The following is an interesting piece from the New Zealand Herald on global changes and the different approaches of the US and Europe. Obviously some of the arguments appear simplistic--I haven't read the book being reviewed--but there was enough here for me to go, "Hmmm." As I've mentioned elsewhere, crossing the border into Canada or returning to my own country for a visit, provides a comparison that for me is startling. The US is a hard place, and it seems to be getting harder.
For the past half-century the American Dream has been held up by the United States as a holy grail for those seeking the best in life. Endlessly espoused by public figures, it promises that everyone can be master of their own fate.
But does a dream inspired by 18th-century ideals offer the best chance of the good life in the globalised 21st century? And is a dream that celebrates the sanctity of individuals and the nation state relevant in an era when new challenges - from global warming and pandemics to terrorism and stock market fluctuations - demand a collective response?
In his provocative new book The European Dream, Jeremy Rifkin suggests that not only does the American Dream need rethinking, it also has a rival in Old Europe.
Furthermore, the Europeans may have pole position.
Rifkin believes the European Dream is fast overtaking its American rival as a global model. "In the European Union, people work to live, rather than live to work."
Rifkin says that, unlike many Americans, who work harder for less, Europeans work less for more, enjoy longer paid holidays and maternity leave and get generous aid for health, education and housing.
Rifkin, who heads the Foundation on Economic Trends, a US think-tank, has had the unusual opportunity to observe both dreams. He has juggled teaching an advanced management class at America's elite Wharton School with advising Romano Prodi, the outgoing EU Commission president.
"I think the European Dream is the first attempt to create a global consciousness," Rifkin says. "Whether it succeeds is a big question."
Shaped by the Enlightenment, and tempered by the frontier, the American Dream emphasises individual self-reliance and property rights. It has a simple but stark message: strivers are either winners or losers.
"When Americans look each other in the eye," explains Rifkin, "there's one covenant: this is a tough place to live.
"But it's the land of opportunity, and if you work hard and you're determined you can make a success. But don't look to me to help you. Fend for yourself."
But can any individual, or state, be an island in our interconnected planet?
In another irony, the European Dream was fostered by US assistance after World War II. Rifkin traces its philosophical roots to Renaissance communes, Catholicism, and feudalism.
Today, the European Union rivals the United States as the biggest economy, is the world's largest exporting power, the biggest internal market, and leads in banking, insurance, construction, aerospace, and retail. Rated economically against the richest US states, Germany tops California, Britain tops New York, and France tops Texas.
Rifkin says the EU is nourished by a dream that "emphasises community relationships over individual autonomy, cultural diversity over assimilation, quality of life over the accumulation of wealth, sustainable development over unlimited material growth, deep play over unrelenting toil, universal human rights and the rights of nature over property rights, and global co-operation over the unilateral exercise of power".
Admittedly, the EU doesn't always live up to such lofty ideals. "Dreams are what you want to be," says Rifkin, "not what you are."
And while the US is blinkered by a belief in its own exceptionalism, along with a dangerous sense of entitlement, the EU is evolving into a supranational entity larger than its nation state components.
"The EU is the first transnational space in history," Rifkin says, "so no one is quite sure what the EU is, including the architects. It's an ongoing process. It's more than a free-trade zone.
"It's not a superstate. It's a process of continuous engagement where no party is dominant. It's a set of ideas that bridge the local and the global."
Rifkin thinks the EU model is most suited to our globalised world. "Despite its faults, Europe is a laboratory for the world."
He believes the world is moving from market exchange economies - where individuals shoulder risks such as health cover - towards global networks, where risks are shared to optimise community interests.
So, enlightened self-interest makes co-operation essential?
"Yes. And the EU, despite its problems, is into that area. But America is not there."
The Los Angeles Times reports that, based on a study of 5000 families over four decades, Americans are growing relatively poorer as individuals shoulder the risk of healthcare, unemployment and other variables formerly covered by business or the state.
The BBC reports that private debt is now $9.7 trillion ($14.2 trillion) or 85 per cent of the US economic output. The national debt is $7.4 trillion.
Neither is America there on wider environmental issues, notably the threat posed by global warming.
Rifkin believes Europe - which was "spatially settled" by the 1700s, when the US was still wide open - has a tradition of caring for the environment because there isn't much free space.
He links this perception to another key issue, energy.
In Rifkin's world view, history's tectonic economic shifts - such as Britain's 18th-century Industrial Revolution - are all tied to the advent of new forms of energy. Such changes occur, he says, when a new energy regime converges with a new communications regime.
Thus, Britain dominated the globe when steam, coal and print converged. Oil, roads, the telephone and the telegraph converged to drive American's rise to superpower status a century or so later.
He argues that hydrogen, computers and the internet augur a third revolution that will kickstart the global economy while combating global warming.
In this new energy era, hydrogen will be dispersed through a decentralised grid. Just as millions of PCs connect by internet, fuel cells in cars, homes and powerplants will be linked through a "smart" grid.
"The European business and political communities understand that we must change the energy regime, not only because of global warming and the need for sustainable development, but because that's where the new opportunities are," Rifkin says.
The EU plans to "become the first renewable hydrogen storage society by 2050". And while this grand scheme is barely born, $2 billion is being spent on research and development.
"The global economy is stalled," Rifkin insists. "And we're stalled because we're at the end of an energy regime when prices and externalities keep going up, global warming being the biggest externality in history."
Rifkin believes the EU will eventually be transformed by two goals.
The first will integrate the world's biggest internal market using a single power, communications, regulatory and transport grid.
The second will create a common foreign policy, backed by the nascent Rapid Reaction Force, or military arm. Both aims ultimately challenge US dominance.
Meanwhile, the US is trying to produce hydrogen from coal, which Rifkin considers a "Trojan Horse" for the fossil fuel lobby.
He sees the US as a "caricature" of the American Dream, fuelled by patriotism, religious faith and a go-it-alone isolationism. "America is getting more polarised, more angry, more alienated, and more narrow," he says.
Not everyone agrees. The New York Times found Rifkin's book "unpersuasive, flawed as it is by two mirror-image exaggerations: one of the European virtue, the other the American fault".
As an example of rising European intolerance, much is made of the French ban on Muslim schoolgirls wearing headscarves.
"Having seen the visa lines in places like Beijing and Karachi," huffs the Times, "I don't believe that Europe has replaced the United States as the first choice of emigrants."
Perhaps. Certainly, there are many reasons for Euroscepticism. Even the notion of the EU is hazy. Where exactly are the geographical borders?
Major problems persist, including squabbles over how much autonomy EU states can retain, declining birthrates, how to fund generous welfare benefits - an issue that has created economic turmoil in Germany and France - and xenophobic fears over immigration that feeds neo-fascism.
Admittedly, both dreams are flawed. But shared dreams can help hold us together, as much as laws or institutions.
Whereas Rifkin believes the American version is ossified, frozen in the past, he thinks the EU - which has signed a groundbreaking constitution - has embraced a future where states co-operate within tightly integrated networks.
Ultimately, Rifkin suggests, any real global vision will have to combine elements from both dreams: respect for the individual and for the social cohesion that makes us all stronger by binding us together.
Nothing else is robust enough to face the daunting challenges posed by the future.