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5 Myths About Sick Old Europe
Beware of stereotypes based on ideological assumptions. As Europe's economy has surged, it has maintained fairness and equality. Unlike in the United States, with its rampant inequality and lack of universal access to affordable health care and higher education, Europeans have harnessed their economic engine to create wealth that is broadly distributed.
Europeans still enjoy universal cradle-to-grave social benefits in many areas. They get quality health care, paid parental leave, affordable childcare, paid sick leave, free or nearly free higher education, generous retirement pensions and quality mass transit. They have an average of five weeks of paid vacation (compared with two for Americans) and a shorter work week. In some European countries, workers put in one full day less per week than Americans do, yet enjoy the same standard of living.
Europe is more of a "workfare state" than a welfare state. As one British political analyst said to me recently: "Europe doesn't so much have a welfare society as a comprehensive system of institutions geared toward keeping everyone healthy and working." Properly understood, Europe's economy and social system are two halves of a well-designed "social capitalism" -- an ingenious framework in which the economy finances the social system to support families and employees in an age of globalized capitalism that threatens to turn us all into internationally disposable workers. Europeans' social system contributes to their prosperity, rather than detracting from it, and even the continent's conservative political leaders agree that it is the best way.
5. Europe is likely to be held hostage to its dependence on Russia and the Middle East for most of its energy needs.
Crystal-ball gazing on this front is risky. Europe may rely on energy from Russia and the Middle East for some time, but it is also leading the world in reducing its energy dependence and in taking action to counteract global climate change. In March, the heads of all 27 E.U. nations agreed to make renewable energy sources 20 percent of the union's energy mix by 2020 and to cut carbon emissions by 20 percent.
In pursuit of these goals, the continent's landscape is slowly being transformed by high-tech windmills, massive solar arrays, tidal power stations, hydrogen fuel cells and energy-saving "green" buildings. Europe has gone high- and low-tech: It's developing not only mass public transit and fuel-efficient vehicles but also thousands of kilometers of bicycle and pedestrian paths to be used by people of all ages. Europe's ecological "footprint," the amount of the Earth's capacity that a population consumes, is about half that of the United States.
So much for the sick old man.
Steven Hill, director of the New America Foundation's political reform program, is writing a book comparing Europe and the