Wandered over to an interesting talk last night entitled Europe and America – Worlds Apart? that took took a statistical look at the differences between the two population blocks.

A lot of people, myself included will presume that Americans are staggeringly different from us and that democracy and free-markets aside, there is little that unites us.

The reality in statistical terms is quite surprising.

In a tour-de-force of graphs and charts, Professor Peter Baldwin (Professor of History at University of California) charged though the issues at a breakneck speed to show that America is actually not that different in end outcome from Europe.

America is considered to be a very unequal country with strong concentrations of wealth – although it is actually fairly similar to Sweden in that regard. I think that in the UK we tend to forget that many of Europe’s dominant firms are actually controlled by founder families, with only limited voting shares available on the stock markets.

In areas of absolute poverty, again the USA is about average when compared to the countries that make up the European Union. Some parts of Europe have less poverty, and some have more.

America is generally considered to be very religious, but actually it is about the same as most of Mediterranean Europe – and that outlier of Catholicism, Ireland.

In terms of social spending, if you include the strong tradition of philanthropy in the USA, then you actually get a net expenditure in the US which is roughly average with Europe. In Europe we may mandate the spending through taxes, and in the US more is voluntary – but so long as the end result is the same, does it matter if the money comes from donations or taxes? Personally, I think not.

Surprisingly – and this drew a heckle from the audience – car ownership in the US is comparable to Europe. However that statistic was rightly pulled into question by the fact that it doesn’t include SUV ownership, which is markedly higher in the USA. Likewise statistics about private vs state schooling, although he did point out that regardless of how you define a privately funded education (and that is a contentious issue), the US and Europe do tend to be roughly similar.

On the environmental issue – I am sure we all know that the USA is evil incarnate and that their emissions per person are massively greater than the rest of the world.

However, if you take emissions per unit of GDP generated by each person, then the US is not much different from Europe. This is not fiddling with the figures – but a quite serious issue. If, for example, the UK’s economy was as efficient as the USA’s, then our carbon emissions could be comparable. The reason we emit less per person, is that each person is less productive at work.

Another one which surprised me was road vs rail transport.

The USA has a rail network that is comparable to Europe’s, but it is put to a totally different use. In Europe humans travel by rail, but cargo travels largely by road. In the US, it’s the other way round. You can reasonably argue that the US and Europe are similar in transport, albeit with a different focus on what/who is moved.

In fact, the only area where there is a significant difference between the USA and Europe is in the triumvirate of guns/murder/prisons. Excluding murder, the crime rate in the USA is again similar to Europe – but murders are staggeringly higher, as is prison incarceration rates. Add in that the USA has a much higher rate of gun ownership, and you can draw the obvious, if contested, conclusion.

The question that wasn’t really addressed in the talk is that with a wealth of data showing that the US and Europe are actually quite similar, why are we convinced there are huge differences.

My personal gut instinct is one of enthusiasm. I find most Americans I have met/known tend to be incredibly enthusiastic about whatever issue they latch onto. Americans may be as religious as Europeans, but those who are religious tend to be strongly religious. The same for with business – people trying to set up a business in the USA are vastly more driven to be a success than I notice in European small businesses.

A key cultural difference is that in the US, in general if you set up a business that fails, you are an entrepreneur and an adventurous person. All to often in Europe if you set up a business that fails, then you are a failure. Setting up a business in Europe that succeeds can almost be worse!

I have also often noticed that a society that claims to be very individualistic can also give considerable authority to fairly minor functionaries in an almost militaristic style. I personally find it slightly amusing how even the most basic of municipal workers can wear uniforms that have badges all over the place, epaulets, and where a small brand sign might be expected, you will find a huge crest or coat-of-arms, with moto and the related paraphernalia of a military uniform.

These are the more subtle differences that can’t be represented in statistics – and is why the perception of strong differences between the two sides of the Atlantic are deeper than mere numbers.

As an aside, Lord Howe was in the room and he also commented on the social differences – recounting a story about when the US accidentally bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999. The Chinese people stoned the US Embassy in Beijing in protest – and as the UK is seen as the US patsy, the UK Embassy was also pelted with stones.

The US offered compensation to the Chinese, but demanded compensation back for the damage to its Embassy. Everything was formal and legal with financial matters to the fore.

When then Chinese asked the British Ambassador if the UK would demand compensation – he responded that he was quite untroubled by the incident as the stones had been used to make a delightful new rockery in the garden.

That says more about the differences between the UK and the US than any collection of slides and statistics could ever achieve.

Thanks to the Henry Jackson Society for setting up the event.


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  1. Maura says:

    Thanks for this summary, it’s really interesting. Despite being born in the US and living here my whole life, in many ways I have more of a sense of being “at home” when I visit the UK. I think this is largely due to the social differences you touch on – for whatever reason, the ways people interact, the typical values, the sort of general attitude, these are a better fit for my own peculiarities in the UK than the US. But of course the backdrop of a very similar society is what makes it so easy to focus on those subtle differences.

  2. Sarah says:

    What a fantastic summary! I was actually having a conversation about train travel today and got my facts completely wrong. And as an American on secondment in the UK I am constantly having to defend my fellow countrymen as the opinion of us is so much more negative than the reality. But sadly, among many other things, we do have our gun toting faults….

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