Has anyone noticed that America is starting to look more like Europe lately?
Not that were sprouting castles or seeing women going topless at the beach, but there are some trends toward the Europeanization of America that are worth watching. Some good, and some ennh...
Ten years from now, you may wake up and find that you have all of the advantages of a citizen of Paris or Budapest -- and all of the disadvantages too. Consider the following:
Micro cars: Youd swear that most of the cars in Europe arent much bigger than shopping carts. And no wonder, because gas hit $12 a gallon in England last summer. Plus, those small cars are more practical in Europes congested cities.
Closer to home, Northern Michigan is still the land of giant SUVs and pickup trucks. But the trend is toward smaller cars, especially with the new electric models coming in 2010. Perhaps 10 years from now, European-style Mini Coopers and Smart Cars will be the norm.
Home ownership: America is famous the world over as a land of 75 million homeowners. According to realtor.org, more than two out of three households own their own home -- a rate of more than 67 percent. Home ownership hit 60 percent for minorities in America in 2005 -- an admirable record anywhere in the world.
The 490 million people who live in the European Union, however, are more likely to be renters living in apartments. Even in the prosperous Netherlands, only 48 percent of households own their homes; in Greece, its 30 percent.
Unfortunately, the mortgage crisis and job losses are pushing more Americans in that direction, especially for young adults who are already strapped with college loans. Will we become a nation of renters like our European cousins?
Health Care: Sweden has had nationalized health care for most of the 20th century and theyre a healthy bunch, with men living an average of 78 years and women 82. The Swedes tend to exercise, eat healthy, and avoid smoking.
President-elect Barack Obama has promised that we too will have national health care, as is the case for the citizens of most of the 27 countries that make up the European Union.
Thats the good news. The bad news is theres a high price to pay. The Swedes laid out the equivalent of $25 billion for health care in 2005. How? Their system is funded through local taxation, with county councils having the right to collect an income tax of around 11 percent on top of all the other taxes the Swedes pay -- the highest taxes in the world.
Imagine Emmet or Grand Traverse County sending you an income tax bill of 11 percent to pay for your health care... Then imagine your average American being half as healthy as your average Swede and the extra health care costs for all of our homegrown couch potatoes.
Mass Transit: In Europe, you can go to virtually any village on a train or a bus. If we were to transpose their transit systems to America, then even trips to small towns such as Suttons Bay, Northport, Wolverine and Alanson would be by train, as was the case in the 19th century.
Will those days come again? Possibly. If Obama is able to jump-start the economy, it will be with a $500 billion plan that calls for heavy investment in alternative energy and mass transit among other green initiatives.
Northern Michigan would be wise to begin lobbying for some of that public works investment money now. But unlike the clueless Big 3, we need a plan to present... how about a regional train system?
Alternative Power: Denmark produces nearly 20 percent of its electricity from windmills and has cut its carbon emissions by 22 percent since 1988. Increasingly, there are plans to blow Michigan down that same path with the abundance of wind power on the Great Lakes. One plan calls for as many as 100,000 windmills in the state.
In France, however, the alternative is nuclear power. France gets 80 percent of its power from 58 reactors and has made a robust industry out of exporting its nuclear know-how.
Prediction: America will follow suit with both nuclear and wind power schemes as climate change becomes more dire.
Other stuff: You have to pay to pee everywhere you go in Europe, with bathroom attendants collecting a coin in every public john. Would anyone be surprised if the same trend took root in America as overburdened municipalities find they can no longer afford public rest-rooms?
Also, like the Europeans, soon, we may find ourselves with more weeks of vacation (albeit unpaid). A citizen of Western Europe gets four-to-six weeks off each year, with the French getting as much as eight weeks of vacation, including the entire month of August.
Unfortunately, our extended vacations are more likely to come in the form of companies and municipalities that are forcing employees to take time off without pay to cope with shrinking budgets...