Passionate political author Steven Hill talks about his newest book “Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way Is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age.” Steven is the director of the Political Reform Program at the New America Foundation and continues to be a leading voice in calling for political reform in America. For more info, log onto http://www.europespromise.org/.
Can you give me a short summary of what Europe’s Promise is about?
It really is the story of how post WWII Europe transformed itself from the military war machine that its various nations had been for centuries into a model for how a modern society can develop itself. This includes taking care of its people and taking care of what I call in the book “peace and prosperity partnerships” with its neighbors in the region that it lives in and do all that in a way that’s as environmentally sustainable as possible.
When did you first develop an interest in Europe?
I was professionally involved in politics and political reform and began traveling there in the later 1990s. I was looking at things like proportional representation, public financing of campaigns, free media time, universal voter registration – all these democratic methods that are used throughout Europe for the most part aren’t as widely used in the United States. In the process of this research I realized it’s a lot more than just their political institutions that are different, it’s their social systems and energy systems as well.
The renewable energy technologies are the most eye-popping and attract the most media attention. But really what Europe excels in is the low-hanging fruit, technologies like low-wattage light bulbs. Both at the country level and the EU level, they have passed laws saying everyone has to start moving to the low wattage light bulbs, or CFL’s as they’re called, and have motion sensors in rooms, so when no one’s in a room, the lights turn off. These sensors are everywhere, from museums, to bathrooms to downtown.
One of the most amazing things they’ve done is called co-generation or combined heat and power, CHP. When your average power plant produces energy, typically a huge amount of energy is lost up the smoke stack as just heat. The energy efficient is only about 60 percent in the process of producing power in most American power plants because you’re losing about 40 percent up the chimney as heat. So what Europe has done is specialized in capturing that heat and channeling it through pipes and then they send it underground and it’s used to heat homes.
Another thing I want to mention about Europe and low-hanging fruit is what they call standby power. All our appliances today have little lights on them that never go off, and this is called standby power. Well, it uses up a huge amount of power so Europe has passed regulations to reduce the standby power to about ten percent on what it was.
Then why haven’t such conservation strategies been implemented in America?
It’s partly because our political system is just broken. Democracy in the United States is just not functioning. At the federal level, you can see you need 60 votes to end a filibuster-gone-wild senate to get anything done. That gives these small minorities a huge veto over anything that the majority wants to do.
Here in California you can see that our political system is not working particularly well. I think part of that is because we’re not using proportional representation, electoral systems, we don’t have public financing of campaigns, we don’t have free media time, and so you really have this kind of dumbed-down political landscape where every district is already Democrat or Republican ahead of time.
You’ve written that Europe has ‘real family values’ as opposed to America.
The real family values are the ones you actually put money behind. America has this myth that Europe is a huge welfare state, and welfare is not a very nice term in the United States. That’s because Europeans have things like universal healthcare, paid parental leave after you have a child or your child is sick, paid sick leave. Sixty million American workers don’t have paid sick leave at their jobs.
Europe has things such as a more generous retirement pension than social security offers; they have free and almost free university education. We call it “welfare” but in the book I call it “workfare.” It’s not about people sitting back on the dole, it’s about families and individuals to make sure they have the support they need in this age of globalized capitalism to help them be productive. The interesting thing is that this is something that’s supported by both the left and the right in Europe. This is not something that’s considered some left, socialist project.
Europe utilizes a form of social capitalism. There is no question that capitalism is the greatest tool to create wealth that humans have ever invented, but there is an outstanding question of what do you do with that wealth. That’s where Europe has harnessed this capitalist engine to create this more broadly shared prosperity.
Another key component is that they still believe in manufacturing and exports. There was a famous interview between former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Blair was saying to Chancellor Merkel that Germany is not that big of a country but they’re still the largest exporter in the world, how do they do it? And she said, “We still make things, Mr. Blair.”