Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?

by Thomas Geoghegan

Rating: 3.9/5.0

Publisher: The New Press

American life as we know it is unsustainable. Think about it: the vast majority of middle class Americans wake up, eat an additive-riddled, mass-produced breakfast product, spend an inordinate amount of time sitting in their pod-like cars during the morning commute, work long hours in another, debatably habitable office pod (probably in front of a computer)…then commute home again and, exhausted, stay put, glued to the television or an internet dating site for the sake of stimulation and human connection, afraid to go back out into a freeway-dominated world where culture is slowly evaporating in the wake of strip malls, mega-stores and the monolithic offices where we slave away so that maybe, someday, we can afford to put our kids through college and retire with a pittance. It’s a wasteful, environmentally destructive, GDP-inflating but ultimately isolating and expensive existence…and it’s not getting us anywhere closer to regaining our economic stability, let alone a semblance of the power we once had within the global economy.

Thomas Geoghegan, a Chicago-based labor lawyer and author of Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?, contends that, by sticking with this consumption-driven, quality-of-life-depleting model, we Americans are driving ourselves, and our economy, to ruin. In the book, Geoghegan sets out to prove that the European social democratic model can help us “get a life” – one that would provide all middle and upper-class workers with such foreign luxuries as the time to simply read for pleasure (in print, no less!), participate in bottom-up worker control, truly understand and care about the daily news, enjoy government-subsidized, world-class education, rely upon guaranteed healthcare, vacation time, maternity leave and even go out after work to meet real live people and talk about all of these things over a few beers. In other words, he spends the first portion of the book talking a whole lotta mess, but can he and his beloved European model really deliver?

By no fault of Geoghegan’s, it’s a difficult question to answer. After a winningly approachable introductory chapter in which he marries just the right blend of statistical analysis, informed idealism and entertaining character development, our lawyer-turned-writer host (still reveling in the fact that he’s writing this book instead of working on a another case) launches into a hypothetical but nevertheless convincing illustration of his thesis. In “Where You’d Be Happier – or, the story of Isabel and Barbara,” Geoghegan nails the key points of his thesis by comparing the lives of two imaginary, upper-middle class, educated professional women – one of whom lives in a European social democracy, the other of whom resides in the United States. Not surprisingly, given the title of the book, Isabel comes out way on top – and we are left itching to dump our wearisome existence and move to Paris immediately, suddenly more than willing to relinquish our pesky iPhones for dog-earned, philosophical tomes by Rousseau and Voltaire and exchange Pop Tarts and Diet Coke and commutes for croissants, red wine and a quick stroll to work along cobblestone paths.

But that’s not Geoghegan’s point. And, despite repeated and rueful admissions that France is infinitely sexier than his chosen subject, he doesn’t advocate a Parisian model (or mass expatriation, either). Instead, he chooses, and encourages us to emulate, the Germans: and while that may sound as dry, stiff and uptight as you can possibly get within the otherwise vibrant European continent, there’s a good reason for his choice. Geoghegan wisely anticipates that many Americans may resent being asked to read about Germany (a “dreary place” compared to Paris, “even if the baked goods are just as delectable”); but, as he puts it, “maybe you’re exhausted as an American, and while you want to be competitive, you also want a life.” Enter the “German model,” a system that fosters an economy as competitive as China’s, a large, industrial, worker-controlled labor force, broad civic engagement, green business practices and some of the strongest print media industry left on the planet.

Dreary and dark though it may be at times, Geoghegan insists, passionately, that Germany works. Not perfectly, perhaps, but in a fashion designed to cultivate livable, balanced and – shoot – even lucrative, informed and economically stable lives. With an unusual willingness to change tone and format on his readers at will, Geoghegan flits from retrospective narration to hypothetical abstract to factual breakdown to meandering travelogue as the chapters progress, a strategy that makes Were You Born on the Wrong Continent? a challenging book report subject but an infinitely more entertaining read than your average study in comparative economics. Our authorial guide hits some bumps, and loses us in places, but his overall case for happiness leaves a strong impression.

I don’t honestly know what do with the ideas Geoghegan planted in my head…at least not as far as the American economy is concerned, anyway. What I do know – in addition to much, much more about Germany than I did before picking up this book – is that I feel admonished for my (and many fellow Americans’) lack of civic engagement, for our reluctance to read even one of today’s thinning newspapers from cover to cover and all too infrequent bouts of late-night, impassioned political discourse. In short, I feel like maybe I could be living more, learning more, talking more, living better.

Since nothing breeds change like ambitions born of discontent, maybe, if he rattles up enough readers with notions of a better way of living, Geoghegan will eventually succeed in bringing us a few steps closer to his European dream. That would be nice. And even if he doesn’t, we’ll start to think twice about defining happiness and well-being via GDP statistics – a definite and resoundingly human step in the right direction.

by Lauren Westerfield

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