Steven Hill


On his book Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way Is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age

Cover Interview of March 30, 2010

The wide angle

The world faces two major challenges in the 21st century.  First, how do we advance the institutions and practices capable of enacting a desirable quality of life for a burgeoning global population of 6.5 billion people?  And second, how do we do all that in a way that does not exacerbate the severe impacts of global warming and environmental degradation? Put another way, how do we allow China, India, Brazil and other countries to come up in the world without burning up the planet in a Venus atmosphere of our own creation?

It is a tall order—yet also the defining task of the 21st century.  And more than anyone, Europe has forged the types of innovations and institutions that point the way forward for the world to meet these twin challenges.

Europe’s Promise details how Europe’s leadership manifests in several major areas:


Economic strength

Europe is now the world’s largest trading bloc, producing nearly a third of the world’s economy, almost as large as the U.S. and China combined.  Europe has more Fortune 500 companies than the U.S. and China together, and more small businesses creating two thirds of the jobs in Europe, compared to only half the jobs in the U.S.  Europe is the largest trading partner with both the U.S. and China, and had a higher per capita annual growth rate than the U.S. from 1998-2008 (until the global economic collapse).  And currently the continent previously known as the land of high unemployment has a lower unemployment rate than the United States.  So contrary to the myths and stereotypes, Europe’s economy is robust and competitive, producing a great deal of wealth. This is not socialism, as some have claimed, it’s fully capitalist in its orientation.


Social capitalism and real family values

While Europe is fully capitalist, it has a different brand than America’s “Wall Street capitalism.”  I call it “social capitalism,” because the genius of Europe is that it has figured out how to harness capitalism’s tremendous wealth-creating capacity so that its benefits are broadly shared. Hardly a “welfare state,” Europe has created an ingenious “workfare” framework that better supports families and individuals to help them stay healthy and productive, which is especially important during this time of economic crisis.


Better health care

Part of Europe’s social capitalism includes having health care systems that have been rated by the World Health Organization as being the best in the world. Yet they spend far less per capita than the United States for universal coverage, even as U.S. health care is ranked 37th—just ahead of Cuba and Kuwait.


Readying for global warming

Not only is Europe’s economy robust, and not only has it figured out how to harness capitalism to foster a more broadly shared prosperity, but Europe is figuring out how to do that in a way that is as environmentally sustainable as possible. Europe has deployed widespread use of renewable energy and conservation technologies which has resulted in an “ecological footprint” that is half that of the United States for the same standard of living.  The European landscape is being transformed slowly by giant high-tech windmills, vast solar arrays, underwater seamills, hydrogen-powered vehicles, “sea snakes,” and other renewable energy technologies. While renewables grab the headlines, even more significant has been Europe’s leadership in implementing conservation and “green” design in everything from skyscrapers to homes to fuel-efficient automobiles, high-speed trains, low wattage light bulbs, and low flush toilets.  Europe has gone both high- and low-tech: it also has developed thousands of kilometers of bicycle and pedestrian paths that are used by people of all ages. In the process, the greening of the economy has created new industries and hundreds of thousands of new jobs.


Innovative foreign policy

Europe is transforming our very notions of “effective power.”  With America’s “hard power” suffering setbacks, Europe’s “smart power”—based on regional networks of nations and Europe’s own Marshall Plan for development—has produced a “Eurosphere” with some 2 billion people (one third of the world) linked by trade, aid, and investment to the European Union.

Europe’s Promise shatters several myths, such as the one about Europeans paying more taxes than Americans.  The fact is that, for their taxes, Europeans receive a seemingly endless list of supports and services for families and individuals—quality health care, decent retirement, more vacation, paid parental leave, paid sick leave, free or nearly free university education, housing assistance, senior care, job training and much more—for which Americans must pay extra for, out-of-pocket, via escalating health care premiums, fees, deductibles, tuition and other charges, all in addition to our taxes.  When you sum up the total balance sheet, you discover that many Americans pay out as much as or more than Europeans—but we receive a lot less for our money.

Europe has pioneered new forms of social, political and economic innovations such as: codetermination, which allows the workers in major corporations in Germany, Sweden and elsewhere to elect up to 50% of the corporate board of directors (imagine Wal-Mart being required by law to allow its workers to elect 50% of its board of directors—the impact would be immense); proportional representation, public financing of campaigns, and free media time that fosters multiparty democracy, higher voter participation, a better informed populace, and policy shaped by broad consensus; cogeneration, which redirects wasted heat from power plants (that usually is lost up the chimney flue as exhaust) into pipes that can bring that heat to homes and buildings, thereby greatly increasing energy efficiency; nonprofit private insurance companies that deliver health care and which, along with negotiated fees for all medical services, keep costs down to a fraction of what Americans pay, even as they produce better health for people than America’s for-profit health care system.