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.
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.