When I moved to America, back in the ancient days, my friends tried to dissuade me. “Don’t move!” they’d say, “You won’t like it!”
I asked why, and the replies were scattered. There was a cluster of “Americans are so shallow!” in the mix, but mostly it was about trivialities like, “Their bread is terrible,” or “You can’t ride your bike anywhere.” My friends clearly had no idea of what life in America is like.
Then I moved, and I saw the opposite situation: Americans generally don’t know much about other pleaces, peoples, and cultures. So, when asked, “What’s so great about America?” they sometimes fail to find a workable answer, because they don’t really know where, when, and why America is different.
Having bridged the gap, I found that America is really different and better than the culture from which I moved. But the reasons it is so are not the reasons either side of the divide would enumerate. And that’s very sad, especially for America, because not knowing what sets you apart makes you likely to abandon those distinctions. So here, for you, my summary, in hopes it might lead to more awareness. In a separate post I might write about the misconceptions that exist.
1. Americans are fundamentally honest. Yes, I know, there are lots of crooks here. Even if the news were not full of reports of crooked politicians, CEOs, companies, etc. you’d evince that from the simple fact that America has the largest prison population of any nation on planet Earth.
But crooks are a minority, and it’s the behavior of the average Joe that determines your experience in any place. When I lived in Rome, I knew better than to leave any valuable in the car. I also knew better than to leave the doors locked. All I would get was a broken lock, and no valuables, no matter how much I hid them.
In Germany, things were different. If I left the car on the street overnight, there was not likely to be any detectable attempt at break-in. Probabilities accumulate, and I would start thinking that after a month or so I would notice the tell-tale marks of someone trying to get into the car. But I could leave it locked and find it locked in the morning, no risk attached.
In America, I can assume that if I leave my car unlocked (by accident) and with valuables inside, when I come back I will find my belongings. I’ve gone to the beach for years and left my wallet in the backpack, and it’s never been touched. Surely, as a seasoned Italian, I always bring two wallets: one with a little cash but no ID, and one with the ID that is hidden better. But I’ve always gotten back to a full backpack, no matter what.
My stuff has been stolen, too. It’s not like America is a Utopian paradise. Once, all it took was having to walk to the front desk of the gym – two minutes – and by the time I was back, my wallet was gone. But such things are much rarer than where I came from.
And it’s really not about the wallet. It’s about life in general. When I shake hands with a contractor, or prospective employer, or supervisor, I can safely assume that what we agreed on is going to happen. Sometimes that opens me up to a crook, but in general this works.
Compare that to Italy, where I’d have to send documents (including such trivial ones as the termination of a lease) in plico. That means I’d have to take the document, fold it like an envelope, put a stamp and address on it, and send it with signature confirmation. If I simply put it in an envelope (still with express delivery with signature confirmation), the recipient would claim the envelope arrived empty.
The problem neither Europeans nor Americans see is that it’s incredibly expensive (in time, in effort, and in money) to guard against crooks all the time. You don’t believe me? Look at how much easier it is to get a credit card in America. You can rail all you want against the evils of predatory lending, but at least in America you have the option of buying things when you don’t have the cash for them. Europe, as I like to say, is full of young people driving VWs and old people that barely can get into their Porsches.
Another example, an example of how things can go wrong when you stop your presumption of trust, is what happened to flying after 9/11. A horrible catastrophe, an incredible act of evil – but one whose repeat would have been prevented by simply making the doors to the cockpit impenetrable. A simple crossbar would have been sufficient. Instead, a whole industry and government agency were set up to make flying more secure. The side effect: flying has also become a giant hassle. Personally, I try not to fly if I can help it. I mean, I even drove to Whistler from San Diego (a 1,500 mile drive one way) just to avoid flying.
2. Americans have ways to fight back against organizations. Yes, it is a fundamental difference – so powerful, in fact, that neither the average European nor the average American are aware of how things work on the other side of the ocean.
America has both a tradition of cheering for the David that slays the Goliath and the mechanism that allow for it to happen. Here, I can sue the government or the telecom company, and I stand a chance to be heard. That’s because I can demand a trial by jury, and because judges are independent of the executive. Not only are they independent, but many of them are elected by the same people that might want to fight a government or corporate decision, so they have to rule according to the will of the voters.
Europeans laugh off that power. They remind you of the McDonald’s hot coffee case, of the lady that put her dog in the microwave oven, of the silly lettering on the side view mirrors in cars that remind you that OBJECTS MAY BE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR.
What Europeans don’t understand is that the one lady that put her dog in the microwave (if it’s not an urban legend) is a single case, while the benefits of being able to win against the car manufacturer that knows your ignition switch could randomly kill the engine on the freeway are immense.
Let me tell you how things work in Europe, so you get an idea of how bad it can be. I recall this area in Aachen reserved for touring buses. At night, obviously, there are no touring buses, so I parked there. Giant parking ticket for “blocking a tour bus zone,” handed out to me at 2 AM. I tried to fight it in court, saying that obviously there were not going to be any buses in the middle of the night, and that if they wanted to check for parking, they should do so at a time where I actually would block someone.
I thought my argument was cogent and responsible. Instead, I got a notice back from the city that not only would they ignore my complaint: they would double the fine, and add penalties for complaining. Also, they said, there would be no possibility for appeal.
In other instance, I was driving in Italy on the freeway from Milan to Bologna, the main route in the Po Valley. It’s a straight shot, no more curvy than the I-5 in the Central Valley in California. Well, at some point in the middle of nowhere, a speed limit sign showed. 130 km/h. Then 110. Then 90. Then 70. Then 50. Then 30. Then ten police cars. Then no speed limit.
Clearly, the whole thing was a setup to milk drivers of money. You’d see the speed limits, think someone left them behind after there was road construction or some such, and ignore them after you realized there was no reason to slow down. Of course, by the time you ignored the 30 km/h limit, you’d be well over 100 km/h too fast, enough to send you to jail.
(The former story is something people in America should read before they continue saying, “Don’t do the crime if you don’t want to do the time.)
Opposing story from America: I lived in Oregon and loved the beautiful countryside there. So much so, in fact, that I bought a parking pass for all state parks. I would go on the weekends, park with the permit on the dash, and have a picnic with my friends. Good times.
One day, I parked on Sauvie Island. As I got out of the lot, I had a ticket. I thought maybe the officer hadn’t seen the permit, so I stopped at the ranger station. No, he said, it turns out this is not a State Park. It’s a State Fishing and Wildlife Park. I needed a special, separate permit for that.
I went to court, made my case, and ten minutes later the ticket was dismissed. It was clear to the judge that someone who buys a permit for all State Parks has a reasonable assumption that it includes State Fishing and Wildlife Parks. I was told not to park there again without the separate permit, but my existing ticket was voided.
3. Americans are pragmatic. One of the last things that happened when I left Germany was a discussion about health care. (I know, that discussion followed me to America…) It was about tooth implants. The government was trying to make people on the social health plan co-pay for them. The logic was that those implants were not medically necessary and merely aesthetic, and the government shouldn’t have to pay for them, at least not in their entirety.
Of course, given that I wanted to move to America, you probably understand that I agreed with the government’s position. But whether you agreed or not, I assume, was a matter of political opinion.
The reasoning behind some of the Left’s resistance to the idea, though, baffled me: they said that it was unfair for the government to create these co-pays, because it was a well-established fact that poor people eat poorly (in two different senses of the word), and hence these co-pays would disproportionately affect the poor.
That logic is unassailable. But the consequence of accepting it is that poor people will continue having poor dental hygiene. The thing to do is to work on improving the diet of poor people, not to help them deal with the consequences.
The same logic, by the way, applies to other areas, as well. Smoking was (and is) very common in Europe. Whenever taxes on cigarettes were to be raised, there was always the argument on the Left that these new taxes would be a burden to the poor more than to the rich, because (you guessed it) the poor smoke more than the rich.
In America, people look at the consequences – whether predicted or measured – when they make decisions, and then act based on the most advantageous results. We’ve seen that most recently in the changes to Marijuana laws, where people are starting to realize that the current system doesn’t work, whatever its moral value. As a result, the laws are being changed, ever so slowly.
I am particularly fond of American pragmatism, having lived for decades in a country dominated by pointless dogmatism (Germany). That’s why I am so sad to see how the pragmatic principle is slowly being chewed away thanks to polarization. As an example, I’ll cite Global Warming: a fact outside the USA and inside the scientific community world-wide, there is ideological resistance to it in American political circles. The resistance is pragmatic: America is the world’s largest consumer of oil, and any reduction in usage would hit America first. But that same resistance is phrased in empty ideological terms: Global Warming is not proven; Global Warming is not man-made but is part of a natural cycle; Global Warming is a conspiracy.
It is notable that cool heads try to deflate the ideological component of the discussion by injecting pragmatism into it. It doesn’t matter, they will say, who caused it or if it’s man-made: what matters is that we do something about it. It doesn’t matter if sea levels will rise 1 foot or 5 feet, what matters is that a rise in that order of magnitude threatens millions of people. There is hope.
4. Americans try to be pleasant. Sadly, the American tourist abroad is stereotyped as a loud, grand-standing fool that ridicules other people’s poor command of English but is unable to utter a single phrase in the language of the country he’s in. I’ve met that American tourist often enough, so I know there is some truth to it.
But at home, Americans are very pleasant. I think Europeans like to think of Americans as phony precisely because of this pleasantness, which to them looks fake. As I point out to my friends, though, it is much nicer to live in a world of nice strangers than in one of unpleasant ones. Sure, the smiles and pleasantries handed over to you with your latte in the morning may just be a result of corporate policy and a watchful manager – but is that really worse than the cashier at the German supermarket who berated me for choosing such a stupid product when she accidentally pushed the bottle over the counter and had to clean up? What about the waiter at the German coffee shop who, when asked if he had any other milk but whole milk, told me in the most aggressive tone that “If you don’t like what we have, go somewhere else!”
The pleasantness is not limited to personal interaction, either: drivers are routinely calmer and less aggressive than in Europe – although there are always exceptions. Some people stop when they see a child approaching the road (imagine that).
Companies try to be pleasant, too, which gets us to our next point.
5. The customer is always king. My mother had a friend who married an American and moved with him from her native Germany to Colorado. There, she found out that you can send back pretty much any product to the manufacturer, and you will get a replacement or a refund. She then proceeded to eat boxes of cereal and send them back half-empty. She never heard a complaint from the companies, who always sent a new box, apologized for her not liking the cereal, and promising to do better.
I also lost a friend because of this. He found out that Amazon (and pretty much any online book seller) will take back books, no questions asked, and issue a refund. He ordered my novel, read it, and then sent it back for a full refund. He loved talking about it: how much he had loved it, all the things he had learned from it, and the ways he now had a totally new insight into the issues presented. Then I got the book back from the publisher with the note “Returned.” Nobody had ever returned my novel, and when he told me he did that routinely, I asked him if that’s what he had done with my book. End of friendship ensued.
But there are of course incredibly good reasons to return an item, and not allowing that will make you less likely to shop, and in particular to shop at a particular place if you know you won’t be able to get your money back. Amazon has made of their amazing return policies a hallmark of customer service. That’s very important, because I wouldn’t buy things sight unseen (no matter how much I love Amazon reviews) if I might get stuck with something I don’t like.
In general, this only works because of item 1, the Fundamental American Honesty, which seems to be a linchpin of life here, in general. Companies can be generous, because very few people are like my mother’s friend and abuse the system. Europeans seem not to understand that, which I find somewhat puzzling. After all, this is a social principle: your cheating may not get caught, but it will make it less likely that the victim is going to continue being generous, to you and others.
6. Bureaucracy is accountable. This is a side-effect of item 2., the David v. Goliath syndrome, but merits separate mention. Americans love to hate their own bureaucracy. But that’s only because they have no idea how bad things are in the rest of the world.
Like when they complain about their DMV. (That’s the Department of Motor Vehicles, responsible for driver licenses and vehicle registration.) Yes, there are sometimes horrendous lines there, and yes, sometimes the process is stupidly inefficient. Like when I moved from one city to another and had to update my registration and my license: they made me stand in line twice, once for each change. But that’s changed (I can do both online, now).
When I lived in Italy, the idea was that you had to pick up your license in person. It had to be signed in person by a high-ranking government official (the Prefect or Quaestor of Rome, in my case, I forget). The line was so bad, they handed out numbers at 4a and stopped distribution at 5:30a. Then you had to wait all day, and if you didn’t make it that day, you’d have to restart from scratch.
Or when I went to pick up a letter sent with signature confirmation. Of course, the mailman didn’t deliver, because that would have meant waiting for me. So I had to go to the post office. I handed the slip after waiting for two hours, and then the clerk disappeared for another 30 minutes in the back. She said she couldn’t find my letter. I said, well, I have a slip that says you do. Then it came to her, and she went to a series of shelves in the customer area and fished my letter out of one of them. Where it was in everyone’s reach.
I am particularly fond of his item, because it saves an enormous amount of time. Americans love to complain about the tax forms, but you can easily fill out a 1040 of medium complexity in a single day. Not so in Germany (never had to in Italy): the process took me a whole week. The forms alone were more than 30 pages!
I am also particularly upset that this item is slowly eroding away. In the name of National Security, various agencies seem to have downgraded the importance of public accountability and act in an almost imperial way. I think the most peculiar one is the TSA, that seems to be completely deaf to complaints of abuse. But I hope things are going to get better, not worse.
7. Taxes are low. Yes, I know: I am an idiot. I could have written off thousands of dollars, but I didn’t. Why? Because taxes are so low, compared to Europe, it’s a bargain all around. Frankly, after living here for over a decade, I have no idea why there aren’t any anti-tax riots in Europe. Seriously: 25% sales tax? That is absolute madness! Yet is is common in much of Europe. Income tax rates are insane, too; and I am not even talking about maximum rates, which are probably much too low in America. I am talking about median incomes!
Yes, much of the taxation system is invisible, since it’s hidden. By law, taxes have to be included in consumer prices in Europe, which means you don’t actually see the VAT. Also, most salaried people don’t really see how much money they give away to the (local version of the) IRS. That’s sad, because it’s way too much. American taxes are probably too low at the high end, but I don’t think you get what you pay for in Europe. Especially the way you are treated by the rapacious governments.
Somehow, in America people hold government accountable: if you don’t give me services for the money I give you in taxes, you won’t convince me to pay taxes no more, seems to be the motto. Mind you, America affords an extravagantly enormous military on top of everything else, so Europe really has no excuse for the crappy services they provide with the boatloads of money they take in.
8. People take democracy seriously. Another one of those items that is slowly eroding away, making way to a polarized and poisonous political environment. For now, though, Americans don’t re-elect those they deem unworthy. People vote with intent, and they don’t forget. As a result, the political class here is much more responsive to the will of the people than in other places – especially in Europe.
Italy is of course the example that comes to mind when you think buffoons and crooks. If the memory of Silvio Berlusconi is not enough to bring the idea of bunga bunga parties back to mind, there is a whole string of bizarre stories from the 80s and 90s that all feed into the same general malaise.
The original problem, of course, was a fragile democracy in which people seemed unable to rid themselves of those that ill-governed. That’s not the case in America, as the recent “defenestration” of the immensely powerful Eric Cantor proves.
9. And to close it off, nature is amazing. Yes, this is a random list. Yes, Europe has wonderful nature, and much more beautiful and important historic and architectural gems. But you really have to come to America to see it! It doesn’t matter where you go, there is always something breathtaking right around the corner. Well, probably more like 1000 miles around the corner, since distances are enormous. And if you come, make sure to stop in San Diego, because it’s the most beautiful place in all of America!