5 Myths About Sick Old Europe

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By Steven Hill
Sunday, October 7, 2007

In the global economy, today's winners can become tomorrow's losers in a twinkling, and vice versa. Not so long ago, American pundits and economic analysts were snidely touting U.S. economic superiority to the "sick old man" of Europe. What a difference a few months can make. Today, with the stock market jittery over Iraq, the mortgage crisis, huge budget and trade deficits, and declining growth in productivity, investors are wringing their hands about the U.S. economy. Meanwhile, analysts point to the roaring economies of China and India as the only bright spots on the global horizon.

But what about Europe? You may be surprised to learn how our estranged transatlantic partner has been faring during these roller-coaster times -- and how successfully it has been knocking down the Europessimist myths about it.

1. The sclerotic European economy is incapable of leading the world.

Who're you calling sclerotic? The European Union's $16 trillion economy has been quietly surging for some time and has emerged as the largest trading bloc in the world, producing nearly a third of the global economy. That's more than the U.S. economy (27 percent) or Japan's (9 percent). Despite all the hype, China is still an economic dwarf, accounting for less than 6 percent of the world's economy. India is smaller still.

The European economy was never as bad as the Europessimists made it out to be. From 2000 to 2005, when the much-heralded U.S. economic recovery was being fueled by easy credit and a speculative housing market, the 15 core nations of the European Union had per capita economic growth rates equal to that of the United States. In late 2006, they surpassed us. Europe added jobs at a faster rate, had a much lower budget deficit than the United States and is now posting higher productivity gains and a $3 billion trade surplus.

2. Nobody wants to invest in European companies and economies because lack of competitiveness makes them a poor bet.

Wrong again. Between 2000 and 2005, foreign direct investment in the E.U. 15 was almost half the global total, and investment returns in Europe outperformed those in the United States. "Old Europe is an investment magnet because it is the most lucrative market in the world in which to operate," says Dan O'Brien of the Economist. In fact, corporate America is a huge investor in Europe; U.S. companies' affiliates in the E.U. 15 showed profits of $85 billion in 2005, far more than in any other region of the world and 26 times more than the $3.3 billion they made in China.

And forget that old canard about economic competitiveness. According to the World Economic Forum's measure of national competitiveness, European countries took the top four spots, seven of the top 10 spots and 12 of the top 20 spots in 2006-07. The United States ranked sixth. India ranked 43rd and mainland China 54th.

3. Europe is the land of double-digit unemployment.

Not anymore. Half of the E.U. 15 nations have experienced effective full employment during this decade, and unemployment rates have been the same as or lower than the rate in the United States. Unemployment for the entire European Union, including the still-emerging nations of Central and Eastern Europe, stands at a historic low of 6.7 percent. Even France, at 8 percent, is at its lowest rate in 25 years.

That's still higher than U.S. unemployment, which is 4.6 percent, but let's not forget that many of the jobs created here pay low wages and include no benefits. In Europe, the jobless still have access to health care, generous replacement wages, job-retraining programs, housing subsidies and other benefits. In the United States, by contrast, the unemployed can end up destitute and marginalized.

4. The European "welfare state" hamstrings businesses and hurts the economy.


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