Monday, June 18, 2007

Bon mots in my in-box

We all have them. They're the friends who insist on forwarding along emails that appeal to some peculiar prejudice of theirs, firm in the (mistaken) belief that we share their strange notions. Op-eds, lengthy bad jokes, commencement addresses--all are fodder for the friends who foul our in-boxes with the regularity of spammers promising to increase the size of our packages for a low, low price.

Most recently for me, it was a particularly insipid Paul Krugman column. That's saying something, because Krugman has spent many years inspiring speculation as to who he's screwing to keep his gig at the New York Times. To call a Krugman column "insipid" is to repeat one's self.

But this one was especially bad. It was the piece in which he claimed that Americans are no longer tall relative to Europeans, and that this necessarily is an indictment of U.S. diet, culture and child-rearing habits despite our greater wealth. The column made no allowances for genetic or environmental factors that might explain why the population of one country might top-out in height while the population of another gains in physical stature.

But that's beside the matter for Krugman and for my friends who forwarded his scribblings. There was a point to be made, damn it, and pointing to changes in relative heights must have seemed like a particularly clever way to make that point when Krugman first tried out his idea on admiring dinner guests.

The point, of course, is that America is bad, bad, bad. We eat McDonald's and we work hard, so we don't love our kids enough, dontcha know. And Europe is good, good, good. They have high taxes and socialized healthcare, so you know they really love their kids and deserve to be tall.

Honestly, to judge by the emails that get forwarded to me by the usual suspects, that's about as sophisticated as the reasoning seems to get. In fact, the friend who forwarded the Krugman column to me is a particular admirer of tax-funded healthcare, especially if it allows him to use his disposable income on European vacations rather than prescriptions and insurance premiums. He wants his visits to his naturopathic physician to be publicly funded, and he wants it now. And he can't wait to retire to a civilized place like Provence where the people are so much more sophisticated than beastly Americans.

The thing is, I like European food and the slower Mediterranean pace of life. I think that putting more emphasis on family and leisure relative to work is a great idea.

But Americans are undeniably wealthier than Europeans. And I guess it's possible that Europeans love their kids more--but that's probably because European kids are such a rare commodity. To be honest, Europe sometimes seems like it's on its way to becoming an under-funded museum-exhibit version of itself, where a dwindling staff stages strikes and demands welfare benefits for the amusement of American and Asian tourists. In fact, to judge by the new conservative lock on France's presidency and parliament, at least some Europeans are having a few doubts themselves about the supposed benefits of their over-weening governments and intrusive bureaucrats.

President Sarkozy's reform plans might throw a bit of a kink into my friend's scheme to retire to Provence. And I'm not convinced that even the French want to pay for his naturopathic physician.

Not to worry. I'm sure that the flow of wit and wisdom into my email in-box will continue unabated.


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