Are the U.S. and Europe Really That Different?

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Americans and Europeans consider each other to be culturally distinct. European nations have high tax rates and socialized medicine; in the U.S., people flock to fast-food restaurants and pile into SUVs. But according to Peter Baldwin, a professor of history at UCLA, the reigning stereotypes about both groups are mostly untrue. In The Narcissism of Minor Differences, a new book published this month, Baldwin collected data from dozens of organizations and found that the U.S. and Europe are actually more alike than they are different. Baldwin talked to TIME about transatlantic differences in religion, crime and health care — and why the distinctions matter.

In your book, you refer to the U.S. and Europe as "twins keen to differentiate themselves." Why are we so intent on being different?
It has to do with domestic politics. Anti-Europeanism exists in America, but it's a relatively minor aspect of the political discourse. Generally speaking, America doesn't pay much attention to Europe one way or the other. In Europe, on the other hand, anti-Americanism is a much more mainstream opinion. They think America is quite different, usually as something to be criticized. Anti-Americanism helps bridge political gaps within Europe. It's useful for Europe to have a whipping boy.

As you investigated the subject, what was something that surprised you?
The American train system surprised me. The American rail network is more extensive than commonly supposed, but it's not used for passenger transport; it's used for freight transport. Interestingly enough, Europeans use their railways for passengers but not for freight.

What misconceptions do we have about our differences?
Crime rates are a good example. The U.S. murder rate is always held up as exemplifying the contrast across the Atlantic. There's no getting around the fact that the murder rate in America is much higher than in European countries. The implication is that every other crime is equally high, but I knew that was simply not the case. For example, [the U.S. has] comparatively low rates of sexual assault.

Are there any areas in which the U.S. and Europe are vastly different?
Religion. That's where the differences remain the biggest. I think it's generally true that Americans are more religious than Europeans. The U.S. is more comparable to Mediterranean Catholic nations than the Protestant nations of Northern Europe. And religion in politics: American politicians give greater lip service to religion than is the case in Europe.

In your chapter about health and diets, I was shocked to learn that the average American's caloric intake isn't much greater than the average caloric intake in other countries.
Apparently not. And yet we're significantly more obese. That may have something to do with the fact that we don't walk or bicycle as much. Also, the surprising thing is that we're quite a bit more obese than other nations, but we actually have fewer people in the "overweight" category.

What about the U.S. tax system? How does it compare to Europe's?
The U.S. tax rate is at the low end of the European scale. The big difference is we have no national VAT, or value-added tax. We rely on income and property tax for revenue, and our corporate tax is higher than that of most European nations. And yet our system is very progressive. Rich Americans pay a larger share of their income in taxes than the richest Europeans do. We have a low absolute level of taxation, but it's progressive by European standards.

Europeans have VAT and it's very, very high — in Nordic countries, it's somewhere between 20% and 25%. The average European pays a much higher percentage in overall budget every time they buy something, but European governments give it back in the form of social benefits. American social benefits tend to be limited to the poor, so there's a much clearer [wealth] redistribution through the tax system than there is in Europe.

And yet we have more people who live under the poverty line.
In terms of relative poverty, that's true. But if you look at absolute poverty, you get a different impression. Because our GDP per capita tends to be higher than GDP per capita in European countries, the people who fall below the poverty line [in the U.S.] are not necessarily considered poor elsewhere.

What about health care? Is the U.S. health care system really that much worse than Europe's?
There are basically three numbers that always come up when people talk about the American health care system: average life expectancy, infant mortality and the mount of money we spend per head. Average life expectancy is at the low end of the European scale. We don't do well in terms of infant mortality, either. [And] we spend almost twice as much per person in health care expenditure. Fifteen percent of Americans don't have any insurance coverage. That's undeniable.

But if you look at every other attempt to measure outcomes, the American health care system isn't doing that badly. In terms of heart disease or cancer rates, they're about the same as those in European nations. If you look at cancer survival rates, we do quite well. Our system may not be the best, but it's not the worst. It works fantastically inefficiently, in that it costs us twice as much as any other country to achieve roughly the same results. So not only do we have to expand coverage, but we have to cut costs at the same time. It's a deuce of a dilemma to be in.