Saturday, April 16, 2005

IN THE PAST WEEK, I have experienced, full force, what it feels like to live in a car-centered culture without a car. I have begged bus drivers to drop me off at the bookstore where I work -- which is on the bus route, but is not a scheduled stop -- and been flatly turned down. I also had one bus driver agree to drop me off at that stop, but charge me a premium for doing so. Once I was on my way home to call a cab after being told by two bus drivers that they would not let me off at my work stop and by sheer chance my ex-husband was driving by: He stopped, and when I told him what had happened, he was nice enough to drive me to work that morning.

Once at work, I have gone from co-worker to co-worker, trying to find one whose shift ended around the time mine did and who might be willing to drive me home. People have been kind, but having to rely on the kindness of strangers makes me feel like Blanche DuBois, and that is not a comfortable feeling.

If I lived in Europe, I wouldn't need to have a car to get through the routines of my daily life. I have been thinking more and more about how hard this country makes it for its own people just to live their lives, to get to work, to the supermarket, to do anything, really. It's truly absurd when you have to consider quitting your job because you have no way to get to your job.

It's not just the car issue, either. From health care to child care, every aspect of living that requires access to practical resources or services is a hurdle in America. I am a month away from qualifying for my company's health insurance; if I leave now because I don't have a car, I will lose that health insurance. But without a job that supplies benefits, I cannot afford to buy health insurance on my own.

I am relatively lucky in that I do not, anymore, have to face the problem of child care. Those families with small children, however, have to figure out how to find affordable child care so they can take a job and at the same time they must figure out how to pay for that child care with the jobs available to them.

Europeans, by contrast, have developed a social model that identifies those things that are most valuable to the society as a whole and then, as a society, commits to paying for them, so that everyone has access to the tools they need to carry out activities that benefit everyone. And they have been able to do this largely because their financial resources have not been used to pay for huge militaries or constant war.

If Europeans haven't quite built the cooperative commonwealth, what have they built? The EU, writes T.R. Reid, betraying just a hint of patriotic anxiety, already has "a president, a parliament, a constitution, a cabinet, a central bank, a bill of rights, a unified patent office, and a court system with the power to overrule the highest courts of every member nation. It has a 60,000 member army (or 'European Rapid Reaction Force' to be precise) that is independent of NATO or any other outside control. It has its own space agency with 200 satellites in orbit and a project under way to send a European to Mars before Americans get there."

As befits a reporter for the Washington Post, Reid follows the money. Mario Monti is hardly a household name even in London, but as the EU Director General for Competition he scuttled American management idol Jack Welch's biggest deal, a merger between GE (based in Connecticut) and Honeywell (headquarters in New Jersey). Last year Monti slapped Microsoft with a $600 million fine and ordered the firm to rewrite the Windows operating system. Far from the hidebound dirigiste cripple conjured by Mead or Kagan, Reid's "United States of Europe" is an economic superpower fully capable of challenging the USA. Indeed, the euro has already put the dollar in the shade. Reid, who headed Post bureaus in Tokyo and London, really earns his trench coat with his account of the European currency's unexpected triumph (Kissinger was famously dubious; George Will flatly predicted "it will not work").

Europe's other enormous achievement is a half-century of peace on what was once the killing floor of the West. Much of the credit may well be due to the cold war, and a lot of the rest to American aid and protection. Still, the growth of what the Germans call Zivilmacht--harder than Harvard professor Joseph Nye's "soft power," a muscular sense of civil society as a force in world affairs--is one fruit of Europe's long peace. The European social model is the other. Here again it is important to be clear on what that model is not--in a word, socialism. But the breadth of the European consensus, and a sense of how wide the Atlantic has become on these matters, can be seen when Reid quotes the leader of Norway's conservative Christian Democrats: "We have decided that raising a child is real work. And that this work provides value for the whole society. And that the society as a whole should pay for this valuable service. Americans like to talk about family values. We have decided to do more than talk; we use our tax revenues to pay for family values." And Norway isn't even in the EU!

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