Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Thoughts on Europe, the US, and Fearing the Future

I'm back in the US after several days in Europe. So you can expect the regular posting to resume soon. But as I get back to my daily routine in the US, I keep coming back to one new and surprising (at least to me) thought: when I travel from Europe back to the US, it now feels like I'm returning to a country that is slightly, but noticeably, less advanced.

Having family there, I've been traveling to Western Europe regularly for as long as I can remember. I've also spent some time living there. And up until recently I've always had the vague and purely subjective sense that Europe and the US were roughly equally developed -- equally rich, if you want. Europeans chose to distribute their resources differently, opting for smaller apartments and fewer cars, while using those resources to enjoy more pleasant towns and cities, and more time with family and friends. But in general, I always felt like countries on both sides of the Atlantic were basically similarly advanced, with if anything a slight edge going to the US.

Over the last year or two, however, my perception has changed. I've begun to get the distinct (albeit also purely subjective) feeling that Europeans are simply better off than Americans. That Western Europe is now more advanced than the US.

What has caused this change in my perception? That's the question I'm asking myself today. I'm not entirely sure what the answer is, but let me throw out a few of the contrasts that are simmering in my mind: trains that run on time; clean and well-maintained private and public spaces; reliable wireless data services; state-of-the-art transportation facilities and infrastructure; lack of anxiety about health care costs; relative affordability of vacations abroad for average people; ambitious and far-sighted public works projects; efficient and modern cities (even when they contain many centuries-old buildings) that incorporate modern technologies and simply work.

For me, these sorts of details somehow add up to a sense that Western European countries are energetically and confidently moving ahead, are not afraid to plan for the future, and are even looking forward to actively creating it. By contrast -- with the notable exception of its aggressive development of internet technology -- the US seems preoccupied with figuring out how to preserve things the way they've always been, to resist the process of change. And that is exactly the opposite of how I used to feel when I traveled across the Atlantic in the 1980s or 90s.

Okay, yes, I am of course exaggerating the differences to make my point. And I am more familiar than most people with the statistics that one could use to measure those differences, so maybe I'll sift through some of the data to find out what objective support exists for this vague feeling I have. I'm also acutely aware of the many enormous problems -- not to mention policy blunders -- confronting the EU and individual European governments, so don't think that I'm blind to the problems there.

Nevertheless, I can't help being struck by this purely subjective sense that there is a new and growing gap between the US and Europe when it comes to both the quality of life and the willingness to look fearlessly into the future. To me, it just feels different now.

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