Monday, 8 June 2009


By e-mail Chemie sent me a three part article by Peter Baldwin comparing Europe to America.

The overall argument is that on any given issue, America lies within a spectrum of the European countries, making much of our kvetching about our friends across the Atlantic inaccurate.

To be honest, I'm not entirely unsympathetic to this idea in theory. There are a lot of misunderstandings and factoids floating around regarding the U.S. I'm not sure Baldwin's article really helps with any of that, though. Mainly, this is because his method of comparison means not only can Baldwin pull the trick of matching America to whichever European country he like for each concept, but he can completely ignore the fact that America's problems lie in their particular combination of factors. To use a very dumb analogy, he's arguing that because the UK has more sulphur, Sweden has more potassium, and Germany has more charcoal, it is silly to suggest that the US has more gunpowder than anywhere else. Or, to be more appropriate, he's ignoring that the American health-care crisis is born from the fact that despite the US spending more per capita on health-care than we do, you can't get access to a lot of that unless you have health insurance. The guaranteed access to the NHS in this country is also a reason why pointing out the US spends more per capita on unemployment benefits is pretty pointless (and that's before we even get into the fact that there are plenty of other considerations regarding unemployment benefit that are ignored, most importantly how easy they are to qualify for and for how long they last.). Lastly on this subject, it seems to me that conflating comprehensive access to health-care with the survival rates for specific illnesses is a particularly bullshit move.

I'd also argue that a country that spends more per student than any country in Europe and still have a mediocre literacy rate is not evidence that their education system is better than people think (any more than spending more on health-care for worse results). His decision to consider the American system on mass rather than state by state also means he can bypass the fact that there are many places (the District of Columbia, for example) that are absolutely screwed education wise. If he were to cross-reference each American state with each European country, the result might be very different.

Finally, of course, it's worth noting that when people compare the U.S. to "Europe", they almost universally mean "Western Europe". This is a somewhat unfortunate and egocentric conceit (of which I'm sure I am guilty), but that does not make it any less the case. Pointing out that America does better than certain Eastern European countries, then, seems rather irrelevant to the debate as it is generally considered.

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