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It's Better Over There | The Nation

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It's Better Over There

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My first day back in New York after a year in Berlin, I got on the subway and found my end of the car dominated by an obscenity-shouting black man with a crutch and a suitcase spilling garbage. When he tried to leave the train at Penn Station, he fell and cursed so loudly at two young men who tried to help him up that they backed off. Not once in my time in Berlin did I see anything remotely like this scene. Berlin is a poor city by German standards, with homeless people and beggars and presumably mentally ill people as well. But it doesn't have the kind of destitution we take for granted in the United States, especially for African-Americans. The strong German safety net keeps people from plunging into the abyss.

About the Author

Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt is well known for her wit and her keen sense of both the ridiculous and the sublime. Her "Subject to...

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Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?, Tom Geoghegan's clever and immensely appealing book contrasting Western European social democracies with laissez-faire America, is primarily concerned with the middle class, not the poor. Still, one of the many delusions of middle-class Americans is that ameliorating poverty would be, if not impossible (see Big Government, wastefulness of), a big, expensive, unfair burden that would reward the lazy and the criminal while producing no benefit to upright citizens. As Geoghegan shows, that's not true. Poverty is expensive. It costs middle-class Americans a lot to avoid the poor: in police, in prisons, in home-security systems, in ever more distant suburbs that must then be commuted from, in private schools, in anxiety and fear and hardening of the heart.

Geoghegan argues that, contrary to US popular opinion, life is better for almost everyone in a social democratic system like those in Western Europe, especially Germany. Thanks to strong unions, people work less—Germans get six weeks of vacation and twenty-seven (!) paid holidays, while Americans are lucky to get two weeks off. Germans have job security, retirement pensions, free or nearly free education including college, and healthcare including nursing care. (In fact, their system, in which individuals are legally required to buy insurance, with subsidies for low earners, resembles the much-reviled Obamacare. My German friends found opposition to Obama's plan utterly bewildering.) You might think, as Geoghegan points out, that this cornucopia of rights and benefits is unsustainable—the American media delight in predicting the end of Old Europe—but in fact, the German economy is doing better than our own. Cutbacks in European government spending get a lot of attention over here but, as Geoghegan shrewdly notes, are often compensated for by increased spending on something else. In 2004 Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats pushed through the widely despised
Hartz IV reform limiting generous long-term unemployment benefits. The end of the welfare state? Not exactly. During the downturn, the government prevented mass unemployment by providing partial compensation for lost wages and encouraging companies to shorten hours rather than lay off workers. Compare that with the American way, which is to fire lots of people and make the remaining staff work even harder.

Geoghegan makes Old Europe sound completely delightful. Trains! Clean streets! Nice restaurants and lots of free time to spend in them! It's not all beer and bratwurst, though. German children are tracked at age 10 and, as here, the results follow class and income. One recent study showed that teachers graded papers supposedly written by "Cindy" and "Kevin"—TV-derived names favored by lower-class people from the former East Germany—lower than the same papers ascribed to kids with traditional names. Once Cindy and Kevin have missed out on the top track, that's pretty much it for their college chances—and although being, say, a baker or a cashier is more pleasant there than here, it's striking how the class system thrives within social democracy. Another feature Geoghegan overlooks is that, in some ways, the slower-paced, more leisured life he admires rests on the semi-exclusion of mothers from the workforce. Mutti is the one doing the shopping and running the errands throughout the week because the stores—all the stores—are closed on Sundays. And Mutti stays home because the school day ends at lunchtime. (Geoghegan is wrong, by the way, to assert that Germans have free daycare. In fact, one of the effects of reunification was to shut down East Germany's excellent childcare system. Only now, because of the extremely low birthrate, are the Germans talking about setting up public childcare, which so far exists primarily in Berlin.)

Still, it is hard to understand why Americans fight so hard against the nanny state, which provides so many good things. My friend David Abraham, a historian and legal scholar, gave a fascinating talk at the American Academy in Berlin in which he suggested that the European welfare state is linked to ethnic homogeneity: people are more willing to share with those who seem like themselves. Could it be that the social solidarity on which Germany's welfare state rests is not entirely unconnected from its terrible past, in which the Nazis promised to create a wonderful country just "for Germans"? Muslim immigration will be the moral test, and not just for Germany but for the rest of Europe as well.

Abraham wondered if the weak US safety net is a byproduct of our openness to immigration: you can come here, the message is (or was until recently), but you're on your own. My theory is more primitive: a critical mass of white Americans would rather not have something than see black and Latino Americans get it too. No matter how often progressives point out that most welfare mothers, and most poor people, are white, Big Government means the hard-working white taxpayer heaping largesse on shiftless people of color. The Tea Party movement suggests that trope is alive and well. In the twenty-first century, the problem is—still—the color line.

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