Does modernity require inequality? Or can we build totally modern societies that respect solidarity and community?
By Sam Pizzigati
A review of Steven Hill, Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way Is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age. University of California Press, 2010. 473 pp.
Millions of Americans know Europe. Or at least think they do. These Americans have climbed up the Eiffel Tower in Paris and ambled around the Coliseum in Rome. They’ve hiked the Alps and maybe even quaffed a stein or two in a German beer garden.
But these Americans, argues Steven Hill in this spirited new tour guide to the Europe beyond the tourist hotspots, have missed the Europe most worth seeing — and appreciating.
Europe, Hill helps us understand, has much more to offer than history and vistas. Europe has a model, an approach to modernity that offers, by every measure that matters, the finest quality of life in the world.
Average Europeans, notes Hill, do not “live in fear of being financially wiped out by illness, economic decline, or stock market crashes.” If they lose a job, they get job retraining. If they get good grades, they get a free university education. If they have a child, they get paid leave to parent — and a special stipend to offset the costs of parenthood. They enjoy, in short, security and opportunity.
Author Steven Hill spent ten years researching this book. He spoke to lawmakers and business executives, social activists and academic experts. But he also spoke to everyday Europeans, and plenty of them.
In one particularly memorable encounter, at a town square in Salzburg, a local was describing the benefits that all Austrians, be they taxi drivers or poets, take for granted: the universal health care, the guaranteed vacations, the quality day care, the paid sick leave, and on and on.
“In America, you are so rich,” the Austrian noted. “Why don’t you have these things for your people?”
We don’t have these things, Hill’s Europe’s Promise makes plain, because we have let America’s riches concentrate in the hands of a few. Europe has shared the wealth. We haven’t.
CEOs in the United States routinely take home hundreds of times more pay than their workers. The standard CEO-worker pay gap in Europe: a couple dozen times. In the United States, the most affluent 10 percent owns 70 percent of the wealth. The top 10 percent share in Germany? Just 44 percent.
This greater European equality, author Hill emphasizes, just didn’t happen. Europeans have fashioned it, through a wide variety of what he calls “fulcrum” institutions, economic and political arrangements that promote, in the comings and goings of daily life, the core values of fairness, equality, and solidarity.
Most corporate workplaces, for instance, operate under the principle of “co-determination.” Worker representatives, writes Hill, “sit side by side with stockholder representatives on corporate boards of directors,” and, on the shop floor, “works councils” give workers input — and sometimes even a veto — on everything from daily schedules to dismissals.
These “co-determination” institutions act, says Hill, a former program director at the New American Foundation, “as a barrier against CEOs playing God.”
“Imagine Wal-Mart’s board of directors having anywhere from a third to a half of its directors elected directly by its workers,” he asks. “ It’s hard to even conceive of such a notion from the American standpoint, yet most European nations employ some version of this as standard operating procedure.”
Europe, Hill acknowledges, hardly qualifies as “some utopian paradise,” and the pages of his Europe’s Promise candidly and thoroughly walk us through Europe’s many problems, straight through the 2008 global financial crash and beyond.
But even after that crash, Hill shows, “the pro-family European democracies still provide a level of security and comfort that far outshine anything available in the United States.” We continue to concentrate “most economic gains among just a handful of winners.” Europe has made wealth’s “fair and more equal distribution” a “hallmark of its raison d’etre.”
As tourists, we never see that reality. As citizens in an increasingly insecure age, we need to learn from it.
Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online newsletter on excess and inequality published by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies. Too Much appears weekly. Read the current issue  or sign up  to receive Too Much in your email inbox.