The Decline Whine

By Steven Hill, Washinton Monthly, September 19, 2011

The US media has a long history of clucking snidely at Europe. Recently Time magazine added to a longstanding Euro-bashing tradition with an incendiary cover that blared “The Decline and Fall of Europe,” featuring a young London rioter dressed in a hoodie and glaring like a Tolkien wraith from the red flames engulfing the cityscape behind him.

This was not the first time that a major American media outlet had sensationally declared the end of that continent across the Atlantic. In February 2006, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria wrote a column for the Washington Post titled – drumroll please – “The Decline and Fall of Europe.” In fact, pundits in the American media declared the end of Europe on numerous occasions throughout the 2000s. Here’s a small sample of the headlines that appeared during those years in leading U.S. media outlets, trumpeting the imminent collapse of Europe:

“The End of Europe”; “Europe Isn’t Working”; “Will Europe Ever Work?”; “What’s Wrong with Europe”; “Old Europe Unprepared for New Battles”; “Western Europe Is Cursed”; “Is Europe Dying?”; “The Decline of France”; “Europe’s Long Vacation Is Ending”; “Why America Outpaces Europe”; “Europe Turns Back the Clock,” and many more.

Those sorts of gloom and doom stories, penned by U.S. pundits like the Washington Post’s Robert Samuelson and Steven Pearlstein, and America sympathizers like Niall Ferguson, appeared regularly from 2003 until late 2006, when—surprise, surprise—it was discovered that the European economy actually was surging and had equaled and then surpassed the U.S. economy, becoming the largest in the world with more Fortune 500 companies than the United States and China combined.

In fact, an article published in the international version of Newsweek in November 2006 blared the headline, “The Great Job Machine: Despite Its Laggard Reputation, Europe Continues to Grow Faster, and Create More Jobs, than America”—yet that story never appeared in Newsweek’s domestic version.

Another article in BusinessWeek reviewing health care systems in the United States, France, and the United Kingdom gave the nod to France as having the most efficient and affordable system. But it was never published in the US print edition.

To hear the US media tell the story, Europe has always been in crisis, and the European Union always on the verge of fracture. Gloomy news reports from the early 1990s warned that the German economy, the largest in Europe, was “slumped at the razor’s edge.” There were dire predictions of rising unemployment, crime, and taxes to “a level not seen since the Weimar Republic.” Yet by the late 1990s a prospering Germany had become the world’s leading exporter; Germany’s unemployment rate today is a third lower than America’s.

The truth is, just as the American media missed the real story when it came to weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the housing bubble, corruption of the credit rating agencies and an imminent economic meltdown, the crystal ball gazers have a terrible track record when it comes to Europe. Even Paul Krugman likes to pile on, writing a recent essay for the New York Times Magazine titled “Can Europe Be Saved?”, and carping that the Germans—one of the few economic bright spots today—“seem to be getting their talking points from the collected speeches of Herbert Hoover.”

Certainly Europe has its share of economic troubles — the continent’s banks are still in precarious shape, and many of the member states are still in recovery from 2008’s global economic earthquake and its many aftershocks, which had its epicenter in the United States. But even in the middle of this economic crisis, Europeans still all enjoy affordable, universal health care, generous retirement pensions, ample vacations, affordable childcare, low cost university education and many other supports for families and individuals that are hallmarks of their social capitalist model. And as the track record shows, American media bashing of Europe began well before the most recent economic collapse. US news outlets seem to always tell their audiences that it’s doomsday time for Europe.

What accounts for this knee-jerk Euro-bashing? Part of it, undoubtedly, is envy. While America foots the bill for being the world’s robo-cop, even as a sixth of the nation has no health care and lives below the poverty line, the allegedly ungrateful Europeans plow their resources into taking care of their families and communities. Social capitalism is outshining Wall Street capitalism. Envy becomes anger, and anger explodes into defaming headlines.

Another explanation is nationalism. Americans are a patriotic people, with a strong belief in their own exceptionalism and, as the dominant power in the post-World War II era, in their pre-eminence. Even the poorest American takes pride in wrapping her or himself in the red, white and blue. Americans seemingly like to hear that Europe is in most ways inferior to America, and react defensively if told otherwise. Media outlets of course know this and pander to their audience’s tastes, but in schizophrenic way. It’s practically unthinkable for a mainstream publication to run a cover story that says “Europe Surpasses America,” yet such stories about China — which is still a developing country where 80 percent of its people are poor — are routine.

Finally, it might stem from Americans’ forgetfulness of their own history. For anyone trying to understand the current state of the European Union and the eurozone, the most apt historical analogy might be the situation in the United States sometime around 1789.

Consider what America was like back then. The thirteen former colonies were torn by regional tensions as they began the arduous and conflict-ridden task of trying to form themselves into a union of member states. They were diverse in their histories, religions, industrial or agrarian orientations, and other characteristics, much like the different E.U. member states. And of course some were slave states while other states were starting to voice opposition to slavery, a centrifugal force that only intensified over the decades.

Young America also had no single currency – each state had its own currency, indeed banks had their own scripts that were used like currency. The new nation also was plagued by debt to domestic as well as foreign creditors. To meet these challenges, the first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, took the lead in designing the beginnings of a modern financial system with a single currency. But he was bitterly opposed by no less than Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

Indeed, Americans were so suspicious of central government that even President George Washington dared not propose raising funds for a standing army. People were so against federal taxes that the first national tax, which was levied on whiskey — chosen as less controversial than other taxes — led to open rebellion in western Pennsylvania, prompting President Washington to march troops there to suppress it.

In short, it took approximately 80 years from its founding – as well as a bloody civil war fought mainly over states’ rights — for America to settle its founding contradictions, cease being a collection of regions, and to become one nation. And during that time the US economy suffered at least seven bank and financial panics that make today’s euro difficulties look mild. Yet America persevered, continuing to define its union.

Europe today has many contradictions and tensions, but nothing on the scale of those that bedeviled the young United States of America. Certainly we see similar echoes playing out in the ongoing evolution of the European Union and the euro zone: tensions between centralized authority versus member state sovereignty, federalism versus states rights, common currency and transfer unions versus state self-reliance, with a half a billion individuals’ lives swept up in the turmoil.

So when you read the next “Europe is dying” headline, remember that “old Europe” actually is very young. Nearly half of the member states have joined since 2004, and the euro dates only to 2002. Like a young America, Europe is in the process of deciding how united it wants to be. Young Europe may never become an exact replica of old America, that is, a United States of Europe, but in any case the Europeans’ noisy and conflicted process will probably take decades of trial-and-error to run its course.

As long as the European appetite for union remains steadfast, and as long as the heart of the enterprise remains beating, Europe will continue to define itself in ways that headlines out of “old America” won’t fathom. This is very much a work in progress, one which at this point can be said to have reached “the end of the beginning,” to borrow Winston Churchill’s useful phrasing.

Steven Hill is a writer with two decades of experience in politics. He is the author, most recently, of Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way Is the Best Hope for an Insecure Age.

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