'Were You Born on the Wrong Continent? How the European Model Can Help You Get a Life'


Thomas Geoghegan
301 pages | Buy this book

Is socialism really that bad? Geoghegan argues that people are happier, healthier, and better off in a European (read: German) social democracy, which gives them more bang for their tax buck—and strengthens capitalism to boot. Then he makes you read about his vacations.

What's the Big Deal?

Since the government bailouts, health-care reform, and the takeover of General Motors, "socialism" has become the dirty word of American politics. Geoghegan takes on the worthy task of exploring what it really means and—gasp!—whether it's the remedy for an ailing America. The question seems especially relevant now that Germany, the hero of Geoghegan's story, is leading the West with a booming economic recovery; unfortunately, Geoghegan doesn't answer it. He draws half-baked conclusions from things like watching Germans read newspapers and having "the perfect cup of coffee" instead.

Buzz Rating: Hum

The Financial Times lauded it and The Wall Street Journal trashed it.

One-Breath Author Bio

Geoghegan is a widely respected labor lawyer and author. Last year his failed bid for Rahm Emanuel's congressional seat raised his profile in progressive circles.

The Book, in His Words

"What bothers me is that Europe does better than us both at capitalism and socialism. It's unfair that they seem to be beating us at both" (page x).

Don't Miss These Bits

1. What's Germany got that America hasn't, anyway? How about six weeks of vacation, for starters? And a thriving industrial sector and a strong labor force, too, Geoghegan says. In big companies, workers have powerful councils and half the seats on the board; that's all in addition to wage-setting regional unions. "It's not just that working people get an extra chicken in the pot; more important, they get the right to stir the pot. In America, by contrast, it's only the postgrads and guys at Goldman who get to stir the pot" (page 114).
2. In other words, socialism! But not the kind outraged Republicans scream about. "This is not your father's socialism, i.e., state socialism" (page 112). Geoghegan argues that Germany's worker-based socialism strengthens democracy by getting people involved and improves capitalism by fending off the mass layoffs and plant closures that have crippled U.S. industry. It's why Germans still, like, make stuff—the type of high-quality goods that have them leading the world in exports.
It's about more than numbers. Who's better might be measured by per capita GDP, which is much higher in the States. But "maybe these numbers mislead us" (page 12). Geoghegan wonders (he's often short on coherent analysis; see below) whether America's GDP is inflated by things like health and defense spending, and also by constant working, which might create a rather unsettling "dystopia-type economy in which 'consumer' wants would be 'producer' wants, so people could buy computers, join gyms, hire other people to live their lives" (page 65).

Swipe This Critique

Stats and studies are scattered here and there. In lieu of rigorous analysis, Geoghegan fills the book with rambling accounts of his trips to Europe, conversations, conjectures, and inner musings. Take this passage: "Europe's in collapse? Fine. I'm not going to argue. Go there. See it. Then come back here and look around. And don't tell me our GDP is higher. Or our GDP per capita. Or our employment. My eyes tell me it's not. As for Europe, are you going to believe the business page or the travel section? Look at the pictures. Don't read the words" (page 10).

Tic Alert

R, S, T, L, N, and E. Geoghegan cites or shouts out to countless friends, acquaintances, and even random people he meets on his trips, often without context. Most are just assigned a letter.


Geoghegan tries to keep things conversational, and the book is billed, in part, as a travelogue. It often reads like a mundane vacation diary.

Geoghegan's various European vacations, dating back to the 1970s, are mashed together and mixed with a host of unidentifiable characters.

Pretty uninspired. America is the processed white bread in front; Europe's the baguette on the back.