America and Europe: Trading Places

One society is a melting pot of different cultures and constituencies, embracing a philosophy of personal responsibility and limited government. The other is a homogenous society, placing emphasis on social and governmental support systems.

Which one is America? And which one is Europe?

The conventional wisdom is that the first description defines the United States, and the second one defines the European Union. Recent events, though, have turned conventional wisdom on its ear.

All societies, of course, undergo extended periods of evolution and transition. Interestingly, the American and European cultures now appear to be engaging in a game of trading places.

Tolerating Unemployment

Last week, American investors punished their domestic equity markets for an economic employment report that under performed their expectations. Although the unemployment rate in the United States has now declined from its recent peak of 10.2% to a far more moderate 7.6%, many pundits believe that this rate remains intolerably high, and thus investors sold shares in response to the news.

And yet any job growth at all, in contrast, would undoubtedly thrill European investors. Last week, the unemployment rate in the euro zone climbed to 12%, a record high. And in nations such as Spain and Greece, as well as among young workers, the rate is more than double this level.

In the past, unemployed European workers could rely upon a sympathetic citizenry and a generous social safety net to guide their way through economic down turns. In the current era of recessionary Europe, however, such levels of social goodwill and governmental support appear to be unavailable to them.

Building The Safety Net

Consider, for instance, the European system of health care services. In Greece, the birthplace of European democracy and a core member of the euro zone, the public health system is nearing collapse. The medical crisis has become so severe, in fact, that Doctors Without Borders — a nonprofit organization that usually focuses on providing care to residents of emerging nations — has begun to deliver charitable services in the country.

On the other hand, despite a contentious and deeply controversial development and approval process, the Affordable Care Act of the United States — a.k.a. “Obama Care” — is on track to launch a national marketplace of health insurance exchanges in January 2014. Although not a universal program of medical services per se, the new American system will provide for a level of access to health coverage that will far exceed levels found in nations like Greece.

Comprehensive health care coverage in the United States … but not in the cradle of European democracy? It’s a surprising sign that the two societies are in the process of trading places.

Forming Social Cohesion

Furthermore, the economic hardships of the European Union are generating levels of social strife that haven’t been experienced since the darkest days of the Second World War. Protestors are routinely comparing German Chancellor Angela Merkel to her infamous predecessor Adolph Hitler, and her Christian Democratic Union political party to his notorious Nazi movement.

Meanwhile, back in the United States, what are demonstrators chanting on the streets of America’s great cities? Slogans in favor of universal marriage! Apparently, political support for the extension of marriage rights to gay citizens has soared among American citizens during the past decade, including among many relatively conservative demographic groups.

Half a century ago, the assassination of an American president on the streets of Dallas, Texas touched off a firestorm of racial and ethnic strife that plagued the society of the United States for three full decades. Today, Europe appears to be entering a similar period of social disunion, at the very time that American society continues to heal itself.

Choosing Priorities

In the meantime, what are the priorities facing American politicians? Are they focusing on goals and objectives that are likely to bring even greater cohesion to the nation and its citizens? Or do they intend to focus on issues that may tear the nation apart?

A brief review of the political headlines appears to indicate that the former, in fact, is true. Apparently, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is negotiating to guarantee the permanent assimilation of illegal immigrants. Meanwhile, President Obama has invited a group of Republican senators to dinner to discuss a “grand bargain” that ensures the long term stabilization and funding of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Conversely, European leaders continue to argue about the wisdom of forcing bank depositors to share the fiscal burdens of banking bailouts. And national leaders like David Cameron of Great Britain are authorizing referenda that raise the possibility of the dissolution of the European Union.

One political union is clearly a collection of socially cohesive individuals, whereas the other is (in reality) an assortment of combatively warring interests. Who could have ever predicted that the first is the United States of America, while the second is the European Union?