The World Cup of Global Competition
The World Cup of Global Competition by Steven Hill
Sitting in a Paris café on the eve of Europe's quest for a common
currency, one can't help but be struck by the miracle of it all. A continent
that has fought numerous bloody wars this century, last century and every
century before, is standing on the threshold of a peaceful union to promote
mutual economic prosperity.
Paris is also the site this year for the World Cup of soccer. Watching
Europeans of numerous nationalities patriotically cheering their home teams,
one can't help but reflect on the remaining barriers to this European
"union." Nationalism lends a distinctive flavor to each European
nation's culture and charm, and Europeans cling to it with a tenacious
tribalism that can be both attractive and alarming.
Unemployment is the buzz word on most everyone's lips here these days,
and it presents additional challenges to the Union. Unemployment rates hover
around 10-20%, depending on the country. So the World Cup must be a welcome
distraction. Much hand-wringing and introspection has accompanied economic
uncertainty as the various European nations gear up for unprecedented
cross-border competition and reaching the Maastricht Treaty eligibility
requirements for entering the Union.
For economic inspiration, some Europeans are looking westward toward
American shores. The American model is seen as one that is marked by low
unemployment of 4-5%, market and labor flexibility, low deficits and
increased worker productivity. The Europeans are right to strive for low
unemployment, but important distinctions should be noted about U.S.
First, the American version isn't just a "model." The U.S. is a
competitor that has the distinct advantage of a vast, relatively homogeneous
market of 250 million people. If need be, workers in Michigan can relocate
to jobs in New Mexico and capably fit into their new environs using the same
language, the same currency, and largely the same culture. MacDonalds,
AT&T and Microsoft have seen to that.
Europe's quest for the Euro currency is designed to achieve some of this
advantage, but will workers from Spain be welcome in, say, Germany, or the
Irish in Italy? Watching World Cup nationalism on display in European cafes,
and listening to the burly choruses of patriotic anthems ringing in the
streets, this seems unlikely. At least, not any time soon.
Second, in the punishing free-for-all of free trade and open markets, the
American model promises with one hand, but it takes away with the other. The
rate of homelessness in American cities has reached a Third World scale that
Europeans can scarcely imagine. Forty million people, most of them children,
are without health care. Children are the fastest growing poverty sector.
Prisons are one of the fastest growing economic sectors, as relative
spending on education decreases. The income ratio of the top 20% of earners
to the bottom is about 10 to 1 in the U.S., comparable to Latin America's
rate, and double that of Europe.
Yes, U.S. workers have jobs and comparatively high productivity - but too
many of these jobs are temporary or dead-end service sector jobs. U.S.
workers also have less vacation, less parental leave, less affordable
daycare and work more hours per week than their European counterparts. These
are not coincidences. In the U.S., they are two sides of the same coin.
In a highly competitive world, there are winners and losers, just like in
the World Cup. The greater the competition, the more some get left behind.
Is Old World Europe ready for the importation of these ways of New World
America? Or is it a wooden shoe that doesn't fit? Can Europe carve out it's
own independent course, borrowing some features from the U.S. model and
leaving others? That question is what tugs greatly on the European
conscience right now.
The quest for a European union and common currency can be put in its
proper perspective by answering a simple question: who is to benefit? The
U.S. never adequately addressed this question. The negotiated side
agreements to NAFTA and GATT regarding the environment, labor, and health
and safety are toothless watch dogs. The bounty of the current economic
expansion has ameliorated conditions for those who are positioned to
benefit, but expansions are always followed by downturns - witness hapless
When that downturn comes to American shores, the gutted social safety
net-already modest by European standards-will catch relatively few, and the
American people's values for compassion, pluralism and fairness will be
Perhaps Europe can find another way. As one wise old American, and former
Ambassador to France, Benjamin Franklin, once remarked on the eve of the
American revolution: "We must all hang together, or most assuredly we
will all hang separately." Europeans must decide who the 'we' is.
[Steven Hill is the western regional director of the Center for Voting
and Democracy. He is co-author of "Reflecting All of Us" (Beacon
Press, 1999). He lives in San Francisco. For more information, see
www.fairvote.org or write to: PO Box 22411, San Francisco, CA 94122.]