When I lived in Europe I was struck by how differently Europeans viewed the role of the government and conceived of their own role in society. While most certainly a generalization, in my experience Europeans expected the government to offer a number of services, including health care, higher education, transportation, and infrastructure, that Americans value but don't necessarily see as part of their rights as citizens. This fundamental difference between the two continents helps explain why the United States has struggled to implement a national healthcare system, improve and develop its infrastructure, or keep higher education costs within reach for talented but economically disadvantaged young people.
The United States of America is the richest country in the world. Blessed with abundant natural resources, a unique history of openness and innovation, and a people relentless in their pursuit of the American Dream, America became a symbol of hope and opportunity for men and women all around the world. Still, it lags behind a number of its European counterparts in a number of quality of life indicators. European countries like Finland, Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands are often near or at the top of these measures. While the ongoing recession in the EU demonstrates the limits to emulating European policies, here are four lessons America can take from its European counterparts:
While the unemployment rate for young Americans has climbed to over 16%, the Germans have kept theirs at a comparably healthy rate of 7.8%. Popular job-training programs, which allow less academically inclined high school graduates to learn on the job at companies for specific full-time roles, are a major contributor to this disparity. While America emphasizes the importance of a college education, Germany offers both an academic path and a vocational track, both of which can lead to relatively high-paying careers.
Children in Finland don't start school until age 7. Yet they are the highest-achieving children in both science and reading and came in second to South Korea in mathematics on the OECD exams designed to measure learning across the world. One reason for the impressive results is the significant investment made in teachers before they enter the profession. A master's degree is required, and teaching programs are among the most selective in the country. If wages in the U.S. were higher, it's likely we would see more teachers willing to invest in their own education and training, and therefore improve the quality of education in America.
As Americans, we value hard work and see that as the surest way to success. This is certainly a virtue that has helped make America into the great nation it is today, but it may be healthy to evaluate whether our commitment to work is doing more harm than good. While our European counterparts embark on lengthy summer vacations, most Americans limit the length of their holidays to avoid being out of the office too long. Indeed, according to data compiled by the OECD, Americans work about 400 hours more per year than even the most industrious Europeans, the Germans. Could it be that all those extra hours are having negative side effects in mental and physical health?
Instead of cutting funding to important programs like food stamps and long-term unemployment insurance, the U.S. government should offer Americans a measure of economic certainty. There is no reason for the richest country on earth to have as many people as it does living in poverty. While America does offer an opportunity for out-sized pay with its comparatively-low top rate taxes, it should recognize the dangers of rising inequality. Inequality may be a necessary and healthy part of capitalism, but too much of it can threaten the long-term viability of the American economic system. While the debt crisis in the EU shows the dangers of providing too many costly benefits, the U.S. could stand to gain from a recognition of the importance of benefits for the poor to the stability of American society.