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January 02, 2004

Thoughts on America from a foreigner

Well, I've been saving this one up for a long time, but its time to post it. I warn you, it is quite long. I decided to break it up to reduce page load. So make sure and click below to read the rest. I wrote this in the beginning of December on my way home from Ben's wedding in San Fran. Without further adieu.
I had the opportunity to talk to a couple Swiss visitors this past weekend on such topics as politics, health care, education, capitalism, etc... I mostly asked questions and let them speak trying to gain as much perspective as I could. I pointed out to one of them that American's have little opportunity to gain a true world perspective as we are not bordered by other countries (besides Canada and Mexico, which do not really count. We ignore one and discount the other.) Europeans tend to travel between different cultures a lot more, often getting their education in a different country than their origin. The two people I was talking to came from Zurich, Switzerland, but both had lived and/or visited many other countries. We had a long conversation and I want to record as much of it as possible so get ready for a long one.

Let me preface this by giving you Philip's standard disclaimer. Most of the questions I asked had to do with European's and their opinions of us. Philip was quick to point out that there is no single European opinion or experience, but there were many similarities in opinion. For you, the reader, all you can fully assume is that these are the opinions of Phillip and those like him. It took them a while to get comfortable enough with me to criticize America openly, but once they did, they were quite frank and I am assuming that the opinions they expressed were both honest and complete.

I asked Philip what European people thought of American capitalism. He first pointed out that most of Europe is capitalist as well and supported the notion of capitalism. The difference was that Europeans believed in a more socially conscious capitalism. I am paraphrasing here because I can not remember his exact phrasing, which he too struggled with as English was not his native language. "Europeans will work hard for a company, but will want something in return. They also want to be able to come home at 5pm have a cigarette and have a social life in general. They want the company they work for to succeed, but they also want their vacation." I mentioned to him (something I posted recently) about how the architects of capitalism believed the free market system would facilitate the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness by the widest range of people. Competition would ensure the best products and companies survived, while companies that cared more about profits than their product would fail. This, of course, has proven to be wrong. I gave this pseudo-example. If there were two companies that sold the same product and one of them decided to pay its employees less, giving them less benefits, but using those cost savings as leverage to undercut its competition, that company would succeed. In order to compete, other companies in the same sector would be forced to compete on those same terms. I told him about the current Vons Strike. I told him how this was happening all the time on a national level and that it was my belief it would inevitably spill over international borders. Other countries would have to start changing their social priorities in order to compete. Likely first signs would be a reduction in vacation time. He said this was already happening. Ironically, I heard something on my drive through Sacramento, on my way home that validated this prediction. I was listening to the always ignorant Savage Nation, an ultra conservative talk show where the host Michael Savage suggests nuclear war against Afghanistan. He related a quote from some European president (who's name and nationality escape me) that Europeans had to stop seeing their good quantity of vacation time as an inalienable right and start seeing that they would have to start working as hard as the rest of the world (ie. American) if they were to compete economically. This precisely validated my belief. I told Philip I believed European nations had to recognize this inevitability and do something about it before it was too late. Fredrick denied this would happen, while Philip acknowledged it was already happening. Socially conscious capitalism. Could there be such a thing? Apparently in Europe, in some unofficial way, there is, but it is that unofficial nature that will spell the slow demise of that brand of capitalism.

The conversation then moved on to the notion of debt. We talked about how one of American's greatest problems is debt. Back in '00 '01 when the recession started, it was the consumer that was blamed. We simply weren't spending enough to keep the system growing. Philip had heard that too and was as astonished as I was. "American's already have more debt per person than any other country, how will spending more money, they don't have, help?" Precisely my question. He then talked about how the rest of the world is thinking twice about lending America money as they are all getting concerned with our ability to pay other countries back. For a country that relies so heavily on debt, how will we fare when the U.S. government starts getting denied credit for having too much outstanding debt. I know I've been denied for that reason :) He related that in Europe, debt is still frowned upon. "There is a certain degree of shame in using credit cards to buy things." Fredrick couldn't believe it when he saw that he could buy clothing with terms in America. I asked if it was viewed as acceptable to use credit to buy vehicles. It wasn't. What about education? Nope. Only to purchase a home or start a business with the reason being that a business will make money back and a home will increase in value, whereas clothing and cars only lose value. I asked if Europeans were seeing the folly of Americans and would continue to shun debt. They were somewhat divided on this, but related that they were seeing more and more ads for credit cards and debt in general. Philip, the more pessimistic of the two, saw it coming.

Over the weekend I spoke to a number of Europeans from a number of different countries. All of them thought our health care system was atrocious. Philip said, and I quote, "America is a third world nation." I was completely stunned by this comment. "If you look at your health care situation, your education system, your homeless situation, your unemployment situation, you are a third world country." Wow. I'd never heard anyone call us a 3rd world nation. It's almost sacrilegious, especially for a country that has recently become so nationalistic. He also mentioned how bad our media was. I got the feeling that Europeans knew how bad/filtered our media is. This notion, along with a few others, made me realize how blinded we've become by our nationalism. We spend so much effort trying to be the uber democracy, and trying NOT to be Communist China or Russia of yore. Better dead than red! Socialism didn't work! That is one reason people give for not moving towards socialized medicine or other services. That point of view is merely one of ignorance. Many European countries that have socialized medicine are more of a democracy than we are. Combine that with our, report what they want us to hear, media, and America begins to look far less democratic and far more like the communist threat we'd been so afraid of.

Speaking of nationalism, they also felt that American's were disliked because of how arrogant we were. We talked about how there are really 2 America's. When Europeans come to visit, they usually come to the California coast, or New York. Both places have a very liberal viewpoint and are probably more open to these ideas than the part of the country Europeans never visit. In this way, many Europeans get a false impression of what American's are really like. On the other hand, they related to me that many (maybe most) Europeans saw American's like the classic texan, loud, arrogant, ignorant. In sheer numbers, they are probably right.

Personally, I never knew how the Swiss system of government worked. I was surprised to find it remarkably similar to ours, but with some key differences that seem to answer some of our system's shortcomings. Philip pointed out that while most American's believed they lived in a democracy, "America is not now and has never been a democracy." American's do not vote for their laws, or even their own president (as we saw in the last election). Switzerland is an extremely diverse country with 4 native languages, (German, French, Italian, and some mountain language I forget and probably couldn't spell anyway). It was important to the architects of their government that the system wasn't a run just by majority rules. The country was too diverse for that. They two have 2 houses (of parliament) like ours. Each has elected officials representing specific states. In one branch of parliament the number of senators (my interpretation) is based on the population of the state they come from (like our House). The other has two per state, regardless of the population of that state (like our Senate). The biggest difference between the Swiss system and ours is that they have a true democracy. Every law is voted on by the citizens. They vote around once every 2 months. In this way, lobbying representatives is not guaranteed affective, unlike in our system. He was amazed how in our system we elect officials with the notion that they will vote the way we expect them to, but in reality, vote however they want (or are pressured to). A perfect example of this is the recent passing of the medicare reform bill. It is the first major overhaul in medicare since its inception. I don't want to go into whether it is a good or bad thing, but I do want to mention how the vote went down in the House. Normally, once everyone has spoken and a vote is called, it is over very quickly, within a couple minutes. This vote lasted 3 hours, which is 2.5 times longer than the longest vote in history. Why? Once you have cast you're vote, you can change your vote before the closing gavel. It is the speaker of the house that, rather arbitrarily, determines when the vote is over. During this three hour vote, intense lobbying to get democrats and republicans who had voted against it, to change their vote was happening. Obviously, there was lobbying on both sides, but it was those that wanted the bill to pass that controlled the gavel. Votes changed on both sides until at one point, the republicans had enough votes and it was at precisely that moment the gavel fell, giving it to the republicans. Meanwhile, there were some dems that had originally voted FOR the bill, who were intending to change their vote against it, but were unable to once the gavel fell. It was obvious to Philip that a representative democracy like ours is a bought democracy. Representatives can be bought with money, influence or support. Votes are given for strategic reasons rather than on their merit. If you vote with ME on this, I'll vote with YOU on that. In a true democracy, it simply isn't that easy to buy the system.

On Education. Citizens of Switzerland are guaranteed an excellent education all the way through college. Their public schools are better than our private ones. As proof of this, their system does allow for subsidized private schools where you can pay varying amounts for your kids to go to one. The idea of subsidized private schools has been debated a great deal in American, but never made into law because it seems obvious that public schools would get worse as those who could afford it would send their kids to private schools (which would be much less expensive than today), while those that could not afford private schools would be forced to go to an even WORSE public school. The best teachers would naturally gravitate towards private schools where they'd make more money and be treated better. This system might be better for the middle class and up, but would probably be much worse for the lower class. In Switzerland, even though it isn't expensive to send your children to private schools because of subsidies, few people do and there are few private schools. Why? Because the public school system is widely recognized as being very good. Why pay for something you get just as good for free? According to Philip, private schools in Switzerland are mostly for the lazy and the troubled.

Health Care. Switzerland has a strange hybrid socialized health care system. I say hybrid because while ever woman man and child has guaranteed health care, they are all required to pay for it. Phillip pays around ~$130/mo for health care. If you can not afford health care, you still get it for free through clinics and other means. The government may take some percentage out of your monthly income if you can not afford the standard fee. What do you get with this health care? Free doctor and hospital visits. All prescribed drugs are free. Would you pay $150/mo if everything was free? I know I would. I paid that much for a long time and that came with a $25 medicine co-pay, and a high deductible. For most, they spend a lot more than $150/mo on health related needs. For some reason, dental isn't covered, but it is far less expensive at full price than it is here. Given their lack of deductibles, how much less they spend on the rest of their health expenses, and how much less dental costs anyway, they don't mind the occasional dental bill.

Is the Swiss system perfect? They didn't think it was. Though there was some debate as to whether on eof the apparent flaws was really a deficit. Because everyone votes on everything and because any minority group can veto any move by a majority, things move very slowly. In our fast paced, quickly changing, global economy, this can put them behind. But perhaps it is best for governments to error on the side of caution when deciding for millions. Rashly changing policy without proper debate can have long term consequences. For example, it might not be wise to rush in and occupy another country for revenge, without fully realizing the long term ramifications and costs. It might also not be wise to rapidly decrease civil liberties in a panicked attempt to regain control of ones people.

I stipulated that when America rose to power with its brand of capitalism and democracy, both were quite new and unproven. Since then, many countries have experimented with variations on both and it would be naive to think America got it right the first time, or even that there aren't other variations that have yet to be tried. I asked what would happen if European countries started taking away things like health care for all. Philip said, "revolution." And indeed, historically, this is how radical change is gained. Our founding fathers predicted the same for our country. As we talked about the decline of the age of the American Empire, they couldn't help but bring up the comparison between us and the Roman Empire, mentioning our military might as another similarity. Fredrick, who had served in the Swiss military in mandatory service related how much more powerful our military is than any other military on the planet, both in numbers and technologically. I pointed out my observations on the problems with the Roman analogy. In the Roman Empire, as well as other empires throughout history, the lowest classes hated and did not support the upper class. The upper class shunned the lower classes and made it clear they were better in every way and that the poor had no chance of ever getting to their level. Indeed, they were almost a different race in their eyes. Whereas in the American Empire, the poor love and revere the upper class. You may think I'm crazy, but look at how we worship Hollywood stars and other famous figures. Even Donald Trump is lauded as a hero for going bankrupt, pulling himself up by his bootstraps and rising to riches again. The rich have figured out that if the poor are led to believe they too can attain the riches and power of the upper class, they will follow blindly, even giving what little they have to those that already have too much. I don't actually believe rich people think about it in that way. The truth is, they probably see the peasants as the aristocracy saw the loath-full peasants in Roman times. The love of the rich by the poor is a product of this system where the pursuit of life, liberty, and BMWs is supposed to be guaranteed by the very system that keeps them accruing so much debt they will never rise above poverty.

We ended the discussion talking about how America needs to start seeing itself as a single community. If a large percentage aren't doing well, it will bring the rest down. In this same way, because of the global economy and globalization in general, the world is becoming one large community. We will not prosper in the long run, monetarily or in our individual pursuit of happiness, if we do not recognize and rectify our attitudes.

Are we headed up or down? The consensus says down. As America drags the rest of the world away from social consciousness in order to protect their capital investment, quality of life for most will suffer, even as the availability of resources increases. There WILL be another revolution. But who will start it and where. What will be the catalyst that ignites a firestorm, awakening the wrath of the ignored masses.

Viva La Revolucion

Posted by wonko at January 2, 2004 04:51 PM

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Philip's judgemnts are not too bad, especially when it comes to the third world nation statment.

Posted by: PeetTheEngineer at January 4, 2004 03:44 PM

Pete, I went to your blog and noticed it was in German. I'm assume your not American. What are your thoughts on America, Americans and Americans abroad?

Also, what are your thoughts on American Capitalism?

Posted by: Wonko at January 4, 2004 03:48 PM

I contest the idea that we don't vote for our president. We do. We're just a step removed from the direct vote.

"As we saw in the last election"? Huh?

If we put aside the issues that might have swung the electoral vote in the last election, it did nothing to prove that we don't vote for the president. It only showed that there is not a direct democratic vote taking place. Plenty of other voting systems could have led to the same outcome, though, so this doesn't prove your point.

Even a direct democratic election has a lot of problems that could have been just as bad as the last election. Mostly, I think a large part of the issue is people just being bitter that Bush won.

Posted by: kasei at January 5, 2004 11:05 PM

I think there is a tremendous amount of evidence that the last election was done unfairly. All the way to the end when, during the recount, the supreme court ordered them to stop. Its not hard to look into this issue and find all the areas in which the republicans stacked the deck. Henious things happened that sweyed that election. It probably would not have been that close otherwise. This isn't the first time this has happened though. Remember, Clinton was elected with a divergence between the popular vote and the electoral vote. Are you defending the system of representative democracy over true democracy?

Posted by: Wonko at January 6, 2004 10:41 AM

I don't think that a true democracy is any better than a representative democracy. Americans find it difficult to get to the polls even twice a year, imagine if it were every 2 months. The same people who don't care to vote twice a year, won't care to vote 6 times a year.

What the party system like in Switzerland? Do they even have them?

Posted by: Cycl1sta at January 6, 2004 01:05 PM

Clearly there were some unfair aspects of the last election. But that doesn't mean we didn't vote for the president.

Given the choice between a representative and a plurality vote, I could care less. They're both fucked up. But neither is as fucked up as the system that keeps our voting system from improving.

Posted by: kasei at January 6, 2004 01:16 PM

Quite an old post, but still warrants a good look over.

I wish I could find something good to counter this post, but I just can't. The statements seem to point out undeniable truths, the types of things we know exist, and are practiced, but do nothing about, for what reason I do not know.

As for the discussion over the "voting for our leader/el presidente"... Sure, we can vote for our president, but to put things into perspective I'll use an example. Imagine a nationwide vote initiated by congress to declare war on a nation. Sure, we could have a vote on that, and the population could overwhelmingly decide to go to not go to war. So then what would happen if our leaders decided to go against the wish of the people and initiate a war unprovoked against another nation? What would happen if we saw no action taken against a nationwide decision to do something so drastic? We should be absolutely up in arms about such a blatant disregard for the peoples common interest. In retrospect, this kind of thing just took place in our last election. We had a president, elected into office, who was not the winner of the popular vote. Yet, for some unknown reason, the electoral college gave the victory to the loser. Why were we not absolutely outraged? Why weren't there riots in every major city? Why weren't we marching in protest? Our rights were undeniably violated. Even if you were a citizen who supported the winner, wouldn't you be somewhat frightened of little regard your government showed towards an opinion of the masses? What I wonder is, what is next?

So to wrap things up, I guess the point I want to get across in short, is that you can give a group of people a vote on anything they feel strongly about, but that doesn't mean you have to do anything about it. Just so long as they feel like they truly had a part in the process of the final decision, they will stay quietly subdued. Kind of scary isn't it.

Posted by: liberatinggreed at March 27, 2004 04:19 PM

Well, it's more than a year ago, but I found the questions of Wonko:
"Pete, I went to your blog and noticed it was in German. I'm assume your not American. What are your thoughts on America, Americans and Americans abroad?
Also, what are your thoughts on American Capitalism?"

So it’s still time to replay:
I’m actually Swiss like you interview partners. I worked several years abroad and spent significant time in India, Russia, Sweden and the States.

There are a couple of things which makes the Citizens of the States very special:
- They seldom speak another language beside English.
- They do not have a clue about international affairs beside war in Irak and Israel issues
- They do not know other cultures

American Capitalism is now in a very dangerous phase: share holder value is the only thing that counts and the system only works if economy is growing to the sky!

About the share holder value:
The people seem to forget that shares originally represented an ownership of production equipment. Nowadays the share seems more and more to be representing virtual value. Companies in trendy business sectors like biotechnology or IT can issue shares which are not backed up by a real production but the value still starts to rocked in the sky. These sort of investments produces only bubbles which will bust sooner or later.

About the growing issue:
There is nothing in the world that is growing without end except the time. So forget all economy models which only work if there is a constant grow or did you ever see the endless growing tree? There must be a new sustainable economy, which take care of environment issues and does not just produce more and more vast.

The growing debt:
In long term it is dangerous to have debts. Once a day, the other countries like China or so will not pay any more and this could be the big bang for the world economy.

Healthcare system:
Even some people do not believe it: Switzerland has one of the best in the world. It is quite efficient and is not really expensive. Ok, ok, some Swiss folk will blame me definitely because of this statement, but this is also required. All things in Switzerland are in a permanent improvement process driven by self-critical public discussions.

Public transport:
In the States public transport is only useful in large densely populated areas, every body else need a car. In Switzerland you do not need a car. In case there is not petrol at the pump anymore, the economy does not come to a complete halt.

Are Americans arrogant?
Not really, but they can not imagine that somebody can do something in a way which is not American. So think twice abroad before you say something or act. For several things in daily live there are different solutions, most of them are not the American Way!

The Democracy Emergency Brake:
The democracy in the States does not have any emergency brake under control of the citizens. This means once your government / president is elected you do not have any direct influence on their politic. In Switzerland we can stop any action of the government as long we find enough people with the same idea. This puts much more responsibility to the citizens and made them more actively participating on political issues.

In America there are no real educated craftsmen. No wonder all production is going to China. Same problem start to rise in Switzerland. The university degree is much overrated compared to hands-on jobs.

Well, that's it for the moment.

(sorry, but I do not know why I've got all text in the center.)

Posted by: Peet at February 20, 2005 02:59 AM

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