“Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?”

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Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?

How the European Model Can Help You Get a Life

BY THOMAS GEOGHEGAN

THE NEW PRESS / AUGUST 10, 2010

“A passionate case for the high-tax, regulation-heavy model of life on the Continent….the narrative unspools in a chatty, anecdotal style; it’s jumpy, appealingly digressive, and winning.”
Publishers Weekly

There’s been a lot of throwing around of the term “socialism” by critics of President Barack Obama, who has been maligned as a European socialist by conservatives even though his administration’s agenda isn’t close to that of a European social democracy. But if you really think about it, perhaps we would be happier in cozy Germany or France, where there is a socialist-type government to catch us, than in the wide-open, free-fall United States.

This was exactly what was on Chicago labor lawyer and author Thomas Geoghegan’s mind as he began to sneak out of his workaholic American life to see what life is like in Europe. Were You Born on the Wrong Continent? is his report to his fellow captives here in the U.S. It’s not just that European social democracy is “nicer.” It’s not just that, under European-type socialism, many of us would perhaps be happier. It may be that only with some form of it can our own country, with its ballooning trade deficit, globally compete—or even just keep going without repeated financial crashes and crack-ups. High-wage Germany, which offers the most bottom-up worker control of any European country, nearly ties with China as the leading exporter in the world, well ahead of the United States. But in China and America we work until we drop while in Germany, they take six weeks off a year (with a shocking number of four-day weekends along the way). It’s not just that the Germans can outcompete us, but they seem to be doing it with one hand tied behind their backs.

Geoghegan focuses much of the book on Germany, a country that explodes the myth that European socialism invariably leads to anemic economies and persistently high unemployment. 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. What drives our economy in the U.S. and inflates our GDP actually makes our lives less comfortable.

A wry, timely book, Were You Born on the Wrong Continent? 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 may just be the best example for the United States to follow. Think of it as a patriotic act to pick up Were You Born on the Wrong Continent? and learn from these other countries—perhaps some measure of personal happiness will be an inadvertent result.

About the Author

Thomas Geoghegan received national attention when he ran as a progressive candidate for Rahm Emanuel’s congressional seat in 2009 (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). He is a practicing attorney and the author of several books, including Which Side Are You On?, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and received a special citation from the PEN/Martha Albrand Award judges, In America’s Court, and See You in Court. Geoghegan has written for The Nation, the New York Times, and Harper’s. He lives in Chicago.