Saturday, September 25, 2010

Is Europe really passé?

Many North Americans look down on Europe as being passé and stodgy. In many ways the opposite is true. Europe has learned from its mistakes in the past and successfully applied policies that places it much closer to a sustainable economy than many of the currently considered economic highflyers such as Asia and China in particular.

When statistics in the 1970s and 80s showed that we moved to world overpopulation, Europe was one of the first to successfully apply birth control, now it experiences the unintended consequence of a potentially declining and excessively aging population. Europe was, in those earlier days, in the forefront of flower-power and the environment. Also, it suffered greatly and learned greatly from the oil-shocks.

Today, rivers that were heavily polluted and with water unfit for recreation in particular swimming, have been cleaned up and often form a beatifying element in the lush green rural landscapes. Europe increased its gasoline taxes dramatically and forced smaller and more fuel efficient cars that today dominate the car fleet. It has a public transportation system we can only dream of here in North America. You can go nearly everywhere by train, including traveling below the English Channel. The Danes are leaders in wind energy, and geothermal energy is gradually gaining ground.

Don't get me wrong! If Europe was so good in everything, I would prefer living there rather than here. But for me, Europe is the model for when the world population growth will start to level off. For here in North America, future economic growth may be a lot less vigorous than today. Today in North America, we need a consumer who forever needs to buy more and take on more consumer debt. Europe is one of the early 'experiments' for how a more sustainable and less consumption driven world may look like.

So we can learn a lot from that continent, including home quality and ownership. Here in North America we still live in a 'throw-away' economy. Housing is not expected to last more than 30 to 40 years. After that it goes flat and new facilities are built. Compare that with Holland, where houses are expected to last a century and many inner-cities are filled with buildings that are hundreds of years old. Look at their building density compared to here. And irony of irony, places like Garrison Woods and Marda Loop here in Calgary are to reflect this 'trendy European look and feel'. Yet, they are still built with a short economic life expectation.

Also home-ownership is much less common. The thought of coming out of school and buying a house with 5% down, as Thomas mentioned, is in Europe considered ludicrous. Renting well into your 30s before you have a good solid down payment is much more the norm. Compared to the U.S. we, Canadians, may have a conservative outlook on homeownership and banking. But Europe in turn is quite a bit more conservative than we are.

European Banks made the mistake of buying a lot of U.S. prime loans (in particular Deutsche Bank and UBS). Others got tempted to encourage the same low interest policies in the 2004-2008 booming real markets of Spain and England. The results are for everyone to see. ABN a solid Dutch Bank got caught up in the takeover battles of the failed UK banks similar to the healthy Bank of America when taking over troubled Merrill Lynch in 2008. So Europe clearly doesn't have it right all the time either. The overly generous social system has led to significant government debt. But the U.S. has also a lot of debt and a lot poorer social network. I guess we have to look for a balance in the middle.

But to come to the point of this posting; we can make home ownership more difficult; we can raise gasoline consumption taxes hoping this leads to a more stable and sustainable economy. I think we have no choice to follow these policies. And Europe is our model, including learning from its mistakes.

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