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How Europe Avoided an Economic Crisis that is Anywhere Near as Bad as Ours

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What follows is a synopsis of an article by Steven Hill that recently appeared in The Nation -- http://www.thenation.com/doc/20100510/hill. That article was adapted from Hill's eyeopening recently published book, Europe's Promise: Why the European Way Is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age. (http://www.europespromise.org/).

Contrary to what rightwing American critics would have us believe, Europe has the largest economy in the world, producing nearly a third of the world's GDP. Indeed, its economy is almost as large as those of the United States and China combined. Europe has more Fortune 500 companies than the United States and China put together, and Europe had a higher per capita growth rate from 1998 to 2008 than the United States. Long denigrated by US pundits as the land of high unemployment, the EU currently even has a slightly lower unemployment rate than the United States. Indeed, the World Economic Forum in 2008-09 ranked Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Germany and the Netherlands among the top ten most competitive economies in the world. They are also ranked at or near the top of most lists for quality of life, health care and social benefits. That's not a coincidence, since the participation of workers on all corporate boards of directors allows for both economic vibrancy and more egalitarian social policy. And while the United States also ranks high in competitiveness, it is near the bottom among most-developed countries in health care, social benefits and quality of life.

Sweden, Germany and other European countries are proof that you can have it all -- but only if you have the right institutions to facilitate both a powerful economic engine and the supportive institutions and benefits to harness that engine and keep employees and families healthy and productive. These distinctly European advances may be the most important innovations in the world economy since the invention of the modern corporation, since they encourage free enterprise combined with economic democracy and worker consultation that does not unduly burden entrepreneurship and commerce. The advances allow businesses to be both competitive and socially responsible.

In effect, Europe has reinvented the corporation. Yet the latest critiques of capitalism by leading authors like Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky and the producers of the popular film The Corporation tend to view all corporations and all capitalisms as the same. American progressives, while searching for effective responses to globalization, appear to be mostly unaware of these intriguing European inventions. Movements to revoke the charters of offensive corporations, while having gut-level appeal, have failed to recognize that European corporations are fundamentally different animals from their "disaster capitalism" US counterparts.

Now, a year and a half after an economic earthquake shook the world, new economic models are beginning to find traction in America. Alternatives to Wall Street capitalism, the epicenter of the temblor, are suddenly getting a new hearing in the United States, whether it's Paul Volcker calling for reinstatement of Glass-Steagall regulation of the banking sector, the United Steelworkers announcing an alliance with the Mondragon cooperatives in Spain to develop manufacturing cooperatives in the United States, or Cleveland-based efforts to establish worker-owned co-ops in distressed communities [see Alperovitz, Howard and Williamson, "The Cleveland Model," March 1, in The Nation].

If Americans want to learn about cooperatives, Europe is a great place to start. Those co-ops produce an estimated 12% of the GDP of the European Union and involve, directly or indirectly, at least 60% of the population. Besides the Mondragon co-ops in Spain, in which 256 companies employ 100,000 people in industry, retail, finance and education, there's also Coop Italia, which operates the largest supermarket chain in Italy, employing 56,000 with more than 6 million members; housing co-ops like Poland's TUW; and the Co-operative Group in Britain, which is the world's largest consumer-owned business, with 4.5 million members.

In Europe, practices unfamiliar to Americans, such as co-determination, supervisory boards and works councils, have been crucial in helping to harness capitalism's tremendous wealth-creating capacity so that its prosperity is broadly shared.

Co-determination has several features, one of which allows workers to elect representatives to corporate boards of directors known as supervisory boards. Supervisory boards then oversee company managers, who handle day-to-day operations. In Germany, the world's second-largest exporter and fourth-largest national economy, fully half of the boards of directors of the largest corporations -- Siemens, BMW, Daimler, Deutsche Telekom and others -- are elected by workers. In Sweden, one-third of a company's directors are worker-elected. To understand the significance of this, imagine if Wal-Mart were legally required to allow its workers to elect a third to half of its board, who would then oversee the CEO. Imagine how much that would change Wal-Mart's behavior toward its workers and supply chain. It's hard for Americans even to conceive of such a notion; indeed, when I ask Americans at my lectures how many of them have heard of worker-elected supervisory boards, usually no hands go up. Yet most European nations employ some version of this as a regular feature of their economy.

Co-determination means that elected worker directors should sit side by side as equal decision-makers with stockholder representatives, supervising management, is a little-known yet unprecedented extension of democratic principle into the corporate sphere.

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Several years after receiving my M.A. in social science (interdisciplinary studies) I was an instructor at S.F. State University for a year, but then went back to designing automated machinery, and then tech writing, in Silicon Valley. I've (more...)

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