Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The European Way?

Posted by: Liberal Arts Dude | [reposted from Liberal Arts Dude]
Book Review of Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age

Steven Hill, political author and Director of the Political Reform Program at the think tank New America Foundation has written a fascinating book that deserves to be read widely in the United States. Europe’s Promise is a comparison of American and European economies, societal institutions, approaches to foreign and domestic public policy, democratic practices, and economic and political structures where the author dispels misconceptions about the European economy, society and culture commonly held by Americans.
Overtaxed Europeans, inefficient and bureaucratic welfare states, a scloretic economy, high unemployment and inefficient political practices are myths that are quickly erased as Hill describes the development of the modern-day European Union countries from the post World War II period up to 2008. Hill paints a portrait of the European Union as ultra-modern, high technology savvy, and collectively, an economic powerhouse that seems to have implemented a system which distributes the rewards of a productive, capitalist economy more broadly and equitably throughout society. The result, according to Hill, are societies which are more stable, physically healthy, highly educated, has highest levels of quality of life for the vast majority of their populations, and whose people are buffered and insulated from the worst effects of the global economic downturn of the past three years.

This book is a addressed to American public policy makers, politicians, pundits, and those who have power to craft public opinion and policy to take a long hard look at American institutions, economic practices and structures, approaches to politics, policy-making, etc. – pretty much how running a country of 300 million people is currently conducted and ask – are we doing the best job that we can do and getting the results we intended?
Hill issues a challenge that if things were done a bit differently – patterned along European lines – the US could solve many of its problems such as providing healthcare to the population, addressing rising inequality, create a more equitable society where socioeconomic inequality is not so widespread, create a more environmentally-friendly and sustainable energy future, create more opportunities for and encouraging democratic practices in politics, rein in the worst aspects of capitalism which caused the economic collapse of 2007-2008, etc.
Getting to the Nitty Gritty: How Europe Does It
A book review is too short to do justice to the wide span of topics in Hill’s book so I will concentrate on the part which fascinated me the most. To illustrate Hill’s main point I will focus on the European approach to the economy.
Hill argues that Europe’s powerful, productive economic engine is able to spread its rewards more equitably and broadly because European countries have developed and institutionalized a unique set of practices and institutions that are designed to foster such results. Hill describes two practices in particular, as the Europeans’ secret weapons: codetermination and flexicurity.
Codetermination refers to the practice originating in post World War II Germany of having supervisory boards or work councils in companies that include elected employee representatives sitting side by side as equal decision-makers with stockholder representatives in supervising management. The practice has created a healthy degree of cooperation and communication between workers and management. These practices allow workers to gain significant input into their working conditions, have veto power over key decisions such as the introduction of new technology, holidays, schedules, mergers, layoffs, treatment of individual employees and dismissals.
Flexicurity permits relatively easy hiring and firing of workers in exchange for job training and retraining, apprenticeships for new workers, and generous financial and workfare supports for those who lose their jobs. The goal is to have a dynamic economy where companies can shed workers in a downturn but those workers are provided the support to maintain themselves, quickly retrain and get into new employment.
Hill argues Europe has found it necessary to depart significantly from the U.S. model and has done this by injecting two essential values into its economies: (1) a degree of economic democracy that has no counterpart in the US from the boardrooms to the shop floor; and (2) comprehensive worker training, skill development, and job placement provided by the state as a standard and universal practice. More than just injecting values, European governments have put significant commitment in resources, political capital and created institutions to support these initiatives. Most interestingly, Hill also argues that there is broad agreement and consensus in European societies regarding these practices and institutions – Left, Right, Center and other political parties agree that they are necessary, needed and are an integral aspect of the European way of doing things. There is no debate on whether these things should exist. They are just taken as a given.
I can anticipate the hysterical objections to this book already laced with closed-mindedness and arrogance: America, love it or leave it! If you don’t like the way things are done in the US, then you should get out! Creeping statism and socialism!
If you are someone who has an open mind and is seeing that the American way of doing things is not working and hasn’t worked for a long time, who sees the US as facing tremendous problems and our leaders and institutions ineffective in a partisan gridlock, and are looking for examples of other countries which may be dealing more effectively with the same types of problems, then you should read Europe’s Promise. Personally, I liked the book very much. I thought it was an engaging read and gave me a lot of new information and a perspective that I did not have before and I rarely see in US mainstream (and alternative) media.
Is there something critical I can say about the book? Perhaps I’d like to have seen included a serious and formidable counter-analysis from a critic that directly opposes Hill’s perspectives and Hill responding to that criticism. Hill presents information and short passages throughout the book which addresses the shortcomings and problems in Europe, especially in the areas of race-relations, immigration, catastrophic failures that occurred in the healthcare system (but which haven’t occurred since), etc. But these counter-arguments do not develop into a unifying and overarching critique of the European way of doing things. These passages merely serve as a backdrop for Hill to acknowledge and address that there are problems in Europe.
But that is a minor quibble. I enjoyed reading Hill’s book and highly recommend it to anyone interested in the question of: “In America, you are so rich – why don’t you have these things for your people?” The Liberal Arts Dude gives Europe’s Promise four out of five stars!