I know, I know, I know. It’s fashionable to sneer, mock and look down our noses at Europe. Make fun of the French army, ridicule their vacation schedules, empty churches and crushing tax burdens. It’s a litmus of Americanism to show how far you’ll go in mocking the Old World and even Old Europe. I get it.
But whenever I hear someone making cracks about Europe or conflating an entire continent with the bogeyman of socialism, I wonder to myself: have they ever actually been to Europe?
Because here’s one thing I know about all those countries we mock:
They have really freaking fast train systems.
Malte Lehming has a good rejoinder on this theme in the NY Times. He writes:
This fall my newspaper sent me to the United States to cover the elections. I brought my wife and two daughters, ages 8 and 9, with me.
Since the children were born here, while I was working as my paper’s Washington correspondent, they have American citizenship, and the trip seemed a good opportunity for them to get to know their homeland a little better.
This is the same homeland where conservatives have been howling about how the Obama administration is pushing America ever closer to European socialism. Europeans, they say, have the longest vacations (Germany), the highest debt (Greece), the highest taxes (Scandinavia) and the most bureaucracy (Brussels). Europe and socialism: the two appear in American conservative rhetoric almost as synonyms.
But as a German citizen who has now fought fierce battles with American telephone companies, the Department of Motor Vehicles and the public schools, I find it strange that Americans fear a socialist state. Because Europe’s bureaucratic nightmares have nothing on America’s.
For example, it took an entire day for my wife and me to get our visas processed. We had to answer dozens of detailed questions online: the exact dates of our previous stays in America, the dates of trips to other countries where we had needed visas, the complete birth names of our grandparents. And if we took too long to answer and didn’t save our work in the meantime, the Web site automatically shut down and we had to start all over again.
Then there was the little matter of getting our daughters into public school. The pile of forms weighed nearly two pounds. Our pediatrician back home had to certify all vaccinations, which again had to be authenticated by a second doctor, certified in the United States. And the entire family had to be present at each of these appointments.
And don’t ask about getting a phone line installed before our arrival. Our landlord tried to help, but it took him weeks of bouncing between Comcast and Verizon.
Nothing, however, reminded me more of the worst parts of the German system than the Virginia D.M.V. Its Web site helpfully said that if I had a German driver’s license, as well as authorized proof of residence, I could trade it in for a state license without further tests.
What it didn’t say, though, was how long the process would last. In the meantime, my entire file was lost.
None of this would be out of place in many European countries. But citizens of those countries, which embrace the notion of a larger government, also benefit greatly. We pay high taxes, but we get great infrastructure in return.
I spent half a day hunting for a store with flashlights in stock, because a storm had knocked out our power. In five decades in Germany I have never experienced a single power failure, because the power lines are usually underground and well maintained.
Yes, we have long holidays. But we probably still work more than our American colleagues, because our buildings are intact, the infrastructure works and we don’t sit around in traffic jams every day because of road work.
So why do Americans look only at the bad side of Europe? Done right, with enough money, it is punctual, efficient and organized. One may call it socialist, but it makes life easier.