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Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?: How the European Model Can Help You Get a Life

Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?: How the European Model Can Help You Get a Life

by Thomas Geoghegan

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The acclaimed labor lawyer and prizewinning author Thomas Geoghegan asks: where are we better off—America or Europe? In an idiosyncratic, entertaining travelogue that plays on public policy, Geoghegan asks what our lives would be like if we lived them as Europeans. Sneaking out of his workaholic American life, he takes five trips where he tries to


The acclaimed labor lawyer and prizewinning author Thomas Geoghegan asks: where are we better off—America or Europe? In an idiosyncratic, entertaining travelogue that plays on public policy, Geoghegan asks what our lives would be like if we lived them as Europeans. Sneaking out of his workaholic American life, he takes five trips where he tries to understand so-called European socialism firsthand. Though he first tries France (which has become a rhetorical stand-in for the continent as a whole in many Americans' minds), he eventually ventures into Germany to see what some call the "boring" Europe. There he finds the true "other"—an economic model with more bottom-up worker control than that of any other country in the world—and argues that, while we have to take Germany’s problems seriously, we also have to look seriously at how much it has achieved. Social democracy may let us live nicer lives; it also may be the only way to be globally competitive. This wry, timely book helps us understand why the European model, contrary to popular neoliberal wisdom, may thrive well into the twenty-first century without compromising its citizens' ease of living—and be the best example for the United States to follow.

Germany is more generous than the U.S.:
The average number of paid vacation days in the U.S. is 13, versus Germany’s 35
New mothers in the U.S. get three months of unpaid job-protected leave and only if they work for a company of 50 or more employees, while Germany mandates four months’ paid leave and will pay parents 67% of their salary to stay home for up to 14 months to care for a newborn.
U.S. life expectancy is 50th in the world, compared to Germany’s 32nd.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Labor lawyer and Europhile, Geohegan (Which Side Are You On?) makes a passionate case for the high-tax, regulation-heavy model of life on the Continent. Using Germany as a model, he argues the middle class is the real beneficiary of European social democracy--its members reap free education, free child care, free nursing home care, guaranteed vacation time, and generous unemployment payments--while their white-collar American counterparts struggle to pay for the same. "Europe is set up for the bourgeois," writes Geohegan. "America's a great place to buy kitty litter at Wal-Mart and relatively cheap gas. But it's not set up for me, a professional without a lot of money." While he's quick to acknowledge that critics seize on labor's costs and prominence as a potential path to the collapse of the system, he's convinced of the framework in place. The narrative unspools in a chatty, anecdotal style; it's jumpy, appealingly digressive, and winning, all the more so for being such an unabashed polemic that refuses to be resigned to the rising rate of inequality in the U.S. (Aug.)
From the Publisher

“Most diverting… [Geoghegan] has the great virtue of being witty and ironic—and to the point… A necessary primer.”
—Jurek Martin, Financial Times

“Clever and immensely appealing.”
—Katha Pollitt, The Nation

“All dissatisfied Americans, not just progressives, should read the book.”
—Jeremy Gantz, Alternet

“A travelogue, self-discovery prose and business book all at once… written with humor and candor, making for an easy, fun read.”
—Courtney Crowder, Chicago Tribune

Product Details

New Press, The
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.42(w) x 11.06(h) x 1.05(d)

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Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?

How the European Model Can Help You Get a Life
By Thomas Geoghegan

New Press, The

Copyright © 2011 Thomas Geoghegan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9781595587060

Preface: I’m No "European Socialist”

I had better say: I’m no "European socialist.”

A few months ago the uproar d’jour was: is Barack Obama a socialist? Yes, he was to the extent that, like George Bush, he wanted a bailout of the banks. The cover of the February 16, 2009, Newsweek announced: "WE ARE ALL SOCIALISTS NOW.” The argument is that U.S. government spending is nearly as high as Europe’s. A decade ago, the U.S. government was spending 34.3 percent of GDP, compared with 48.2 percent in the "euro-zone,” which is Europe without the UK. Now, while the Continent is at 47 percent, we have gone up to 40.

And, in fact, I think the U.S. will close the gap. But in a sense, the more we spend, the less socialist we become. For whether it is health care or education, we use the private market to pay for the distribution of public goods. In other words, we pay socialist-type taxes so that the private insurance companies, drug companies, and, yes, doctors can profiteer.

That’s the crisis of our time: we’re paying for European-type socialism, without getting the equivalent payback.

Still, isn’t it worth it to keep capitalism?

Yes, of course, but if we took Europe as a guide, we would do a lot better at capitalism. The Germans make money off the same global economy that leaves us in hock. And the longer the hours we work to be competitive, the deeper in debt we seem to go. How is it that they are the ones who aren’t in debt when they get six weeks’ holiday every year?

I have to say again: I’m no European socialist. But as a patriot I would like to ask: which model, ours or theirs, is more likely to keep us out of the clutches of foreign creditors?

It’s bad enough that, with the Wall Street crack-up and the war in Iraq, we are no longer a superpower. What worries me even more is that we have compromised our sovereignty. One day our creditors—China, Saudi Arabia, even Honduras, God help us—could assemble into a creditors’ committee that tells us what to do.

What bothers me is that Europe does better than us both at capitalism and socialism. It’s unfair that they seem to be beating us at both.

Still, I’m no European socialist. On the other hand, I think back to one of the original arguments against socialism. The case against socialism, Oscar Wilde wrote, is that it takes up too many evenings. We end up going to political meetings instead of going out to dine. But in my own personal life, I have to say the case against our capitalism, our kind and not Europe’s, is that it takes up too many evenings, working late at the office, and it takes up weekends, too. What fascinates me about Europe is the possibility of having an interesting job and still leaving the evenings free.

On what continent is it easier to go out and dine?

Still, even if I could start over, I’d hate to make the choice between soaring to the top in a free-fall U.S. or putt-putting in neutral in a cozy little EU democracy. Is it possible to have a world where we get a bit of both?

In most of what follows I will be talking about the Germans. Like all of you, I deeply regret I didn’t write about the French. Yet for all the lack of sex appeal, it’s still Germany that presents the starkest alternative to the way we live today. It’s the only country with a system that, after the collapse of Communism, continued to push for a certain very limited form of worker control.

That’s only one reason why I picked the Germans. After all, I’m a union-side labor lawyer. But at the moment I also worry about the future of my country. The Germans seem to have the secret for getting out of debt.

I hope I have cleared up that I’m no European socialist. Now let me explain how I ended up in darkest Germany when I might have had my evenings free in France.

May 2010


Excerpted from Were You Born on the Wrong Continent? by Thomas Geoghegan Copyright © 2011 by Thomas Geoghegan. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Thomas Geoghegan is a practicing attorney and the author of several books, including the National Book Critics Circle Award finalist Which Side Are You On?, In America’s Court, and See You in Court (all available from The New Press). He contributes regularly to The Nation, the New York Times, and Harper’s. In 2009, he ran as a progressive candidate for Rahmn Emanuel's congressional seat and was endorsed by Barbara Ehrenreich, James Fallows, Thomas Frank, James K. Galbraith, Hendrik Hertzberg, Alex Kotlowitz, Sara Paretsky, Rick Perlstein, Katha Pollitt, David Sirota, Garry Wills, and Naomi Wolf, among others.

Born in Cincinnati in 1949, Geoghegan is a graduate of St. Xavier High School, Harvard University, and Harvard Law School. He has worked as a contributing editor at The New Republic, a lawyer in the United Mine Workers's legal department, and a policy analyst for the U.S. Department of Energy. He is a partner at the law firm Despres, Schwartz, and Geoghegan, where he has worked since 1979. As a public-interest lawyer, he has filed lawsuits to enforce child labor laws, expand voting rights, crack down on the payday loan industry, and require public health measures to stop the spread of tuberculosis among the homeless. As a labor lawyer, he has represented nurses, machinists, railroad workers, steelworkers, teachers, truck drivers, the rank-and-file anticorruption group Teamsters for a Democratic Union, as well as workers who lack the protection of a union.

Geoghegan has been awarded a Fulbright scholarship, a German Marshall grant, and fellowships at the American Academy in Berlin and the Institute of Politics at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

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