It’s fashion week in Paris. The skinny models are parading around with stern expressions and too high heels. What, they can’t smile while wearing the latest weird creation? Maybe their feet hurt.
More importantly, every week is fashion week in Siena; a city that is to style what Boston is to baseball meltdowns. The old city, sitting atop a Tuscan hill and, considering its age, a remarkably well preserved place, was once a rival to better known and more visited Florence. But for my Euros, Siena is the classier place. Walking back to the car after a day spent wandering Siena’s cobbled streets (wide paths in many places) we overtook an elegantly dressed, elderly Italian woman who seemed to be heading home from her shopping. She was dressed for the opera – tailored blue suit, stylish blouse and handsome and very correct Italian shoes. Just what most Americans wear to do the weekly marketing at Winco.
Rome’s bureaucrats were on strike – or perhaps just taking a long lunch – last week to protest government austerity measures, the central bankers struggle still with the debt of many European countries and unemployment in the 17-nation EU countries is over 11% – yet, the cafes are jammed, the hotels are booked and life goes on, while sophisticated Italians walk home from the market.
One story line his opponents have advanced against Barack Obama this election year has been the ominous threat that the United States, in a second Obama term, will slip farther in the direction of “the European socialist model.” Even if I believed, and I don’t, that Barack Obama harbors some real or determined socialist agenda, the American drift toward socialism on the European model just isn’t going to happen. Americans are fundamentally resistant to change and the elements of the European model we would have to embrace are so foreign – pardon the pun – that it just can’t happen here.
Two examples make the point. Virtually every automobile on Italy’s highways is a high gas mileage, high performance vehicle. You can drive the Renaults or the Opels for days while passing every petrol station you see. When you need to refill the tank the gas is, of course, much most costly in Europe than in the U.S., but you can go so much farther on a tank, or in most places you can walk or ride efficient public transport. Americans have been fighting over fuel efficiency in our automobiles ever since Mitt Romney’s dad made the American Motors Rambler, a fuel efficient alternative to Detroit’s gas guzzlers. The cars in Europe are smaller, lighter and extraordinarily fuel efficient. Obviously a socialist model we reject.
Or consider public transportation. The intercity train from Rome to Florence, as comfortable as any living room (except for the noisy and overly opinionated Canadian up the aisle), zoomed through the Tuscan countryside and deposited us, one hour and 27 minutes later, in the heart of city where automobiles are more trouble than they are worth. We couldn’t have driven or flown as fast, as comfortably or as cheaply. One can go almost anywhere in Europe on a train, often in great comfort and at high speed. Back home, we continue to debate the disinvestment in such infrastructure with governors in Wisconsin and Florida actually putting an end to spending on just the type of high speed rail Europeans take for granted. Public investment in transportation – other than the car and the airplane – have taken on the stench of socialism in the U.S. American addiction to the automobile will never allow us to embrace the public option and, besides, the private sector should undertake such investment just as it did when Eisenhower built the interstate highway system. OK, not a good example.
Europeans, as a rule, are skinnier, eat better, live longer, have better health care outcomes, lower poverty and infant mortality rates and – I have to say it – dress better than Americans. Further proof for radio talk show hosts, no doubt, that the European socialist model threatens the very existence of America’s manifest destiny to lead the world with half of our citizens overweight, many lacking health care coverage and more living in poverty than a decade ago.
Europe with all its troubles is neither a socialist mecca or a government-centric basket case. The United States with all its troubles is still the world’s economic engine – an engine that could be even more powerful if we could see our way clear to pick and chose from among the best of the rest of the world. Call it socialism lite.
Republicans Living Abroad ran an ad in the International Herald Tribune this week urging their countrymen and women living in Europe to vote for president. The message was simple and so American – “No Apologizes for American Exceptionalism – VOTE.” The United States is a truly blessed place, divinely inspired some suggest, but true exceptionalism might also mean that we take a break from telling ourselves how great we are and focus on what the rest of the world is doing that we might learn from.
The elegant Italian woman we saw heading home from shopping would, I suspect like most Italians, be very reserved, but also very generous to any American visitor. More and more Italians speak English very well and most tolerate a a level of American self assurance that we would find off putting in them if they were visiting our side of the world. I also doubt whether my elegant Italian woman has ever spent a minute, even while passing by the Burger King, reflecting on either American or Italian exceptionalism. The next time I head for Winco, I will remember her blue suit and elegant shoes and reflect on what she – exceptional as she is – might teach us about living well.