Over the years, my European friends and family have repeatedly asked, “Marco, why do you like living in America so much?” When I hear that question, I just smile, because the answer is long and complex. Even when they pointed out all the strangeness of the Bush years, I continued smiling: what I love about America is not a particular administration, but the people and the culture.
Surely, I am no bumbling fanboy that buys into anything whole cloth. I can distinguish what I like from what I don’t, and I can see instances where Europe does better than America. There is no need to point those out to me.
But I absolutely love living in America. And this is my story of why that’s the case.
First of all, in America I have a sense of freedom that I never had in Europe, especially not in Germany. This freedom comes in two ways: I have freedom from government intrusion, and I have freedom from other people.
Since founding, America has been strong on curbing the power of government entities. That sentiment makes a lot of sense in a country founded on rejecting the oppressive regime of a far and foreign king, and it has continued on. In America, police cannot stop me unless they have a reason to do so. In America, police has to tell me my rights when I get arrested. In Germany, I cannot tell you how often my car got stopped for a “routine check” after a passing police officer detected my non-blondness.
This freedom from government is a precious victory, and Americans cherish it rightly. If your city or county comes in with excessive regulation, Americans cry foul. Eventually, those supporting regulation that is too tight fall from grace – which in America means they are thrown out of office at the next election.
But freedom is also cherished as a personal right against others. The somewhat radical form of freedom of speech practiced in America, where almost anything can be said if it is not slanderous or imminently dangerous, is a direct result of Americans understanding that this liberty to say flows directly from founding principles.
Freedom can also be quite subtle. In Europe, for instance, you dress appropriately. By that I don’t mean that cultural conventions force you to dress a certain way, but that you choice of dress tells others who you are (or want to be). If you show up in Rome in sneakers, you are either from the lowest social classes, or an American tourist. If you walk around in Germany as a professional, you better wear a business suit.
Even in America, this kind of freedom is regional. On the East Coast, arguably towards European mores, you have to dress the part. On my beloved West Coast, not a lot of people think much of what you wear and when. Here in San Diego, in particular, you can show up in shorts and sandals in church, and no one will find it disrespectful.
Faced with a fundamental choice, a German will side with principle. The problem with Germans is that “principle” is a fluid concept, and a choice. You choose a principle over another. Like the prison guards in Auschwitz that thought it perfectly appropriate for them to shoot or gas thousands of people because they were just following orders. The principle “follow orders” clashes with the principle “do no harm to humans.”
Faced with a fundamental choice, an American will side with results. An American will look at reality and choose a course of action based on observables. Principles and laws that don’t work are discarded in favor of ones that do.
To wit, America is struggling with this, and more and more fundamentalist voices are coming to the fore. This is particularly true of politics, where battle lines of ideological purity are being drawn, with litmus tests to verify orthodoxy.
Particularly in America, though, you see the power of pragmatism over fundamentalism. America consistently fails where it tries abstract principles, where it sees much more progress where it tries out things.
An example in point was the government’s reaction to the 2008 financial meltdown and the subsequent Great Recession. In Europe, Germans forced a very unpragmatic austerity program on the continent, made much worse by the British obsession with the same. It is not coincidental that both countries were run by conservatives at that point. But the choices are fundamentalist and hence not subject to review.
In America, the (progressive) Obama administration threw money at the problem, in best Keynesian fashion. The amusing thing about that was to see which programs attempted by the administration worked, and which didn’t. The Cash for Clunkers program, for instance, was a giant hit. The support for the crashed car manufacturers panned out nicely. Alternative energy investment, on the other hand, was a very mixed bag.
What matters here is that several different approaches and programs were tried, and people were entirely focused on whether they would work or not. Nobody really cared which programs were tried, only about the results. The Republicans seized on all errors the administration made, which is their domain, but they didn’t question the fundamental approach. Even if they did, it was simply political posturing: they would have done the same thing (and did it during the 2001 recession).
This pragmatism extends to other parts of culture. For instance, you can typically reason with an administration official or a customer service rep. They are typically empowered to deviate from company policy, because that’s pragmatic. In Europe, I recall, I wasn’t allowed to offer more than a 3% discount in my computer store by law.
Another shining example of pragmatism is the judicial system. While voters have done horrors with mandatory sentencing, judges and juries routinely assess the pragmatic value of a decision. I recall the strange habit we had in Italy, of folding documents into envelopes, putting a stamp on them, and sending them out. That was because in court, later, a defendant may claim we had sent an empty envelope. In America, the trick wouldn’t work. If you received a certified letter, you would have a hard time claiming that the termination of a least agreement wasn’t in there.
Maybe this is not so much an example of how good America is, but how bad the rest of the world. In America, processes are designed to flow.
When I needed my drivers license in Rome, I had to stand in line at the DMV (it’s called something else) at 4a. I would get a number and wait all day long. If my number wasn’t called, I would have to come back the next day and wait from scratch, as if the number from the day before shouldn’t entitle me to a shorter wait.
In America, the DMV is famed for its inefficiency. But I just chuckle when I think about how much better it is than what I was used to. I rarely have to wait more than 30 minutes, I rarely have to go in, at all, and I can pick and choose any office I like (instead of having to go to the one assigned to me).
Sure, there were annoyances: for instance, you used to have to stand in line twice to get you address changed; once for the license, and a different time for the registration. That was stupid beyond measure. But, and here we have the trick, this changed.
This streamlining of process has become such an ingrained notion in me that deviations from it irk me as very un-American. When the TSA was introduced post 9/11, its incredible powers and unwillingness to streamline and be pragmatic struck me as Byzantine and (here I said it) Italian.
Again, my American friends will laugh when I said that their society is by and large honest. But it’s the comparison that matters.
When I left my car unattended in downtown Rome, I never bothered locking it. That’s because I knew they were going to go through it and look for valuables no matter what, and leaving the doors open at least meant I wouldn’t have to deal with a broken lock.
In America, you typically don’t need to do that. Sure, you should always be safe and lock valuables, but if you forgot about it, you typically come back and find everything just where it was. I have forgotten to lock the car hundreds of times, when I go to the gym, or go surfing. Even after spending hours away, I come back and my car is still there, all the CDs still in the glove compartment.
You cannot appreciate how much this fundamental honesty removes friction from the system. The reason Americans came up with credit cards, for instance, is that a system where you can spend money on a promise to pay back later works only when people are generally honest.
Americans by and large hire by fit, not recommendation. If you have the right skills for the job, you have a chance to get hired. Being chummy with the brother-in-law of the CEO may help, but it’s secondary – unlike the hiring practices in much of the rest of the world.
Now, my Italian friends can successfully claim to be as if not more congenial than Americans – but Americans certainly soaked it up from them!
It is incredibly easy to make friends in America. You just walk up to someone you’d like to talk to, and you talk. Really, it’s that simple. It doesn’t matter who the other person is, or who you are: as long as you are polite and interesting, people generally give you a chance.
I recall this time in Aachen. One of those dreary days when you keep your head down and pray for sunshine in six months. I was walking East towards my apartment and saw a man’s watch flash at the intersection. I looked up and asked the man if he could please tell me what time it is. In response, the man simply raised his (watchless) arm, pointed at a clock, and said, “Can’t you look for yourself?”
In America, you can ask to borrow a match even if your cigarette is already lit (not that I’ve ever done that, or even smoked a cigarette). Your American acquaintance will detect the desire to chat and … chat.