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Tuesday, November 11, 2003

American Exceptionalism: How We Differ From Other Industrial Democracies. 1st of 5 Articles


Prompted by an unusually intelligent and astute survey on American exceptionalism that appeared this last week in the estimable British weekly, The Economist ---- which all visitors here are urged to download and read in its entirety: about 20-25 pages in all --- the current buggy article starts where The Economist leaves off. Like that weekly, only far more quickly, it sets out the major differences that underscore American exceptionalism --- such as greater suspicion of government than in other democracies, or more individualism, or greater religiosity --- and then, pushing hard in a probing, energized manner, it seeks to delve more deeply and identify and explain the historical and cultural influences that account for these differences: for good or bad. And it's a mixture, American exceptionalism. Not everything different here in the US is for the better. No surprise. We hardly live in a perfect country.

But then, neither is any other country. And what most Americans like about our country is justified . . . especially viewed in comparative perspective: especially too, if like the buggy professor, you've lived, studied, and taught in several of the EU countries. Most of us --- not all, but overwhelmingly most--- would chafe under the greater social restrictions and rigid, locked-in regulatory apparatus, one detailed regulation after another, mountains of them, that pervade, say, the European Union's member-countries . . . assuming that we had to live for decades there, not just visit those countries for a few months or a year or two, and pursue or change careers or start and run businesses there. (Being a professor at Oxford or Cambridge or in London is the only main exception I can think of; and if it's London, you'd better have an independent income of hefty means.)

You want evidence for the claim? Fine. Only hold off a moment or two, no longer.

In the meantime, note that this current article is really only the first of four or five that will deal with US exceptionalism, viewed in a probing comparative and historical manner. Later, in Part II below, we'll list the six or seven major differences that distinguish this country from the other English-speaking countries and the EU. That will end the first article in the mini-series.

And now back to the claim. In particular . . .


Is It An Exaggeration?

No, not really. Consider the evidence in detail, first some hard stuff.

(i.) In particular, start with the recent Pew Research Center's Annual Global Attitudes Survey 2003, which shows how American attitudes differ in certain key respects from those found in the European Union or, to an extent, even in Canada. Observe that we'll be referring to the survey frequently for evidence in these articles --- especially when the gap in US responses is markedly different from those found in the EU or Canada. (Unfortunately, Australia and New Zealand aren't probed by the Center in this year's survey. Otherwise, its researchers surveyed the attitudes of 16,000 people in 24 different countries, plus the Palestinian Authority, and grouped them regionally as well as by individual country.) On this particular buggy issue --- would Americans like living and pursuing a career abroad for a long period of time? --- the most relevant question is no. 37, p. 57 in the "Topline" PDF file that summarizes the questions and results across the 24 countries. It asks people to respond to this statement: Our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior to others.

The American responses are strikingly at odds with those in West Europe. In particular,

*60% of Americans completely or mostly agree with the statement. Oppositely, the corresponding figures for Britain are 37%, France 33%, Italy 55%, and Germany 40%. In Italy, in turn, whereas only 14% completely agreed, the figure for the US responses was 23%. Canada comes right behind Italy on the responses, by the way: 16% completely agreed with the statement, and 33% mostly: 49% in all.

*Note something by way of clarification. While, on the face of it, the far lower affirmative responses in Britain, France, and Germany could be ascribed in part or largely to the impact of the EU --- more specifically, to several decades of cooperative relations with their fellow member-countries in the EU --- Italians are a noticeable exception. National pride in a way of life, it seems, explains both Italian and US attitudes. So it's unlikely that the Transatlantic gap with the US can be traced back mainly to the impact of the EU on French, German, and British attitudes.


(ii.) That's one reason for doubting that we're exaggerating. A second reason?

Agreed: it's more impressionistic, which doesn't mean --- as we'll soon see --- there isn't some solid evidence of a kind that we'd like to have.

For a start --- something Americans take for granted --- try changing careers in mid-course in West Europe; or, as a twist, dropping out of university for a few years, traveling the earth, than coming back and trying to enroll again --- or worse yet, assuming you can enroll (it's doubtful, believe me) --- changing majors. Good luck in any of these offbeat endeavors. You'll soon be jolted back to social reality. Or maybe you decide one day in your late 30's that practicing law wasn't such a good idea after all, and you'd like to go back to university and enroll in some Ph.D. program and look for a job as a professor at the age of 40 or 45. No question of luck here, one way or another. You're simply dreaming. You're either a modern-day version of Walter Mitty, or you need an appointment with one of Dr. Freud's followers.

But suppose you're young, have some skills but no experience, are just out of university, and are willing to work like crazy to get ahead. Good luck again! Unemployment among the EU youth, save in Britain and to an extent Sweden, Ireland, and Austria, is extraordinarily high --- probably in the 25-35% range for those between the ages of 18 and 30 (make-shift, government subsidized intern programs that go nowhere and end in a few months make it hard to pin down the exact figures) --- and what's more, it's long-term: defined as lasting longer than 18 months. In the US, the corresponding figures are about two-thirds lower, and almost all unemployment in the US is short-term. In 1991, to be precise --- remember, a recession year in part --- the average duration of unemployment in this country was less than 14 weeks. Half of all those without jobs actually found new ones in less than 7 weeks. As the economy improved in the decade, the duration of being without a job was cut even more.


Starting A Business

As for creating a business, even a small start-up, it's a formidable undertaking. First, unless you have family money, you need to get a loan. Try getting one from the local bank or finding a venture capitalist who will take you seriously. Ha! So you have a good idea; big deal! What kind of collateral have you is all the banks will be interested in. Suppose, maybe thanks to dad's pull, you do luck through. Now you have to deal with the shockwaves of obsessive, regulation-mad bureaucrats, and for a long long time: the local ones, those in the capital city, maybe even those who man the distant European Union bureaucracies. Come to think of it, dealing is the wrong term here: survival in staying afloat in one torrential eddy of red-tape after another --- enough to fill a hefty part of the Grand Canyon --- might be more apt. Throughout the long exasperating ordeal, you will very likely experience brain-grinding periods of frustration and anger, punctuated now and then by murderous imagery of burning each and every European bureaucrat in sight at the nearest bonfire . . . frequently preceded by exquisite torture. Unless, of course --- a twist in your fate that's also common --- gloom and misery overwhelm your frazzled being, and you slide into prolonged nightmarish depression.

At which point, once more, you'd be counseled to see another of Dr. Freud's followers, while gobbling a cocktail of zoloft, paxil, and prozac washed through with absinthe every hour or two, months on end.

Assume now, though, you aren't strangled by the red-tape, and your brain-wrenched being proves robust. Good. Congratulations. You've actually managed to get your business launched; and then, oh oh, in case of miscalculation or bad business for a year or two --- never mind bankruptcy --- you'd better have lots of independent finance to fall back on. Dad, for one, should have a biggy line of credit at the bank where he vouched for your bona fides. Failure, you see, is a big No-No in West Europe . . . which is mainly why risk-taking is so unusual. (It's also cultural; and who knows, maybe the welfare state has shattered people's willingness to strike out on their own. One of Sweden's most prominent economists, Assar Lindbeck --- at one time a Social-Democrat --- argued this in an article published in 1994 in a Dutch economics journal: see "Overshooting, Reform and Retreat of the Welfare State," De Economist 142 (1994), pp. 1-19) Anyway, it's no exaggeration. Any failure --- big or large; and whether it befalls you in the tightly controlled, unforgiving educational track from pre-school through university, or later in the business world, or in a career once chosen, however prestigious or lowly --- will likely bring a jolt of swift punishment almost everywhere. You'd be lucky to ever get another loan from a bank for anything --- even a house mortgage; or for that matter get a new credit card or insurance policy of any sort.

Not to mention the double-whammy that will hit your square in the kisser from all the cluck-clucking that you will encounter when --- once news of your failure makes the rounds, near and far --- you are told that you didn't do what you were expected to, that you should have resigned yourself to your designated station in life. From all quarters --- unless you end up squatting in a deserted apartment building with bomb-throwing anarchists and show up at anti-globalist demonstrations to provoke confrontations with the police --- you will be dubbed a very pushy type who should have known better. Worse --- who knows? --- maybe you'll even be dubbed as far too cheeky and way too American for the rest of us, old sport.

Sacre bleu! Quelle horreur! Condamne comme un faux semblant: a person of pretences who isn't what he or she should really be. Maybe even, horror of horrors, an arriviste who doesn't know their place.


Harder Evidence:

First, for a serious comparative study of entrepreneurship --- the creation of new businesses --- see Paul D. Reynolds, Michael Hay, and S. Michael Camp, Global Entrepreneurship Monitor: 1999 Executive Report (June 1999: the Kauffman Center, Babson College, and the London Business School), This important study is the most comprehensive comparative work ever on entrpreneurship in 10 countries, Canada, the US, Israel, Germany, Japan, Finland, Italy, the UK, France, and Denmark, and was based on carefully surveys of 1,000 people in each of the countries, plus a total of 300 specific experts in entrepreneurship.

And second: if you still think the buggy prof's exaggerating the dangers of risk-taking and the jarring speed with which failure is punished in the EU --- once a failure, always a reprobate --- consider this gem on how the EU functionsby a a foreign writer, probably American, who covered the European Union for years before leaving in a daze to recover his mental health:

". . . On September 28, 2000, the European Council, "acting in accordance with the procedure referred to in Article 251 Establishing the European Community," a dopted "Common Position (EC) No. 50/2000."

According to Notice No. 2000/C 370/01 of the Official Journal of the European Communities, the Common Position concerned "special provisions for vehicles used for the carriage of passengers comprising more than eight seats in addition to the driver's seat."

In other words, the council - the key decision-making organ of the European Union - passed the so-called bus directive.

For anyone seriously interested in understanding how the EU functions, leafing through the bus directive is a useful exercise. (It can be found online at http://europa.eu.int/eur-l/archive/ 2000/c-37020001222en.html.) Inter alia, the directive mandates that "if a manually operated service door is fitted with a slam lock it shall be of the two-stage type"; that "the exits shall be placed in such a way that their number on each side of the two sides of the vehicle is substantially the same"; and that there must be an area of "300 mm in front of all seats other than folding seats, except where a sideways-facing seat is situated above a wheel arch, in which case this dimension may be reduced to 225 mm."

And that is not all. The bus directive runs to 170 pages, even as it leaves out the issue of the "ergonomic configuration of controls and commands" - to be dealt with, according to the bus directive's authors, in some future regulation."

Feel like starting a local bus company in Pau, France after reading this? Or in a suburb of Leeds in England? Or maybe in the outskirts of Berlin, where in any case you won't be able to stay open after 4:00 P.M. on Saturday anyway? Bon chance, mon vieux. And remember, the 170 pages only is the first installment. The final version of the bus-directive will likely turn out to be as unwiedly as the New York City phone book.


One More Preliminary

In effect, something simple --- a nice word or two for The Economist , with its excellent survey of US Exceptionalism.

Nothing really unusual for that admirable weekly. Far from that, it's an extraordinarily good magazine, and has been for 150 years or so now. Along with the Financial Times of London and now and then, even in its Rupert Murdoch phase, The Times and the explicitly conservative Daily Telegraph, it sets off British journalism --- at least some of it --- from the pc-infested mania that exists elsewhere in the EU, including most of the rest of it in Britain too . . . something we showed in an earlier buggy article, with lots of supporting evidence. [That article includes a couple of links to two lenghty analyses by one of the editors of the Financial Times on the decline of the BBC's once justified standards for objectivity and accuracy in its reporting, and the wider spread in almost all the British media to what the editor refers to as attack-dog journalism: biased, ideologically motivated assaults on the British government whatever its ilk, sensationalism, and pc-orthodoxies. See his article directly if you want. About a month or so ago, the same FT editor wrote more searingly on the BBC's decline into aggressive opinionated journalism and faddish entertainment, along with much of the rest of the once quality media in Britain, in a far-flung appraisal ]

Weekly, by contrast, without much disappointment, The Economist manages to come up with crisply fresh views --- well-informed and not at all prompted by the shopworn left-wing ideologies that infest almost all the rest of the EU print and TV media --- on political and economic developments around the world, including a vigorous section on American developments. Its lengthy surveys --- sometimes four or five pages, sometimes 20 or 25 like the one on the US (divided into sub-sections) --- are especially stimulating and about as carefully done as journalistic work can be. However you view things politically, The Economist is a testimony to the high standards of British professional journalism and the good educational system that produces its editorial staff and much of its world-wide journalist contributors.


And Elsewhere in the EU

On the Continent, nothing like The Economist exists. Small wonder. With at most, it seems, a handful of exceptions like Die Frankfuerter Allgemeine Zeitung, the pc pockmarked EU media looms as a self-exposed journalistic scandal: endless splashes of pre-packaged ideological pap, however simpleminded and predictable, and little else . . . as though the whole notion of journalistic integrity, professionalism, and concern for accuracy are quaint bourgeois notions that enlightened, extravagantly post-modernist journalists need to shun. What you believe in objectivity? Ha Ha, what a self-deluded throwback to Victorian times, Mein Lieber Herr!. Oui. Croyez-moi, mon vieux, , you Americans are vraiment too much!. [Recall here the buggy article German journalists in which the German journalists writing in this country for the media back home --- print and TV --- admitted not long ago at a Harvard symposium that they are kept on a tight leash . . . expected to serve up anti-American tripe that their editors and readers back home demand.]

If possible, it's worse in France.

For the third or fourth time in the last three decades even Le Monde, by far the country's most prestigious daily, has been publicly lacerated by a journalist on its staff who had his fill of its unrelieved ideological tripe. The first such blast goes back to the mid-1970s, when one of the defectors wrote a scathing book of its anti-American and anti-Israeli biases. Then in the 1980s the newspaper was openly criticized for being a mouthpiece of the Mitterand Socialist-Communist governments and purposefully ignoring the orgy of scandals and financial machinations that marked the 14 year reign of President Mitterand. The latest assault occurred this last winter, when a new book written by two investigative journalists and another defector was published --- its title, The Hidden Face of Le Monde (La Face Cachee du Monde). And what did the publishers and editors of the newspaper do? Not face up to the criticisms or try to refute them in print . . . remember, not the first time scathing attacks on its biased coverage, integrity, and arrogance have been launched; rather, launch a civil suit for defamation. The editor of the book dismissed the newspaper's reaction and the directors' refusal to debate the charges with the authors on television or radio.

"It's an absolutely typical reaction of a totalitarian organization," Cohen said. "The re-fusal to see the reality."

Compare that with the response of The New York Times last spring over the Jason Blair affair, the last straw for hundreds of its journalists who --- professionals to the core --- demanded a meeting with the publishers and editors, laid out their criticisms of what had gone wrong not just with Blair and his fabrications but the whole tone of the paper for years under the then chief editor, and got their criticisms listened to and implemented. A new chief editor has been appointed. The tone of the newspaper has moved back more to professional standards of accuracy and impartiality. One reaction by the most prestigious paper in France, totalitarian in natue. The other the most prestigious paper in the USA. (Note that in early 2001, Le Monde's chief editor did announce what is revolutionary on paper --- no pun intended --- for a French newspaper: he said that henceforth journalists could do reportage that didn't in its analysis accord with the paper's stated ideological preference. Imagine that! A revolution; on paper anyway. Apparently, back on planet earth, the message never implanted itself in high editorial places.) Elsewhere on the Continent, it's really no better: in Italy or Spain or Belgium or Austria or for that matter anywhere the buggy prof has looked at the media in West Europe . . . with a slight edge to Danish coverage in its fairness and concerns for accuracy. Is it any wonder that Israel was singled out, to the dismay and embarrassment of the EU President and its Chief Commissioner, both Italians --- Prime Minister Berlusoni and former PM Romano Prodi --- for being the greatest threat to world peace two weeks ago? Both have promised to look into the possibility of media biases and anti-Semitism. See this buggy article. Whatever else this hoked-up pc journalism in the EU might be, it's not testimony to any high-quality university education, professional journalistic standards, or even personal integrity.  

PART II: US Exceptionalism, What Does It Mean?

Yes, what does it mean? Obviously, the notion implies comparisons with other countries, and the standard is easy to pin down: other democratic industrial countries, which really means the EU and the other English-speaking ones (Britain, Ireland, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand). No one other than a few crackpot left-wing zealots zonked out on their heavy daily doses of soporific pc-pieties thinks it would be worthwhile to extend the comparisons to India or Mexico, let alone China. Compared to China, the differences between the US and West Europe fade quickly into all but oblivion.

So what are the differences that we'll be exploring?

To find out, go to the 2nd article in this mini-series --- to be published on Friday, November 14th, 2003. In the meantime, you can look if you want at the lengthy exchange in the next article, already published, prompted by the comment that Michael Jabbra left below.

Replies: 1 Comment

Dr. Gordon,

Ideological bias and shallow reporting are hardly confined to the EU. Just watch the 24-hour news services such as Fox or CNN, which use lots of dazzling graphics, triumphant music, but say little of note.

Failing in business might slow you down here too. I work at a bank these days, and I think we would take a long, hard look at a loan applicant with a bankruptcy (personal or business) on his/her record.

As to national pride, is it possible that people might have it but refuse to admit it to pollsters? Here in the U.S., one might (for example) be racist but not admit it to a pollster...because it looks bad. Feelings of cultural superiority aren't gone entirely in Europe; Sweden voted against the Euro again, and the UK still doesn't want it. I don't think any human will get over the feeling that their own culture or homeland is superior to any other.

Differences? Not a lot. But then, the U.S. derives many of its political and cultural traditions from Europe.



Thanks as usual for the stimulating reply. It's pretty long, that reply; and so it seemed advisable to take your comments and that reply and set them out in the next article.

Posted by Michael Jabbra @ 11/12/2003 09:59 PM PST