Written by Frank Viviano
To anyone who grew up in the Cold War, the rhetoric of the Republican Party’s 2012 presidential candidates is strangely familiar. The United States, they warn, is threatened by an alien ideology. What’s startling is that the bogeyman this time around is not resurgent and increasingly hostile Russia, but Western Europe – Washington’s closest and most steadfast ally since the end of World War Two.
According to Mitt Romney, currently the leading G.O.P. contender, “Barack Obama wants us to turn into a European-style welfare state,” a development that would “poison the very spirit of America.”
Newt Gingrich charges that Romney himself is guilty of “looking into European socialist ideas.” Not to be outdone, Rick Santorum fulminates that Western Europe is “being overrun from overseas… and they have no response. They have nothing to fight for. They have nothing to live for.”
There’s no question that the European Union is struggling today, beset by many of the same economic problems as the United States (thanks in no small part to the shenanigans of U.S. financial firms). The EU faces a major debt crisis in its laggard Mediterranean states, and has yet to arrive at a workable solution.
Nonetheless, as a resident of Western Europe for more than two decades, I recognize almost nothing in the portrait painted by the men who hope to unseat Obama.
But let’s take their rhetoric seriously and compare the economic performance of the United States to that of a trio of emblematic European nations: Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden. With a half-century record of extensive investments in social services and national infrastructure, they are among the principal architects of a system that supposedly leaves Western Europeans with nothing to live or fight for.
The Real Champs of the Capitalist League
In the economic realm, three measures dominate conventional assessments of success and failure: unemployment, foreign trade and sovereign debt, the ratio of government debt to Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
On every count, the achievements of Western Europe leave the United States in the dust.
With some justification, President Obama has expressed pride at the gradual decline of American joblessness from more than 10 percent shortly after he took office to the most recent level of 8.5 percent. But this success pales considerably by comparison with the Netherlands’ 5.8 percent, Germany’s 6.3 percent and Sweden’s 6.7 percent.
Foreign trade is the bellwether of business acumen everywhere on our globalized planet, notably including China, where the vast majority of exports are produced by manufacturers as fervently dedicated to capitalism as New Gingrich and his ultra-free-marketer rival Ron Paul. But the world’s champion exporters over the last ten years are not the Chinese. They’re the Germans, who enjoy an annual trade surplus of nearly $200 billion.
In per capita terms, Germans sold $2,300 more of their products overseas than they bought for every one of the nation’s 82 million citizens. The per capita surplus figures for Sweden ($2,400) and the Netherlands ($2,800) are even higher.
The United States, by depressing contrast, has an annual trade deficit now approaching $600 billion, by far the most dismal on Earth, amounting to a $2,000 loss registered on the bottom line of every American. That number has risen every year since the Republican-governed 1980s, recovering somewhat under Democrat Bill Clinton and then skyrocketing at an unprecedented pace under George W. Bush.
As damning as these figures may be, it is in sovereign debt that the willful ignorance – or outright deceit – of the G.O.P. candidates is most glaring. As a result of endless tax cuts for the wealthy by their party’s predecessors in the White House, tied to endlessly rising expenditures on unfunded Republican-declared foreign wars, the United States has a sovereign debt ratio of 102, not far behind the 118 of universally derided Italy.
In Sweden, allegedly the most dissolute spendthrift in the Republicans’ European socialist welfare nightmare, sovereign debt stands at a paltry 39.7, which translates into the unavoidable conclusion that Swedish Social Democrats are more cautious spenders than all of America’s Republican administrations dating back to Richard M. Nixon. The Dutch come in at a very respectable 62.9, and the Germans at 83, astonishing for a nation that has been rebuilding its entire eastern infrastructure since the Berlin Wall collapsed.
Photo from vx_lentz via flickr
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