Sunday, February 26, 2012

We're not like Europe

"We're not like Europe" is a phrase I've heard a lot in recent years. It seems to have become the standard excuse for not getting things done in this country.

Take health care, for example. Pretty much everybody in Europe, rich or poor, is covered by some sort of health care program, and they spend about half as much per capita on health care as we do. It may not be perfect, no humanly organized system is, but it seems to work pretty well overall. Yet for some reason we can't do it here because "We're not like Europe." European health care, we're sternly told, is a heartless socialist program, and we're not socialists, so we can't do it here.

Or how about intercity rail transportation? Europeans enjoy a wonderful system - a mix of modern high speed trains between major cities along with scores of conventional trains serving smaller communities. These enable people to travel quickly, comfortably, and reliably from town to town, skipping the hectic freeways, saving fuel, and saving money at the gas pump. And their trains run on time, too. Many people ask why we can't have that here. "We're not like Europe," we're told. These naysayers argue that we don't have the same population density as Europe, as if that were the sole factor that determines a rail network's success, so we can't do it here.

The latest such insult to my intelligence came to me recently from a PG&E representative. Before I explain, a little background information is in order.

Almost a year ago PG&E was in the midst of a massive public relations campaign to educate wary customers about their new smart meters. Recognizing that some customers were concerned about the safety and security of the wireless data transmissions of these new meters, PG&E told me personally, and formally testified before the Seaside City Council, that the company was pursuing a wired smart meter option for such customers.

However, PG&E never followed through on that plan, and has now given us only one alternative to wireless smart meters: Keep your analog meter and pay a hefty fee for the privilege of having peace of mind. Being disappointed by this turn of events, I called PG&E's smart meter information line and asked what happened to the wired meter program. "I've never heard of it," the nice lady explained, but she was happy to pass my question along to persons higher up.

About a week later a gentleman from PG&E called to explain why wired smart meters won't work here. Yup, you guessed it! He used the ol' "We're not like Europe" excuse on me. He had a well rehearsed statement about how our line voltage is different here than in Europe, as if that somehow made a difference. It was bullshit and I called him on it. I explained that Idaho Power installed wired smart meters for all of their customers, and last I heard Idaho was not in Europe. I also explained how Idaho's meters worked, and offered one or two alternative ways they might also work. He stammered and said "I did not know that."

When people use the excuse "We're not like Europe," I don't know if they're being deliberately misleading or are merely ignorant people who lean too heavily on cliches when forming their opinions. I suspect, however, there are some of each in the mix. Either way, they are standing in the way of progress. 

There are no technical or economic reasons why we can't have universal health care, decent train systems, wired smart meters, or anything else the Europeans do well. The problem is that a substantial portion of Americans are so emotionally attached to their particular ideologies that they can't put them aside to get the job done. Their attitude is that if it can't be done a certain way, it can't (or even shouldn't) be done at all. In that respect, though, they're right about one thing: We're definitely not like Europe.

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