Mon Mar 30th, 2009 at 06:58:09 PM EST
Reporting on Europe in American newspapers usually seems pretty dodgy. Without living in continental Europe or being able to read local newspapers written in the vernacular language, a reader like me is left to the reporting of the English-language press and the insights of European friends and bloggers.
Last Thursday, the New York Times really reported that European social safety nets provide a built-in economic stimulus, however it came across as a screed on how European nations aren't doing their part to stimulate the economy. The story's headline actually read: "Aided by Safety Nets, Europe Resists Stimulus Push".
Here's an excerpt about Germany:
The Europeans say they have no need for further stimulus right now because their social safety nets, derided in good times by free market disciples as sclerotic impediments to growth, are automatically providing the spending programs that the United States Congress has to legislate.
Europe's extensive job protections and unemployment benefits are "bad in the upswing, because firms don't dare to hire people, because then they are glued to them," said Hans-Werner Sinn, president of the Ifo Institute for Economic Research in Munich. "In the downswing, it's good if the people are glued to the companies. They keep their jobs. They keep their income. They keep consuming." ...
Germany already has generous unemployment benefits compared with the United States. And many German companies give workers the flexibility to save overtime hours, carrying over the pay for a rainy day. In the United States, despite scattered reports of unpaid furloughs and wage cuts, companies still rely heavily on layoffs to control labor costs.
I've never looked for work in Europe, so I don't know if "firms don't dare to hire people, because then they are glued to them" is true or not; however I do know in the United States company loyalty to their workers is minimal to the point of being non-existant. I feel as a worker that I am viewed as an interchangeable and expendable unit of work, not as a person. While my 'utopian' belief is that purpose of corporations should be about providing employment, the reality is their purpose is maximize profits.
Now on Monday, the Los Angeles Times reported on "Europe or Bust: When a strong safety net begins to fray" that is about "a slow-motion crisis unfolds in famed welfare states as the middle class feels the pinch of a sagging economy." The news story paints a bleaker picture for France, Italy, and Spain than the NY Times story did for Germany. It begins with gloom:
Italian supermarkets report an increase in shoplifting by first-time offenders, especially among the middle class and the elderly. The most popular target for rookie thieves: Parmesan cheese.
French shoppers, famously insistent about freshness, no longer snub foods that are close to the expiration date. Discovering an underground market for almost-expired products fished out of dumpsters, stores decide to keep the spoils on the shelves.
Spanish police detect a shift in car thefts, from luxury brands to the sensible, midrange models now in demand on the black market.
Okay, if that was a blog post I'd ask to see some links. Is there really a shoplifting crime wave in Italy where the elderly steal pasta and Parmesan? And isn't food that hasn't expired still, um, fresh enough to eat? And aren't car thefts common everywhere? The luxury automobile known as the Honda Civic is the number one stolen car in the United States, for example.
But still things must be really bad in Europe for this story to be in an American newspaper, right? Nope. The real reason for the story is because Europe is Doomed™.
The street-level repercussions of the economic meltdown have been less brutal than in the United States or Eastern Europe, because of the strong government-backed social welfare network in France and its prosperous neighbors. But experts warn that the safety net is starting to fray as the global crisis persists, unemployment rises and benefits run out.
Unemployment numbers are rising in France according to the article, and half of the respondents in a recent French poll "could imagine themselves ending up on the street." Now, as I see this, this could be fear of becoming homeless or solidarity with their fellow Frenchmen and women. Because, as the article continues:
If the American dream is opportunity, the European dream is equality. Europeans don't grow up believing that anyone can be elected president or build an empire out of a small business. But they trust the state to help make a middle-class lifestyle widely accessible with solid health and education infrastructures, ironclad labor protections and a generous system for the unemployed and the poor.
Opportunity is a myth in my opinion. I don't know if European equality is just as much of a myth or not. I don't know if Europeans children grow up believing they can be the leader of their respective nations or not, but I think it is true that many American kids do internalize this belief. However, by the time a person finishes high school that dream usually has been squashed for most people. However with my midlife values, the idea of equality sounds pretty darned good.
Looking at euro-dollar exchange rates over the past decade, it sure seems like Europe is a lot less doomed than the United States is.
So I wonder which Europe is it? Is it simply a difference between Germany compared to France, Italy, and Spain? Or, a typically slanted American newspaper account of the situation in Europe? Or, something else?