The US and Europe are two advanced cultures that have very different ways of viewing the world. It is widely accepted in America today that what works in Europe cannot and should not work in the US. A prime example of this is Health Care. The Republicans in Congress are often railing against Obama’s alleged efforts to impose “European-style socialism” on the USA, and the Democrats pathetically attenuated legislation to address America’s health care problems was repeatedly likened to European and Canadian models, even though the idea of single payer, nationalised health care is nowhere to be found (sadly) in Obama’s Health Care Reform as it was passed.
But there was a time when the US was drifting more toward the European/Canadian culture (or better said, the rest of the developed world). There was a time when America was moving toward energy conservation, small cars, fuel efficiency, solar and wind power – and even moving to adopt the metric system.
This period was known as the Carter Administration.
Jimmy Carter tried to put America on a path to join the rest of the world. Realising that the USA, with 5% of the world’s population, could not continue to use 25% of the world’s energy. He created the US Department of Energy to address America’s energy problem, which he perceived as one of lifestyle and attitude. He tried to “wake up” America to the fact that they could not keep squandering energy, creating suburban sprawl, relying solely on the automobile and forsaking public transport. He even addressed the nation about this problem in a television broadcast that later became known as the “malaise” speech (even though he never used the word himself).
Well – we all know what happened then. Americans, like spoiled children, would not stand to be lectured and told that the world has finite resources, and it is not possible or practical to keep gulping energy the way we do. Americans do not want to hear that they have to lose weight by watching their diet and exercising – they prefer to be told “Eat all the foods you love and lose weight”, or “lose weight while you sleep”. These are the American answers to problems – heads in the sand or else crazy schemes that sheer common sense indicates cannot work, but which Americans are happy to accept, as long as it comes from a “trusted” source like the TV – or a politician.
Enter Ronald Reagan.
Reagan rode to power on wave of anti-government sentiment. He had long been a critic of government in general, claiming famously that government is not the solution to America’s problems, but rather that “government is the problem.” Average earnings for US workers reached their peak under Carter, and yet many blue collar “Reagan Democrats” were happy to vote for someone who told them that they did not have to eat their vegetables, that “the government” was wrong, and they were right – they could continue to live the way they were, with no consequences. Government, according to Reagan, had to “get off their back” and “get out of the way” and let the great American Way prosper.
Reagan promoted and extended the idea of “American Exceptionalism” in many ways: gone was the talk about moving to the metric system – that was for the rest of the world. Gone was the idea of conservation – Americans could drive bigger and more gas-hungry vehicles without fear of the consequences. Gone was the idea of fiscal responsibility – only “losers” and “pessimists” like Carter worried about deficits. Dick Cheney would later claim that “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.”
Indeed, “Reaganomics” posited that cutting taxes for the wealthy would result in increased jobs and prosperity for the lower and middle classes due to something called “trickle down economics“. Reagan even claimed that Americans could pay less taxes and it would actually result in more revenue for the government. It seems that Reagan’s idea of American Exceptionalism provided the US with immunity even from the laws of physics, geology, economics and simple arithmetic. But such laws are stubborn things – ignoring them does not make them go away. Reagan oversaw a huge increase not only in the size of government but in the deficit and the national debt.
This was the moment in which the US and Europe diverged. Since 1980, Europe has proceeded in one direction, the US in another. Europe sought to increase their social safety net, the US dismantled theirs; Europe implemented more regulation of everything from workplace safety to pollution, the US deregulated everything it could. Europe built more mass transit and public infrastructure, the US allowed theirs to languish.
The more I think about it, the more I realise that the election in 1980 was a huge turning point in American and world history. Reaganism, with its focus on reduced government, deregulation, crony capitalism, and stunningly flagrant disregard for fiscal responsibility changed the way America grew, led to staggering income inequality, increased pollution, and a financial system that was allowed to run wild, acting in criminally irresponsible ways.
Europeans continue to be stunned at the lack of responsibility in America: the chicanery practiced on Wall Street mirrors the general irresponsibility among Americans themselves: the rise of the SUV, zero-down mortgages, the explosion of personal debt, the short-sighted, quarter-driven strategies practised by US corporations trying to maximise share prices by whatever means necessary, all stem from the giant change in mentality that Reagan facilitated. Americans are like the 300-pound homebound obese person, gulping down Big Macs and fries, but clinging to the belief that drinking Diet Coke and taking Sleep ‘n’ Slim will make everything OK.
All of this puzzles and frustrates Europeans – not least because many of the ideas they have put into practice originated in the US. As Michael Moore pointed out in his movie “Sicko“, the great social compact that exists in Europe is mostly based on Roosevelt’s “Second Bill of Rights” – the Economic Security measures he sought to put in place in the US. Roosevelt presented these measures to Congress in 1944, but they were never implemented. They were, however, made part of the Marshall Plan and subsequently incorporated into the constitutions of those European countries that America rebuilt after WWII.
More recently, Europeans have embraced, improved and expanded US innovations such as unleaded fuel and solar and wind power, as well as legislative initiatives to ensure clean air, water, and so on.
Americans’ hopes for true economic security, a cleaner environment and a sustainable society died when Reagan won. Jimmy Carter was excoriated and is still mocked as “the worst President ever” when he was actually one of the most productive (certainly in terms of international policy), and sought nothing more than to put his country on a more stable, just and equitable path.
The rejection of Carter’s admonitions and the rise of Reaganism marked the moment in which America started moving way from the rest of the developed world in terms of public policy as well as fiscal and environmental responsibility. The huge economic problems facing America are 40 years in the making, and from a European perspective, are all self-inflicted. XX