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There’s Less Funny Business Here

Brits John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, who write for the Economist, are co-authors of "The Right Nation" (Penguin, 2004).

It is always easy for Brits to sneer at American attempts to redo Limey art. We gave you “The Taming of the Shrew,” and you handed back “Ten Things I Hate About You.” We gave you “Emma,” and you gave us “Clueless.”

So let it be said clearly that NBC’s version of “The Office” is not bad at all. If it lacks the masterful touch of the BBC original, that may have something to do with different attitudes at work on either side of the Atlantic.

One reason why Britons immediately identified with David Brent, the work-averse boss in the Slough office of the paper company Wernham Hogg, was because his casual “it’s just a giggle, really” attitude to management reflected their own prejudice. Brent is part of a long tradition of slightly dodgy British TV businessmen -- notably “entrepreneurs” Arthur “Arfur” Daley on “Minder,” and Del “Delboy” Trotter on “Only Fools and Horses,” who sold things like “North Korean porcelain.” Brent also fits in well in continental Europe. Last year’s bestseller in France was “Bonjour Paresse” (“Hello, Laziness”) by Corinne Maier, a Brentish guide on how to do nothing at work.

Brentism, however, translates less easily across the Atlantic. In the United States -- where “The Apprentice” is seen as art, entrepreneurs appear adoringly photographed on the cover of Fortune, and “The One Thing You Need to Know ... About Great Managing, Great Leading and Sustained Individual Success” has just crash-landed onto the bestseller list -- business is darned serious. That helps explain why the American version of “The Office” feels as unnatural as Britain’s Trumpless version of “The Apprentice.”

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Alas for Europe, what makes for good television does not always make for economic prowess. If American zeal for business is sometimes a little humorless, it is also a competitive advantage. Between 1979 and 1999, the average working year for Americans lengthened by 3%; by contrast the average German working year shrank by 15%.

It is worth bearing Brentism in mind when considering the recent upsurge in Euro-revisionism. A series of books -- notably “Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century” by Mark Leonard, “The United States of Europe” by T.R. Reid and “The European Dream” by Jeremy Rifkin -- all take issue with American triumphalism.

Europe, point out the revisionists, is actually the world’s biggest market and its biggest exporter, with a better savings rate, a smaller trade deficit and fewer structural imbalances than the United States. So what if the American economy has grown faster? That is only because its population has grown faster, people have been forced to work longer hours and it has spent less on looking after the poor. Europeans, by contrast, have chosen to have more holidays, smaller families and more government spending. Americans live to work, but Europeans work to live -- and have more “quality time.”

Some kind of revisionism was overdue; there are all sorts of things that are better in Europe than in the U.S., including trains, mobile phones and healthcare for poor people. But there are also problems that the revisionists often skate over, including lousy labor markets (France and Germany both have unemployment rates over 10%), dilapidated armed forces and a demographic time bomb. (If you worry about the baby boomers busting Social Security in the U.S., take a look at what Italy or Germany’s rapidly aging populations will do to their systems.) The European Union still looks dysfunctional and unaccountable. Britain’s problems with the European Union are well known, but a recent poll showed a majority of French people also want to vote down its new constitution.

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Many of these problems are fixable, but whenever you start to get optimistic about Old Europe’s economic prospects, David Brent enters the picture. That is not to suggest that all Europeans are lazy or anti-business. Take a look at the success of Nokia or L’Oreal, for instance, or the fact that the aforementioned “The One Thing You Need to Know” is actually written by a Brit, Marcus Buckingham (who has moved to California).

But too many Europeans are anti-business. Brent’s philosophy is rooted not just in working shorter hours (though, God knows, he likes those) but in a mild contempt for the whole affair. He reflects a lingering snobbery about trade and entrepreneurship that Margaret Thatcher fought like a tiger. Brentism helps explain why Europe has no Silicon Valley, no Bill Gates, no Warren Buffett.

So if you are American and don’t really “get” the humor of “The Office,” don’t worry. The last laugh may be on us.


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