American Economic Triumphalism Is Over

Posted: July 8, 2009 in society
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Not that I would call European governments like those of France, Italy or or Germany ‘socialists’, but this piece of American self-reflection the bygone era of US capitalist hubris by Ruth Conniff in The Progressive sounds quite refreshing.

franceOh, those silly French. Remember how much fun we used to have at their expense? Back in the days when American capitalism seemed destined to rule the world, scorn for everything from wine snobbery to slow food to lengthy summer vacations to national health insurance was a cultural touchstone in the United States.

Europe, along with the rest of the world, was bound to come around to our cowboy-capitalist, profit-maximizing ways sooner or later, Americans seemed to believe.

An arch-Republican corporate lawyer I know used to travel to Paris and roll his eyes at the seasonal white asparagus his hosts served at business luncheons. He was more of a coke-and-a-hamburger, 60-billable-hours-a-week kind of a guy. In other words, a stereotypical American.

Another acquaintance of mine, an investment banker classmate, fresh out of college, worked on a hostile takeover of MTV Europe. He and his twenty-something buddies showed up for a meeting hung over and barfed in a trashcan.

Ah, to be young, brash, and American in the early 1990s.

When did it all end?

The front page of the business section of Tuesday’s New York Times showcases a story about France passing us by in at least one economic arena: “France, Unlike U.S., Is Deep Into Economic Stimulus Projects.”

It seems the French are doing a better job marshaling government resources to keep people employed, and to keep French culture alive and thriving, even in a down economy. Restoring cathedrals, building museums, funding the arts, and running a wide array of other WPA-style projects, the French are deploying, and reaping the benefits of, stimulus money, as the United States fritters away time getting going on its own “shovel-ready projects.”

As stimulus projects in the United States get off to a slow start, and unemployment soars, the French are putting on steam. “All told, Paris has set aside 100 million Euros in stimulus funds earmarked for what the French like to call their cultural patrimony,” the Times reports. While France is deploying most of its money this year, the Unites States won’t start spending the bulk of its stimulus cash (that is, where Republican governors don’t reject the funds) until late in 2010.

The article quotes Patrick Devedjian, the minister in charge of the French stimulus, dissing the Yankee approach: “America is six months behind; it has wasted a lot of time,” he says. “By the time Washington gets around to doling out most of its money, Mr. Devedjian sniffed, ‘the crisis could be over.'”

“As it turns out,” the Times story concedes, “France’s more centralized, state-directed economy — so often criticized in good times for smothering entrepreneurship and holding back growth — is proving remarkably effective at deploying funds quickly and efficiently in bad times.”

This is more than a temporary setback for the old U.S.-led regime, though. In good times or bad, the Western European, humane approach to preserving culture and protecting jobs is making a comeback that challenges the whole religion of Washington-style global capitalism.

All the United States had going for it was the guarantee of ever-expanding markets and ever-growing prosperity. The virtual certainty that quaint customs like the siesta, universal, high-quality preschool, and a strong labor movement would crumble in the face of the sheer volume of wealth generated by unfettered capital has been permanently undone. Instead, as the current downturn makes clear, the harsher aspects of the global free trade–ingrained poverty, an exploited workforce, a race to the bottom as multinationals seek lower wages and looser environmental regulations, and the outright corruption and meltdown in the casino economy that replaced an economy based on manufacturing real goods in the first world–don’t add up to a very appealing picture.

Just as rightwing pundits and politicians used to sneer at any idea that sounded vaguely socialist, pointing to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the grand communist experiment, so the bromides of triumphant global capitalism now seem like a bad joke.

It turns out that, in Europe and Asia, many countries never entirely climbed on the U.S. bandwagon–despite American hubris about being “Number One.” As a result, in France, as in Germany, Japan, and elsewhere, ordinary citizens are not suffering the same stomach-dropping collapse that we are feeling here in the United States. Not only have these countries declined to dismantle their welfare states and privatize public services, as the U.S.-led IMF and World Bank urge Third World nations to do, they have retained some highly paid manufacturing jobs and state-supported industries, even in the era of outsourcing.

It turns out those stodgy, old socialists have something to teach American hotshots, after all–if we can listen. First, we have to pull our heads out of the garbage can.

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