US vs EU, Round XXVIII

by John Quiggin on February 14, 2006

Fareed Zakaria has yet another piece on the inevitable decline of Europe. In it, he makes the claim

Talk to top-level scientists and educators about the future of scientific research and they will rarely even mention Europe. There are areas in which it is world class, but they are fewer than they once were. In the biomedical sciences, for example, Europe is not on the map.

High energy physics, anyone? Western European output of scientific papers surpassed that of the US about 10 years ago and the gap is still widening. The US is relatively stronger in biomedical research than in the physical sciences, but Europe has caught up there as well. The loss of the US lead in science is sufficiently widely-accepted that proposed responses made it into Bush’s State of the Union speech.

There are of course, plenty of counterarguments you could make. The quantity of papers produces matters less than their impact, commonly measured by citations, and on this (lagging) indicator, the US is still ahead. The US is still ahead in Nobel prizes, though again the gap is diminishing. And perhaps there are indicators that show the US with an expanding lead relative to Western Europe.

Alternatively, there’s a plausible case to be made that, since scientific knowledge is a public good, it doesn’t matter much where it is produced. In fact, while Europe leads in physical sciences and lags in biomedical research, the industry pattern is almost the reverse with the US leading in areas of high-tech engineering and Europe in pharmaceuticals.

Zakaria could make these or other arguments but doesn’t. Instead he relies on unnamed scientists he has talked to (not a random sample of scientists presumably, or the plurality would be Europeans).

I know that it’s impossible to resolve anything in this debate, but surely some ground rules would be useful. One such rule would that if you’re going to make a claim that contradicts both standard statistics and common perceptions, you should back it up in some way. If, for example, a Europe-booster wants to claim that Europeans actually work harder than Americans, and are therefore more productive, this claim needs more support than “People I talk to all say “.



Brendan 02.14.06 at 4:30 pm

These things have deep cultural roots. Didn’t Henry James continually go on about how Europe was ‘wise’ but ‘cynical’ or even ‘wicked’, whereas the US was naive but morally ‘pure’, ‘virtuous’, ‘youthful’ etc. And didn’t that in turn have roots in the Puritan tradition?

In any case it seems like the neo-cons and the more thuggish elements of the paleo-cons have adapted this tradition, and have attempted to mould it for their own political ends. For the neo-cons it’s not Germany (or even France) they have the real problem with: it’s Sweden (and to a lesser extent the rest of the Scandanavian countries). This becomes clear very quickly. Even when they pretend to talk to the EU they quickly change the subject such that they can bring in quotes like this: ‘Two Swedish researchers, Frederik Bergstrom and Robert Gidehag, note in a monograph published last year that “40 percent of Swedish households would rank as low-income households in the U.S.” In many European countries, the percentage would be even greater.’.

After all, the Swedes have a strong welfare state, no people selling the Big Issue on the streets, strong trade unions. You don’t want people in the US (or Britain) hearing about countries like that: they might start getting ideas.


Oskar Shapley 02.14.06 at 4:38 pm

AFAIK, the US give better opportunities to scientists (funding, tenure, etc.). A few years ago the German Science Ministry had to start a reverse-head hunt to get them back home.

A definitive metric would be the net scientists migration (per capita?).


Brendan 02.14.06 at 4:38 pm

Before some smart arse points this out, btw, I have now seen that there are actually homeless papers (like the Big Issue) in Sweden. But all I can say is when I was in Stockholm I didn’t see any: I see them in the UK all the time.


otto 02.14.06 at 4:42 pm

Zakaria is the cut-price Tom Friedman of the European Newsweek edition.


Oskar Shapley 02.14.06 at 4:45 pm

Europeans actually … are more productive, this claim needs more support than “People I talk to all say “.

Selectively, yes.

France: Labour productivity (PPP-GDP per hour). Graph 2.

(but I guess taking a look at California’s productivity would kill this argument.)


elton 02.14.06 at 4:59 pm

As for sources, where is the Zakaria piece from?


BigMacAttack 02.14.06 at 5:02 pm

Link. We need the link. How can we pile on or defend without the link?

I do love the France factoid. One of my favorites.

Another good one is to bring up the Heritage Economic Freedom Index when some one is blathering on about the stifling socialism of Europe.

3 Ireland
8 Denmark
9 US
12 Finland
19 Sweden

This also works the other way. (Unregulated predatory capitalism of the US.)


John Quiggin 02.14.06 at 5:13 pm

Sorry, Elton, I was fixing that as you typed. It’s from the Washington Post.


BigMacAttack 02.14.06 at 5:24 pm

Faared should have cherry picked from an updated version of this


Bob B 02.14.06 at 5:34 pm

Something you missed:

“In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee, a scientist at CERN, invented the World Wide Web (that you are currently using!). . . ”

“Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, has been hailed by Time magazine as one of the 100 greatest minds of this century. His creation has already changed the way people do business, entertain themselves, exchange ideas, and socialize with one another. With new online businesses and communities forming every day, the full impact of Berners-Lee’s grand scheme has yet to be fully known.”

“Sir Timothy John Berners-Lee, KBE, FRS (TimBL or TBL) (born June 8, 1955 in London) is the inventor of the World Wide Web and director of the World Wide Web Consortium, which oversees its continued development.”


Brendan 02.14.06 at 5:44 pm

Still more statistics that are unlikely to change the mind of the American Right one iota, but which normal people might find indicative (of something or other).


BigMacAttack 02.14.06 at 6:07 pm


Regarding poverty.

Do you think Cambodian children are better off than US kids? Ecuadorian?(is that right?) Costa Rican? Uganda’s kids? Cameroon’s? Laos? Keyna?

All these nation’s have lower levels of inequality than the US. All have lower Ginis. Romania has only 8.1% of it’s population below 50% of median income compared to 17% of the US.

Are Romanian kids better off in regards to poverty than US kids?

With lower Ginis it is quite possible that each of the countries listed above have fewer kids living in poverty according to the definition you have provided.

In other words the definition is meaningless.


Bob B 02.14.06 at 7:08 pm

Total expenditure on healthcare as percentage of GDP (2003): US 15%: UK 7.7%

Life expectancy at birth: US 77.2 years: UK 78.5 years.

Infant mortality per 1,000 live births: US 7.0: UK 5.3

Source: OECD in Figures 2005:

In Britain, we are concerned that average life expectancy is somewhat lower than in most other west European countries and infant mortality somewhat higher – which only goes to show how bad the US figures are compared with western Europe for all the claimed superiority of the US in biomedical sciences. Proof of the pudding . .


JHM 02.14.06 at 7:12 pm

Odd. I was talking to my doctor just this morning and she was lamenting the brain drain of scientists from the US in the wake of the Bush Administration’s stem cell policy. Maybe Dr. Zakaria is more up to date on the literature than she is.


SH 02.14.06 at 7:13 pm

#12: Last time I looked (and I live here, for fuck’s sake), Cambodia, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Uganda, Cameroon, Laos, Kenya and Romania are not in western Europe. Did you actually read what John and Brendan said, or is your grasp of geography really that abysmal?


Eric 02.14.06 at 7:33 pm

Zakaria writes: “if present trends continue, the chief economist at the OECD argues, in 20 years the average U.S. citizen will be twice as rich as the average Frenchman or German”. I think that what he means is that the average per capita income in the US might be twice as high as in Europe. After all, there are not so many average citizens..

The main question with regard to GDP and productivity is of course whether Europe’s emphasis on equity and levelling out wealth through taxes is going to make them fall ever further behind the US (and India and China) where there is more emphasis on excellence and individual opportunities. For the bright and entrepreneurial, the US will remain an attractive destination. First of all because there are more opportunities, second because taxes are lower. I think the crucial issue for the US is (in Robert Reich’s words): how unequal can it get before it snaps. For Europe it is: how equal can it get before no-one is motivated to perform anymore.

For the discussion on science and innovation, Europe has obviously lost ground and will keep on loosing ground. Now that millions of South and East Asians are joining the scientific community, Europe and the US will loose (part of) their dominant position. And I guess that has been an objective of many European, American and international policies on educational and scientific cooperation.

The fact that Europe is getting scientifically weaker vis-à-vis the US can indeed only be supported by selected indicators (although by many). But nevertheless, this problem has been clearly recognised by European governments and some countries (northern countries, some of the central and eastern European countries, Germany) are making progress in closing the gap, or at least in reversing the trend. I know, there is a lot still to be done, but the future is not as dark as Zakaria pictures it.

And b.t.w.: the report of the Swedish (‘EU versus USA’) is made by Timbro, a think-tank devoted to innovating economic and social policies founded on free-market principles. It can be found here:


radek 02.14.06 at 7:40 pm

Re: 11 and 12

Yeah US looks bad but mostly in the relative poverty category – relative to median income. For absolute poverty it’s somewhere in the middle.

And I don’t know why box 2 does a scatter of relative poverty against female employment index – what is this supposed to say? Wait, I know – it’s cause if you do a regression with absolute poverty you get a flat line (and if you exclude the EE outliers you get a positive relationship). Maybe there’s some more substance in the underlying paper (still with this many observations you better hope that some of these distributions are hellah normal (that’s X~HN(u,o^2))

And a lot of those conclusions sound like someone ran a series of bivariate regressions rather then including all that’s supposed to be included – which would make sense if these conclusions are drawn from many unrelated papers.

So I don’t think this evidence cuts either way here. Still some of these ‘conclusions’ do sound interesting, however unwarrented they are.


Dan K 02.14.06 at 8:16 pm

There is something really weird with Bergström’s and Gidehag’s study. For some reason, Norway is excluded from Europe (hint: Norway does not fit with their hypothesis. Not at all.) Also, why do we have the convention to adjust for purchase power parity, but not for productivity per hour?

Actually, half of the GDP per capita gap between western Europe and USA is extremely easy to fix: Europeans just have to work more hours. No rocket science there. As for the other half, well, Norway may have oil, but USA have the dollar.


BigMacAttack 02.14.06 at 9:07 pm


Yes, I read what John posted. Not only that I backed him up. Fareed Zakaria spends the first half of his article quoting from an OEDC study, Going for Growth, as an authoritative source regarding the impending economic decline of Europe.

And then when it comes to science he quotes some un-named sources. You would think OEDC, his authoritative source, could have provided him with some good information about the state of science in Europe, wouldn’t you? So I quickly went to his source, though for 2005, and looked for a science section, I had the odds pegged at 10% that it contained such a section, and at 95% that a fair summary of that section would not be, Europe is doomed. Alas no such luck.

But I did not give up. From google I typed OEDC science and presto, a report that said some good things about the US, but hardly seemed to indicate that science was doomed in Europe. True the report focuses more on inputs than outputs (but should that really matter?). You would think with a Harvard degree and all, Fareed could have found some good info from his authoritative source, right?

As for Brendan, he cited a UN report that uses relative poverty, % below 50% of a nation’s median income as a measurement of poverty. How good a measurment is that? I say not very good. Looking at the US’s gini score versus the countries I named above, it seems very probably, that those countries would score better than the US, using that measurement of poverty. Based on that, I would say the measurment isn’t that good.

Again, I am not interested in engaging in pee contest between US/Capitalism and Europe/Socialism. I am not even sure how true that notion is. See the Heritage index scores I posted.

I just think the UN measurement is, for a number of reasons, only a bit useful.


John Quiggin 02.14.06 at 9:07 pm

“The fact that Europe is getting scientifically weaker vis-à-vis the US can indeed only be supported by selected indicators (although by many). ”

As I note in the post, most quantitative indicators appear to be going the other way, but it would be interesting to see what indicators support the perception. I’m interested in data suggesting an improvement in the relative US position in scientific research since, say, 1990. As you say, the Europeans still see themselves as lagging, though I’d say the dominant view is that they are closing the gap.


Gabriel 02.15.06 at 12:14 am

Six-figure salaries (with lower taxes and
prices then just about anywhere in the EU)
will lure a lot of bright eggheads (and not
just in the hard sciences). Look at any
science department at *SU or Ivy League school
and at least a third the PhDs (and over half the
grad students) will be from Asia or Europe,
guaranteed. It’s simply a matter of money for
the EUers, and mostly that for the Chinese,
Russians, Indians, etc…

More generally, I’m getting pretty sick of the
endless We-Are-Better-Than-The-Euros articles
(although Zakaria is far less obnoxious than
most, especially Friedman). Why attending church,
having lots of babies, not paying taxes,
fearlessly invading foreign countries on a
regular basis, and having Spanish-speaking
Catholic immigrants (rather than Arab-speaking
Muslim immigrants) should make us the greatest
country in the world I’m still trying to figure
out, despite what Fridman, Zakaria, etc.. keep
telling me.


y81 02.15.06 at 1:22 am

Well, if there’s going to be a rule that scattered conversations with anonymous sources aren’t enough of a basis for an article, that will end journalism as we know it. In fact, most journalists operate on almost the opposite rule from what Quiggin suggests: for most journalists, digging up statistics would not be reporting at all; unless you get quotes–they can be anonymous–you don’t have a story.

Just to add my two cents to the substantive discussion above, it’s somewhat disingenuous to pretend that Europeans are working less in the sense of enjoying their vacations. Most European countries have very high unemployment rates, which is part of the reason that their high hourly productivity doesn’t result in high per capita GDP.


abb1 02.15.06 at 3:15 am

I agree with Gabriel, physical location seems like a superficial criterion. If I were the Emir of Dubai with soft spot for science, I could probably build some excellent labs and hire some of the best scientists in the world – so what? Scientists come from all over the planet – so, is this really a national-level phenomenon these days? Look at CERN – does its location say something about Swtzerland? Hardly, it could’ve been built anywhere.


ajay 02.15.06 at 5:38 am

In the biomedical sciences, for example, Europe is not on the map.

Yeah, it’s not like European researchers have been sequencing the human genome or making breakthroughs in mammalian cloning or identifying HIV or anything like that recently. Losers.


soru 02.15.06 at 5:45 am

Questions of the capabilities of different countries military sectors are traditionally settled by having a war between them and seeing who wins. Raw statistics and such as number of men under arms are usually a pretty imprecise guide, unless there is a difference of more than one order of magnitude. Anecdotes can work better, but only if you select the right anecdotes.

Maybe something similar could be done for the scientific and economic sectors?



Daniel 02.15.06 at 5:49 am

still with this many observations you better hope that some of these distributions are hellah normal

income and wealth statistics usually follow a Pareto distribution, a fact which is often considered to be indicative of some surprising deep underlying reality by the physicists who discover this fact roughly once every three years.


Brendan 02.15.06 at 5:52 am

Oh Christ. I might have known that someone would immediately point out some profound paradoxes about poverty which of course no one has ever thought of before.

First: the report I gave the URL for is called CHILD poverty in RICH countries. It’s not about adult poverty, and it ain’t about Cambodia. If you want to read about adult poverty in Cambodia, read another report ok?


‘The tensions between relative and absolute measures of poverty are illustrated by events in the Republic of Ireland and in Central Europe. The Irish economy has recently been growing at an annual rate of 7 or 8 per cent. Unemployment has fallen, wages have risen, and social security payments have increased. But the incomes of those without jobs and of the low paid, though rising, have not kept pace with average incomes.
Relative poverty, as measured by the numbers living below 50 or 60 per cent of average income, has therefore been rising. In such a context, it may prove difficult to persuade politicians and public that a rise in the numbers below the relative poverty line represents a genuine increase in poverty.
The same apparent contradiction can operate in reverse. The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland all suffered falls in national income of 15 to 20 per cent in the first half of the 1990s. Real living standards clearly fell – something ignored in calculations of relative child poverty that use a fixed percentage of the falling average
Accepting the notion of relative poverty means accepting that poverty may be worsening even if
the absolute living standards of the poor are rising. Relative poverty is about inequality; its premise is that what constitutes an acceptable
quality of life changes over time, and that falling behind the average by more than a certain amount means effective exclusion from the
normal life of society.’

In other words, life ain’t simple, and no one (NO ONE) pretends it is. Ipso facto, simply quoting GDP figures out of context can also give a wildly misleading perspective on the wealth of a country, yeah?

If anyone cares, you can read the whole report (or at least the first ten pages) to get an intro to these complex issues.

But my point was much simpler. The American Right NEVER quote statistics about child poverty (either relative or absolute), and it’s not just because whichever way you look at it (i.e. relative or absolute) there is a lot more child poverty in the US than in Sweden.

Why not?

(Final note: in actual fact, for most cases there ain’t much difference. AS the report states: ‘
Most of the industrialized nations remain in
approximately the same region of the child poverty league table whichever measure is used. Only the United States and Canada suffer a sharp fall from grace when measured by a relative as opposed
to an absolute standard. Only the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland suffer a dramatic demotion when measured by the equivalent of the US poverty line.


Mrs Tilton 02.15.06 at 6:24 am

After all, the Swedes have a strong welfare state, no people selling the Big Issue on the streets, strong trade unions. You don’t want people in the US (or Britain) hearing about countries like that: they might start getting ideas.

Well sure, if they want to be like the Swedes that’s their affair — that is, if they really want to be poorer than Mississippians.


John Quiggin 02.15.06 at 6:33 am

“if they really want to be poorer than Mississippians.”

Mrs T, that factoid was done to death years ago.


Z 02.15.06 at 8:23 am

Speaking as a professional scientist myself, I do think the issue is unclear. In my personal field, I have the impression working conditions are better in Europe but that it is probably easier to find a job in the US. Rumors have it that research is crumbling in the US (I stress again, in my personal field) but they seem like only rumors to me. Persistent rumors also have it that Europe should spend more on research in general, maybe rising to the level of Japan. It would probably be a good thing.


jknb 02.15.06 at 8:38 am

I know I am coming late to this discussion, but the more interesting question is, “Why would anyone take Fareed Zakaria seriously?” He phones it in so regularly that I am surprised to see his current exercise in cut and paste dignified by John’s attention.

Zakaria is a son of the Indian elite who’s knowledge of the US or EU scenes extends little further or deeper than typically impeccable book-learnin’ and chats with the upper-middle brow crowd he runs with. Sure, he’d be an interesting party guest, holding forth confidently on the state of the world and all, but, as a repeat guest, he would soon get tiresome. At least Tom Friedman makes a show of talking to people outside of the bos-wash scene. Whenever I see Fareed in action, I want to work da mic like Walter Mondale: “When I hear your new ideas I’m reminded of that ad, ‘Where’s the beef?”


Tim Worstall 02.15.06 at 9:28 am

“Selectively, yes.

France: Labour productivity (PPP-GDP per hour). Graph 2.”

That’s easy. Load up the cost of employing people (35 work week, no reduction in pay, lots of benefits, long paid vacations etc etc) and only those workers with the higher productivity to make it worthwhile employing them will have jobs. Those with lower productivity will be unemployed and thus not included in the productivity per labour hour figures.

Maybe 10% unemployment overall, 20% youth unemployment, 20% immigrant unemployment, 40 % or more immigrant (or children of such) youth unemployment.

No one, certainly not those hyper rational French , would think that was a good idea now, would they?

Oh, wait….


abb1 02.15.06 at 9:48 am

Load up the cost of employing people…

You’re quite right, except that it’s not workers who have low productivity, but enterprises. That’s why you see all those fully automated attendant-less gas-stations and car parks in France, but not in the US. There’s nothing wrong with eliminating unnecessary manual jobs.


Harry B 02.15.06 at 10:21 am

The US defenders might feel better if they saw this not as US/Capitalism versus EU/Socialism, but as what it is, reflection on different varieties of capitalism, which is what it is.

On Nobel prize winners: as with the inventer of the WWW, I wonder who should get credit for them. The country in which they did most of their work? The country in which they got their compulsory and undergraduate education? The country in which their wife (or, in rarer cases, husband) was raised? The country in which their parents were raised? Lots of academics end up in the US simply because they can make more money here, and they would have done just as good work elsewhere. Conversely numerous academics working elsewhere studied or worked in the US at crucial points in their careers. The only Nobel prize winner I know worked almost exclusively in Europe (mainly the UK) but did a post-doc at U.W. Madison during which time he was in contact with 2 other reseachers with whom he shared the prize in the year he won. U.W. Madison has never claimed any credit for his Nobel, but probably should have done.


Bob B 02.15.06 at 10:35 am

I’ve never read any claim that Timothy Berners-Lee did his initial work on devising what became the world wide web in any place other than Cern.

Details of his education at school and university and early career are reported here:

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