Were you born on the wrong continent? Thomas Geoghegan seems to think so. Geoghegan’s book, which is actually titled “Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?” came out a few years ago, but I think it’s pertinent right now as the Eurozone struggles through its many issues. Geoghegan essentially says that European social democracy, specifically in Germany, not only leads to a greater quality of life for the middle class, it also results in a more productive working class. All this is accomplished even as Germans work fewer hours, have 6 weeks of federally mandated vacation, free university tuition, nursing care, and childcare. Geoghegan also notes how America’s high GDP per capita doesn’t necessarily mean its citizens are better off.
You can pull out these GDP per capita statistics and say that people in Mississippi are vastly wealthier than people in Frankfurt and Hamburg. That can’t be true. Just spend two months in Hamburg and spend two months in Tupelo, Mississippi. There’s something wrong if the statistics are telling you that the people in Tupelo are three times wealthier than the people in Germany. Despite the numbers, social democracy really does work and delivers the goods and it’s the only model that an advanced country can do to be competitive in this world.
Sounds tempting. It’s an interesting topic, but I don’t buy Geoghegan’s argument. Here’s why:
I think he raises the right questions, but draws the wrong conclusions. First of all, comparing the happiness of U.S. workers to certain European countries isn’t really fair. Sure, Denmark, Finland and Norway appear to have social democracies that offer more vacation time, more benefits, and possibly greater economic well-being, but they're so small and homogenous that they bear no economic or cultural resemblance to the United States.
Second, larger countries like Germany may get valuable vacation time, but the fact is that Americans and Europeans simply choose different ways of living.
I’m sure most people here on WSO are willing to bust out 100-hour workweeks in exchange for the possibility of making a boatload of money down the road. In Europe, the mentality is different.
The average American works 400 more hours per year than a German and 300 hours more than a Frenchman. Would he do this if he thought he’d be making the same salary as a worker in one of those countries? I know I wouldn’t. Does he do this simply because he loves his job more? It’s a nice thought, but unlikely.
Americans, especially those in finance, were brought up with the idea that if they work a little longer than the guy next to them, they’ll be spared when it comes time to let people go. The biggest shortcoming in Geoghegan’s argument is that he assumes Europeans and Americans share a common view of the world.
Finally, I would dispute the fact that Americans are not as productive as Europeans. Like it or not, our GDP per capita is higher, and keeping population equal, we still have twice as many billionaires as Germany. For a look at productivity, America has some of the most innovative companies in the world when you look at Apple, Google, Facebook, etc.
Those are just my thoughts on this, but I’d like to hear what everyone else thinks:
So who would you rather be?
1) The European worker, who gets free education and lengthy vacation time, but is less likely to become very, very wealthy.
2) The American worker, who works long hours and retires later in life, but is more likely to become Mr. Monopoly and live that “bottles and models” lifestyle.
Summary—I realize this is a long post: This author asserts that the average German worker is better off and more productive than the average American worker. I disagree for a number of reasons.