Can’t Get No…

No one is ever satisfied. This perennial misery is partly what drives civilization forward, since there is a burning need to achieve more. Maybe that’s what drove the Portuguese navigators to sail halfway around the world.  However, a majority of people appears content just to be dissatisfied, and revels in expressing dismay at conditions in their workplace, hometown, or country.

Western Europe is the paradigm of human achievement, all the way from Greece to Portugal, across the full extent of the Mediterranean Sea. This is evident when a traveller returns from any other part of the world. It is also evident to immigrants from Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Mid-East. In this ancient land, historically ravaged by wars, we have now managed to live in peace since 1945, a full sixty-six years. Although people here are having fewer children, and later in life, the number 66 is close to three generations.

Of course over this period there has been some conflict, most notably in Ireland and in the Balkans, but it is of a different scale. And in both cases, arguably a religious strife. The Balkans in particular form the interface between the Christian and Muslim world, and it’s always at such boundaries that all hell breaks loose.

Clearly the work of Satan.

The same wars occur across Shia and Sunni borders in the Mid-East, and where Muslim and Hindu meet. For all the vitriol that has been poured on Jews in Europe, from the Iberian Inquisition to Hitler’s Arbeit Macht Frei, the house of Western Europe is built on the Judaico-Christian foundation. And it shows.

Maybe it’s because we can’t get no satisfaction that the house of Europe is in such disarray. I can’t understand why else it could be. One of the ways to live in happiness is to count your blessings. As your blessings accrue, ideally so should your degree of satisfaction. Maybe, as we do in economics or medicine, we can apply a scoring system, come up with a number. But if the person next to you has a higher number, there you go being unhappy again.

I like the Arab proverb:

He who has health has hope, and he who has hope has everything.

It contains much of the wisdom learnt through the centuries, multiple cycles of births and deaths, relationships that came and went, money that ebbed and flowed. 

So how is Western Europe doing? For the fifteen countries that preceded the enlargement of the European Union, here is my ten point bulletin:

1. There are no wars;
2. Not a single city can be classified as dangerous, or even as a place where it is unthinkable to walk alone at night;
3. In any country, you can get a job that provides you with a living wage. All the countries with serious unemployment, even Spain, have a job segment that immigrants fill;
4. Western Europe is undoubtedly first in health care, if you combine quality and access (i.e. cost);
5. The same applies in education, although to a lesser degree;
6. You cannot bear arms in any country, neither is it necessary;
7. It has an excellent communications system, and you can travel freely across most of its borders, in the same way as you cross a U.S. state line;
8. People from one European nation are consistently well received in the others;  
9. It has immense natural and edified beauty (for me both are important – I am as awed by the Grande Place as by the smells and colors of the Arrábida hills);
10. It has stunning women, wonderful food, and still boasts the best wine in the world (replace with your favorite nouns).

The classic summer romance. A lonely Northern European lady and a fiery (if ageing) dago. Reminiscent of the old blues line: there may be snow up on the mountain, but there's fire down below.


What’s the big deal? No satisfaction. Unable to understand the bounties of what they have, individual European nations are falling over themselves in mutual accusations of debt, sloth, and worse. Why? For three reasons. Because we share a common currency, and individual nations are no longer able to use monetary policy, because thankfully we are diverse and will remain so, and frankly… because we appear to have nothing better to do.

Germans go to Greece for a vacation because it isn’t Frankfurt. Wealthy Athenians educate their offspring in the U.K. That’s the whole point. Unifying Europe does not mean Animal Farm. It means the zoo. Or the circus. Kids love those outings because of the diversity. The trapeze artist or the human bullet is as important as the juggler. Or the clown.

If my greatgrandfather had been told that Europe would soon be a space with no wars, no borders, and one coin he would have laughed. And he was a very smart guy. His whole generation would have scoffed.  Maybe some would hazard that the Germans finally won. But the fact is that they did. From pushing around wheelbarrows laden with worthless banknotes during the Weimar Republic, the Germans have bred a confident generation that doesn’t carry the burden and guilt of World War II, and the nation has become an economic titan.

The Gini index worldwide. Hotter colors mean greater inequality. Although Western Europe is here shown separately, an aggregate analysis reveals the EU as a whole is more balanced than the US. Brazil and southern Africa stand out as assymetric societies.

Germans no longer emigrate. but they did, in droves, sixty-six years ago. Many to Brazil and Argentina. Different countries in Europe will always be different, Flamenco will never be as popular in Stavanger as it is in Seville. After almost 250 years, the range of per capita GDP in the U.S. is still huge. Mississippi has 33K dollars, Delaware has 70K. DC (the equivalent of Luxemburg) has 175K. They will never be the same. They may reverse. One huge earthquake would do it in California. An invasion of a wealthy, militarily weak Germany, by impoverished neighbors would too. Man bites dog!

The Gini index, which has been around since 1912, is used to measure income inequality. On a scale where zero is most balanced, and 1 means that one person has all the income, the EU as a whole (0.31) came out ahead of the US (0.46), based on data from 2005.

Diversity is fundamental in Europe, as are all the things my grandparents longed for, that now bring us so much satisfaction.

Don’t be moody.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.


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