Work and Days

An Anatomy of European Nonsense

The Silliest Column I Have Ever Read

I rarely comment on the op-eds of others. And I try not to use ad hominem attacks in lieu of argument. Usually I reply forcefully on the principle of retaliation rather than preemption. So I hesitate to devote space to a single essay. But in the case of an article by one Jakob Augstein in the recent issue of Der Spiegel I’ll make an exception, since his asinine views are emblematic of the poverty of thought that now is so evident among the European Left. In what follows I quote the article, “Once Upon a Time in the West,” in italics, with a bracketed commentary following each paragraph.


Once Upon a Time in the West
A Commentary by Jakob Augstein

The word “West” used to have a meaning. It described common goals and values, the dignity of democracy and justice over tyranny and despotism. Now it seems to be a thing of the past. There is no longer a West, and those who would like to use the word — along with Europe and the United States in the same sentence — should just hold their breath. By any definition, America is no longer a Western nation.

[By referencing American democracy as a “thing of the past,” I expect the author now to demonstrate how the United States either does not hold elections or is not governed by its republican Constitution. Somehow, I expect in what follows to learn neither — and anticipate that Mr. Augstein objects not to the lack of democracy, but to the particular election results resulting from a quite vibrant democracy.]

The US is a country where the system of government has fallen firmly into the hands of the elite. An unruly and aggressive militarism set in motion two costly wars in the past 10 years. Society is not only divided socially and politically — in its ideological blindness the nation is moving even farther away from the core of democracy. It is losing its ability to compromise.

[By “elite”, does the author mean that those with certificates from particular Ivy-League universities, or with incomes far above the national average, or with children in prep schools, or with expansive mansions, or with tastes that are characterized by vacations in a Vail or Costa del Sol are inordinately represented in our legislative and executive branches? I would tend to agree. But somehow, I do not think that Mr. Augstein is too worried about the elite circumstances of a John Edwards, Al Gore, a late Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, or Barack Obama, who have occupied or run for our highest offices. Does an “unruly militarism” refer to responses to decades of unanswered terrorism, the 9/11 mass murdering, and violations of UN accords by Saddam Hussein, in which the U.S. took on two wars, both sanctioned by the U.S. Congress, against two mass-murdering regimes? Does the author believe that a Saddam Hussein was preferable to the current elected government in Iraq, or the Taliban to the Kabul government? And did an “unruly militarism” not once remove despots such as Slobodan Milosevic and Manuel Noriega, or force the collapse of the Soviet gulag? And how exactly is the U.S. moving away from its “core of democracy”? Do EU citizens have more say about the conduct of their continental-wide government? In fact, there have never been more active popular movements that have channeled grass roots enthusiasm into political representation. Web sites, talk radio, and cable news have given the public an unprecedented variety of viewpoints that transcend the traditional filters of the old corporate networks and big-city newspapers.]

America has changed. It has drifted away from the West.

[Even this simple assertion is wrong. America is drifting as never before toward Europe—the ostensible model for an Obama administration that has borrowed nearly $5 trillion in three years, federalized health care, assumed control of private companies, blocked new plant openings, is eager to increase taxation, and seeks to subordinate U.S. foreign policy to the United Nations, as we see in the case of Libya, where the Obama administration went to the Arab League, the United Nations, and its European allies, but not to the U.S. Congress for authorization.]

The country’s social disintegration is breathtaking. Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz recently described the phenomenon. The richest 1 percent of Americans claim one-quarter of the country’s total income for themselves — 25 years ago that figure was 12 percent. It also possesses 40 percent of total wealth, up from 33 percent 25 years ago. Stiglitz claims that in many countries in the so-called Third World, the income gap between the poor and rich has been reduced. In the United States, it has grown.

[Most of the extraordinary wealth of America’s richest — a Bill Gates, Jr. or Warren Buffett — is based on the advent of American-style globalization that opened up new markets for products and financial services, or brought in billions in foreign investment. In response, never has the top 1% paid a greater percentage of the aggregate income tax (the top 1% pays almost 40% of all income tax revenues collected; the top 5% pays almost 60%; the bottom 50% of households pays essentially nothing in income tax). But the barometer of national health should be not be found necessarily in income disparity, but rather in the per capita income of Americans. As American companies and financial institutions made unprecedented profits from global commerce and investment, so too did the standard of living of all Americans rise between 1980s and 2008. Per capita GDP reveals that the United States is the wealthiest large nation in the world, whether one uses average pre capita GDP or per capita national income, exceeded mostly by tiny oil rich or tax-exempt nations such as Norway, the United Arab Emirates, or Luxembourg. By measures of access of the poor and middle class to electronic goods, cars, or square footage of living space, the U.S. far exceeds the European mean. Such opportunity explains why some 10-15 million Mexican nationals, without legality, education or English, have flocked to the United States.]

Economist Paul Krugman, also a Nobel laureate, has written that America’s path is leading it down the road to “banana-republic status.” The social cynicism and societal indifference once associated primarily with the Third World has [sic] now become an American hallmark. This accelerates social decay because the greater the disparity grows, the less likely the rich will be willing to contribute to the common good. When a company like Apple, which with €76 billion in the bank has greater reserves at its disposal than the government in Washington, a European can only shake his head over the Republican resistance to tax increases. We see it as self-destructive.

[Paul Krugman also deplored the nearly $5 trillion in recent borrowing by the Obama administration that led to a $16 trillion new debt ceiling and downgrade by the credit rating agency Standard and Poor’s — but on the grounds that such indebtedness was too little and the reckless recent borrowing was too timid! Mr. Augstein has a habit of referencing authority in terms of Nobel Prize awards. I have great respect for the European awarding of medals in the hard sciences and mathematics, but recent Nobel awards in literature, economics, and peace are sadly tainted by overt politics rather than a record of sustained achievement — as evidenced by recent awards to a Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, Barack Obama, or Paul Krugman. (In the case of Mr. Carter, a Nobel Laureate judge openly asserted the selection was predicated on the ex president’s then criticism of the Iraq War.) As for the purported social cynicism and indifference, no other country in the world has a better record of private philanthropy. Private giving, as measured as a percentage of overall GDP, is highest in the United States — over three times greater than found in Germany. Quite simply there are no private universities, institutions, or foundations in Europe anywhere comparable to a Ford, Gates, or Rockefeller Foundation, a Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or Stanford University, or a Brookings, Heritage, or Hoover Institution. Apple, Inc. — known for its philanthropy, liberal leanings, and ability to bring sophisticated technology into the hands of the poor at affordable prices — is hoarding its cash in fear of uncontrollable federal borrowing, and yet another new tax threat, entitlement obligation, and presidential lecture about inordinate financial success. Its stash of $76 billion in profits is a fraction of the annual U.S. $3.6 trillion budget — and results from the unprecedented and unforeseen worldwide success of its iPhone, iPod, and iPad. Washington takes in far more in a month than Apple — which was nearly insolvent in the 1990s — has hoarded in its heretofore existence. And if one were to calculate the tax burden on many Americans in so-called blue states (federal income taxes, state and local income taxes, payroll taxes, property and sales taxes), they can easily pay between 50% and 60% of their gross incomes to government. Note that the most flagrant example of corporate income-tax evasion on mega-profits is found with GE that paid no income taxes at all on its 2010 multi-billion-dollar profits — run by the Obama administration’s in-house CEO, crony-capitalist Jeffrey Immelt.

The aside, “We see it as self-destructive,” seems odd editorializing from a European who is witnessing the implosion of an entire continent, brought about by massive redistributive policies of high taxation and higher entitlement expenditures. When we witness the latest Greek riot, or the latest machinations by elite German, French, and EU officials to craft yet another bailout that will not be presented to the European public for debate, much less ratification, we Americans see all this as “self destructive” — and assume the European Union will implode well before the United States. In this regard the violent record of the prior European twentieth century is instructive and germane.]

The same applies to America’s broken political culture. The name “United States” seems increasingly less appropriate. Something has become routine in American political culture that has been absent in Germany since Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik policies of rapprochement with East Germany and the Soviet Bloc (in the 1960s and ’70s): hate. At the same time, reason has been replaced by delusion. The notion of tax cuts has taken on a cult-like status, and the limited role of the state a leading ideology. In this new American civil war, respect for the country’s highest office was sacrificed long ago. The fact that Barack Obama is the country’s first African-American president may have played a role there, too.

[With all due respect, I think it is quite unfortunate and unwise to invoke German history and culture as a warning about supposed American “hate,” especially as it pertains to political culture. Too many Americans still have too many family memories about the wages of German hatred, venom, racism, and anti-Americanism. Respect for the highest office in America was indeed questioned between 2001 and 2009, but did Mr. Augstein at that time voice worry that the venom had endangered the sanctity of the presidency?

After all, Alfred A. Knopf published a novel imagining the assassination of President Bush. In Canada, an award-winning film offered a docudramatic version of killing Mr. Bush. In the UK, the Guardian published an op-ed openly expressing a desire for the timely return of another presidential assassin like John Wilkes Booth or Lee Harvey Oswald. The slur of Nazi, brownshirt, and fascist, aimed at the president, easily came off the lips of a wide variety of celebrities and public figures, from an Al Gore and Garrison Keillor to George Soros and former Senator John Glenn. I was waiting for the proverbial race card, and of course it arrived from Mr. Augstein. To the degree race plays a role in animosity toward the president, I can express relief that no major U.S. publisher would ever publish anything so inflammatory as Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint redirected at President Obama. Nor would major figures openly write or imagine his demise as was true of George Bush’s critics. Again, Mr. Augstein has the unfortunate habit of raising embarrassing issues: the Western problem is not that an America might harbor racial resentment of its African-American president (it does not), but that it is simply impossible to imagine a comparable black prime minister, president, or chancellor in a contemporary France, Germany, Greece, or Italy. Finally, we would call “delusions” Germany’s assumption that Greece is ever going to pay it back.]

The West, C’est nous

There’s no deliverance in sight. One can no longer depend on politics in America. The reliance of Congress members on donations from the rich has become too great. Nor will there be any revolutionary storming of the Bastille in America. Popular anger may boil over, but the elites have succeeded in both controlling the masses and channeling their passions. Take the Tea Party, which has enjoyed godfather-like bankrolling from brothers and billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch and found a mouthpiece in Rupert Murdoch’s populist, hatred-stirring Fox News.

[I agree that money is a pollutant of politics. But in this regard it would be consistent of Mr. Augstein to deplore the electioneering conduct of Barack Obama; no one in the history of American presidential campaigns has raised more overall cash, or more from Wall Street financiers. More disturbing still, Mr. Obama was the first candidate since the establishment of public financing of presidential general elections to renounce such federal involvement —specifically to free himself to raise far more than his publicly financed opponent through special interest donations. I hope there will be no “storming of the Bastille” in the United States; over here the quite different courses of the French and American revolutions explain not only the greater prosperity of the American model, but the far greater degree of freedom, liberty, and opportunity traditionally found in America, and the usual absence of endemic envy and entrenched class warfare. The Tea Party is not the creation of either Fox News or the Koch brothers, but antedated both concerns, and is often at odds with both the conservative and Republican establishments. As is the case with Mr. Augstein’s selective angst, he is not worried about special interest influence per se, but only special interest influence from the conservative side — otherwise he would surely lament the hundreds of millions of dollars that a George Soros, for example, has given to train liberal journalists, set up political-action committees, and establish various websites and institutes to monitor his ideological adversaries. Should we have worried that the second richest man in the world, Warren Buffet, openly campaigned for Barack Obama, or that the president himself was the largest recipient of Goldman Sachs or British Petroleum donations, given the Wall Street meltdown and the Gulf oil spill?]

From a European perspective, it all looks very strange: it’s a different political culture. There are other rules at play, different standards. More and more we view America with the clear notion that we are different.

[I agree. Despite the best efforts of the Obama administration, we remain different. We do not understand the French aristocratic outrage over the arrest of Strauss-Kahn in relation to his seduction of an African immigrant maid in New York; or the French-British inspired preemptory attack on Libya, given their past protestation about oil-driven intervention, the obvious enticing oil wealth of a Gaddafi government, and previous European appeasement of his tyrannical regime; or the rise of conservative movements in Europe, which, unlike those in the U.S.that are geared toward limited government, seem to focus on matters of race and ethnicity — dangerous given that nexus was so prominent in Europe’s past. Indeed, if we were to emulate Augstein’s stereotyping, as Americans watch European bickering, financial insolvency, and elite efforts to stifle democracy, we should sigh, “Here they go again for a third time.”]

Still, America’s fate should serve as a warning: We must protect our political culture, our institutions and our state. The success of Thilo Sarrazin, with his anti-Muslim message, shows that even Germany isn’t free of the kind of cultural coldness that can eventually ossify the vital functions of the political system. Our society has already made significant and deplorable steps on the path towards growing inequality and de-democratization.

[We reach the point of caricature with the phrase “even Germany isn’t free”; most Americans might logically substitute “Germany especially isn’t free.” And given that Slobodan Milosevic butchered thousands in the heart of Europe, out of religious and ethnic hatred to the complete indifference of European governments until the United States air force intervened, lectures on European sensitivity toward race and class are again caricatures, not empirical observations.]

Nevertheless, at least one good opportunity springs from America’s fate: The further the United States distances itself from us, the more we will (have to) think for ourselves, as Europeans. The West? That’s us.

[As we say in America — “promises, promises…” Does that “distance” include rejection of U.S. military subsidies — as in the final departure of the remaining 52,000 American troops in Germany? Given the status of the EU, and what I read in the German papers about Italians and Greeks—and then again in the southern European papers about Germans — Mr. Augstein should be thinking not of ridding America from the West, but whether the West will still include a united Europe, which is proving as undemocratic as it is unable to continue the basic premises of the welfare state. So the West indeed totters, but the general culprit — whether evidenced in the North-South divide in Europe, the rancor over borrowing an unsustainable $16 trillion in the U.S., or the dichotomy between the financial health of red- and blue-state America — is an unsustainable redistributive state.

The desire for “distance” unfortunately is not just confined to European elites like Mr. Augstein himself, but is voiced more often by a far greater numbers of Americans, who cannot quite fathom the premises of postmodern Europe, much less why in tough financial times we should be subsidizing the security of a system that won’t pay for what it thinks it requires for its own protection — is NATO still the old British formulation, as articulated by Lord Ismay, of keeping Russia out, America in, and Germany down? If the French and British military record in Libya or the German-Greek negotiations are a blueprint for a new definition of European singularity, then God help our trans-Atlantic cousins, since America will soon no longer be willing or able to.]