People may question the wisdom of President Bush's drive to privatize part of Social Security. But there's no question it fits the U.S. psyche to a "t" - our perennial American Dream of every individual's right to chart a path to personal wealth.
Add in such companion approaches as light regulation of business, loose environmental standards, less labor protection and a premium on dollar-generating 24/7 economic activity, and the prevailing values of the our just-reelected administration and its core constituency come into focus.
But glance across the Atlantic, suggests author-economist Jeremy Rifkin in his new book, "The European Dream," and you see a powerful alternative vision:
"The European Dream emphasizes 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 cooperation over the unilateral exercise of power."
Euroskeptics are likely to snort skeptically, dismissing Europe as a backwater of moribund economies, antimarket bias, overextended social programs, and bloated government bureaucracies.
True enough, Rifkin acknowledges, there's a shred of truth in those allegations. And it's also true that unemployment rates, especially among European youth, are high and troubling.
But consider what the Europeans have just done. On Oct. 29 the heads of state and foreign ministers of 25 nations, spread from the Irish Sea to the doorstep of Russia, signed a formal European Union constitution to bind all of the memebers of the European Union together in a single governing body. A continent torn by centuries of fearsome conflicts, culminating in the horrors of World War II, is creating the first transnational governing space in world history.
The EU has evolved dramatically since its start in the merged coal and steel authority that six nations agreed to in 1951. Now there's a common EU passport and a single currency, the Euro, is used by many of its members. It regulates trade as well as coordinating energy, communications and transportation. It has a president, a parliament, foreign policy powers and a court whose decisions are binding on member countries and individuals.
It's an amazing evolution, even if the union lacks direct taxing powers and lacks the territorial rights that nation states command.
We Americans are so convinced of our nation's "specialness" that it's hard for us to grasp the enormity of what the EU has achieved - and represents.
First there's economic clout. With 445 million people, the EU is the planet's largest internal market and largest exporting power. Of the world's 20 largest commercial banks, 14 are European. European industries are world leaders in chemicals, insurance, engineering, construction and aerospace industries. A vivid recent example of what this means: announcement of the 800-passenger, highly energy-efficient Airbus A380, an embarrassing leap beyond U.S. competitor Boeing.
Second, quality of life. Europeans, Rifkin notes, often remark that Americans "live to work" while they "work to live." Leisure, even idleness, are prized; people savor long dinners and visiting hours with friends; typically they're in less of a hurry "to get somewhere." Paid vacation times are typically five weeks a year, compared to two weeks here. Income differentials between the very affluent and poor are much less pronounced than in the United States. The homicide rate is one-fourth ours.
While the American Dream emphasizes growth and personal wealth, Europe's focuses on sustainable development. It's true the idea of livable towns and cities has been gaining here recently, but the Europeans are centuries ahead of us in building and nurturing them. And as opposed to our profligate energy policies, the Europeans tax fuel (especially gasoline) much more heavily and are well ahead of us in developing new renewable energy sources.
Finally, the Europeans are developing a value set that embraces U.S.-like ideas of freedom, democracy and individual rights. But it goes much further. The new constitution cites "pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice and solidarity."
Solidarity? That means, says Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, the current president of the EU Council, members willing to relinquish "a pure self-interest when common concerns call for a common strategy. Because we are not partners in the European Union in order to compete but in order to complete one another's work."
If the language is strange to our American years, small wonder. Our hyper-competitive society, our raw jousting for political and economic gain, our pervasive winner-loser mentality, our belief we're a God-anointed nation that's invariably right in global dealings, is off-key in a century when thoughtful collaboration will offer great rewards to nations, regions, even individuals.
Europe, like us, has some glaring faults - proclaiming values of diversity despite frequent intolerance of immigrants, for example. But the ideals, the power, the thrust of this great new world power should demand our respect - and attention.