Nice Dream If You Can Live It


How Europe's Vision of the Future is

Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream

By Jeremy Rifkin

Tarcher/Penguin -- 434pp -- $25.95

Kick back, stressed-out Americans, and imagine a world where people "work to live, rather than live to work." A land where paid vacations, maternity leave, and access to health care, housing assistance, and continuing education aren't just perks offered by some employers but rights guaranteed by the Constitution. How nice to live in a "beacon of light in a troubled world" that "beckons us to a new age of inclusivity, diversity, quality of life, deep play, sustainability, universal human rights, the rights of nature, and peace on Earth." Imagine all the people, living for today....

O.K., the last line is John Lennon. But every-thing else is straight out of The European Dream by Jeremy Rifkin. The utopia in question is today's European Union, or at least the world the EU is working to build. Rifkin -- globalization guru, Wharton School lecturer, and author of best-seller The End of Work-makes a compelling case for the desirability of this vision, which he says is usurping the American Dream as a global ideal. But he is less persuasive in arguing that the European ideal is attainable.

What are these dueling dreams? Put simply, Rifkin says Americans believe in "unbridled opportunity for each individual to pursue success" and that government's main role is to protect property rights. Americans favor personal and national autonomy and a strong military to guard against outside threats. And they believe immigrants should assimilate into the national culture. By contrast, Rifkin observes, Europeans treasure social forms of wealth, believe government should safeguard communal resources, and that civil and social groups should have equal say with commercial interests. Europeans would influence other nations via diplomacy, international institutions, and financial aid rather than with military coercion. And rather than ethnic assimilation, Europeans favor cultural and linguistic diversity.

By now any Euroskeptic is probably calling for a time-out. Bear in mind that these are ideals: Rifkin admits Europeans are no better than anyone else at always living up to their principles. But the bigger question challenging Rifkin's thesis is whether the European Dream is economically sustainable. The U.S. has roared back from recession, while growth in most of Euroland is anemic and unemployment remains high. What's more, Europe's aging workforce is straining its generous welfare and labor policies.

Rifkin agrees Europe's demographic shift is serious but says it can be resolved with more liberal immigration. He disagrees Europe is an underachiever. In fact, he reports, six European nations -- including Germany and France -- are more productive than the U.S., proving these countries "are even better at commerce than we are." Maybe so. But every major report I've seen on productivity growth -- by the European Commission, OECD, World Economic Forum, McKinsey, and the Conference Board -- bemoans how Europe is falling behind America. Measured by output per hour worked, U.S. productivity rose 2.6% in 2003. In the EU, the pace slowed to 0.8%, from an already weak 0.9% in 2002.

What gives? Rifkin himself uses Conference Board data, noting that while the average U.S. worker produced $38.83 of output per hour worked in 2002, the average German produced $39.39 and the French worker $41.85. There are problems with such a selective use of statistics. For one, this gap narrowed in 2003. Also, hourly output for the 15 EU nations averaged just $36.20 last year -- compared with $39.20 in the U.S. And there could be many reasons, other than Rifkin's suggestion that happier workers are more productive, to explain higher average output in some countries. Unemployment is higher across Europe, points out Conference Board economist Robert H. McGuckin. So perhaps those with jobs have higher skills.

It's a shame Rifkin fails to fully address this debate, because otherwise The European Dream is a fascinating study of the differences between American and European psyches. Surveying centuries of sociology, political philosophy, and theology, the author traces the evolution of Western values. He then shows how those values diverged as America became a superpower. He also marshals reams of polling data to show that his dueling dreams aren't just stereotypes. For example, big majorities of Americans take pride in their country, see their culture as superior, and endorse exporting U.S. values. Some 55% of Americans under 30 think they will become rich, and, by 6 to 1, believe poverty is due to personal flaws. Europeans differ sharply in these beliefs.

Rifkin also excels at explaining why Europeans are more passionate about the environment, human rights, and promoting peace via collective action. As a globally minded guy, I was persuaded that the European outlook is better suited to an interconnected world. Everything in the European dream world may not be realistic. But it's a wonderful ideal.

By Pete Engardio

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