When people ask what I'm working on these days, I tell them about my new book: "How French People Take Out the Garbage." It's all about the elegant, common-sense Gallic approach to trash, which I, of course, refer to as les poubelles.
I'm joking, but who knows? The book could be a surprise success — my very own "Springtime for Hitler." It would certainly have lots of company. A great many how-the-French-do-it books have recently been published or are en route, with titles like "French Women Don't Get Facelifts," "Mastering the Art of French Eating" and "Ooh La La! French Women's Secrets to Feeling Beautiful Every Day." (Full disclosure: I've added books to this genre, too.)
It's easy enough to mock these titles. They sit at the unfortunate intersection of America's love-hate relationship with France and that most risible branch of American letters: self-help.
And yet, it's no accident that there's been a surge in self-help books whose inspiration isn't a shrink, celebrity or CEO — but another country. They're part of a larger shift in the way Americans relate to the rest of the world. Increasingly, they are looking abroad for wisdom about all kinds of things — not just how to choose a fragrance.
Americans have always had an eye on other countries, of course. But we used to fixate on a particular enemy or competitor — the Soviet Union, or Japan. And mostly we were trying to beat these countries, not emulate them. In the case of the Soviet Union, we didn't actually know much about it, which made it easier to believe that America was somehow beyond comparison.
These days, there are international league tables ranking the United States against dozens of countries, in hundreds of categories. These findings — along with the war in Iraq and the financial crisis — have chipped away at some ideas we've long had about ourselves. For instance, new studies of social mobility show that people in Canada and much of Western Europe now have an easier time than we do of realizing the "American dream" of becoming richer than their parents.
Another blow has come from a test called the Program for International Student Assessment, known as PISA, which measures how well 15-year-olds can apply reading, math and science skills to real-life problems.
South Korea and Finland are at or near the top of each category, while America is either average or below average. When the most recent scores came out in 2010, Arne Duncan, the education secretary, called on Americans to "study and learn from other nations once again" and commissioned a report on what the world's top-performing school systems can teach us.
There's a lag between amassing all this data and figuring out what lessons to extract from it — especially for a country as big and complicated as the United States.
Interest in international examples also tends to split along party lines. Republicans typically acknowledge that America has problems, but they're less inclined to argue that other countries have useful solutions. Some warn, confusingly, that Democrats want to make us more like these successful countries.
Democrats aren't out constantly scouring the globe for best practices either. A former Swedish minister told me that the only American fact-finding delegation he ever received was from "The Daily Show," to find out about Sweden's health care system. (He added, reassuringly, that "Sweden isn't interested in anyone else either.")
And yet, international comparisons probably helped drum up support for the Affordable Care Act, which became law in 2010. In public discussions about it, Americans became increasingly aware that no other rich country had so many uninsured citizens, and that our health care is among the most expensive in the world, with quite mediocre results. (Note to self: write "French Patients Don't Have Paperwork.")
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