, not from ourselves or the invading hordes or the empires of ambition or anyone else.

Instead, all we have is this frail human attempt at political and economic governance, with all its faults. The European Union is only the latest chapter in a centuries’ long trek, one that passed through America in 1776 and galloped its way through subsequent centuries. Political and economic governance are the twin mechanisms for grappling with the challenges of our times. And we have only to look at the Roman Forum, and the crumbs of empire littered across its acreage spread beneath the Palatine Hill and its buried secrets, to understand the steep price of failure. The mighty can and have been laid low. The small and meek can and have become almighty. Whether you are religious or not, you are on your knees before the giant demigods who pull the strings of the human story, dangling us from Mount Olympus, sometimes crushing us like ants beneath their steps. The mystery of human history humbles us all.

Steven Hill 7:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks
August 10, 2011
 by Steven Hill

SAUNAS, AUF GUS, AND THE CULTURE OF HEALTH…When I think about health and health care in Europe, I don’t think immediately about hospitals, doctors, and insurance premiums.

Instead, I picture bike paths and walking trails crisscrossing the cities and countryside, and Europeans of all ages, including seniors, pedaling from town to home with their daily bread in their handlebar baskets. I picture fields of organic grains and grasses tossing in the breeze, and European gourmands with their “slow food” philosophy. I picture cheese, bread, and wine makers using the same time-tested formulas for their savory products that have been developed over centuries, and I picture Europeans strolling leisurely and lingering for hours over food and drink in outdoor cafes, hobnobbing like hobbits at an unhurried pace. For many Europeans, health and la dolce vita are a passion, and those values are reflected in many aspects of their lives.

One aspect where it is reflected is in their bads. No, not ‘bad,’ opposite of ‘good,’ bads -- pronounced ‘bods’ -- which is the German word for sauna or health spa. Bads, which are where people of all ages soak their limbs in warm healing waters, steam baths and swimming pools, have been common in Europe for over two thousand years, dating back to Roman times. Today, all across Germany you can see dozens of towns with names like Bad Mergentheim, Bad Reichenhall, Wiesbaden and Baden-Baden; in France, instead of ‘bad’ they use the term ‘bain’ and you can see dozens of towns with names like Aix-les-Bains, Evian-les-Bains and Digne-les-Bains. These places are ones where the entire town, historically, has been a magnet frequented by local denizens as well as distant travelers looking to "take the waters," that is the hydrothermal springs that leak from the earth in those parts and that were claimed to have medicinal properties. Most European nations are dotted by numerous spa towns, from Scandinavia in the north to Hungary in the east.

Visiting a bad in Germany today is a wonderfully rejuvenating experience. My favorite bad is in Fussen near the Austrian and Swiss borders. In the downstairs of the large yet elegant gymnasium-sized structure there are several swimming pools and hot tubs where children as well as adults cavort, and there is also a few water slides providing great fun for the ‘kinder’ (like the Fussen bad, all the ones I have visited have been very family-oriented environments). There is also an outdoor current pool, where an artificially produced undercurrent pulls you around an island in the center upon which are piles of sparkling quartz crystals, football-sized, refracting the daylight. The stunning view across the valley is of the nearby Alps, as well as the famous Neuschwanstein Castle, which is the real-life model for the fairy tale Disneyland Castle. Also on the bottom floor of the bad there is a crystal meditation room where you can lie on cots quietly in a twilight-like environment, and the entire ceiling and front wall are covered in large quartz crystals that glow dimly with soft pastel backlight.

But the real health treat is upstairs, which is for adults only. That's where the bads -- saunas -- are located. There are a half-dozen different bads, each stoked to a different temperature. There also are cooling-off pools, hot tubs, another small swimming pool, a bar with health drinks, beer and snacks, and a rooftop where you can relax in a lounge chair and enjoy the alpine view. According to the sauna experts, sweating is as essential to our health as eating and breathing. Sweating rids the body of wastes and helps keep the skin clean and pliant. Other health benefits supposedly result from the heat producing an artificial "fever" which coaxes every organ of the body into action. While outwardly relaxed, your inner organs are as active as though you were jogging or mowing the lawn. At the same time, you are being cleansed from inside out by the skin -- your body's largest organ -- and its excretion, sweat. In this sedentary age, many people simply don't sweat enough, and antiperspirants, cosmetics, synthetic clothing, smog, and a physically idle lifestyle all conspire to clog skin pores and inhibit the healthy flow of sweat. One way to counteract this is by some serious sweating in a bad.

And Germans are serious about their bads. It is very frowned upon to wear clothes of any kind, even a bathing suit, in the saunas. So be forewarned, the parts of our bodies known as “private” are in visible abundance. For this American, seeing so many naked adult bodies of all ages, shapes and sizes was at first a disorienting experience. Most Americans are not used to taking their clothes off in front of each other, but after 15 minutes or so of teenage-like reticence, skulking embarrassment and furtive glances in all directions, it feels pretty natural. Outside the sauna itself, many people mingle au natural while others step in and out of white terrycloth bathrobes or wrap their bodies in towels. Yet the real highlight of the bad is what is known as the auf gus.

The first time I experienced the auf gus was wildly memorable. I was sitting inside one particular bad with a few others, when suddenly a whole swarm of naked bodies filed in. There was hardly enough room for us all, these bads are low-ceilinged chambers, almost like a cave. But about 30 people squeezed in, sitting on benches on three different tiers. Suddenly the door flew open, cool air rushing in. A tall strapping German with a Leroy Neiman handlebar mustache strode in carrying two buckets, one with a ladle and the other filled with ice. This man was the auf gus.

He began speaking in German in a friendly but lecturing tone, talking briefly about the history of the bads in Germany. While the cool air still poured in, he talked about the traditions and practices, the types of herbs used, and more. He went on for a couple of minutes, and then he shut the door. The excitement and drama among the Germans huddled in the cramped space was palpable. And infectious, by now I was wondering what the heck was going on. The auf gus picked up the bucket with the ladle, dramatically scooped out the liquid inside and began pouring it over the hot rocks in the center. Immediately a hissing steam emitted from the volcanic hot core, with the fragrances of citrus, lavender and other sensual herbs perking our nostrils. He did that again, and then a third time. Each time the chamber filled with more and more fragrant steam, making it hotter and stuffier inside. I can only take my saunas so hot, and I didn’t know if I could stand much more of the intensity, yet the vapors kept building, sating our nostrils and pores.

Then, the auf gus did something that really blew us all away. He took a white towel and rolled it up lengthwise until it was long like a snake. And then he began rotating that above his head like it was the blade of a helicopter. As he rotated it you could feel the billows of fragrant heat rolling about the chamber, increasing still more in intensity, surrounding and enveloping you. At this point the sweat began screaming from my pores and orifices. At first it was a bit unnerving, the acrid heat almost unbearable. I could feel myself losing my left-brainedness and entering a stream of consciousness. Amongst other things, my feverish brain couldn't help but reflect upon all these Germans sitting inside this modern-day gas chamber, but with a completely different goal, this time one of health. By then my body had begun to acclimate and I felt a moment of exhilaration. I had a sense that the toxins were crawling forth from my skin and looking for someplace cooler to hide, but they weren’t finding it.

But the auf gus was not finished, oh no. He unrolled his towel so that now it was spread full, and this time he stood in front of the row of huddled naked bodies in which I sat. With a swift motion he snapped his towel -- hard -- in our direction. He did that two more times, and after each snap we felt a blast of heat, like a volcano rush, roaring toward us and hitting us full-on, scorching my face, my nostrils, ears, groin, everything. It was nearly unbearable. I felt an urge to bolt from the bad. Sweat was pouring from me, it seemed like all my skin was one big pore just gushing rivers of sweat. I put my head down and tried to hold on. I saw others doing the same. I could think of nothing, my internal dialogue was stopped, any rambling thoughts had wilted away and what remained was an incredible lightness of being, holding on in survival mode from the riveting furnace blast. The auf gus snapped his towel in front of each row of bodies, round and round the chamber, several times per row. And then he mumbled something in German, gave a slight bow, dumped his bucket of ice over the still-steaming rocks, and exited the bad. Everyone clapped, exhaled, stretched. The ritual was over. People hung around for a few more minutes, and then slowly one by one the rosy-cheeked devotees trickled out.

I was limp, the effect was stunning. I tingled all over, my pores felt scoured and cleansed. The herbs, the citrus, the sweat, the inhalation and exhalation of steam, I walked out of there feeling like I was transparent, light as a feather, walking on air, to greet an amazing view of the Alps, Neuschwanstein, the fresh air and the sunshine.

Whew, yes, the Germans, take their bads very seriously. That afternoon I returned twice more for the auf gus treatment, and now I find a local bad or thermal bath whenever I am in Germany. Also in France, Scandinavia, Budapest and elsewhere (in Budapest, highly recommended are the large communal thermal baths at Hotel Gellert and Szechenyi). This dedication to such an elaborate ritual of sweating and soaking is an indication of the high prioritization that many Europeans give to the body and to health. For many Europeans, health and la dolce vita are a passion, reflected in their hobbit-like love of leisure, nature, relaxation, good food, a stimulating glass of wine or dark, earthy beer, and steeped in the values of health, family, and quality of life. It is this outlook that they bring to their social capitalism and its well-defined family-based support system, instilled into them in both intent and design. It’s also the values they inject into their formal health care system, where the non-profit nature of it prioritizes “people before profits,” unlike the U.S. healthcare system which is run as a for-profit commercial enterprise and dominated by corporations and CEOs making tens of millions of dollars in annual salary and bonuses. As the French are fond of saying, la sante d'abord, “health comes first,” and that principle is reflected in so many ways throughout European society.

Steven Hill 5:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks
July 14, 2011
 by Steven Hill

ARE THE FRENCH REALLY SO ANTI-AMERICAN? The American and French relationship suffered an enormous rupture over the public quarrel at the United Nations over Iraq, and the subsequent U.S. invasion in Spring 2003 launched by the Bush and Blair administrations (and opposed by France). Americans reacted with bitter hostility and, in a burst of berserk nationalism, held modern-day Boston tea parties where they dumped out French wine and renamed French fries to freedom fries. The transatlantic rift suddenly was a wide and deep chasm, it was as if some devilish power had sped up plate tectonics and rapidly yanked the two sides of the Atlantic in opposite directions.

The American media of course had a field day. The front page of Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post showed the graves of Normandy with the headline: “They died for France but France has forgotten." Our erstwhile allies transmogrified overnight into double crossers, an “axis of weasels” and “cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” to quote that erudite political analyst, Bart Simpson. Leading intellectuals in the U.S. like Thomas Friedman, George Will, Christopher Hitchens and others, apparently drawing inspiration from Bart and Murdoch, piled it on, saying France should be removed from the Security Council (Friedman), that it had retreated “into incoherence” (Will) and that the French president Jacques Chirac was “the rat that tried to roar” (Hitchens).

Yet I have never found the French to be particularly hostile toward Americans, though they clearly feel competitive with America, not only economically but also over shaping the direction of the world. But those sentiments have always stayed within acceptable bounds of a hearty (though occasionally annoying) patriotism and nationalism, it seems to me. Since the U.N. fallout, everywhere I have traveled in France, whenever I have investigated this charge of French anti-Americanism I have found little evidence. Americans I know who have lived in France for many years, and have watched the dance between the two transatlantic partners, qualify the spat as one between two old and indignant lovers who, in the memorable words of the gay cowboy lovers in the film Brokeback Mountain, wish they were "over each other." Indeed, an American friend, Meredith Wheeler, a former writer and producer for the late Peter Jennings and ABC News who has been living in southwestern France for 15 years, told me how surprised she is by the affection and respect many French have toward the United States.

"There is a part of the French psyche that is very pro-American -- particularly the older ones who recall World War II and the American contribution to the liberation of France," she says. As proof of that she points to the fact that the local veterans association -- the anciens combattants -- began inviting Meredith to carry the American flag at Armistice Day and military ceremonies in November and June, commemorating the end of World Wars I and II. At the request of the French parade marshal -- himself a recipient of the Legion d'Honneur, France's highest honor -- she marches at the front of the parade in formal parade attire, with the Stars and Stripes side by side with the French tricolor, leading ranks of national, regional and regimental French flags. No other nation's flag -- even that of the United Kingdom -- is accorded this honor of walking with the French flag; the UK flag bearer walks (rather grumpily) several steps behind. Alongside the French veterans displaying their medals and ribbons on their blue blazers and their red berets, Meredith wears white gloves and a tan military garrison hat, creased down the middle and slightly cocked, holding aloft the U.S. flag and occupying one of the most honored positions in the parade.

"Last August I was invited to take part in a ceremony in the mountains near Mazamet,” she told me, “where the French resistance -- the ‘maquis’ -- were aided by a small group of American commandos who had parachuted in to help battle against Nazi occupation forces. Two Americans were killed in a firefight with a German patrol on August 12th, 1944. Their names appear on a granite marker near the site, along with several French war dead.” The guest of honor at the ceremony was the American widow of the commanding officer of the U.S. commandos. As part of the August ceremony, each name of the fallen was dramatically read aloud, and after each American name, an elderly veteran pronounced the phrase, 'Mort pour la France,' - They Died for France.

“I found it incredibly moving,” says Meredith. “Remember, this is 60 years after the battle. After the ceremony, a middle-aged Frenchman approached me to express his good wishes. He brushed aside my embarrassed remarks and said: 'We will never forget the Americans who came to France. That war wasn't on their territory. They didn't need to come -- but they did.'

“I wish those so quick to condemn the French for their lack of support for the Iraqi misadventure could witness these events,” says Meredith. Later, she was presented with a booklet carefully noting the exploits of the maquis in this region, and all the events of August 12th, 1944 are recorded in scrupulous detail. One sentence of that account stood out. It read: Il fallait que l'on sache que les américans étaient là, en appui du Maquis -- “One must always remember that the Americans were there, in support of the Maquis.”

So the idea that the French, either the people or their leaders, are somehow ungrateful or forgetful of American heroics in World War II couldn't be further from the truth. In fact, in his speech before the U.N. opposing the U.S. invasion of Iraq, France’s foreign minister Dominique de Villepin began his oration by saying France “does not forget and knows everything it owes to the freedom fighters who came from America.” But that hardly soothed Americans during our rush to war.

Indeed, it has been said that France and the United States quarrel not because they are so different but because they are so very much alike. Not only in terms of both nations’ longstanding imperial ambitions to lead the world, but even in terms of the types of entertainment and consumer pleasures that people gravitate to. American films typically are the top draws in France; the all-time top box-office film in France is an American blockbuster, Titanic. French teenagers download American rap to their iPods, and the entertainers most searched for on Google France usually are American stars like Lady Gaga and Britney Spears. French consumers are so enamored with American and English-speaking pop culture that the French government has had to decree that at least 40 percent of the songs played on the radio must be in French -- a proscription that is routinely ignored. No, in certain ways the French and Americans are more alike than either care to admit.

But there are important differences as well, and it is best to remember that the Franco-American history has been long and complicated, filled with numerous high and low points. As much as Americans wish to remind the French how much the U.S. military saved their hides in World War II, Americans quite easily forget how much the French saved General George Washington and his ragtag army. In fact, without the French it is quite likely that there would be no United States of America. When a French army of 6000 troops commanded by Count Rochambeau landed in the American colonies and joined Washington's forces, General Washington felt compelled to express embarrassment at how undermanned and poorly equipped his army was. Washington believed, as did other colonial leaders, that by the summer of 1781 the resources of the country were exhausted and his Continental Army was on the verge of collapse.

Not only did the French provide badly needed reinforcements, but their military generals and strategists were far more experienced than Washington. It was the French who suggested a southern campaign against Britain's Lord Cornwallis that eventually resulted in the decisive battle of Yorktown, Virginia. Washington was obsessed with attacking the British in New York, where they were virtually impregnable and where experts agree his forces surely would have been defeated. If the British had not intercepted letters of Washington in which he identified New York as his primary target, Washington may not have followed the sage French advice.

The Battle of Yorktown itself mostly was planned by the French strategists, not Washington. Lord Cornwallis and his troops were surrounded with no escape route, thanks to the French fleet commanded by Admiral François Joseph Paul Comte De Grasse. Yale historian Jonathan Dull called De Grasse’s victory over British Admiral Thomas Graves's fleet, which was attempting to rescue Cornwallis’ forces, "the most important naval victory of the 18th century." The Yorktown siege was essentially an exercise in engineering, which was one of Washington’s major weaknesses. Fortunately, the French army included the best military engineers in the world. Historian Joseph Ellis writes, "Though Washington was officially in command, the Yorktown siege was primarily a French operation. He was given the ceremonial honor of firing the first cannon shot against the British defenses…Most of the time, however, Washington only watched and tried to keep himself busy as the noose tightened around Cornwallis's army."

So the "Father of Our Country" learned at the knee of the French, and enjoyed considerable French support, including from the Marquis de Lafayette who had been made an American officer and became a shared hero of both countries. As part of their broader strategy to oppose the British empire, the French extended a helping hand to this motley, ragtag assemblage at an extremely crucial moment. The French also were enamored with many of the American leaders. Benjamin Franklin as ambassador to France was one of the world's first multilateralists, adored in the salons of Paris and the court of King Louis XVI for his sharp wit, folksy charm and backwoodsman's dress. Thomas Jefferson was invited to sit in France's National Assembly during the writing of the French constitution. Tom Paine (who was born in Britain but adopted America as his home) was granted French citizenship for his contribution to revolutionary thinking.

Ironically, America is one of the few western countries with which France has never been to war. The French gave to America the inspiring gift and icon of the Statue of Liberty in the late 19th century. Even de Gaulle supported America during the Cuban missile crisis, and reminded a joint session of Congress of the two countries' history of shared values. One 2004 poll reported that 72% of the French had a favorable view of Americans, more even than in Britain (62%) or Spain (47%). But these are all considerations that patriotic Americans would just as soon dismiss as ancient history, even as we remind the French of their obligation to America's World War II generation.

So what has prompted this Franco-American finger-pointing in recent years? At the risk of oversimplification, I would say the answer is: national narcissism. Both nations over-believe in their own mission and destiny to the point of monomania. As The Economist writes, each believe “in the universalism of its model -- the Americans stressing liberty, the French civilization -- and shared an ambition to spread it abroad. The conviction among the French elite that France represents an alternative to the American way runs deep. It forms part of the national mythology that has helped to shore up French pride.”

Substitute the word "American" for the word "French" in the preceding two sentences and it will be equally true. When one’s nation is on a mission to save the world from itself (whether the world wants to be saved or not), it cultivates an aversion to examining one's own national faults and imperfections -- another trait shared by both countries. Indeed, author Jean-Francois Revel, who for several decades has been pinpricking his fellow Frenchman's smugness, in his recent book L'Obsession anti-Americaine argues that French anti-Americanism, particularly in the media, often flourishes at the expense of self-examination. He pointed out well before France's November 2005 riots that while a tenth of the workforce is out of work and young French Muslims are isolated in suburban tower block ghettos, the French have delighted in exposing American poverty, racism and ghetto life. America, in other words, serves to console France about its own failures by sustaining the myth that things are even worse in the U.S.

This of course should sound achingly familiar to Americans and the American media, who frequently beat up on France, Germany and Italy too -- the “old Europe” troika -- and lately Greece and the other PIGS debtor countries, as a way of avoiding any serious examination of our own national shortcomings. Only two months before the French youth set the suburbs on fire and gave a wake up call to the world, Hurricane Katrina exposed the American fault lines. And yet President Bush could sermonize a short time later about “the universal desire to live in liberty” and that “freedom is the destiny of every man, woman and child on this Earth,” sounding ironically like French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, rhapsodizing about a "responsibility to bestow a conscience, a soul upon our Earth" and France's destiny “to enact our universal and humanist dream.” For both leaders of the two narcissists nations, the lofty language and florid romanticism is nearly interchangeable.

Steven Hill 2:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks
July 12, 2011
 by Steven Hill

ANATOMY OF A TRANSATLANTIC RIFT: AMERICA VS. FRANCE AT THE UN, AND THE CLASH OVER GEOPOLITICAL SECURITY...With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the skirmish between the United States and France in 2003 at the United Nations over Iraq was more than just a Cain and Abel episode between two erstwhile allies. It was a titanic clash over two different visions -- unilateralism vs. multilateralism -- for how the global security system should work.

On February 5, 2003, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed a plenary session of the United Nations Security Council to argue in favor of military action against Saddam Hussein's dictatorship in Iraq. Putting his considerable reputation as a soldier and statesman on the line, and employing his persuasive slideshow with visuals purporting to show mobile production facilities for biological weapons, Powell cited “numerous” anonymous Iraqi defectors and asserted that “there can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more.” Powell also stated that there was “no doubt in my mind” that Saddam was working to obtain key components to produce nuclear weapons.

On that day I had given a talk at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and I remember watching Powell’s testimony with a professor who, moved by Secretary Powell’s riveting PowerPoint and personal conviction, shook his head and remarked grimly, “That’s it then, we have no choice. We must go to war to stop this thug [Saddam].”

While Powell’s testimony had been persuasive to most Americans, it had not been so persuasive to most of Europe, nor to most of the world. Nine days later, France’s Foreign Minister, Dominique Marie François Rene Galouzeau de Villepin -- yes those French aristocrats do have long names -- mounted the U.N. podium, a striking figure with his white, leonine mane and patrician bearing, his square, chiseled chin and trademark florid eloquence on display. Villepin, a diplomat, author and poet, highbred in France’s elite grandes ecoles who was later to fumble badly in his own bid to become France’s president, rode the wings of a quintessentially French brand of righteousness to spearhead a global plea: that the U.N weapons inspectors be given more time to search for weapons of mass destruction. His retort to Powell turned out to be prophetic.

“The use of force would be so fraught with risks for people, for the region and for international stability that it should only be envisioned as a last resort...Would not such intervention be liable to exacerbate the divisions between societies, cultures and peoples, divisions that nurture terrorism? Let us not forget that having won the war, one has to build peace…”

It was the soldier versus the poet, with war or peace hanging in the balance. The Karl Rove-Fox News public relations machine launched a frontal attack on France and other foot dragging Europeans. They were labeled ungrateful, cowards, hypocrites and “old Europe” in a fit of sandbox play that undermined any attempts at diplomacy. The U.S. followed this by threatening trade reprisals and bugging the U.N. headquarters of key allies whose votes they were trying to win at the Security Council, presaging the “ends justify the means” mentality that later would result in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, torture, waterboarding, kidnappings, the suspension of the Geneva Conventions, wiretapping and civil liberties violations in the U.S.

Today, we know that the poet was right and the soldier was wrong. Powell had misled the world, and his country, into a war based on manipulated facts, outright fabrications and failed military intelligence. We Americans have never been able to admit that France was right and the United States was wrong, and France to this day fills the role of punching bag for patriots. Yet after he had resigned from the Bush administration, Powell himself was to call his UN speech a “blot” on his record. “I’m the one who presented it on behalf of the United States to the world,” he said, “and [it] will always be a part of my record. It was painful. It’s painful now.”

Powell’s "painful" episode was the first of many that ricocheted with blowback, striking self-inflicted hits against the U.S.S America. Violations of the norms of decency, even in a time of war, became the ammo for the world's autocrats to take aim at, not America the country, the home front, but at the idea of America itself. They didn't aim at the heartland in the form of more 9-11 type attacks, instead they aimed at America's values and what Old Glory had stood for in the post-World War II era. The Bush administration’s bending of the rules was all the more shocking to Europeans, since they thought they had learned their own valuations of international law and human rights at the paternal knee of Uncle Sam.

In retrospect the skirmish in 2003 between the U.S. and France at the U.N. revealed that, fourteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the European Way of foreign policy had become not only boldly assertive but also strikingly different from the American Way. While some European governments joined the Bush administration’s “coalition of the willing,” the populations all across the continent mounted massive protests, even in the coalition countries. The formerly warring tribal nations of Europe had learned a thing or two about how to advance -- patiently -- peace, democracy, prosperity and sustainability, with military intervention as the last resort. The Bush administration failed to grasp that Europe’s history of bloody militarism and total destruction in previous centuries gave the European public and most of its leaders a very different perspective on these matters. Ignoring the European historical experience made as much sense as ignoring the events of September 11 in understanding American behavior.

Military intervention is a last resort for Europe not because Europe doesn’t possess significant military capability compared to its potential enemies (European nations, in aggregate, have the second largest military force in the world after the US, including two nations with nuclear weapons, France and Britain, as well as advanced weaponry like tanks, jets and other military hardware), or because Europe always is opposed to military force. The E.U. is not pacifist. After all, the United States led and Europe followed behind to intervene with great force in the Balkans just a few years before the September 11 attacks, with support from even the formerly pacifist German Green Party. They saw with horror the ghosts of their fascist past return in the fields of Srebrenica, the site of the largest mass murder in Europe since World War II with an estimated 8000 Bosniak men and boys murdered by Serb-allied thugs. The Europeans, having survived the ethnic cleansing and genocide of the 20th century, are not averse to principled interventions and military operations, as the presence of European troops in Afghanistan and the British and French actions in Libya in the spring of 2011 show.

No, Europe’s smart power is based more on principle than impotence: a continent of nations that spent centuries warring among themselves has learned a thing or two about the severe limitations of state violence, as well as the benefits of a regional prosperity that derives from steady economic growth among neighbors that is not interrupted by destructive wars. So Europe has based its foreign policy on the tools of investment, trade and Marshall plan-like aid, which it dispenses more of than any other place in the world, including the United States.

This is a new horizon, a watershed in human history, that a great power of the magnitude of the European Union should base its foreign policy so substantially on the principles of nonviolence and fostering "peace and prosperity partnerships" in its region. The advent of peaceful social capitalists who spread prosperity and security in concentric rings of connectivity that touch two billion lives living in the Eurosphere -- not only Europe itself, but the many nations on its geographic periphery or that trade with it -- is a momentous shift, unprecedented in its scope. The rise of an economic power that does not combine it with an imperial use of military power -- indeed, seems to have little desire to do so and to some degree defines itself by this lack of desire -- may be a historical first.

It is difficult for most Americans, fed by media stereotypes about "old Europe" and stuck along with their political leaders in the warring quagmires of Iraq, Afghanistan and increasingly Pakistan, to grasp the enormity of what European foreign policy has accomplished among formerly communist dictatorships, Turkey, and elsewhere. While Europe certainly has a smaller military stick than America, its very success with its smart power and America’s recent failures with its hard power raise a legitimate question about the best tactics in this post-Cold War, multipolar world. For all the talk of the United States as the world’s lone remaining superpower, the past decade of foreign policy stumbles have demonstrated the limits of that power.

Given the deep and historical roots of its foreign policy, Europe is extremely unlikely either to spend more of its economic wealth on increasing its military power or to take a more aggressive military posture toward Russia, Iran, China, or the Middle East, despite pressures to do so by American political leaders and critics. President Barack Obama, like the Bush administration, has stated that he wants Europe to step up and shoulder more of the responsibility for the world’s security, but that receives a head scratch from most Europeans. They believe they already are doing their fair share, as they have defined that task, and Europe is wary of joining the United States in its military misadventures. President Obama promised a new multilateralism and more consultation with allies, yet in early 2009, barely months in office, he chose to escalate the war in Afghanistan and send in more troops and to widen drone strikes inside Pakistan beyond even Bush administration targets, all without consultation. Then he was disappointed when Europe rejected his request for more troops in Afghanistan. Like President Bush, Obama apparently does not understand that Europe has a different strategic assessment of these matters. Nor does he grasp that, in the absence of a more direct and imminent threat, Europe is reluctant to spend more on its military and less on its domestic needs, lest it risk underfunding its people, its infrastructure, and its future—becoming more like the United States, in other words.

It’s not that Europe doesn’t understand what is at stake in Afghanistan, Iran or the war on terror, as some American critics have charged. But Europe is looking for a partner across the Atlantic that is willing to be a power among peers instead of a messianic hero that regards itself as the “indispensable nation,” as Bill Clinton’s secretary of state Madeleine Albright once called the United States. Europe has its own way of doing things, and the European approach to foreign policy has been extremely successful in the regions in which it has been applied. While it’s true that Europe’s smart power does not always achieve its desired result, at least not in the short term, neither does America’s hard power. Indeed, a September 2008 intelligence forecast written by the top analyst in the U.S. intelligence community concluded that superior U.S. military power will “be the least significant” asset in an increasingly competitive world that is being reshaped by globalization, climate change, and shortages of food, water, and energy. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates seconded this view when he said that the Bush administration’s foreign policy risked “creeping militarization” by focusing too many resources on the Pentagon and not enough on U.S. diplomacy and international aid.

In retrospect, then, the clash at the United Nations over the invasion of Iraq was not merely between two nations, the United States and France—it was over the direction of the geopolitical future. The world needs to invent a new security model based on open, free-trading societies that feed from economic and political webs of interconnectedness and concentric rings of partnership and development, instead of on the model that has prevailed in the postwar era, namely, the big kid on the block with massive military might policing the smaller kids. While some criticisms of Europe’s foreign policy have been valid, the value of Europe’s smart power diplomacy has been underestimated. Europe does sometimes punch below its weight, as former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer has said, when it comes to wielding a military threat, but that has never been the source of Europe’s power and there seems little reason to change that. Indeed, its very success with its smart power, combined with the United States’ failures with its hard power, should be a wake-up call. In light of the ineffectiveness of America’s unilateralist hammer approach, the world is looking for a different style of leadership during an era when the direction over the essential policies as well as values needed for survival in the twenty-first century seems more crucial than ever.

Steven Hill 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks
July 2, 2011
 by Steven Hill

ARE EUROPEANS ANTI-RELIGIOUS? Europe is a place of soaring cathedrals, churches and religious shrines, and I always cherish those moments when I have a chance to pass beneath their magnificent doors and archways and enter into the vast, calm, meditative spaces. Westminster Abbey, Sagrada Familia, the Duomo in Firenze, Notre Dame, Chartes, Cologne and Strasbourg Cathedrals, Venice’s Basilica di San Marco, the Sistine Chapel, these are just the better known of the hundreds of uplifting architectural manifestations of divine genius that anchor the European landscape. Whether you believe in the Christian religion or not, the massive spaces inside these god-like houses contain a flickering spirit expressed through stunning craftsmanship and design.

I am always struck by the sunlight filtering through the intricate stained glass, casting kaleidoscope patterns on the massive columns; and the exquisitely carved and painted ceilings, as well as the magnificent altars, statues, tapestries, friezes and murals rendered by creative geniuses like Michelangelo, Raphael, Bernini, Gaudi, El Greco and many other painters, sculptors and architects, known and unknown. Even in smaller towns and villages, often at the center you find a church or chapel with magnificent altars carved by the likes of Riemenschneider and other sculptors. The only places in the United States I have found with comparable levels of quietude, peace and spirit are in old growth redwood forests in California, where the natural cathedral beneath the lofty redwoods’ sun-filtering canopy reminds me of these human-carved wonders.

Curiously however, despite European’s ongoing allegiance to their cathedrals and religious shrines, organized religion is barely a factor in most of their day-to-day lives. That is particularly true when compared to the United States. While six out of 10 Americans say that religion is very important to them, even in Catholic Italy and Poland only a third of the public say it is. Certainly one reason for this is the memory of the destructive role that organized religion has played in numerous past wars stretching across centuries. Religious zealots in Europe, whether the Catholic or Protestant variety, have played a role like certain fundamentalist Arab Muslims or Israelis in the Middle East today, or fundamentalist Christians in the United States. These were organized movements of intolerance and discrimination, spurred on by historical grievances and in their belief of themselves as a chosen people. Religion in Europe has been the locus of tragedy, intrigue, theft and organized thuggery, an organizational structure promoting -- in its worst excesses -- genocidal mass murder. Naturally this makes the average European very wary of religion.

But contrary to what many American journalists have written, this collective memory has led, not so much to a secularism as to a very private form of religion and spirituality. Many Europeans’ spirituality manifests in a way that is more reserved and personal, and much less a mass religion. Indeed, on the whole I have found Europeans to be quite religious. They just don't go to church very much. No, we should be glad that the Europeans largely are over their allegiances to organized religion, considering the thuggish role that religion has played, and welcome this private embrace of individual spirituality.

Steven Hill 12:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks
June 26, 2011
 by Steven Hill

AMERICA'S INFATUATION WITH A RELIGION OF INDIVIDUALISM…The United States has become plagued by the steady corrosion of an unequal society. The wealthiest 1 percent of Americans now earns a greater share of the nation’s income than it did in the previous two decades and possibly since 1929, according to the Wall Street Journal. The 400 wealthiest Americans now own $1.4 trillion in wealth, which is greater than the gross domestic product for the country of India with over a billion people.

But inequality is related to more than economic imbalances. Various studies, many of them encapsulated in the book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger by researchers Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, have demonstrated that unequal societies tend to result in greater incidences of other social ills, including violence, alcoholism, domestic violence, mental illness and other problems, as well as lower levels of trust, less involvement in community life, and more racial and gender discrimination. As American economists Robert Frank and Philip Cook have pointed out in their book The Winner Take All Society, in the age of Wal-Mart and “Chindia,” the lives of millions of breadwinners and their families have been made less secure by the creation of a virtually unlimited global labor pool, which has tended to drive wages, benefits, and quality of life toward the lowest common denominator. By concentrating most economic gains among just a handful of winners, the U.S. development model has dramatically widened the gap between the wealthy and the vast legions of everyone else, consigned to the treadmill of a “winner-take-all society.”

Since inequality is related to the prevalence of other social ills, and with the United States plagued by the highest inequality rates among developed countries, it comes as little surprise that that U.S. also is the world’s leader in murders and other violent crimes, suicides, and incarceration rates. America jails more people than any other nation in the world, seven to ten times more people incarcerated than in Europe (depending on the country). We spend more money on constructing prisons than we do on universities. In the United States, violence of all kinds—street violence, domestic violence, entertainment violence, official state-sanctioned military violence—has become a way of life, the sea in which we swim. In the post-WWII era, this caused the U.S. to be feared, but the military failures in recent years have caused the U.S. to lose much of its global credibility and, with it, its allure to the world.

Europe, on the other hand, is a more egalitarian place and suffers from less inequality, making it the envy of the world. This manifests in large and small ways. Once, when I was in Rome and entered a very average restaurant, I was waited on by an elder gentleman, I would guess in his early 60s. Rome, and Italy in general, and perhaps France too, must have more elderly male waiters than any other place in the world, which always struck me as odd. In the United States, waiters usually are younger people, mostly female, who wait tables part-time while they are going to college or to bring in some extra income. It's considered a fairly menial job, even at the better restaurants. Menial is OK at a young stage in life, and in the right restaurants the tips can be decent. But by the time someone gets into their 50s or 60s, if they are still waiting tables the assumption in America is that it's been a pretty hard life with no good prospects in sight.

So I would look at these elderly Italian and French waiters with a fair amount of pity. For some reason they all facially reminded me of Alan Greenspan, as if Greenspan himself had fallen on harder times and ended up as a waiter. Yet what always struck me about these waiters was that they brought so much dignity to their occupation. Even more than dignity, their pleasant demeanor and obvious mastery of their craft indicated a degree of contentment, and now I knew why. With basics like health care, pensions and housing taken care of, suddenly you don't have to worry as much about your position on the success ladder. You don't have to worry so much about climbing that ladder, or only entering the occupations that will put you on the highest and fastest rungs, which is what the game is all about in America. You aren’t trapped inside the “winner take all” society.

But in America, due to our infatuation with a religion of individualism, we always have been drawn to extraordinary achievers and Herculean heroes. Our worship of champions, stars and celebrities, whether athletes, pop idols, Hollywood icons, business tycoons, military warriors and even a few politicians, is reflective of this national narrative rooted in our Puritan heritage, filtered through Locke, Adam Smith and Jefferson and manifested in fabled rags to riches stories. Certainly individual achievement is important, but the fact is the vast majority of Americans are just average. They are neither winners nor losers in this winner-take-all society, they just go to work each day, doing the thousands of ordinary jobs that make society work. And that’s OK… or at least it should be.

But U.S. society and its incentives are not predicated on the likely fate of these middle class lunch pail Joes and Janes. The current script calls for everyone to strive hard to be like their heroes, to dress, talk and act like the celluloid stars, even though most will never arrive at a place more than a few notches up the mountain towards that Sisyphean goal. It makes little sense to construct the rules and agreements assuming most people will climb very high, yet that’s exactly what the American Way does. Who needs a social support system that supports families and everyday people when everyone aspires to live a life of Bono, Angelina Jolie, LeBron James, or Bill Gates?

But the disconnect between reality and myth only makes for a crazy making existence, full of personal unhappiness and, yes, aggression, crime and the Haves trying to wall themselves off from the Have Nots. Of course, for those hundreds of millions of Americans who have no chance of joining the one percenters, there is always the Lotto. Yet luck, by definition, can never be universal, though that increasingly seems to be the basis for what’s left of the American social contract: “Blessed are the lucky, for they will win.”

But in Europe, the average person can relax more into her or his unique role in life, as nearly every occupation can receive the respect and dignity it deserves. Those who wait our tables, who pick our food, who cut our hair, who take care of our children, who drive our public transit, and the thousands of other occupations necessary to make society work, deserve a similar level of treatment as wealthy bankers, lawyers, corporate CEOs or NBA and Hollywood superstars. In Europe, they have this but in America, we do not. This is a key transatlantic difference, and one that is very hard to quantify. Quality of life, real quality, often is hard to quantify.

When I was in Berlin I had another such epiphany when I had the opportunity to stay for a time in an anarchist community that thrives in the poorer sections of East Berlin. My American friends Jason and Peter lived among these anarchist circles. "Anarchism" and "anarchy" are the most misrepresented of political ideologies, the words are commonly used to mean "chaos" or "without order," and so by implication anarchists must desire social chaos and senseless violence. But in fact that’s way off the mark, while there are some lumpen-ruffians who like to smash windows at protests and call themselves ‘anarchists,’ true anarchists are the most peaceful, nonviolent people one could hope to know, and their political theory is simple: they oppose all forms of hierarchy, preferring consensus decision-making, community, and a society where individuals freely cooperate together as equals. Idealistic, yes, but a generous dose of idealism always has been a part of the German psyche, from Kant to Hegel to Goethe.

Jason took me up onto the roof of his apartment building where we could look down upon views of the adjacent blocks. Not far away on the near-horizon was the soaring Fernsehturm, a television tower that stands 1100 feet high in Alexanderplatz, the famous square where hundreds of thousands gathered in November 1989 demanding the fall of the Berlin Wall -- talk about the power of idealism. From the rooftop, Jason pointed out the various anarchist venues in his neighborhood.

"Down there and across the street on the corner is an anarchist restaurant, where the food is incredibly cheap and tasty. For four bucks you can stuff yourself. And over there is the anarchist movie house, where for a couple of dollars you can see all the top movies. Months after their first release of course, but so what.”

He also pointed out other store fronts and buildings where there were bookstores, a theater, meeting spaces and live music venues. Nearby was a vacant lot where you could see various hippies and anarchists who were living in old buses, campers and the like. Previously when walking along his neighborhood streets, populated by many people on foot or bicycle with fewer cars hogging the road, he had pointed out swirling murals painted by anarchist artists that brightened up the sides of rundown buildings. It was impressive. The anarchists had created their own alternative community, including their own infrastructure, institutions and cultural space, where they could live, work, play and enjoy.

And of course all this was easier to do, and not so fraught with worry and anxiety about the future, because they had the foundation beneath them of the German social support system. Even their low cost housing was the result of the government allowing takeovers of abandoned buildings, a common practice in Europe. These anti-capitalist misfits had a mimetic niche in the interstices of the capitalist system, where they could plot and plan their nonviolent transition to a more cooperative world. In Europe, those who pursue the intellectual and creative life are inheritors of their nation’s social insurance system as much as any doctor, businessman or lawyer. It is everyone’s birthright. So creativity can flourish in its own way and time, like a rare flower crawling up through the cracks of the pavement. Who can say that the cultural memes they are brewing in their anarchist stew will not one day be the seeds of the planet’s salvation?

Meanwhile, back in the good ol’ USA, here we are, the lone remaining superpower, the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, with the most powerful military the world has ever seen -- and yet we have not figured out how to ensure that the lives of Americans are not so filled with anxiety and fear. We haven’t even figured out how to provide health care to all Americans. Despite all our wealth and military power, for too many Americans there is no security.

Europeans, meanwhile, have a more stress-free attitude that perhaps can be summed up best in one word, a Danish word—hygge (pronounced hooga)—which describes a relaxed state of conviviality that involves close friendships and family bonds. One American expat who has lived in Denmark for more than thirty years tried to explain the sentiment. “The gist of it is that you are not supposed to have anything to do except let go,” she said, describing a nearly zen timelessness where the present doesn’t worry so much about the future. Wrote another American who had been living in the Netherlands, “To comprehend this system is to enter a different state of mind.”

Steven Hill 2:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks
June 20, 2011
 by Steven Hill

STICKY GLUE, SOCIAL CONTRACTS, AND FULCRUM INSTITUTIONS: A PAINTING IN THE RIJKSMUSEUM TALKS TO ME...In the Rijksmuseum, in Amsterdam, hangs an obscure painting that speaks volumes about the modern dilemmas of government and the natural tension between individual freedom and the ties that bind us together. The masterfully rendered work, dating from approximately 1899 by the Dutch painter Otto Eerelman, shows hundreds of soldiers costumed in the dress blues of a military parade in Amsterdam, and mounted on brawny stallions. Leading the procession are erect, square-shouldered officers in their fine, medal-adorned coats and feathery chapeaux-de-bras, with a palace looming in the background. Banners, pennants, and coats of arms are flapping in the breeze, and a few members of the public are standing at attention. The military swarm has surrounded an elegant, cream-colored carriage of royal pedigree, with the soldiers sitting atop their steeds, clutching long swords pointed skyward, at vertical attention.

What is curious about the painting is that inside the carriage are the only two females apparent in the entire male militaryscape: a young woman of eighteen, named Wilhelmina, who is about to be crowned queen of the Netherlands, and her mother, Emma, who as Queen Regent has been holding the post until her daughter came of age. The sea of soldiers and their long knives are darkly rendered, but the painter’s skill has bathed the two women and their delicate carriage in a glazed light, as if the hope and aspirations of a nation are ensconced in their halo at the heart of the painting. As I stood staring at this image, what initially struck me was the frailty of these two women anchoring this muscular display. Any one of these soldiers could simply canter close to the royal barouche, say, “Good day, Your Majesty,” and with a couple swings of his sword run them both through. The two women, one young and the other old, would be powerless to defend themselves.

Yet the soldiers don’t do that, quite the contrary. Instead, they all hold the line, at attention while the carriage rolls past, as if all the soldiers are hypnotized by some kind of spell. Only a couple of the horses appear to buck against whatever rule is binding them to an unspoken consensus: that this vulnerable young woman shall rule over these brave hard men, indeed over an entire nation. I felt transported by the artist’s skill, as if I were standing there in the Frederiksplein as the procession rolled past. The sheer incongruity of it all, of a delicate woman more powerful than all these armed men, is what entranced me.

I knew I was witnessing, from my distant perch, the social and political agreements that had bound them all to their national fate, the invisible threads of connectedness that wrap countless personal lives into a web of officialdom. Every generation, as well as every nation and political order, makes its agreements, its social contract, bonded by the “sticky glue” that holds it all together and that keeps the human heart of darkness from ripping us apart. While seeming second nature to those living under them, the rules of agreement are rooted in the past, in culture and local color, looking both backward and forward at the same time. And once you step outside the picture and observe the rules from another place or distant time, you can see that often they made sense only to those who lived under the dome of their social and political contract.

Queen Wilhelmina went on to become a popular monarch who reigned for fifty years, a symbol of national unity that inspired the Dutch people with her staunch resolve during the Second World War. But at the time of this painting, who could have known what the future held for the young queen or her nation? It made me wonder about the unwritten agreements, compromises, and social contracts we live by today.

Every national paradigm, every political economy, whether the European “social capitalist” democracy, the Japanese-style “zaibatsu cronyism” democracy, the Iranian mullah-ocracy, the Chinese state communism or Russian state capitalism, the previous Soviet command-style economy, or the American “Wall Street capitalism” democracy, has its rules and agreements that establish the manners and modes for the inhabitants of that time and place to live by. These rules are incorporated into certain fulcrum institutions that work as an integrated whole, which, when taken together, forms a distinctive American Way, or a European Way, or a Japanese or Chinese or Russian Way. The great historian Arnold Toynbee once wrote, “Countries have characters that are as distinctive as those of human beings,” and each fulcrum institution is a component part of a greater whole that contributes to the formation of a “national character.”

As in the past, different national characters exist in the world today, and while the American Way and the European Way share much in common, they also exhibit basic differences that are diverging and were leading to frequent clashes even before the U.N. rift over Iraq. It’s as if we are staring at two different paintings, hung side by side, each revealing its intricate web of unwritten rules, agreements, and social contract. While it’s possible to stress what Europe and America have in common, it behooves us to recognize the differences as well, and approach this divergence a bit like an art historian might approach a Da Vinci alongside a Michelangelo, straining to understand which work might be the better harbinger of the future. More than we realize is at stake: few in the world wish to emulate the Chinese or the Russian Way, stuck in their authoritarianism and low standard of living, and certainly not the Islamic fundamentalist way, which is synonymous with poverty, bloody conflict, religious intolerance, and women’s oppression. But all nations, even Muslim nations, desire the wealth and quality of life of the United States and Europe. Thus, this clash between the American Way and the European Way is about the future direction over the best development model for the world during this make-or-break twenty-first century.

The American Way and the European Way have diverged in two crucial ideological areas: first, in the role and size of the military, with militarism being a core part of the American Way. U.S. militarism acts not only as a projection of international power but also as a stimulus of the economy, a voracious consumer of national wealth, and an indicator of societal values and priorities in a classic “guns versus butter” tradeoff. America spends more than twice as much of our gross domestic product on the military as Europe spends, while Europe spends around 50 percent more of its gross domestic product on social spending than the U.S.

Second, while the American and European ways are both founded on capitalist economies, they have diverged in their conclusions regarding age-old debates about individual property rights versus the common good, liberty versus equality, and the role of government. These basic differences in turn have led to the fashioning of distinct fulcrum institutions incorporating the laws, unwritten rules, and social contracts that guide their respective ways. Both the European and American ways are deeply rooted in old traditions, even in different branches of Christianity, which will shape any attempts to forge a new transatlantic understanding. I explore these unique Christian ideological origins in an article published by The Globalist, America and Europe: John Locke vs. Saint Augustine.

What the differences boil down to is that Americans prioritize the principle of protecting individual property rights and commercial interests, which is believed to be best accomplished by limiting the power of government. Government is viewed more skeptically as inefficient and inept or — even worse — as a vampire that sucks the life out of the body politic. Government regulation, seen as an infringement on individual property rights, is to be used as little as possible. That ideology triumphed during the Reagan revolution and ran rampant over subsequent decades, when Republicans and Democrats alike joined in a deregulatory bacchanalia. That in turn became the toxic Wall Street capitalism that ultimately collapsed and brought the global economy to its knees.

In Europe, however, the idea of the social contract has been extended to the notion that companies and businesses must earn their commercial rights by operating in a socially legitimate fashion. The ownership of property and the exercise of individual and commercial property rights are not seen as absolutes, as they are in the United States. Rather, they are viewed as a privilege that confers reciprocal social obligations. Article 14 of the post-war German constitution, for example, specifies that "property imposes duties. Its use should also serve the public weal."

This, in turn, affects attitudes toward government. Across Europe, and across Europe’s political spectrum, there is a great commitment to the notion that all residents should have an equal right to participate in economic, political and social life, and that government is more than a safety net of last resort. It is the fundamental vehicle for the delivery of this equality. What Europe shows is that, rather than being locked into rigid and even fundamentalist notions of property and commercial rights, a nation can subject these rights to negotiation and compromise via the vehicle of a pluralistic, representative democracy. The political process then is what allows the economic process to be harnessed for the good of all, subject to ratification by a consensus of all sectors of society.

That's why the European approach of a society that balances property rights with social obligation -- what I have called “social capitalism” -- is a better fit for today's world. But in the United States the political process is broken and mired in antiquated 18th century political institutions and practices, which in turn has led to a “trickle down” economy and toxic Wall Street capitalism.

Steven Hill 10:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks
February 22, 2011
 by Steven Hill

PRAGUE: CITY OF MODERNITY…AND MARTYRS…THE VELVET REVOLUTION TWENTY YEARS LATER...I have been the guest of various organizations here, including the Goethe Institute and the US Embassy, invited to give lectures about the subject and themes of my book "Europe's Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age" ( It has been interesting to witness the remarkable events in Egypt and Tunisia from the land of the Velvet Revolution, with many people all over the world referring to these events as the Arab “Velvet Revolution” -- not the Arab “American Revolution,” or the Arab “Fall of the Berlin Wall,” but as the Arab “Velvet Revolution.” Such is the hold that the Czech Republic, a land of only 10 million people, has on the imaginations of people all over the world.

Prague is such a scenic and charming city, a quintessentially European capital combining beautiful architecture and urban design, with each street and winding alleyway of the old town whispering the tales of a storied past. Prague has a thousand year old history -- stretch your mind around that for a moment - with kings and empires giving way century after century to usurpers and successors, only to see themselves eventually defenestrated (that is, overthrown, but literally “thrown out the window,” a centuries-long Prague tradition for dealing with leaders who overstepped their bounds). Today, it is an energetic place, filled with entrepreneurs, artists, musicians, filmmakers and music clubs, and ranked fifth among Europe's 271 regions in terms of economic output per inhabitant, achieving 172 percent of the EU average and ranking above Paris. The Czech Republic has become a regional auto manufacturing leader and energy exporter, and while like everywhere it has been hurt by the economic crisis, everyone here seems to agree that the country has emerged from that crisis in remarkably decent shape. Its people have not experienced nearly as much pain as most Americans have, with an unemployment rate hovering around 7.5 percent (compared to 9 percent in the US). Its face is set towards a future at the core of a peaceful and hopefully prosperous Europe, yet one foot drags behind as it still tries to shed vestiges of its communist past.

While here, I have had the great fortune of meeting and in some cases interviewing leading politicians, journalists, Roma representatives, filmmakers and artists. I had the honor of interviewing Petr Pithart, a leader of the Velvet Revolution and the first Prime Minister post-1989 after the fall of communism (serving at the same time that Vaclav Havel was the first post-1989 president). Mr. Pithart is now a Senator and a Vice President of the Senate. Among other things we had a frank conversation about the communist legacy of corruption that continues to plague the Czech Republic, as well as other former communist states. It has been estimated to drain away approximately 15 percent of the Czech gross domestic product, a sizable share that can no longer be ignored. Various commissions as well as NGOs have targeted the no-bid contracts, sweetheart deals and other practices that amount to a partial theft of the Velvet Revolution’s promise.

While Prague is an exciting place, it is also a melancholic one. Indeed, it is a city of martyrs: its main Old Town Square is dominated by a large monument honoring native son Jan Hus, a religious thinker who was burned at the stake for his beliefs in 1415 and for centuries has stood as a symbol of one who spoke truth to power and paid the ultimate sacrifice for it. Within walking distance from the Hus statuary is a memorial to Jan Palach, the Czech student who committed suicide in January 1969 by setting himself on fire as a protest against the Soviet tanks that had invaded to put an end to the liberalizing reforms of Czech communism known as the Prague Spring. The nearby Old Jewish Cemetery, with its twisted gravestones looking like rows of crooked skeleton teeth jutting out from layers of burial pits, is a constant reminder of the purges and pograms that have targeted "the chosen people" for the wrong type of attention.

Empires always have their victims, and there is an enormous castle on the hill casting a shadow over the winding Vltava River and the famous Charles Bridge, dominating the spatial feng shui of the Prague valley. Since the 9th century, this is where the Kings of Bohemia, Holy Roman Emperors, Nazi collaborators, Czech communists and the president of the current Czech Republic all have had their offices. The city has endured the suffering of the Protestant Reformation, the fratricidal Thirty Years' War, Nazi invasion, communist occupation, capitalist consumerism and more. Indeed, the fine hotel where I am staying is located on Bartolomejska, or Bartholomew Street, and when I mentioned that to one of the locals her eyebrows raised a bit. "You know the history of that street, don't you?" Um, well, no, actually I don't.

It turns out this short alleyway and its canyon of buildings long has been a fearsome nest of the secret police, where communist authorities took their prisoners, many of whom were never heard from again. The very building in which my hotel now resides, Number 9 Bartolomejska, was a former convent until the Communists ran out the nuns and turned the building into a dungeon. Cells were set up in the basement, offices loaded with interrogators and the church itself defiled as a shooting range. Among the people who were jailed here was a young playwright by the name of Vaclav Havel, who later became Petr Pithart’s counterpart as the first Czech president of the post-1989 era. In the basement is a thick metal door indicating that the preserved closet-sized room was Havel’s former cell. The hallways of the three-floor hotel are lengthy and labyrinthine, and as I walk to my room each night I can't help but reflect on how I feel like I am being swallowed down the passageway of a long dark throat that in days gone by gobbled the hopes, aspirations, indeed the daylight, of so many innocent people.

The hotel does serve a great breakfast, however, and the rooms are spacious and comfortable. Yes, when in Prague, you are surrounded by all these sorts of contradictions and more. And yet, cutting through the centuries of fog is the fact that the Velvet Revolution amounted to a final triumph of a centuries-long struggle of truth and nonviolence over brute power and its lies. And that continues to inspire people all over the world, including the young people of Egypt and Tunisia. Vive la Velvet Revolution!

FYI, I was profiled via a lengthy interview in one of the two leading Czech daily newspapers, Lidove Noviny. The interview, with the headline "Despite the Crisis, Europe Is the Model for the World," can be read at this link, but it's in Czech so use your Google translator.

Steven Hill 2:09 AM Permalink | Trackbacks
December 14, 2010
 by Steven Hill

ISTANBUL: ANCIENT CITY AND THROBBING METROPOLIS…WHERE EAST MEETS WEST…ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT…AND IRANIAN TORTURERS…I touched down in Istanbul with a good deal of excitement. Its reputation had preceded it, causing a palpable sense of anticipation on my part. Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel Prize winner in literature from Turkey, writes of his hometown Istanbul with a mixture of melancholy and majesty that tries to reconcile the local landscape’s ancient history with its modern aspirations. Formerly known as Byzantium under the Romans, then as Constantinople after it converted to Christianity under Emperor Constantine, and finally its current name after the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, human habitation has existed at this location as far back as the 10th century B.C. During this long history, this city served as the capital of the Roman, Byzantine, Latin, and Ottoman Empires (the latter lasting for nearly five centuries until 1922). In short, Istanbul is a historical proving ground, where empires conquered and got conquered, leaving layer upon layer of lost stories with the latest incarnation sitting atop the buried remains of Romans, Christians, Celts, Muslims, Crusaders, Jews, churches, mosques, Turks, Greeks, Venetians, Bulgarians, and other peoples who transmigrated east to west and back again.

Today Istanbul is a modernizing mega-city of nearly 14 million people, one of the largest in the world, and also the commercial heart of Turkey. Construction cranes stretch against the skyline in practically every direction, and it occurs to me that they are the true national monuments of modern Turkey. Turkey proper, for its part, is one of the most important emerging national economies in the world, with roaring economic growth rates that rival that of China and India. Muslims, Christians, and Jews live in relative harmony here, yet it’s as if its too-jumbled history pulses within the walls, the monuments, the winding streets, indeed within each individual Turk now inhabiting this ground zero zone. How could it not? No wonder Orhan Pamuk keens over the beauty residing in Istanbul’s "crumbling city walls, in the grass, ivy weeds and trees I remember growing from the towers and walls."

Indeed, Istanbul’s unique geographical position makes it the meeting ground of East and West; it is the only city in the world to exist on two continents, Europe and Asia. These two worlds are divided by the Bosphorus Strait that runs roughly north-south through the heart of the city like the sands of an hour glass, connecting the Black Sea in the north to the Sea of Marmara to the south (which in turn is connected to the Mediterranean). That tectonic parting into two worlds in essence defines Turkey’s historic as well as modern-day dilemma: whether to step further toward the West, or further toward the East. Or straddle both, for as long as it can. Long a member of NATO, aspiring to become a member state of the European Union, all parties to the negotiations are not sure if Turkey fits comfortably in the western camp primarily due to that “Muslim thing,” as well as vast differences in educational and wealth levels between the West and most of Turkey outside Istanbul and the country's capital, Ankara. But Turkey doesn’t fit comfortably in the East either, even with its Muslim roots, especially since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1922 and the emergence of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk as the progenitor of a secular nation now known as the Republic of Turkey (Turks are immensely proud of “their George Washington,” Ataturk, and there are statues and likenesses of him everywhere - when Time magazine held an online election to select the most important person of the 20th century, Turks practiced the old village tradition of voting early and often, resulting in Ataturk winning, much to Time - and the West’s - chagrin. The magazine voided the election and handpicked Albert Einstein instead). Turkey is caught between two worlds, like Janus, the Roman god of doorways and new beginnings, depicted as having two heads facing opposite directions; one head looks back at the last year while the other looks forward to the new, simultaneously into the future and the past, to the west and the east (Janus being the namesake for the month of January, which begins each new year).

Walking around Istanbul, one of the first things that struck me was the vibrancy and energy of the place. It has a street level buzz, like New York City, Paris, or Berlin. Traffic was gridlocked and there was a hustle to the place, like a beautiful con game going on, someone trying to sell you something around every corner. One taxi driver ripped us off with a clever little ruse, and we were boggle-eyed enough to fall for it. I got drawn seductively into the give and take of a Turkish carpet trader, and by the end of the session was out more money than I could have imagined but was the proud new owner of a stunning hand-woven work of Kurdish floor art. In the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market thousands upon thousands of vendors are jammed in, their shops practically shoulder to shoulder, hawking their sparkling wares but what was even more remarkable was that the same vendor conversed one second in English (with me), the next in French, then German, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, each shop owner knowing multiple languages of commerce, each a Marco Polo of the Levant (Polo passed through Constantinople, I am told). Adding to the edge of the place, a suicide bomber detonated his terror in the middle of Taksim Square, one of the main thoroughfares, only a few blocks from where we were staying. Our taxi driver happened to be in the square when it went off, and through his halting English we could see that he was still shaken from the experience (I wrote about this earlier in this blog, see here).

I was thrilled to be accompanied in Istanbul by my partner Lucy Colvin and my mother-in-law, Barbara Colvin. Barbara, all of 83 years wise and from Minneapolis, wrote this about her maiden voyage in Istanbul:

I was impressed with the size of the city, and then learned there were 14 million people and so much traffic and so many cars and so many taxis. That was my first impression. And then I remembered the Turks were the Hittites that used to fight the ancient Egyptians. They are quite an attractive people. Many of the women on the streets were especially beautiful. Some people spoke good English including a few of the taxi drivers. At the Spice Market and Grand Bazaar all of the shop keepers spoke good English to us and then they turned to the other customers and spoke other languages. So it seemed to me that everyone gave the impression of being well educated. The food was delicious and attractive, including the Turkish coffee I had heard was so strong. I thought it was very delicious. The breads and rolls were outstanding. The city was beautiful. It looked very modern but so much was very, very old. The ancient walls and mosques were at least 1500 years old, still very beautiful and in good shape. It seemed more foreign than other places I’d visited but obviously quite westernized. I am so pleased to have had the privilege of being there. It’s a place I really wanted to see and was not disappointed. My favorite place was the old mosque/church called the Hagia Sophia (dating from 500 AD), as well as the Spice Market. And I loved the boat ride on the Bosphorus and seeing all the beautiful homes and palaces along the shoreline. It appeared that most people in Istanbul proper lived in apartment buildings because there is not enough room for all to have houses. I enjoyed going to the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art too, it was so lovely overlooking the Bosphorus, and the sun was sparkling on the water. That is probably the best selection of modern art I’ve seen in one place. I was impressed with hearing about Atatürk and how he wanted Istanbul to be as lovely as other western cities and so he sent many artists to study modern art in France and then added this museum. I have read two of the novels by the Nobel Prize winning author Orhan Pamuk which is helping me have more background on the city.

Thank you Barbara. Like Rome (sort of), Istanbul's nickname is The City on Seven Hills because (like Rome) the city was built on seven hills. And Barbara gamely walked up a good chunk of those hills.

It was a short first visit, but filled with many highlights. I gave a lecture and was interviewed twice, first by a reporter from Today’s Zaman, which is the leading English-language daily in Turkey (one of two English-language dailies, the other being Hurriyet Daily News). The interviewer focused on issues related to the European Union, but also focused extensively -- relentlessly even -- on issues related to Israel, which is embroiled at the moment with Turkey over various Middle East disagreements. One of those disagreements is over Israel's tragically violent and unjustified attack of the humanitarian flotilla that tried to break the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip on May 31, 2010, which resulted in nine people being killed by Israeli soldiers. After completing our interview, the Today’s Zaman reporter told me that his photographer (who had been snapping photos of me throughout the interview) had been present on the ship that had been boarded by the Israeli soldiers. I asked the photographer a few questions, and in his broken English he responded. Yes, he had been injured by the soldiers, though not seriously. Yes, it was very scary. Yes, he was glad he was there and he would do it again because the Israeli blockade is wrong and hurting many innocent people. But he didn’t seem eager to talk about it, so finally we shook hands and said good-bye.

The article written from that interview was published on Today’s Zaman front page, below the fold. Here is a link to the article.

"United States too uncritical of Israel, says American author"
By Mustafa Edib Yilmaz
Today’s Zaman, Istanbul, Turkey

The second interview I gave was to an Iranian journalist who was living in Istanbul. The conversation focused a lot on relations between Iran and the United States, as well as with Europe. But what was vividly memorable about this interview is that, during the usual type of give and take between interviewer and interviewee, it came out that this journalist had been a political prisoner in Iran; indeed, he told me he had been tortured by the Iranian authorities. To be honest, at first I was somewhat skeptical. I don't know why, perhaps it was a mixture of a natural wariness I have learned from my travels of claims that strangers make, combined with a lack of personal familiarity with the subject. Torture is just not part of my daily, quotidian frame. So I asked him, hopefully not too challengingly, but also perhaps out of a privileged sense of curiosity, "What did they do to you?" I won't forget anytime soon the look on his sudden, pained face as he described his treatment. The details of his response aren't what stick in my mind -- they were banally evil, as these things go, to borrow from Hannah Arendt -- instead what I remember is how his face twisted up as he recalled those harrowing moments. In the close gap across the wooden table at which we sat, as I observed his breath lower and his jaw line twist, I tried to comprehend the totality of what he was saying, and I realized how much torture is psychological as well as physical. The sheer terror of being in someone else's grip, totally in their control and not your own, knowing that they have complete god-like power to determine how much pain you have to endure, how many hours and times a day, how arbitrary your life will be lived. While I reacted with the appropriate amount of horror and condemnation for the Iranian authorities, silently I cursed myself and my thoughtless skepticism for making him relive that, and the privilege of distance and the distance of my privilege. I was an envoy from the Western comfort zone, and soon we shook hands and I departed back to it. What else could I do?

Steven Hill 4:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks
December 12, 2010
 by Steven Hill

“EUROPE'S PROMISE” INTERVIEWS FROM THE TOUR, PLUS A VIDEO OF MY SPEECH IN ATHENS AT THE FOREIGN MINISTRY…My speaking engagements in Athens attracted some media attention, including interviews and a YouTube video of one of my talks. I thought some readers might find these of interest:

Interview in Vima, the leading daily newspaper in Greece
Steven Hill: "The crisis unites Europe
The American writer, journalist and political analyst talks about the opportunities the crisis provides to Europe, and believes that Greece is on the right track.
By Markos Karasarinis
Saturday, October 16, 2010
(in Greek, use Google translator)

Video of my talk at the Foreign Ministry of the Greek government:
Steven Hill speaking at the Foreign Ministry, Athens, Greece
October 18, 2010

An article in a Greek publication reporting on my talk at the Foreign Ministry
Zoom News
October 21 2010
(in Greek, use Google translator)

Here is another interview in an Italian publication, following my lecture in Rome at Fondazione Fare Futuro
Europe and its revolution
Interview with U.S. author Steven Hill
November 30, 2010
By Francesca Cannino,4319.html

A book review of Europe's Promise in the Vienna Review (English-language, Austria)

Steven Hill 12:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks
December 4, 2010
 by Steven Hill

MY INTERVIEW WITH GREEK PRIME MINISTER GEORGE PAPANDREOU…FROM THE TOP OF THE ACROPOLIS…My interview with PM Papandreou was preceded by one with his Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Spyros Kouvelis. I was ushered into a pleasant yet not extravagant office, decorated tastefully with various artworks of Greek culture and personal artifacts. The Deputy Minister was joined by some of his staff. After introductions, Mr. Kouvelis opened with an assessment of his country’s situation, which of course he subtly pinned on the government of the previous Prime Minister, Costas Karamanlis, which had hid the full extent of Greece’s debt. Deputy Minister Kouvelis told about attending what has become a legendary meeting of the then-newly elected Prime Minister George Papandreou and his team, in which each department head and Minister reported to the PM about the state of affairs inherited from the previous government. As they went around the room, the deficit grew larger and larger as each department had discovered that the situation in their respective area was much worse than had been reported. Mr. Kouvelis talked about the look on all their faces as they realized the magnitude of what they had inherited. When the true size of Greece’s deficit was revealed to the world, the bonds markets went berserk. The interest rates on Greece’s sovereign debt spiked to unheard of proportions, threatening the solvency of the government, and the rest is history.

“It was clear that the previous government had not told the truth,” said Mr. Kouvelis in a calm, even-tempered manner. He did not belabor the point to score political points, but his overall message was sobering.

Indeed, the deficits were so big, he says, that Prime Minister Papandreou was forced to go to the European Union and tell them, "It's not just Greece that is on the line...Europe and the euro zone are on the line too," because it raised the unprecedented possibility of a eurozone member having to default on its debt. Moreover, much of that debt is held by banks in other European countries, so even though Greece’s economy is only two percent of the overall E.U. economy, there was the chance of other dominoes falling, or as it has been called, “contagion.” And indeed, Papandreou was correct about that. The European Commission already had been providing money to Greece for development for many years, for infrastructure-building and other growth-encouraging projects, and so it was already heavily invested in Greece’s welfare. Little did anyone realize then how much Greece’s fellow eurozone members would be called upon to “invest” in their Aegean partner. Greece’s plunge into near bankruptcy shattered the bonds of trust and agreement that had prevailed in the eurozone and by extension in the European Union.

Part of the rupture resulted from the fact that Greece’s crisis was not just economic in origin. As Professor Takis Pappas from the University of Macedonia has written, “The crisis has its origins in grave pathologies of [Greece’s] political system over the last three decades, so recovery will require much more than wise economic management. It will in fact require the remaking of Greece’s whole political and institutional system.” Specifically all of Greece’s major political parties had gotten into the habit of winning elections by giving away the candy store, providing subsidies and government jobs to their constituencies. What resulted was an uncompetitive economy with a huge percentage of government employees, a diminished private and manufacturing sector, and ballooning government deficits compounded by huge numbers of people from all income levels who didn’t pay their taxes. That had become the Greek “development model,” much like a declining manufacturing sector combined with a financial industry on steroids and a housing bubble had become the U.S. development model. In both countries their unsustainable ways came crashing down. Now, with its economy in ruins, could Greece figure out how to do things differently? That’s what I was interested in assessing from those I was interviewing -- did they have a plan to fundamentally change Greece? Or were they looking to band aid over this latest crisis, as so many previous governments had done?

I asked a question to the Deputy Minister. “Given that economic experts are saying that Greece needs to increase its exports, and make its economy more competitive, what does Greece have now or what will it have in the future, that the world wants to buy?” (a similar question could be legitimately asked to the Obama administration).

In response he said that Greece was looking to focus development in the following areas: high quality tours and culture (which makes sense, Greece’s peerless historical and cultural attractions had long been a big money maker for the country); renewable energy and green development (taking advantage of copious amounts of sun and wind); and shipping (a longtime core Greek industry). But perhaps most interestingly Mr. Kouvelis discoursed at length about the advantages of Greece's "geographical position." By that he meant that Greece’s location would allow it to play a key role as a gateway between the west and the east, between Europe and the Arab world. He talked about Greece being a regional hub for the Balkan countries and Turkey’s fast growing economy, and using that position to attract foreign direct investment.

It sounded plausible, even convincing. But one of the people with me, Alec Mally, was a former long time American employee of the U.S. embassy in Greece. He expressed skepticism. “This is not the first time that the Greek government has proposed regional projects like this, and being a regional hub,” he said. “But in the past those plans didn't work because of so much bureaucracy and corruption. How will it be different this time?"

That’s a key question. The large-scale patronage that I referred to earlier, besides causing a large and ineffective state, also has been responsible for a paralyzed bureaucracy. And the corruption had become so widespread that a Brookings Institute study showed that patronage, bribery and other corruption costs Greece 8 percent of its GDP per annum. Another study by Transparency International showed that in 2009 the Greeks had paid an average of about $1800 in bribes for such services as speeding up the obtaining of a driver’s license or building permits, getting admitted to public hospitals, or manipulating tax returns.

What about it, Mr. Deputy Minister? Can you reverse these trends?

The Deputy Minister made the case that the linchpin for changing Greece fundamentally was “getting people off the public payroll and on the private sector payroll." This in turn would shrink the size of government and the slice of the budget so dependent on patronage, i.e. handing out jobs to bought-off constituencies. Coming from a high-ranking member of the PASOK government, this was a statement worthy of attention. PASOK is the socialist party of Greece begun by the current prime minister’s father who was probably more responsible than any other figure in fashioning the patronage state. This was Nixon going to China, to have PASOK tackling this issue.

"Now we have a fast-track program," said Deputy Minister Kouvelis, trying to sound convincing. "The current crisis has given us more momentum for making the changes that need to happen.” As proof, he reported that for the first time ever this Greek government took the first survey of government employees to find out how many they had. “Previous governments did not even know how many public employees were on the payroll.” They found that there are 760,000 public employees, or 18 percent of the overall workforce (compared to the United States where about 9 percent of the workforce of 155 million workers is public employees).

Deputy Minister Kouvelis also talked about how, as a way of further reducing costs, they are consolidating government in significant ways. For example, there used to be 1050 municipalities, with a lot of overlapping jobs and positions. Now there are 335 municipalities, and a lot of the overlapping jobs have been abolished. My Greek sources who attended this interview with me were nodding their heads in approval over the depth in his responses.

I asked him a question that I think doesn’t get enough attention (and that I wrote about in a previous blog post), namely the downsides of having so much of the economy based on an informal sector of family and social networks. That also lends itself to barter and covert exchanges of money, which easily heads in the direction of graft and corruption; that in turn makes it difficult for the government to count things, to know how much its revenues and expense are. “Do you have a plan for bringing that under control?”

He reframed this into a discourse about the "family welfare system,” which sounds warm and fuzzy and was starting to look like an evasion. But he recovered nicely, saying “The ‘gray economy’ is a problem, but grandmothers taking care of their grandchildren is good. How do we get rid of the downsides of the gray economy without getting rid of the social aspects that we believe are good? That's what we are grappling with.”

In sum, he said that the E.U. partnership is getting better, as everyone has been making compromises to find solutions. At the moment, he is feeling hopeful about the current situation. “We are safe from a crash of the global economy. And we are ready to build a new future for Greece as part of a strong Europe.”

My interview with Prime Minister Papandreou.The next day I interviewed Prime Minister Papandreou. Prime ministers are generally pretty busy people, especially when you are the prime minister of a country in the middle of a historic crisis in which much of the capitalist world seems to believe that your tiny nation could be a domino that brings down the rest of them. So I was not surprised when the PM’s press office told me in response to my initial request, “We will have to wait until just a day or so beforehand to decide, depending on his schedule and any late-breaking situations.” The day before I was informed that “unfortunately his day is turning out to be quite busy, back to back meetings. The best we can offer you is a telephone interview, at approximately 15:00 (3 pm).” I immediately accepted, but it put me in a bit of a quandary: that afternoon was the only time I had left to climb to the top of the Acropolis, one of the most revered classical sites in all of Greece, and explore it before leaving Athens the following day. What a choice, the prime minister or the Acropolis? Then I thought, What the heck, I can take the PM’s call from the top of the Acropolis…assuming there is cell phone reception up there, since it’s located on a 500 foot tall mount in the center of Athens!

The Acropolis of Athens is the best known of its kind in the world. Although there are many other acropolises in Greece, this is the only one know as THE Acropolis. The Acropolis in its current form was constructed under the leadership of Pericles during the Golden Age of Athens. It sits on a flat-topped bluff jutting above the city, with a surface area of about 3 hectares. Its archaeological remains are vast and iconic, and one of Greece and the world’s most famous tourist attractions. Indeed, the Acropolis was formally proclaimed as the pre-eminent monument on the European Cultural Heritage list of monuments in March 2007.

The climb to the top of the Acropolis proceeds along a winding, gently sloping trail. Along the slope are the remains of two different ancient theaters built into the sides of the hill. Here, some of Athens’ leading dramatists like Sophocles, Aeschylus and Aristophanes premiered their most recent plays. Climbing through the skeletal remains of ancient Greek architecture is sobering…a chance to reflect on the rise and fall of civilizations, on the plate tectonics of human affairs that grinds up the past and deposits it in the future, transformed into little more than dust and a few artifacts of a time long gone.

The entrance to the Acropolis is a monumental gateway called the Propylaea. It’s imposing and impressive, or rather the Greek government has done an impressive job of rebuilding it. Using one’s imagination, one can see how these structures were meant to convey grandeur and power, circa 500 B.C.

The highlight of the Acropolis is the most famous, most photographed, most recognized and most admired ruin in the world -- the Parthenon, or Temple of Athena Parthenos (Athena the Virgin). The Parthenon dominates the Athens skyline, and can be seen from practically every point in the city; I could see it from my hotel balcony in the Plaka district, day or night, since the Parthenon is brightly lit at night and radiates over the city like a second full moon. Myth, religion and war are all embodied at this site, and in its heyday it housed the city's treasures and showcased a gold and ivory statue of Athena Parthenos. It is renowned as an example of Classical Greek architecture, with its famous distinctive columns, eight on each of its shorter sides, and 17 columns on two longer sides. The history of the Parthenon is the history of Greece itself: built between 447 and 438 B.C., in the 5th century A.D. transformed into a Christian church, before becoming a mosque under Turkish rule in the 1460s. The building was attacked and almost destroyed in 1687 during a siege of the Acropolis by the Venetians to remove the Turks. A British nobleman named Thomas Bruce (otherwise known as Lord Elgin) caused more damage when he looted it in the 19th century, selling much of its contents to the British Museum. The Parthenon underwent restoration in the late 19th and 20th centuries and today is considered one of the most important symbols of ancient Greece, having been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.

I was standing right in front of this magnificent building, admiring its history and architecture when, at 15:20 (3:20 pm), 20 minutes later than scheduled, I received a call and a distant voice said: “Please hold for the Prime Minister.”

A few moments later a second, softer voice was on the phone, saying “This is George Papandreou.” His understated voice didn’t have to say it, but it was immediately and implicitly clear to me, that this was the latest scion of one of the two families that had dominated Greek politics for decades. He had been educated - ‘groomed’ is the more accurate word - for this slot as a leader, attending the world’s best schools and living much of his life abroad, including in the United States, rubbing elbows with the young elites of the world. He had grown up in a rarefied world that few could enter or understand, and it is said that his English is better than his Greek. Certainly his voice on the other end of the phone spoke better English than many of my relatives.

I started my end of the conversation by greeting him and explaining that I was, at that very moment, at the top of the Acropolis, perched in front of the Parthenon. “Somehow it seems very appropriate that I should greet you from here,” I said. He got a chuckle out of that, he appreciated the coincidence, and he was friendly and easy to banter with. But we soon got down to business.

"Your government is under enormous pressure, Mr. Prime Minister, do you think you can retain the support of the Greek people? Will you be able to hold on?” I asked him.

He responded by heaping great praise on his fellow Greeks. “I am amazed at the support we are seeing in such difficult circumstances. Keep in mind that right now we are living through the worst of it, people are experiencing the cutbacks but none of the benefits that won’t come until later. And of course people are protesting, that’s understandable. But even some of the protesters are telling me, ‘Keep going, keep going, we know that Greece needs to change.’ So everyone is in this incredibly difficult position, afraid to go forward but knowing we have to. I am really proud of my fellow Greeks, and so far I feel they are supporting my team and what we are trying to do.”

Opinion polls as well as a recent local election confirm that the prime minister’s party, PASOK, is enjoying support as well as a sizable 14 point lead over its main opponent; Papandreou himself retains fairly high ratings. But that flowed naturally into a rather obvious question: What exactly are you doing to rectify the situation? This part of the conversation repeated some of the same ground I went over with his Deputy Minister, Spyros Kouvelis. He stated some of the same themes about rooting out corruption. He spoke about how, shortly after coming to power in October 2009, he was obliged to admit that the Greek public sector suffered from “systemic corruption,” and identified cracking down on it as necessary for reducing the country’s public debt.

But he also talked about his visions for Greece’s future, reiterating some of the same themes as Deputy Minister Kouvelis, i.e. Greece as a regional hub, boosting their green economy and green tech. “For example,” he said, “The prime minister of Turkey is coming this weekend to participate in a regional conference on global warming and green economy. We are trying to position Greece as major players in this region for those issues.”

He also said that Greece’s position as a regional hub is perfectly located to attract foreign direct investment. “Chinese investors are here in Athens next weekend, and they are extremely interested in investing in our shipping and other industries where we are well-positioned to expand in the private sector if we can find sufficient investment capital.”

Suddenly, much to my chagrin, our phone connection went dead. Cell phone reception at the top of the Acropolis was spotty, and I had been pacing to and fro among the ruins and tourists, so perhaps that contributed to losing reception. But fortunately he called right back and we resumed our conversation.

I asked him a question about the Greek military. “Greece spends the highest percent of GDP on its military of all European nations, about 3.6 percent (the U.S. spends at least 4 percent, but other European countries spend less than half that amount as a percent of GDP). Given the crisis, given the budget deficit, doesn’t it make sense to reduce that spending?”

He was cagey on that one. Precisely because of its location as a crossroads between east and west, Greece has been involved in numerous military conflicts over the centuries; in the last century Greece was invaded by the Nazis and the Ottomans/Turks, with the military itself becoming a powerful special interest during periods of dictatorship within Greece. So reducing military spending taps into a lot of historical baggage. And ongoing fear of Turkey’s army has led Greece to become the European Union’s biggest military spender as a share of GDP. But last May, during a visit to Athens Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the neighbors and strategic rivals should work to cut military spending. And naturally matching cuts from Turkey would help Greece make the reduction in military expenditures. It seems like this is on the track to becoming a reality at some point, but PM Papandreou was not about to make any major announcements or commitments to me over the phone. He discoursed a long version of “We are looking into that.”

He asked me how things looked in the United States, and I told him it varied from place to place, but that some parts of the country had been hit really hard. In California, where I live, the state government had to issue IOUs in 2009 to pay its bills and prevent default. State and local governments have been slashing social programs and government jobs, while many communities have been swamped by foreclosed homes. A recent study found that 25 percent of Californians have no health insurance, and California has a higher unemployment rate than Greece. While both Greece and California are in major belt-tightening mode, at least in Greece all families and individuals still have access to healthcare and a long menu of other supports that Europe is known for. But in California, even before the crisis millions had no health care, and now more have lost their jobs and their health insurance, with little in the way of a support net which further reduces consumer spending and weakens the economy. The Greek economy is only about 2 percent of Europe's economy compared toCalifornia's economy, which is about 14 percent of the United States, truly” too big to fail.”

On top of that, for a couple of decades for every dollar in federal taxes that Californians have sent to Washington DC, they have only received back about 70 cents. Where did the other 30 cents go? To states like Alaska, Wyoming and other low-population, conservative "red" states who complain about big government and taxes even as they are heavily subsidized by large "blue" states like California and Illinois. Yet when the Golden State requested assistance from the Obama administration, the subsidized states complained vociferously and the White House rejected the request, forcing California to issue IOUs. I pointed out the irony: in the U.S., which has the laws and precendent for the federal govt to act as a financial backstop and bail out states that get into financial trouble, the federal govt refused to use that power; but in the European Union, which has no history, tradition or even laws to allow some member states to bail out another, they had figured out how to do just that.

He appreciate the irony, and concluded with a rather remarkable statement, a “glass half full” kind of statement that may not be fully shared by his fellow European leaders.

“Greece has given Europe the opportunity to fix a defect in the euro zone, that is the fact that we did not have a fiscal union. Now steps have been taken to begin that process. And there is more solidarity from nation to nation, and that is a good thing. That has been Greece's gift to Europe.” That sounded familiar and a moment later I learned why: PM Papandreou told me he had quoted from one of my articles saying the same thing, in a speech he gave to an audience at the Foreign Policy Association in New York City (read the speech here).

I concluded by telling him that I have been impressed with the steps his government had taken not only to deal with an extremely difficult situation handed to him by his predecessor, but also to reinvent Greece from the inside out. We both agreed there was a long way to go. At that point our connection went bad again, but the conversation had come to a natural conclusion, and he didn’t call back.

Steven Hill 2:09 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (2)
November 28, 2010
 by Steven Hill

ATHENS, BIRTHPLACE OF DEMOCRACY...DEMOCRACY, THE CORE OF THE WESTERN CANON...One of the places I had been most eager to visit in Athens is the Agora, the 2,500-year-old birthplace of democracy. Located at the base of the Acropolis and just across the rail tracks from the tavernas and cafes of the Monastiraki district, the ancient Agora site today is only a few sparse acres hemmed in by a modern city. But its importance looms large in the western canon.

A few of the Agora’s ancient buildings have been reconstructed, but most of the site is still in ruins, with stubs of columns, old walls, and headless busts poking out from the earth that has swallowed them. You have to use your imagination a bit to visualize it. I came to this ancient place to see if these old stones and walls would talk to me. These shards hold a secret I wished to unlock, a pulsing in their mortar and fragments that I can feel when I touch my palms to their gritty gray surface. “Agora” means “assembly place,” and this spot was a crucial intersection for a throbbing polis that began over two thousand years before the first settlers reached what would become the United States. Physically the Agora was a large public square flanked on several sides by major civic buildings, inside of which merchants sold their goods and services from shops and stalls amid the colonnades. It was a beehive of commercial activity, with everything from fruit and livestock to perfume, hardware, money-changing, and even slaves trading hands.

But the Agora also was where Athenians gathered for the exchange of ideas as well as goods. Among the hive of stalls, a ferment of debate over philosophy, ethics, democracy, and politics unfolded on a daily basis. Philosophers, statesmen, orators and dramatists, little known outside Athens at the time but who were to become giants of the western canon, traded ideas and policies at the Agora. Pericles, Thucydides, Aristophanes, Plato, Alcibiades, Aristides and Themistocles were regulars. Socrates was a constant presence there. “He was always on public view,” wrote the historian Xenophon, “for early in the morning he used to go to the walkways and gymnasia, to appear in the agora as it filled up, and to be present wherever he would meet with the most people.”

This hotbed of intellectual and commercial bustle was fed by a particular innovation in human organization that had appeared on the scene just a few years before. After several million years of human anatomical evolution, and a few tens of thousands of years of social evolution, at this moment in history something ground-breaking appeared, a revolutionary game changer: democracy. Around 508 BC the nobleman Kleisthenes organized Athens into 10 tribes. Each of the tribes were empowered to choose by lot fifty of its citizens who together comprised a 500 member Boule (Senate). The Boule prepared legislative bills to be voted on directly by an Assembly of All Citizens (Ekklesia of the Demos). Some 30,000 adult males of Athenian birth were eligible to vote out of a total population of around 250,000 men, women, and children, free and unfree. Of those 30,000, perhaps 5,000 might regularly attend one or more meetings of the Assembly of All Citizens, of which there were at least forty a year in Aristotle’s day. Those at the Assembly did not elect representatives to vote on their behalf, they voted directly on legislation and executive bills.

I stood before the sparse skeleton of one building, which once stood in a row of administration buildings on one side of the main square. This building was the meeting place of the 500 member Boule. Next door is the remains of one of the more significant public buildings of the Agora, known as the Tholos. Originally an enclosed circular structure with six interior columns, today all that is visible is the circumference of the foundation. But it was the headquarters of the 50 citizens who served as administrators for 35 days, after which they were replaced by citizens from another tribe. By the end of the year’s rotations, representatives from all 10 tribes had a turn in the administration. No petty partisans or special interests trying to prevent the other side from governing, or trying to claw their way into power by hook or by crook -- no, in ancient Athens they took turns. Perhaps Kleisthenes , who is considered the father of Athenian democracy, understood something essential about how to avoid the balkanization and polarization that plagues U.S. democracy. Rotation of power ensures compliance with the golden rule, “Do unto others…”, because you know that those over whom you are lording today will soon lord over you.

Not far from these buildings stood a pedestal once decorated with bronze statues of the mythical heroes of each of the 10 tribes, and a relic of it is in situtoday. On the sides of this pedestal hung wooden boards with announcements for the citizens of Athens, including legal decrees coming up for a vote, forthcoming lawsuits, lists of citizens conscripted into the army, civic or honorary distinctions and the like -- their version of a central kiosk or internet message board.

At the time, Athenian democracy was cutting edge stuff, but all was not rosy from a modern perspective. Women were totally excluded, this was a men’s club; foreigners, especially unfree slave foreigners, were excluded as well. The citizen body was a closed political elite with a small electorate, similar to America at its founding in 1789 when only white men of property could vote and many of the founders owned slaves who they agreed would be counted as 3/5 of a free person. And of course, Athenian democracy showed its limitations when it condemned Socrates to death in 399 BC just because he asked too many blunt questions to those in power. The site of the jail where the pesky inquisitor (“the gadfly,” as Plato described him) was imprisoned and suffered his sentence -- death by hemlock poison -- also is located here, occupying an out of the way corner from the central square of the Agora.

The ebb and flow of the democratic tide. Standing there in the dusty middle of what is left of the Agora, scanning the column nubs and half statues that look like rows of broken teeth, I was visited by the ghosts of the past. Down the tunnel of time I thought I could hear the distant cacophony of traders and merchants hawking their wares, and see the ghosts of Pericles’ entourage pushing through the crowds, and spy Socrates off to one side with a knot of impressionable young males gathered round (one of them looking like Plato). I felt momentarily dizzy, lost in a contemplation of democracy’s centuries-long sojourn. Beyond Athens, Europe’s ancient cradle is scattered with nascencies and power spots that mark the ebb and flow of the democratic tide that eventually led to American shores. I have visited many of these democracy birthplaces during my own travels, my personal pilgrimage to the temples of democracy and representative government, and they always inspire and move me. Instead of a pilgrimage to St. Peter’s, Santiago de Compostela, or Mecca, these are the stations of the cross for a different kind of religion: the worship of a free people who cherish equality, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These are the ancestral sanctuaries that led, eventually, to the American experiment launched in 1789 and which, by the early 1830s, was so buzzing with pluralism that the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville described it as a “tumult” of democracy.

But I digress. There must have been something in the Mediterranean air around 500 BC, because contemporaneously with Kleisthenes’ new code, ancient Rome took its first halting steps toward democracy. It began with the overthrow of a monarch also around 508 BC, followed by the launch of the structures that became the Roman Republic. While the Roman Republic and its representative democracy was dominated by wealthy families and eventually collapsed into dictatorship, for a time it was more representative than any of our modern-day republics. That’s because it granted an explicit “representation quota” to its poorest citizens. In the early Republic’s Centuriate Assembly (where all male citizens of military age were enrolled in one of five voting groups based on economic class), the poorest classes were able to have their say. While the voting was weighted in such a way that the wealthier elements could always outvote the poorest, at least the poor were at the political table. In the middle Roman Republic, the poorer classes exclusively elected ten high-level leaders, called the tribunes of the plebeians, who could use their office to take up the causes of the poor. So even in the oligarchic Roman Republic, class was distinctly recognized and formally incorporated into the voting practices and institutions, yet today the idea of such affirmative action along class lines is ridiculed. Instead, poor people pretty much have opted out of politics in the United States, since there are no class quotas, no tribunes like the Gracchi brothers to speak for them, and little hope that a viable political party might arise that can represent their interests (the poor in Europe, however, vote in higher numbers due to different electoral rules creating multiparty democracy that provides more choices to voters).

Rome’s republic ebbed and flowed, reacting to the times, until it was subverted during a series of civil wars and finally collapsed into an empire when Caesar crossed the Rubicon at the head of his army. But it lasted in one form or another for 482 years. Considering that the American republic has been around for less than half that time, Rome provides a cautionary tale that democracy cannot be taken for granted, it must be renewed and re-nourished by every generation.

The legacy of Luther and Cromwell: political democracy. Continuing on from Rome with my democratic pilgrimage, one of my favorite treks was to a place located twenty miles outside of London. There lies a large, verdant green pasture that goes by the name of Runnymede. The River Thames winds through it, just a silver sliver this far from its mouth, but history rolls down the river from here to London and beyond. Runnymede is a hallowed place and name, it also is one of the birthplaces of modern democracy. Here, in the year 1215, somewhere in this water meadow -- the exact spot is unknown -- King John put his seal to what is known as the Magna Carta, an agreement that required the king to accept that his will could be bound by laws and to respect certain legal procedures. The Magna Carta is considered one of the most important legal documents in the history of democracy, having influenced many common law documents since that time, such as the United States Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and many European constitutions.

As I walked around the field at Runnymede, avoiding the cow pies and mud while lost in a reverie regarding democracy’s earthy roots, I saw its trajectory as if it were written across the sky: Athens in the fifth century B.C., the Roman Republic until the time of Christ, then, the trail goes cold for a long period until Runnymede. After that it slowly gains steam until it emerges in an unlikely place: Wittenberg in eastern Germany in 1517. That’s when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church’s door, protesting papal abuses and championing the radical notion that an individual needs no priestly intermediary between himself and God. Within months Luther’s petition had spread like wildfire, sparking the Protestant Reformation against the Catholic Church hierarchy, one of the first controversies fanned by mass publication via the recently invented printing press. While Luther’s name and deed loom large historically, few have recognized how his defiance of religious authority, as well as his championing of individual conscience and spiritual enfranchisement, advanced the pre-attitudes necessary for the rise of the democratic spirit. His religion was informed by a philosophy of equality, one that Alexis de Tocqueville later described as one that “proclaimed that all men are alike able to find the road to heaven.”

A few decades later, in Geneva, Switzerland, the austere John Calvin and sanctimonious others further advanced Luther’s break from papal supremacy, setting the stage for the puritanical Oliver Cromwell’s rupture from political authority a hundred years later. The Englishman Cromwell not only beheaded a king in 1649 and dramatically advanced the notion of a sovereign’s accountability to the people, but he also furthered notions of individual conscience as self-determination, attitudinal milestones on the pathway to democracy. Once an individual's religious rights had gained a foothold, it was a smaller leap from there to a belief in one's own political rights.

That men like Cromwell, Calvin, and Luther -- who shared much with those known today as fundamentalist Christians -- acted as forefathers of Jefferson, Madison, Locke, Montesquieu, and others in the pantheon of liberal democracy’s champions, comes as a bit of an irony. Europe’s centuries-long coalescing of the democratic spirit never was a straightforward path but rather one filled with hypocrisy, violence, and setbacks (Cromwell, for example, was a devout anti-papist who massacred thousands of Catholics at Drogheda and Wexford). Throughout Europe’s bloody history and the push-pull of revolution and counterrevolution, the forces of progress too often transmogrified into ones of empire, suppression, and violent authority. The 17th through the mid-20th centuries saw in Europe a long meandering trail of democratic startups and remissions, with the inexorable march gaining significant steam with the establishment of the American republic in 1789.

Finally, following World War II, with the continent in rubble, western Europe at long last managed to conquer its political demons: democracy gained firm footing in most of the western part of the continent, triumphing over centuries of monarchs, dictators, fascism, religious fanaticism, and the most barbaric of internecine wars. By the 1970s, the democratic spirit had spread to Greece, Spain and Portugal, and following the Berlin Wall’s collapse in 1989, it spread in rapid progression to the former communist dictatorships of east and central Europe.

Democracy’s future. While democracy can be noisy and messy, and can sometimes result in confusion and inefficiency, if implemented fairly with the right institutions the human experience shows that it is capable of fostering remarkable things. Democracy confers the advantage of popular legitimacy to a government, and is the best match for the animal spirits of capitalism since it allows the “genius of millions” to flower even as it harnesses that economic potential for the good of all. It’s not always perfect, of course; it was George Bernard Shaw who said, “Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.” And the details of specific institutions and practices are important, since in a true democracy the political system must rule over the economic, not the other way around.

In the current era, some see China’s “consultative dictatorship” as a new political model that is challenging the primacy of western-style democracy, but I think they are quite wrong. Over time China will also become more of a representative democracy, even China’s current leadership of president Hu Jintao and premier Wen Jiabao have made statements to that effect. China already holds more local elections than any other country in the world (though many of those elections don’t live up to western standards of fairness) yet progress at the national level remains slow. Chinese democracy undoubtedly will be a unique Sino version; one innovative proposal by a Chinese academic calls for a tricameral legislature, with members of the third house selected by Confucian standards of meritocracy. It's intriguing to contemplate China evolving into some sort of innovative democratic experiment, since even China’s highest leaders recognize that it’s no coincidence that most democracies have resulted in higher standards of living and a more broadly shared prosperity. Winston Churchill perhaps said it best when he groused, in characteristic fashion, “Democracy is the worst form of government -- except for all the others that have been tried.”

Better than China or any previous authoritarian government, a newly democratic Europe has been able to harness capitalism’s extraordinary ability to create wealth in such a way as to better support families and workers, and to foster a more broadly shared prosperity, ecological sustainability and a new type of quiet global leadership based on regional “peace and prosperity” partnerships. The European democracies, despite all their faults, have accomplished this more than even the American democracy (which badly needs to update its 18th century political institutions). These are truly outstanding achievements, historic even, and as I stand here under a bright blue Athens sky, gazing at the shards of what once was, I can’t help but marvel that it all began here, at the Agora, 2500 years ago.

Steven Hill 12:47 AM Permalink | Trackbacks
November 25, 2010
 by Steven Hill

ARRIVAL IN GREECE, EPICENTER OF THE (DEBT) EARTHQUAKE… As I arrived in the airport in Athens, it struck me that I had now been on the road for five weeks, and had trekked my way clear across Europe, from the far west to central to the far east. Greece was to be my next to last stop (Istanbul the final), and as I made my way past news stalls boasting racks of newspapers and magazines from every corner of Europe, with mastheads and headlines blaring as colorfully as the European currencies of old before the days of the drabber Euro, I reflected for a moment over the places I had visited on this journey.

I began my tour in Budapest, once the capital of a grand Hungarian empire which lasted nearly a thousand years. Then it fell to the Ottomans, followed by the Habsburgs, then formed half of another empire with the Austrians, lost 70 percent of its territory and a third of its people in the treaty settling World War I, fell under Soviet domination, staged an unsuccessful revolt against that domination, and covertly opened its borders to Austria in 1989 and accelerated the Soviet dominators’ collapse. Now it has settled into the wobbly life of a democratic but troubled social capitalist nation, slowly inching towards its new destiny at the geographic heart yet still at the economic periphery of a peaceful and prosperous yet itself newly formed union of European nations -- nearly all of whom had fought horrific wars against each other not that long ago.

From there I traveled to France -- a place that has been one of the world’s major powers for centuries and now is proudly trying to learn how to balance that rich history with its current possible futures. A place where there is evidence of human habitation going back hundreds of thousands of years. Vaguely familiar cave ancestors who, through a mysterious and unknown evolution, became the Gauls, the Celts, the Franks, the Romans, Charlemagne, Caesar, the Cathars, the Huguenots, the cardinals and Kings Louis, Henry and Charles, names that roll off the tongue like a schoolbook nursery rhyme. The Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, French revolution, the hard-fought battles for ideals and principles which it turns out you can eat as surely as you can devour baguettes and brie -- and which quickly transmogrified into guillotines and Napoleon, the Thermidorian reaction, the swing back of the pendulum that is sharp-edged like the blade of the executioner’s ax that can take off your head if you don’t learn how to duck. That’s what has preoccupied everyday people for much of human history, learning how to duck, how to avoid the next capricious whim of the empire’s courtiers about to knock on your door. France’s tale, from beginning to end a major chapter of Western civilization, is a cautionary one, full of lessons that cannot be appealed to a higher court.

From France I had moved on to Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, back to France, then over to Germany, then Austria, then Italy. At every stop it was immediately apparent, in an almost visually surreal way, that each of these European nations has an emotionally-charged yet remarkable past, evidenced in the bricks and mortar of the many houses of history that still remain, the castles and churches, the towers and parliaments, the villages and ancient roads, still casting the same shadows over passersby as they did centuries ago. This is a past that stretches back so far into the human memory that it has become part of our DNA (DNA = Descendants ‘N Ancestors). The great historian Arnold Toynbee once wrote, “Countries have characters that are as distinctive as those of human beings,” and that is surely true, it explains why I see in my dreams nations that appear as immense individuals, as Olympian demi-gods that stalk the land lording over all the little people pulsating like the cells of these giant beings, with the tragedies , wars and crimes of passion akin to our collective domestic violence, the victories and treaties akin to our shared celebrations, the royal weddings that are our own matrimony to each other, the harvests and cornucopias of bounty our dinner table of plenty, the famines and droughts our depressions that rip apart the ties that bind, each national episode burned into “We, the Cells” and stored inside our collective carapace. To the extent that those of us of European stock all have psychic sinews that stretch backward into this grand and tragic past, we are all victims suffering from post-traumatic stress. It’s not only the lines of the map that have changed, but the lines in people’s minds. And we are left, we little people, to cope with it all as best we can.

So after leaving Rome, after taking leave of the skeletal architecture of that once powerful empire poking out of seven hills, and the imperious, pious grandiloquence of Catholic basilicas clothed in marble stolen from that empire’s ruins, I finally touched down in Greece, that most ancient of western lands, the cradle of what is known as “western civilization,” located far to the eastern skirt of the west.

Unlike the other countries I have visited where “the fear of the crisis has turned out to be worse than the crisis itself” (as one commentator told me), in Greece the impact of the economic crisis has hit like a small tsunami. My colleagues in Athens talked about declines in service, in the quality of health care and other dents in the Greek system that they had been experiencing. Large and militant protests had rattled the nerves of just about everyone. The government of Prime Minister George Papandreou had ordered sizable budget cuts and the layoffs of tens of thousands of public employees. The Greeks are in a complaining mood, for good reason, and so they bitched pettily that PM Papandreou, who hails from one of the two longtime ruling families that rotate in power and who had studied abroad most of his life (including in the U.S.), spoke better English than he did Greek. This is seen as an apparent indictment of sorts, even though his approval ratings remain remarkably high. Most Greeks acknowledge that some kind of change is necessary, so ambivalence has become the bitter brew that they all drink around the cafes and tavernas.

On the other hand, this is Greece we are talking about. The place still has gorgeous weather, stunning landscape and health care for all, spotty as it is (compare it to California, where a recent report found that 25% of Californians don’t have any health care, and where the unemployment rate is higher than Greece’s). One of the qualities holding Greece back from enjoying the benefits of a more modern economy is its reliance on an informal economy of family and social networks which too often translates into nepotism, back room deals and tax dodging. But during an economic crisis like this, those networks become valuable means of support so that people don’t fall so far through the cracks.

It’s easy to forget that Greece is a country that was plagued throughout the 20th century by bitter schisms between monarchists, democrats and communists, with dictators and elected governments rotating in complicated power alignments right up to the 1970s when the last military dictatorship withdrew and the monarchy was abolished. So while Greece is the ancient birthplace of demos kratia, its modern democratic incarnation is surprisingly young. Not paying taxes to the corrupt honchos who ran things for so long and relying instead on an informal sector of family and social networks became the fiber holding it all together, a well-founded Greek tradition, even celebrated nostalgically in films like Zorba the Greek.

During the crisis, those networks can act as a safety net; longer term, they will prevent the modernization of Greece because in a modern economy designed to provide for a mass society you have to be able to count things: revenues, expenditures, imports, exports, surpluses and deficits, these things have to be tracked as accurately as possible. But if everything is being done hush-hush, on the sly, in backrooms, without receipts or records, stored in cookie jars, under mattresses, in brassieres and petticoats, with a bit of payola in the right palms for looking the other way (“there’s your ‘tax’”), you can’t count anything. You can’t be sure of how much your government has to spend because you can’t be sure how much revenues it has taken in. So you just make up figures and hide that too, deficits become surpluses with a few whisks of the computer mouse. That got Greece into a heckuva lot of trouble last year when it was discovered that its budget deficit was much larger than it had disclosed, and suddenly the bond markets got spooked and turned and attacked.

But it’s not only that the previous government was using the services of Goldman Sachs and others to hide its debt, but that in Greece there is a long-standing tradition of doing everything with a wink and a nod. And that “system” pervades at every level of society, right down to the neighborhood and household levels. In that way it shares much with the corrupt housing mortgage system that came to pervade America, from Main Street to Wall Street, from your local bank handing out mortgages people couldn’t afford to the large investment banks taking those mortgages and bundling them into derivates and credit default swaps and reselling them again and again until they became seeded like “financial weapons of mass destruction” (as Warren Buffet called them) throughout the global financial system. In both Greece and America the dysfunctional systems provided economic stimulus for a time, with nearly everyone sucking from the teat -- until the house of cards came crashing down. Yes, Greece and America have more in common than Americans want to believe, and I don’t just mean that both have large budget deficits. It’s actually far worse: both Greece and the U.S. have development models that no longer work. Yes, in many ways America is just a bigger Greece.

But that needs to change if Greece is going to have any chance of not only solving its current debt dilemmas but also of developing into a modern economy. I met with many Greek officials, including journalists, a deputy minister of the Papandreou government, and finally I interviewed Prime Minister Papandreou himself. I consistently emphasized this message to them, that “It’s important in a modern society that you’re able to count things;” I gave a speech at the Greek Foreign Ministry (which is like their Secretary of State) and articulated this viewpoint there as well (see an article from the Athens press about my FM talk, linked here, but it’s in Greek so you will need to have your Google translator turned on). I think they get it, my interview with Papandreou was extremely interesting. He has a vision not only for the immediate crisis but for a new Greece (more on my interview with PM Papandreou in a future post). Yet the old Greece has deep roots, like weeds and crabgrass, and it is not going to be that easy to dig them up.

Steven Hill 11:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (1)
November 22, 2010
 by Steven Hill

MERKEL, GERMANY, OVERTHROW OBAMA, U.S., AT G-20...I wrote an oped that was published recently in the International Herald Tribune/New York Times. The media missed what really went down at the Group of 20 meeting in Seoul, South Korea. That meeting has emerged as a game changing moment. Not only did President Barack Obama suffer a loss of face, but America’s economic leadership took a major hit. Following America’s catalytic role in bringing the global economy to the brink of disaster, and waging two wars in the Middle East that have revealed military mediocrity more than strength, followed by the Obama administration’s weakened political position after the November 2 election, the U.S. now is losing the global argument over the best development model for the 21st century. The "Washington consensus" appears to be dead, or certainly on life support.

Read more about it my oped, linked below:

Germany Speaks Out
International Herald Tribune/New York Times

Steven Hill 4:43 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (3)
November 19, 2010
 by Steven Hill

THE MYTH OF THE OVERTAXED EUROPEANS AND OTHER MODERN FABLES… I’m always amazed at the stereotypes about Europe that so easily roll off the tongues of Americans: Europeans are socialists, they have weak, noncompetitive economies, their populations are dying off, they are being overrun by Muslims, the list goes on and on. One of the most prevalent stereotypes is that the poor Europeans are overtaxed serfs. I ran into this stereotype in the form of a know-it-all American who happened to attend one of my lectures in Berlin. He tried to contest some of my observations, and raised the tax bugaboo. “‘No taxation without representation’ Americans would never pay taxes as high as Europeans pay,” he said.

Americans like him always give me a chuckle. They sound so dogmatically sure about things, even when they don’t know much about the subject. I remember attending a seminar in Washington DC along with a couple dozen Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) who invited several members of Congress to participate in their discussions about the global economy, the recent crisis, and the role of China. This one member of Congress, a Republican from Virginia, showed up and rather than participating in a broad discussion along with everyone else seated around a large table, instead he stood to command the floor and proceeded to hold forth. He lectured the MEPs, and the sum total of his erudition was that the problem with China is that -- ready for the punch line? -- it does not have freedom of religion. Say what? These MEPs, all of whom were highly educated people, who speak at least three or four languages, some of whom had been freedom fighters behind the Iron Curtain during the struggle against communism, sat there with eyebrows raised. I sat there holding my breath, mortally embarrassed for my country.

So at my talk I suddenly was confronted by this latest example of the breed, standing in front of me, an American guy smiling out of context, grinning apropos to nothing, over his insistence that Europeans pay so much more in taxes than Americans. So I replied to him, perhaps a bit testily.

“Actually, if you break it down, Americans pay out just as much as Europeans do, we just get a lot less for our money. The fact is, in return for their taxes, Europeans are receiving a generous support system for families and individuals for which Americans must pay exorbitantly, out-of-pocket, to enjoy the same level of support. That includes quality health care for every single person, the average cost of which is about half of what Americans pay even as various studies show that Europeans achieve better results, health-wise.

“But that’s not all. In return for their taxes, Europeans also receive affordable child care, a decent retirement pension, free or inexpensive university education, job/skills training, paid sick leave, paid parental leave, ‘kiddie’ stipends after the birth of a child, generous vacations, affordable housing, senior care, efficient mass transportation and much, much more. To get the same level of benefits as Europeans, most Americans fork out a ton of money in out-of-pocket payments -- in addition to our taxes. Either way, you pay. Yet that factor is never considered when they start figuring out who’s paying out more to receive what services.”

Elaborating further, I told him that, for example, many Americans are paying escalating health care premiums and deductibles (and of course 50 million Americans don’t have any health insurance at all -- a travesty from the European point of view). Not that long ago, Anthem Blue Cross announced that its individual premiums were going to increase by up to 40 percent, and people are going to pay for that out-of-pocket. Many Americans are paying higher deductibles in order to reduce their premiums; I have a friend who bought a health care policy for his family of three children with a $10,000 a year deductible in order to keep his premiums affordable. But Europeans receive health care in return for a modest amount deducted from their paychecks.

Friends have told me they are saving nearly $100,000 for each of their children’s university education, and most young Americans graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in debt (unless they happen to be independently wealthy). But European children attend university for free, or nearly so, depending on the country.

Child care in the United States costs more than $12,000 annually for a family with two children. In some countries in Europe, child care is free. In others, they pay $1000-$2000 per year, depending on their income. So they are paying at most only one-sixth of what Americans are paying -- and the quality is far superior.

Millions of Americans are stuffing as much as possible into their IRAs and 401(k)s because Social Security provides a measly amount towards retirement -- only about 35 percent of one's final salary, which is not enough income for a comfortable retirement. The more generous European retirement system provides 70 percent to 80 percent of one’s final salary (depending on the country), and does a much better job of ensuring that seniors don’t suffer a drop in their living standards. That’s more money that Americans have to save out of their own pockets.

Americans’ private spending on old-age care is nearly three times higher per capita than in Europe because Americans must self-finance a significant share of their own senior care by paying out of pocket. Americans also tend to pay more in local and state taxes, as well as property taxes. Americans also pay hidden taxes, such as $300 billion annually in federal tax breaks given to businesses that provide health benefits to their employees -- that’s $1000 for every man, woman and child in the United States

“When you sum up the total balance sheet,” I told him, “it turns out we Americans pay out just as much as Europeans, perhaps more. Because we pay a lot more out-of-pocket, even as we receive a lot less service for our money.”

Unfortunately, these sorts of complexities are not calculated into simplistic analyses like Forbes’ annual Tax Misery Index, a ‘study’ that purports to show that European nations are the most ‘tax miserable.’ Sure enough, there are the European countries at the top of the list, while down there near the bottom, happy as a clam, is the United States right next to Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. That’s because the Forbes Tax Misery Index only takes into account income tax, Social Security or retirement tax, sales tax or VAT and a few other minor taxes. It doesn’t consider the vast amounts that Americans are paying out of pocket, nor what people are receiving in terms of supports for families and individuals.

Ideologically-bound Americans counter that, at least in the U.S. it’s discretionary about whether or not you purchase these services, the government isn’t picking your pocket through higher taxes. But in this economically insecure age, these kinds of services increasingly are necessary to ensure healthy, happy and productive families and workers. Who doesn’t need health care, higher education or some kind of skilled job training, child care, retirement, senior care? Yet because the Europeans collect the necessary revenue via taxes, they can create all these pools of social insurance -- healthcare, childcare, university education, etc. -- in a way that allows them to plan better and create more cost-effective systems, to reach certain economies of scale with built-in efficiencies. That allows them to offer these services for a lot less money per person than we can offer them in America, with our very decentralized, hodgepodge systems that can’t reach economies of scale and therefore are much less affordable. That’s why Americans pay more per capita for health care, child care, university education and so much more.

So Europeans receive these supports for families and workers at an affordable price, but most Americans do not, unless you pay a ton of money out-of-pocket, which many hard-working Americans can’t afford. Or unless you are a member of Congress, which of course spare themselves nothing and provide European-level support for themselves and their families.

Interestingly, an American acquaintance of mine who lives in Sweden told me that, quite by chance, he and his Swedish wife were in New York City once and ended up sharing a limousine to the theater district with one member of Congress, a U.S. Senator and his wife. This Senator, a conservative, anti-tax southern Democrat, asked my acquaintance about Sweden and swaggeringly commented about “all those taxes the Swedes pay.” To which this American replied, “The problem with Americans and their taxes is that we get nothing for them.” He then told the senator about the comprehensive services and supports that Swedes receive.

“If Americans knew what Swedes receive for their taxes, we would probably riot,” he told the Senator. The rest of the ride to the theater district was unsurprisingly quiet.

Yet that kind of silence only serves to perpetuate this myth and prevents Americans from understanding the vast shortcomings of our own system, which is a real shame. Americans don’t realize how far we have fallen behind our international counterparts because our sense of national identity is clouded in such myths and stereotypes.

Steven Hill 9:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (5)
November 13, 2010
 by Steven Hill

AMAZING GERMANY…DECLINING UNEMPLOYMENT…HOW DO THEY DO IT?...The Wall Street Journal reported not that long ago that Germany is benefiting from its lowest unemployment in 20 years. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which uses harmonized unemployment rates (the same methodology for all countries) reports Germany’s unemployment rate at 6.7percent (in the United States, unemployment has climbed to 9.6 percent). What is as impressive as the low unemployment rate is that in Germany unemployment actually has declined since the start of the economic crisis, whereas in the U.S. unemployment has nearly doubled. It used to be that U.S. pundits and economists would wag their fingers and shake their heads disapprovingly at Germany, calling it “weak,” “sclerotic,” an “old man,” and “the land of double digit unemployment.” For years, Germans and other Europeans had to withstand snide economic lectures from the Americans. But now the shoe is on the other foot: Germany, which is the world’s fourth-largest national economy and second largest exporter (perhaps the leading exporter, it’s hard to know if you can trust China’s numbers), now is leading the U.S. Yet neither the U.S. media nor policymakers have examined closely this Deutschland miracle. It’s as if we are determined not to learn from anyone else, because if you admit you have something to learn then you also have to admit that you are not the best. And if there’s one thing that Americans like to be, it’s the best.

So how has Germany done it? How has it managed to dramatically drop its unemployment rate in the middle of the biggest economic crisis in 80 years? The answer is that the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel not only pursued different economic policies than the Obama administration, but Germany also has a greater degree of economic democracy than the U.S. Indeed, Germany has essentially reinvented the modern corporation, and yet very few Americans are aware of it. These differences have given Germany a dramatic advantage.

Kurzarbeit/short work. The first of these policies is called Kurzarbeit, or “short work,” in which, instead of laying off millions of German workers, firms trimmed the hours of all employees. Workers were cut back to, say, 90 percent of full-time, but would still receive 95 percent of pay with most of their lost wages being made up from a special fund squirreled away by the government during more prosperous times. In essence, instead of the government and employers paying unemployment benefits to laid-off workers, they paid to keep workers at their jobs, but at reduced hours. It was a brilliant strategy, producing a win-win-win. For workers, having a job that has been reduced to 90 percent of full time is vastly better than being unemployed, as it keeps them engaged in the workforce and puts far more money in their pockets than if they were living on unemployment alone. For employers, it keeps the workforce intact and ready for an economic upswing. And for the government, supporting a worker whose hours are reduced is much less costly than paying full unemployment benefits.

Furthermore, with more Germans having money in their pockets, it lessened the decline in consumer spending which is one of the primary drivers of the economy. Finally, the policy prevented the utter devastation that occurs to families and communities when the primary breadwinner is laid off, along with the increase in social ills that accompany lay-offs such as home foreclosures, alcoholism, drug addiction, and domestic violence that results from the stress of unemployment. Despite the many concrete benefits of this policy, when Larry Summers, one of Barack Obama’s closest economic advisers, was asked why the president didn’t pursue short work to stem the economic bleeding, he dismissed the idea, saying the White House wanted to create new jobs, not preserve old ones (as if there’s a conflict between the two!).

Co-determination and economic democracy. Beyond its short work policy to respond to the immediate economic crisis, Germany has evolved over several decades one of its greatest contributions to the global economy -- a degree of economic democracy. Institutions that are unfamiliar to Americans, with obscure names like co-determination, supervisory boards and works councils, have been crucial in helping to harness German capitalism’s tremendous wealth-creating capacity so that its prosperity could be broadly shared. This is one of the pillars of Europe’s “social capitalism” which has proven to be more stable and efficient than America’s “Wall Street capitalism.”

To understand codetermination, it’s helpful to contemplate the following questions: The corporation, even with all its considerable warts, is the greatest wealth generator that humans have ever devised, but its success raises the questions: Who gets to control that wealth? Whose pockets should the wealth flow into? Codetermination is Germany’s response, and it is a potent one.

Co-determination has several features, one of which allows workers in a corporation to elect a certain percentage of that business’ board of directors. Known as supervisory boards, they then oversee company managers, who handle day-to-day operations. In Germany, fully half of the boards of directors of the largest corporations--Siemens, BMW, Daimler, Deutsche Telekom and others -- are elected by workers. To understand the significance of this, imagine the impact if Wal-Mart were legally required to allow its workers to elect half of its board members, who would then oversee the CEO. Imagine how much that would change Wal-Mart’s behavior toward its workers and supply chain. It’s hard for Americans even to conceive of such a notion; indeed, when I ask Americans at my lectures how many of them have heard of worker-elected supervisory boards, usually no hands go up. Yet most European nations employ some version of this as a regular feature of their economies.

The impact has been impressive. Klas Levinson, a researcher for the former National Institute for Working Life in Sweden, is one of the world’s experts on co-determination. He has studied Sweden’s codetermination extensively, where workers get to elect a third of the company’s board of directors. A few years ago I met with Levinson at the institute’s Stockholm headquarters, a sleek glass structure with the air of a university campus. “Co-determination is Europe’s little secret advantage,” he told me. “The idea that elected worker directors should sit side by side as equal decision-makers with stockholder representatives, supervising management, is a little-known yet unprecedented extension of democratic principle into the corporate sphere.”

Levinson’s research shows that employee representation on corporate supervisory boards, contrary to fears that it would cause tension or render decision-making too cumbersome, has actually fostered cooperation between management and workers. This, in turn, has benefited the businesses as well as the workers. Workers have input, even into important decisions, so companies are less plagued by labor strife and internal schisms. And workers are well compensated, with high salaries and the most generous social support systems in the world.

One of Levinson’s studies of Swedish businesses found that two-thirds of executives viewed co-determination as “very” or “rather” positive, because it contributed to a positive climate, made board decisions “deeply rooted among the employees” and facilitated implementation of “tough decisions.” Eight of ten chairmen were satisfied with the arrangement and felt it was not important to reduce worker representation. An E.U. directive establishing a continent-wide framework for board-level employee representation went into effect in October 2004, firmly rooting supervisory boards in Europe’s economic culture.

The other pillar of Germany’s co-determination is known as works councils, which are just what the name implies -- elected councils at businesses, through which employees gain significant input into working conditions. Works councils, which are separate from labor unions but often populated by trade unionists, have real clout. They enjoy veto power over certain management decisions pertaining to treatment of employees, such as redeployment and dismissal. They also have “co-decision rights” to meet with management to discuss the firm’s finances, work and holiday schedules, work organization and other procedures. In addition, they benefit from “consultation rights” in planning the introduction of new technologies and in mergers and layoffs, as well as in obtaining information useful in contract negotiations, such as profit and wage data. German labor law stipulates that factory-wide workers’ assemblies must be held at least four times a year, at which a management representative must report on the plant and the business. The head of the works council also reports, and workers use these assemblies to promote their views and, if necessary, criticize company decisions in front of management.

In 1994 the E.U. issued a pioneering directive on works councils, stipulating that every multinational with at least 1,000 workers, and at least 150 workers in two or more EU nations, must negotiate agreements with works councils. Other nations have supplemented that directive by requiring councils in every workplace. Studies by Princeton’s Jonas Pontusson and others have concluded that works councils contribute to efficiency by improving communication, which in turn improves the quality of decisions and legitimizes decisions in the eyes of workers. The studies also found that works councils are associated with lower absenteeism, more worker training, better handling of grievances, and smoother implementation of health and safety standards. It turns out that when workers are given a degree of consultation, it makes them more satisfied and more productive.

Co-determination has proved crucial to Europe’s economic success and its broadly distributed wealth. “The practical effect of co-determination,” says Levinson, “is that corporate managers and executives must confer extensively with employees and unions about a range of issues, even about the future direction of the company.” Co-determination reflects European social capitalism, with its communitarian values and emphasis on manufacturing, much the way huge executive bonuses, quarterly earnings and a bloated financial sector reflect America’s Wall Street capitalism.

Germany has been the most important leader in developing European-style social capitalism. That social capitalism has both produced and benefited from a broader “culture of consultation,” which has also contributed to the creation of cooperatives (like at Mondragon in Spain) and resulted in a vibrant small-business sector that produces two-thirds of European jobs, compared with only half of U.S. jobs. Indeed that culture of consultation, fostered by practices like codetermination (both works councils and worker-elected boards of directors), can take substantial credit for Chancellor Merkel agreeing to adopt Kurzarbeit/short work.

Allied Powers after WWII “punished” Germany with economic democracy. Interestingly, the conquering American military in World War II can take some credit for co-determination. After the war a group of prominent German economists, led by future chancellor Ludwig Erhard, Walter Eucken and others, proposed what they called the “social market economy” in the belief that the market should serve broader social goals. And it was conservative Christian Democrats, not the leftish Social Democrats, who introduced this idea. The Allied powers encouraged this line of thinking, since it decentralized economic power, shifting it away from the German industrialists who had supported the Nazi war effort. In effect, U.S. planners “punished” postwar Germany with economic democracy as a way of handicapping concentrated wealth and power, helping to birth the most democratic corporate governance structure the world had ever seen.

In the decades after Germany’s launch of social capitalism, co-determination spread throughout Europe; it has been adopted in most of the new E.U. member states from Central and Eastern Europe. These distinctly European advances may be the most important innovations in the world economy since the invention of the modern corporation. They encourage both free enterprise as well as a degree of economic democracy and worker consultation that does not unduly burden entrepreneurship and commerce. These advances allow businesses to be both competitive and socially responsible. Sixty years after its genesis, co-determination is a core element of the European economy, and it distinguishes Europe’s social capitalism from America’s Wall Street capitalism.

In effect, Europe, led by Germany, has reinvented the corporation. Yet the latest critiques of capitalism by leading authors like Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky, and the producers of the popular film The Corporation tend to view all corporations and all capitalisms as the same. American progressives, while searching for effective responses to globalization, appear to be mostly unaware of these intriguing European inventions. Movements to revoke the charters of offensive corporations, while having gut-level appeal, have failed to recognize that European corporations are fundamentally different animals from their “disaster capitalism” U.S. counterparts. When I asked a leading globalization critic from the Economic Policy Institute his opinion of co-determination and works councils, he replied dismissively, “Bah, those just lead to company unions,” a demonstrably false claim. And of course, the American right rejects co-determination as socialism incarnate, ignoring its potential to renew capitalism and support real family values.

“Mr Blair, we still make things.” Another factor in Germany’s economic success has been that is has continued to emphasize manufacturing and industrial policy over the financial industry. German chancellor Angela Merkel once was asked by then-British prime minister Tony Blair what the secret was of her country’s economic success, which includes being the world’s second largest exporter and running substantial trade surpluses in recent years. She famously replied, “Mr Blair, we still make things.” Harold Meyerson, Washington Post columnist, has explained further. “In Germany, manufacturing still dominates finance…German capitalism didn’t succumb to the financialization that swept the United States and Britain in the 1980s” (though Germany’s banks and financial sector did get snared in the Wall Street web).

This focus on manufacturing, as well as on quality and long-term performance over short-term gain, is precisely what is reinforced by Germany’s codetermination. By giving workers a sizable stake in the health of companies and the economy in general, a symbiotic relationship lumps everyone into the same boat. A rising or ebbing tide affects everyone together.

So when assessing the Obama administration’s performance in getting this economy going again, remember that the remarkable resilience of the German economy is directly attributable to shrewd policies and more efficient institutions that have been pursued and that have better stimulated its economy. The Obama administration also could be pursuing these policies and institutions, but it has declined to do so.

Steven Hill 11:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (8)
November 9, 2010
 by Steven Hill

SO HOW’S EUROPE DOING? AN UP CLOSE LOOK…One of my goals during this trip has been to assess the impact of the economic crisis in those parts of Europe I am visiting, which by the end will amount to 12 different countries. Is the highly vaunted European social capitalism, which has provided so well for families and workers even as it has cut its carbon emissions to half that of the US, in danger of erosion?

If it were possible to sum up what I have heard and observed, the most telling comment was made by, curiously enough, an American living for many years in Slovakia. I was chatting with him in the Frankfurt airport after both of us got bumped from our flights due to a screw-up by Lufthansa Airlines (which is usually so efficient). While cooling our heels awaiting a rebooking, we fell to talking. I asked him about the impact of the economic crisis in Slovakia, and Europe in general, and after pausing thoughtfully he replied: "The fear of the crisis has turned out to be worse than the crisis itself." Indeed, in France, Germany, Sweden, Italy and most of the other countries I have visited, the economic crisis has nibbled away at the edges of everyday people's lives but it has not bitten into the bone. Not by a long shot. Certainly there is worry, and a degree of pessimism setting in, but the Germans and the French in particular tend to be pessimistic people anyway, in my experience. Unemployment in most places has remained at manageable levels, and people still have their very generous (by American standards) workfare supports for families and individuals to shield them. These supports really are both a material as well as psychological comfort during times like these, as well as they provide ongoing consumer stimulus to the broader macro-economy.

So the overall picture is it mixed one, yet that nuanced snapshot is not what you read or hear day after day from the mainstream media in the US. The New York Times recently published a series of short interviews called "The Austerity Zone: Life in the New Europe" in which viewers get to listen to the plaintive personal stories of woe from a handful of people from Greece, Spain, Britain, Germany and France. The Times also wrote recently that, “Whether in Spain, France or Italy, European nations remain saddled with heavy welfare obligations — ones that inevitably must be curtailed to meet ambitious deficit targets, even as their tax revenue is constrained by low economic growth.” Yet I have seen another story playing out here, one that is more complex and laced with silver linings as well as green shoots of recovery. But it does vary from country to country, just as economic recovery in the US varies from state to state. And the fear of the future continues to hang like a specter over the continent, as the biggest impacts of the deficit cutting measures being enacted by most governments won’t be felt until 2011 sometime. So that creates a degree of uncertainty that is feeding the pessimism.

Here’s a country by country breakdown of the countries I have visited:

Germany. Europe’s leader and economic engine, Germany is one of the few countries where the unemployment rate actually has declined during this economic crisis to an 18 year low of 6.7 percent (in the US, unemployment has nearly doubled during the crisis to 9.6 percent, according to the OECD’s harmonized unemployment rates). Germany’s exports have soared over the past year, providing a sizable trade surplus and leading the way to its still fragile economic recovery. In the last month and a half I have visited Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt and Heidelberg. Munich, Frankfurt and Heidelberg all seem to be doing fairly well, based on my talks with public officials, elected leaders, as well as people in the street, shopkeepers and taxicab drivers. Here and there you see a vacant shop window, yet several shopkeepers told me that things are better this year than last. In Berlin, which has long been poorer than the rest of Germany due to its point position in integrating the formerly communist East Berlin/East Germany, some of the people I talked to complained about cutbacks in city services, a decline in health care quality, and having less disposable income in their pockets. But the amount of homelessness and begging on the streets is still minor compared to any similar-sized U.S. city. Even with their cutbacks, the average Berliner still has a lot more to fall back on than the average American, in terms of the types of supports that people need today in this economically insecure age.

Luxembourg. I had never visited this small, wealthy country before, it’s the size of Rhode Island with as many people as Wyoming or the District of Columbia. It has the world's highest GDP per capita and an unemployment rate of only 5 percent. It benefits greatly from location, as it is surrounded by Germany, France and Belgium, and workers as well as shoppers from these three countries pour into the capital city Luxembourg on a daily basis to take advantage of still-thriving businesses and fine shopping opportunities. It also benefits from many good government jobs, as it is the seat of the European Parliament's secretariat, as well as the European Court of Justice, the European Court of Auditors, the European Investment Bank and several departments of the European Commission. A former walled city, today it is a quintessential European city filled with a German-style industriousness that mostly seems unfazed by the economic crisis that they see as happening somewhere else.

Netherlands. I only visited Amsterdam, but it seemed to be its usual pulsating self. The restaurants, bars, cafes, pot shops, and plazas were teeming with people. No one I spoke with seemed to think the crisis was biting too deeply. One friend who was unemployed was in no rush to find work; he was “weighing his options” and seemed to think that when he was ready, jobs would be available. Unemployment rate: 4.4 percent (less than half that in the US, which is at 9.6 percent unemployment).

Belgium. I was in Brussels for only a few days, which is probably not representative of the rest of the country since it has a huge number of permanent jobs resulting from its status as the seat of the European Union and other international organizations. Belgium's unemployment rate has increased during the economic crisis from about 8 percent to 8.7 perent, and people I spoke with said that the crisis had made people tighten their belts more. But on the whole, rush-hour traffic jams were still hellacious, usually a good sign that tons of people are commuting back and forth to work.

Sweden. Like Germany, Sweden is another country that has pulled through the economic crisis in fairly decent shape. It didn't have a hyperventilating housing market like the US (and Spain, Ireland and Britain), so it has not suffered the same degree of economic ravaging. And Swedes have an excellent support system for families and workers, which results in consumers having more money in their pockets which helps drive the macro-economy. For example, the people giving me my ride to the airport to catch my flight to Oslo happened to be heading out of town on vacation. In addition to receiving paid vacation (i.e. regular full-time salary while on vacation) the government deposits into their banking accounts a vacation bonus to make sure they have enough money to enjoy themselves. Talk about a "vacation nation!" The unemployment rate is about 8.2 percent, which actually is a tad lower than before the start of the economic crisis. But things around the edges are sufficiently anxiety-producing that for the first time in Swedish history a populist, far right party squeaked above the 4 percent threshold necessary to win seats in the national parliament. This of course threw the justice-loving Swedes into a bit of a tizzy, an overreaction to a fairly typical occurrence during economic downturns, i.e. the rise in popularity of populist parties (see my previous comments in this blog on the recent rise of "far right" populist parties in Europe which, in many ways, are to the LEFT of the Democratic Party in the United States).

Norway. What can you say about a country that, in the midst of a global downturn, has a 3.3 percent unemployment rate? If you have a lot of oil reserves, like Norway does, recessions are events that mostly happen somewhere else. Oslo is a jewel of a city, perched on a glistening fjord, and a land of winter sports, sculpture (including the amazing Vigeland sculptures, written about elsewhere in this blog), Henrik Ibsen, Edvard Munch and Norse hardiness. The people I spoke with didn't think the recession had been much of a factor there.

Austria. Its unemployment rate has barely changed during this economic crisis, still at 4.5 percent, less than half the U.S. unemployment rate. Indeed, this Alpine studded jewel seems to have barely noticed the economic recession. There are signs of the downturn here and there, including a sizable increase in popularity of the populist Freedom People's Party during the municipal elections in Vienna to 27 percent of the seats (written about elsewhere in this blog). But construction cranes seem to lord over several parts of the city, including at the site of a massive new central train station funded in part by European Union money. Salzburg, several hours to the west near the German border, remains a quintessential European fairyland, a place that time passes by leaving it in a time warp of prosperity and healthy Austrian living. However looming on the horizon across Austria, especially in Vienna, is the slow but steady rise in the ethnic population, especially Muslim Turks, with all the tensions and challenges that implies.

Hungary. In Budapest, the largest city in Hungary with nearly two million people, the post-crisis situation appears fairly “EU normal.” I don’t see any obvious signs of deep recession, i.e. numerous shops vacant, more homeless people, empty cafes, restaurants and bars. Quite the contrary, these seem quite full and teeming; I was in Budapest a year ago and I don’t detect any obvious differences between last year and this year. But looks can be deceiving, so I chat with a few shopkeepers, people in cafes, my taxi driver, a bartender (most of whom speak decent English), and some Hungarian politicians at the conference I attended. The consensus seems to be that the crisis was worse last year, that this year things are better. But certainly not all better, unemployment has increased since the start of the crisis from 8 percent to about 11 percent. In 2008 it became the first EU country since the UK in 1976 to take a bailout from the International Monetary Fund. But as one of the politicians tells me, “In Hungary, people are philosophical about it. As crises go, compared to what Hungary (a formerly Communist country) has seen in the past, this has not been a big one.”

France. Yes, protesters are in the streets nearly everywhere. I witness a slow, dirge-like labor march in Toulouse, and a protesting parade of roller bladers in Paris (see more on the latter elsewhere in this blog). I also visit the working-class port city on the Mediterranean, Marseille, France's second-largest city with about 1.6 million people; the sun-splashed tourist city of Nice; the rural town of Lautrec outside Toulouse; and the European Parliament home in Strasbourg, near the German border. Despite the image of France exploding with labor strife, in every place I visited things look pretty "EU normal." In the bigger cities there are a few vacant storefronts here and there, and its unemployment rate has increased from 7.8 percent before the economic crisis to about 10 percent today (not that much higher than U.S. unemployment at 9.6 percent). But the protests and strikes to me seem like a healthy response to a fear that this economic crisis will be used by wealthy interests to erode France's social capitalism model. The front lines of that battle right now has been over the recent increase in the retirement age, which in actual fact only brings it more in line with other countries like Germany and the US. But the French wonder, "Why aren't more Americans out of the streets defending their social contract?" I couldn't agree more.

Italy. It's hard to say with Italy, I only get to Rome, one of my favorite cities anywhere, and the Eternal City of the Seven Hills has always had its rougher edges, more panhandlers, more pesky motor bikers spewing exhaust, less tidiness than the Germanic countries. But things don't look any different to me than the last time I was here before the economic crisis, though unemployment certainly has increased, from 6.8 percent to 8.3 percent. One interesting experience seems worth noting: I gave a lecture at a center-right policy institute there called Fondazione Fare Futuro and the audience is a high level one, with some elder statesmen in attendance who have been advancing the cause of the EU within Italy for decades. These old war horses make impassioned statements about the declines they see around them and their fears over the future. But afterward I went out to dinner with five younger Italians, thirty-somethings, who attended my lecture. I asked them about the gloomy statements of the elders of their organization, but to my surprise they just laugh it off. "Oh, those old people, they are always sounding like that. They are gloomy by nature.” They shake their heads and say that they think Italy and the EU, on the whole, are doing just fine. Their optimism is refreshing, the pasta and red wine absolutely delicious, and by my estimation Rome still maintains its position as one of the world's great cities.

The previous year, in August 2009, I had been in Slovenia, Croatia, Slovak Republic and Hungary. A listlessness was evident in the Slovak Republic, no doubt stemming from its 12 percent unemployment (as high as California's). Slovenia's unemployment stood at 6 percent and Ljubljana still retained the vibrancy of a quintessential European capital, but this year its unemployment climbed to over 7 percent. Unfortunately I did not get to three of the so-called PIIGS countries, Spain (20 percent unemployment, the highest in Europe), Ireland (14 percent unemployment), or Portugal (10.5 percent unemployment). Nor did I travel to the UK, where unemployment has climbed from 7 percent to 8 percent and conditions appear to be fragile, as the new Conservative-led government there prepares for drastic cuts in public spending.

But on the whole, I found the parts of Europe where I traveled to be coping reasonably well, considering that we are in the middle of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. But next, I am heading to Greece, the epicenter of the PIIGS sovereign debt crisis earthquake, where I will be giving lectures and interviews to the media, and will have a chance to interview Prime Minister George Papandreou -- from the top of the Acropolis!

Steven Hill 5:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (2)
November 5, 2010
 by Steven Hill

OSLO’S ASTONISHING VIGELAND SCULPTURES -- A CELEBRATION OF HUMAN BODIES AND THE CYCLE OF LIFE…In Oslo, unfortunately, I ran into some bad weather in the form of steady rain and the first cold breaths of winter coming on. But that did not prevent me from having a revisit with the amazing Vigeland sculptures located in Oslo’s Frogner Park. The Vigeland sculptures are the apotheosis of a distinctly Scandinavian sensibility regarding health and human bodies. Oslo is a land of sculpture, and every park, many street corners, even private dwellings, seem to be studded with sculptures, old and new, traditional and modern, with a fair number of them showing naked figures, reflecting the Norwegian sentiment that reveling in the flesh is a sign of health, not license. This refreshing esteem for human bodies shorn of pretense and artifice is expressed in surprising ways.

One day in Oslo I saw the front page of a daily newspaper with a huge color photo showing ten bust-baring, smiling women. But this was not a Hugh Hefner product or a Rupert Murdoch, page-three cheesecake photo, like those that marinate many British dailies. No, most of these women were at least sixty years old, many of them older and wizened. A new form of erotica for the elderly, I wondered? Hardly. Each of the women was missing one of her breasts. All of them were breast-cancer survivors who were unabashedly sharing their stories during a week of breast-cancer awareness. And their topless group photo was right there on the front page of a major daily newspaper, surgical scars and all. These modern-day Amazons smiled into the camera unashamedly, fearlessly, because health and naked bodies are Norwegian values that are inextricably entwined. There is something about it that smacks one as being very balanced, sane, and, well, healthy.

The Vigeland sculptures are the pinnacle of these cultural representations of health and the human body. My first encounter with the Vigeland sculptures several years before had been near to a religious experience, basking in the presence of genius. My return visit accompanied by my Oslo friend Chris Skovsgaard did not disappoint, despite having to view everything through a veil of rain and from under the dome of a large umbrella.

The park contains 192 separate sculptures with more than 600 human figures, all life-size or larger, by the brilliant sculptor Gustav Vigeland. Vigeland expertly rendered his human figures, casting them into bronze or carving them in granite, over a period of nearly four decades, between 1907 and 1942. The outstanding signature of his monumental body of work is the way the hundreds of sculpted men, women, and children are portrayed in various stages of life—male and female adults, young adults, adolescents, toddlers and infants, even a fetus, and finally the elderly and a decomposing skeleton of death. The entire cycle of life is represented, from birth through adolescence through maturation to demise, in all its multiple joys, sadness, and eternalness. All of the sculptures are naked, not a stitch of clothing on any of them, yet the display is modest and appropriately engaging, not lurid in the least. The females are sturdy and solid, the males robust but tender. Male and female genitalia are in abundance. The figures are frequently clustered together in allegorical groups, showing adolescents playing leapfrog, or a mother and father with their child, or a mother with her son or a father with his daughter; or two bodies linked in a sort of yin-yang apposition, or two lovers in a state of bliss, foreheads touching tenderly, and another two lovers in a state of conflict.

Some of the figures are arrayed around a large, grand fountain portraying the cycles of our lives, others line up evenly on either side of a bridge. Still others are scaling a giant granite obelisk jutting into the sky, and they are writhing but not in despair, unlike those in Rodin’s Gates of Hell, instead there is a sense of togetherness, of carefully supporting one another, on their way toward some kind of resurrection or salvation at the summit, which is covered by sculptures of small children.

I walked among these nearly two hundred sculptures as if through a forest of human bodies, overwhelmed and awed. Vigeland’s artistic achievement is on the scale and magnitude of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia, and Monet’s Water Lilies series. While his sculptures have not received the recognition of those famous works, they are nothing less than an artistic giant’s monument to humanity—to life, love, health, and human relations in all their multiple forms. The Vigeland sculptures are unmistakably ideological in that they represent a celebration of our bodies, female and male, and a celebration of the cult of life as opposed to the cult of death which ravages so much of our oversexed, overly violent media and world. Something about the Vigeland Sculpture Park struck me as distinctly Scandinavian, and European as well, in the sense that it was about health and vitality, a particular idiom of la dolce vita, infused with the mentality of slow food, organic agriculture, urban gardens, and bike paths, but in this case manifesting as these magnificent concrete expressions in granite and bronze. And it was about not only bodies but bodies that are au naturel, lacking embarrassment or modesty, yet not salacious, their nakedness just a normal part of life.

The Vigeland sculptures are a source of great pride for Norwegians. This was apparent when I mentioned the subject to one stoic taxi driver, a typical older Norwegian who had white-streaked hair and a chiseled chin, wore square aviator eyeglasses, and gave one-word or one-line responses and an occasional smile. But his face lit up when I praised the Vigeland sculptures. “Thank you,” he smiled more widely, bowing slightly but in a prideful way that meant he thanked me on behalf of his country.

These were just a few of the many manifestations of the attitudes and policies toward health that I found in Europe. Sometimes the Europeans remind me of hobbits, with a love of leisure, nature, relaxation, good food, a stimulating glass of wine or dark, earthy beer, and steeped in the values of health, family, and quality of life. It is these values and this outlook that they bring to their workfare system and their social capitalism, instilled into them in both intent and design. It’s also the values they inject into their formal health care system, which mostly is based on a principle of "people instead of profits," unlike the U.S. healthcare system which is run as a for-profit commercial enterprise and dominated by corporations and CEOs making hundreds of millions of dollars in annual salary and bonuses. The various European health care systems put people and their health before profits -- la sante d'abord, “health comes first,” as the French are fond of saying.

So if you ever are in Oslo, make sure to check out the Vigeland sculptures in Frogner Park, you will be in for an amazing experience.

Steven Hill 3:13 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (1)
November 1, 2010
 by Steven Hill

BOMBS, BOMBS EVERYWHERE; EUROPE PONDERS AMERICA’S RETURN TO BUSH-LITE…Yesterday when I was in Istanbul, a bomb went off in Taksim Square, not far from where I was staying. As Taksim is one of the one of the main thoroughfares of this energetic city of 13 million people, chaos ensued and suddenly police were everywhere. My taxi driver, speaking only a few words of English, was able to communicate that he was in Taksim when the bomb went off. “Grand BOOM!” he says, shaking his head, looking grave. He indicates that it was a Kurdish suicide bomber who attacked a police stand, killing 10 cops, but news reports are not so certain. There is much speculation that it could also be an Islamic radical, and the initial news reports say either two, or possibly zero people are dead, but quite a few are injured. Yet within an hour or so, people seem to be back to “shopping normal” in the trendy areas around Taksim Square, though Taksim itself remains shut down.

Later in the day I arrived in Frankfurt airport to the headlines that the German police had found a bomb on a cargo plane (it was later determined that the flight passed through Germany on its way to the UK, where the bomb actually was found). In both the Frankfurt and Istanbul airports the security seems to be about the same, no extraordinary efforts visible to the passing eye, which is surprising but also a relief. Airports already are such a hassle to get through, a constant reminder of the advantage of taking trains in Europe whenever practical distance-wise, since the security is less draconian and you don’t have to arrive an hour or more in advance.

Any Americans who think that Europe’s efforts in the war on terror (perceived as inadequate by many Americans) results from them not understanding or appreciating the impact of the September 11 attacks in New York City aren’t appreciating the fact that Europeans have lived with this kind of low intensity conflict for years. Indeed, blowback from unwise American foreign policy decisions in the Middle East during both the Obama and Bush administrations washes up on Europe’s shores first, since it is in much greater proximity to the zone of conflict. Europeans have learned to live with this kind of insecurity in a way that Americans are still getting used to.

Europe contemplates America’s return to Bush-lite.For the past couple of weeks there has been much speculation in the European media about the U.S. election on November 2. I also have received a lot of questions about it during my speaking tour, both from audiences and journalists. Europeans are perplexed, to say the least: how could Americans have turned away so dramatically, with the election of Barack Obama, from the policies of the Bush-Cheney administration, only now to contemplate a return to them? They also are puzzled by the Tea Party movement, which seemingly wants to roll back the last two years and return to how things were at the end of the Bush-Cheney years, which Europeans pretty uniformly regard as a disastrous time, both economically and foreign policy wise. Even conservatives in Europe are scratching their heads over their transatlantic allies (“What, Americans don’t want health care?”). Asked one Swede, “How can these Tea Party people say ‘Get government out of my Medicare -- don’t they know Medicare IS a government program?” If Europeans could vote in America’s November 2 election, there is no doubt how they would vote.

This in some ways is the greatest measure of the divide in the transatlantic alliance. Even the so-called “far right” in Europe is nowhere near as conservative as the Tea Partiers or GOP Congress members; indeed, in most ways the far right is to the left of the Democratic Party, which is fairly startling to contemplate.

So it has been one of my tasks to have to explain to puzzled Europeans what is happening to American politics. My view is that it mostly boils down to the overuse and abuse of the filibuster in the Senate, which has fostered a toxic obstructionist politics. The filibuster has been used by Republican Senators on average twice a week to stall everything, but it used to be deployed only a few times a year. Obama hasn't even appointed numerous positions a president typically appoints because the Republicans would have filibustered those nominations, thereby clogging the Senate's calendar and leaving less time for his legislative agenda. Paralysis has become the norm. In my view the obstructionist filibuster is the single greatest reason for the gridlock that is frustrating so many Americans. As proof, I would offer this thought experiment: imagine how different things would have been if Obama only needed 51 out of 100 Senators’ votes instead of 60. The health care bill wouldn't have been so weak, AND wouldn't have taken so long to pass, leaving more time for the rest of his legislative agenda. The same with financial re-regulation; the climate change bill would have passed; as well as possibly a second (smaller) stimulus more precisely targeted at infrastructure, shovel ready jobs, etc.

I don’t believe that many Americans agree strongly with the hard core Tea Partiers who grouse about a “government takeover of health care, return of big government,” etc. What most Americans are upset about is the sense that not much has been done for them personally or for people they know (at this point just about every American, or someone they know, has lost their job or their house or both). There’s a feeling that the noose is tightening , even as banks and auto companies got bailed out. The banks and CEOs have returned to raking in handsome profits, but virtually none of it is trickling down. And that has led to a great sense of frustration, anger, even betrayal that Fox News/Tea Party types have exploited effectively (a type of populism that is not all that surprising -- recall the early 1990s recession, which gave a boost to populists like Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan and his "peasants with pitchforks" speeches, etc, -- we should EXPECT to see an increase in populism at this point in an economic downturn, whether in the U.S. or Europe. Their influence will last no more than one or two election cycles unless this downturn proves to be particularly long lasting). For example two of my GOP family members voted for Obama, even though they didn’t necessarily agree with him on everything; but because generally speaking they saw him as the best candidate for moving the country past the Bush years, i.e. in a new direction. Now they are upset at Obama, not necessarily because they disagree with what he has done but they view him as INEFFECTIVE. To people like them, the Tea Party is a thumb in the eye to the system, a pox upon both the Dem and Rep houses. They are not very tolerant of excuses e.g. "blame the filibuster," and the fact that throwing out Dems brings back the same crowd they voted out last time requires a depth of thinking that they aren't willing to engage in. That's the problem with populism/"thumb in the eye" politics -- it's a gut level response that lacks any memory or historical insight.

Like a coyote chewing off its own leg. But the Tea Partiers have little in the way of solutions to offer toward the challenges that America faces. It’s mostly a nostalgic movement, looking backward toward some golden age that never existed. And so the American electorate is going to careen from one side of the aisle to the other, not finding satisfaction, and will only get more frustrated and angry. The best metaphor for understanding the American electorate right now is that of a coyote with its leg caught in a trap, suffering in pain, so now it is chewing off its own leg to get out of the trap. Grisly, I know, but that's about as accurate a description as I can think of.

And just think, much of this situation could have been avoided if only 51 votes were needed in the Senate. I am not generally so reductionist in my thinking, but in this case I really do think the filibuster is the elephant in the living room, in terms of understanding what has dragged down American politics into the current cesspool. That’s what I have conveyed to my European audiences.

Steven Hill 11:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (1)

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