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How bad is ‘European’?

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | January 19, 2012

GOP Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has been, as have other GOP candidates, castigating President Obama for presumably wanting to “Europeanize” the United States. On January 6, 2012, for example, Romney asserted that the President was “dragging ‘the soul of America’ toward a ‘European-style welfare state’.” Romney and others have accused the President of loving America too little and loving Europe too much. One question that this line of criticism raises (whether it does or it does not correctly reflect Obama’s views) is: What’s so bad about Europe?

In this post, I compare life for Americans to life for Europeans on a variety of dimensions. To simplify matters, let us look just at the U.S., Sweden (the country that most represents to Americans the European welfare state), and a large nation that conservatives also dislike, France. And then, let’s ask how the three nations stack up. Perhaps there are some things European that America might actually want to emulate. (I drafted this post before recent columns on the Europe question by Nicholas Kristof and by E.J. Dionne — both worth reading.)

Quantity and quality of Life

First up: How long do people live? (Unless otherwise noted, the data come from OECD statistics, available online.) The graph below shows that the French and Swedes live longer than Americans do. Other evidence (pdf) shows that about 40 percent of Americans skip getting medical care or drugs because of cost, over three times the percentage in Europe.

Life Expectancy chart

Europeans also live safer lives. Rates of interpersonal violence are much higher in the United States. This graph shows the most accurately measured indicator, rates of homicide:

Homicide Rate chart

We also know that Europeans do not have to work as hard as Americans do. They have more legislated vacations and usually retire earlier. This graph shows how many hours a year workers in the three countries are on the job.

Hours Worked chart

Here’s another dimension of social life: honesty. According to the agency that systematically explores corruption, the United States and France rank about the same, below Sweden.

Transparency Index chart

Then, there is civic participation (source). Overall, Americans belong to as many associations per capita as do Swedes, although there are complications: Swedes are much more likely to belong to unions and Americans to belong to churches. When those two types of associations are set aside, there is, again, no difference between the two nations.

Association Membership chart

Over a variety of measures, then, the Swedes and French seem to have it as good or better than Americans do.


But there is one area in which the United States is clearly superior to France and Sweden, one which Gov. Romney has stressed: On average, Americans make more money. And so, they can buy more than Europeans can.

Median Household Income chart

We need, however, to temper this difference by realizing, first, that, as we saw above, Americans work more hours for their income. Second, there is great inequality in American income. The following measure, the gini coefficient, is the main way economists measure income inequality. The U.S. is the most economically unequal developed nation.

Inequality Index chart

What the greater inequality means is that Americans who are well above-average in wealth can afford the best in the world – the best medical care, best schools for their kids, and the safest (gated) communities – but at the same time Americans who are well below-average get notably lousy medical care, schools, and dangerous neighborhoods. The French and the Swedes tend to be more bunched in the middle – in large measure because many of the good things in life, like medical care and childcare, are provided equally to all.


But the key difference, Romney stresses, is that the United States is an opportunity society. We may not have — we shouldn’t even want, he says — a society of equal outcomes; what Americans have is a society of equal opportunity.

For a while, the assumption that America had the advantage over Europe in the opportunity to move up the economic ladder could be asserted in public discussions without much challenge. But sociologists have known for decades that this is not true. Studies show that the chances of children moving up from their parents’ statuses were no greater or even lower here than in Europe. Now the news has finally reached the general media (e.g., here and here) and it is harder to make the equal opportunity vs. equal outcome claim.

The graph below is illustrative. It shows the odds that a young Swedish or American man whose father was in the bottom one-fifth of the national income distribution would himself end up in the top two-fifths of the income distribution (from pdf, table 12; French data were not available). Sweden seems to be the real “opportunity society” in this comparison.

Moving Up Chances chart


All this is not to say that the United States is worse than France and Sweden. One could compile other measures that would be more to the advantage of the U.S. (For example, our hypertension levels are lower; our suicide rate is lower.) It is to say that the facile dismissal of European societies as some kind of failure is foolish.

And all this is not to say that the United States should become Europe; we couldn’t even if we wished to. But a wise leader would consider what we might learn from, what we might advantageously borrow from, the Europeans.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.

Comments to “How bad is ‘European’?

  1. Life expectancy might depend on diet and be influenced by random areas with gangsters which drag it down. Homicide rate is measured differently in the U.S., I think, and isn’t necessarily to be blamed on government. Hours worked just shows that Americans like working more than time off. They could take time off if they negotiated for it with their employer somehow.
    Inequality is irrelevant.

    Also there are different people in the U.S. than Europe. Europeans tend to do very well wherever they are and in America they do well, too. But in America there are people from different cultures and backgrounds, some of whom tend to earn less money. I don’t think the welfare states would be able to solve that and get better numbers.

  2. Obviously, the ancient continents brags more favourable statistics. Various are the factors for that, including more abstract ones like traditions, values, education.

  3. So whatever happened to the American Dream (if any such thing ever existed at all)? Millions of immigrants from a poorer Europe (not so many from France though, interestingly) at the turn of the 20th century had some cause… but those were different times. I guess the US was a success because people have worked hard and sought good things, except that it forgot the stragglers. And there always are. Oh I forgot: we live longer also because most of us eat far better.

  4. The media in the U.S. emphasize the fact that the benefits provided by European states – health care, education etc. – are paid for by higher taxes, and taxation has become a dirty word. The prevailing view seems to be that taxation is simply a theft perpetrated by the government. Countries, like France, Sweden and the U.K. (where I grew up), that provide such benefits are now written off as “socialist”, another dirty word. But those benefits contribute to a higher quality of life, as Professor Fischer so ably demonstrates. The alternative is to cling to the notion of “rugged individualism” which, in my view, works against the principle of “society”, and the consequences of adhering too closely to that notion can be seen in our failing infrastructure and the present uneven distribution of health and opportunity, not to mention quality of life.

  5. Let’s face it, the entire human race is gravely threatened by climate changes, overpopulation, declining resources and health problems we are experiencing today.

    Humanity needs leadership to lead us successfully through the social, political, economic, and environmental challenges of change we are experiencing today.

    Humanity desperately needs champions to educate us in implementing solutions to threats against our quality of life.

    Are there any professors and scholars at the University of California who are capable of educating and leading us in protecting the long-term survival of humanity?

  6. professor fischer, i enjoy your berkeley blog posts. i always learn from you. now if the republicans only traded in reason, all of those lovely statistics might be put to good use.

  7. The thing is, being “poor” in France or in Sweden is hard, but the society will always protect your family.

    Education — even university — is almost free, and you can get grants. Kindergartens get subsidies to ensure most workers can afford it.

    Health care is national, very good and rather cheap (alright, dental care is free for everyone under 21 in Sweden. In France you have to pay a fee). In France you are even free to choose which doctor you want to go to. And not from a list given by an insurance company.

    I studied at Berkeley but I would never have children in the U.S. I would be way too stressful to worry all the time about my family if I get sick and lose my job.

  8. Prof. Fischer, what you appear to be proving is that America Democracy is in the decline, if not the fall phase today.

    The failure mode is the fact that America no longer has any leaders like Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, Lincoln and FDR.

    As the South Carolina primary is proving beyond all doubt, compromise is dead and greed is our dominant cultural value.

    The question that you and your colleagues must answer is:
    Why have America’s universities failed to produce leaders who can prevent the fall of American Democracy?

    It’s time for intellectuals like Berkeley’s professors and scholars provide leadership by proving that Berkeley truly is the preeminent university you claim, by meeting the challenges of change before our social, political, economic and environmental systems descend into a final state of chaos as you and Prof. Reich keep warning us.

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