Letters from Spain #14: Public Education

Letters from Spain #14: Public Education

Here is the next episode of my Spanish podcast. This one is about the enormous price differences between Spanish and American universities:

Here is the Apple Podcast:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-14-public-education/id1469809686?i=1000465633689

For the transcript, see below:


Hello.

I’ve come back to work from a rather pleasant weekend. To celebrate our anniversary, Rebeca and I took a little trip to the Madrid mountains. It’s a beautiful place. The geography is dominated by grey granite formations (a material that also forms many of the local buildings) and the landscape is covered in pine trees. There are endless trails for hiking and lots of cute little villages to visit. The pueblo we happened to be in was populated by a bunch of hippies, eating vegetarian meals and drinking craft beer. It was a nice escape from the city center.

Well, anyways, in this podcast I don’t want to talk about Spain’s many vacation possibilities. Instead, I want to talk about something that is a source of envy for many Americans: public education. Specifically, public higher education. As with the cost of medicine, the cost of university in Europe is strikingly lower than it is in America. To give you an extreme example, going to New York University for one year costs (according to the internet) over $70,000. Now, admittedly NYU is one of the most expensive universities in the world. But even if you want to go to a much more modest college in America, like I did, you can still pay quite a lot. In my case, I went to a public university, Stony Brook, and had to pay well over $20,000 a year.

Meanwhile, my girlfriend went to the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid—one of the best universities in Spain—and paid around 3,000 euros per year. And a chunk of that was covered by a scholarship. Needless to say, she didn’t need to go into debt to get an education. Meanwhile, I graduated with well over $20,000 of debt and I’m still paying it off. So what is the deal with this huge price difference? It’s worth remembering that this wasn’t always the case. Every millenial has heard stories of Baby Boomers working their way through college. Just the other day I heard an economics professor say he paid for college by lifting boxes during the summers. Clearly, that’s impossible nowadays in America, so it’s worth asking what the deal is.

Obviously a big difference is how much the state subsidizes higher education. In Spain, as in many European countries, the government foots the bill. You could make the argument, therefore, that in Europe college isn’t really free after all, since the people pay for it in higher taxes. That’s one side to the story—and, of course, it’s a big one. But I think there is another, less-mentioned aspect to the college cost debate, and that is the culture of college.

In America, going to university is a rite of passage. It has been turned into a basic phase of young adulthood. You live away from your parents for the first time, and you live in a dorm with a bunch of other young people. Suddenly you find yourself in a world of young people with very few responsibilities. It’s a crazy time. People go to parties, fall in love, form close friendships, and very occasionally study. And campuses can be very comfortable places. My campus, for example, had free gyms all over the place, and even a pool to use. I joined an a capella club and volunteered in a local rock venue. The point I’m making is that college consisted of a lot more than just going to classes.

In Spain, college is not nearly such a huge personal step. It’s not mythologized like it is in America. I’ve never met a Spanish person who has a lot of pride for where they went to school, or strong nostalgia for their college days, or who has even really talked about their college experience at all. Meanwhile, I know Americans who dreamed of going to specific schools and whose whole friend group is from their college days. Really, university in Spain—and in much of Europe, I think—is a continuation of high school. It’s going to school. Most students don’t even move out of their parents’ house to get their undergraduate degrees. And if they do, it’s quite rare to move onto a dormitory on a college campus.

So one significant reason that college in America is so expensive, I think, is that it has become so much more than just going to school. Think about college sports. Each university in America has its own mascot, its own spirit band, its own star athletes. This doesn’t exist at all in Europe. My girlfriend doesn’t know her school’s animal. (My school’s animal is entirely fictional: it’s the Seawolf. And we had our own cheer: “What’s a Seawolf? I’m a Seawolf.”) In America, we expect a high profile guest to give a speech at our college graduation, where they praise us for being the best and the brightest the world has ever seen. Leaving college is a major ritual, too, after all. Again, nothing of the sort happens in Spain. There are no viral Spanish graduation speeches.

Since moving to Spain, I’ve come to see the American rituals of college as a bit ridiculous. A lot of it is fueled, I think, by our culture of competition. In the United States there are a handful of extremely prestigious schools with a limited number of spots, and where you go to school is a big determiner of your career. It thus becomes a part of your personal journey (and Americans love talking about their careers as personal journeys) and even your identity. This is partly why we demand so much from our college experiences. We don’t just go for the knowledge, but to take our rightful place in the hierarchy of society. We are supposed to emerge transformed, imbued with the prestige of our institution. If you don’t believe me, just talk to anyone who has gone to an Ivy League school. Either they reject it or it’s a part of who they are.

When universities are responsible for providing such an all-inclusive package—dormitories, food, social life, entertainment, psychological and physical health, and a life-defining education—it is no wonder that they cost a lot. What you are paying for is basically the brand itself. Even public universities in the United States pay huge amounts of money in marketing, in order to bolster the university’s brand. The better the brand, the higher the ranking, the more prestigious the university, and the more money it can charge to bestow its prestige on its clients—I mean students. 

I’m getting a bit carried away here, but I hope you see my point. In Spain, you are paying for your classes and little else. You emerge from university with a degree—more knowledgeable, hopefully, but not transformed into a vessel of prestige. To me, I think it’s a healthier system, not least because people don’t drive themselves crazy competing to get into the best university possible. Where you go to school does not determine your social status.

I have a limited experience going to a Spanish university. Last year, I completed a masters at the Universidad de Alcalá de Henares, in the Instituto Franklin (which specializes in American studies and courses for Americans abroad). The masters took one year to complete and cost me about $4,000. That’s not a bad deal. As an aside, Alcalá de Henares is worth visiting just to see the historic university buildings, which are quite beautiful. The oldest continuously operating university in the country is in Salamanca, which was founded in the 12th century. If you are in Salamanca—a beautiful city—this is also worth a visit.

Anyways, I didn’t want to talk about higher education the whole time. I also want to mention about the Escuela Oficial de Idiomas (the official school of languages). This is an initiative of the Spanish government to subsidize low-cost language classes outside of the university, mainly for adults. This year I began taking classes at one of the official schools in order to revive my atrophying German skills. And it’s been a great experience. I paid a little more than 200 euros for a whole academic year of classes. That works out to—what… about two euros per hour of class? It’s a very, very good deal. And the classes are quality, with properly qualified teachers and a well-established curriculum. I’m learning a lot this year.

There are dozens of official schools in Madrid alone and about half a million students enrolled in Spain. My particular school has a very wide range of languages on offer. Besides German, there are other major European languages like French, Italian, and English. There is Spanish for foreigners—quite useful for immigrants—and there are also the other three official languages of Spain: Basque, Catalan, and Galician. Aside from this, the school offers Dutch, Danish, Arabic, Greek, Gaelic, and Chinese (to give you the short list). If you want to become a polyglot, this is a place to be. And the school’s resources extend beyond the classroom. There are language exchanges, where you can find someone and “trade” languages, and also lots of cultural talks and events. There’s even a choir!

Of course, being run by the government, there are a few things to be desired. The school is in an ugly old building. One of the two elevator’s has been broken for two months, so I have to walk up the five floors to my class. And enrolling is a pain. But for what you pay, it’s really a great deal. In fact, I think that having a public school for language training is a wonderful idea, and one that we should embrace in the States. At the very least, it would be a great resource for immigrants. And it might help us with our famous monolingualism. I’d go even further, and suggest that the model of the Official School should be extended for other sorts of things. Computer coding, for example, or even photography—any kind of skill that adults might need to learn. Even on purely economic terms, investing in education usually pays off. After all, a multilingual workforce can outcompete a monolingual one.

In general, my experiences in Spain have made me a strong believer in public education, as uninspiring and inefficient as it can admittedly be sometimes. I think we lose a lot more than we gain by conceiving of college as a giant competition for limited amounts of prestige and status. Education should be about equalizing opportunities and not exacerbating differences, which it so often does in America.

And needless to say, graduating with tens of thousands of dollars in debt isn’t ideal. Let me give you a concrete example of the difference that debt makes. A few weeks ago I met a man from Scotland living in Germany. He had begun to study German language and literature, but a few years into his undergraduate he decided he didn’t like it—since he didn’t want to work as a translator or a teacher—and he stopped. Now, in America he would have been deeply in debt and without a college degree to help him get a job to pay for it. He would have to start working like mad to try to pay his loans off, and he’d have a difficult time for sure. (Even the loans we get from the federal government in America can have a high interest rate.) But this guy didn’t have to do that. He didn’t sink under the weight of debt since he didn’t have any. A few years later, he re-enrolled as an undergraduate to study music. And now he’s working his way through college—just like we used to do in America—paying for his living expenses with a part-time job as an audio engineer.

To many millenials in America, stories like that seem too good to be true. But are we willing to give up our mythologized college culture and settle into treating university as just additional schooling?—schooling that isn’t necessarily transformative and which isn’t necessarily the right step for every person? That’s hard to tell.

Thank you.

Letters from Spain #13: Cultural Comparison

Letters from Spain #13: Cultural Comparison

Here is the next installment of my podcast. This episode is an attempt to compare the deep values of Spain and the United States. You can see the YouTube video here:

Here is the apple podcast:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-13-cultural-comparison/id1469809686?i=1000464935149

And here is the transcript:


Hello.

Yet another week has passed—this time of year always seems to go by so quickly—and there is nothing special to report from Madrid. According to the news from America, impeachment is a farce, the Iowa caucus is a farce, and we’re all going to die of coronavirus. Oh well. At least the weather in Madrid is unseasonably warm. Of course, that could be a concern, too, if you think too much about hot and sunny February days. But it’s best just to enjoy it while it lasts, I guess.

Today I wanted to try a higher-level cultural comparison between my two countries: Spain and the United States. Now, of course I am constantly comparing these two places on my podcast. That’s pretty much what I’m here to do. But a lot of cultural comparisons focus on details—diet, fashion, rituals, and so on. Culture goes a lot deeper than that, though. And if you want to really get to the heart of a cultural difference, you have to try to focus on these more fundamental values. Geert Hofstede, a social psychologist from the Netherlands, developed perhaps the most famous framework for comparing cultures. Basically he breaks down a culture into six independent factors, and then tries to measure them.

While I don’t know how far I agree with his theory or his methodology, I think this is at least an interesting place to start when thinking about two different cultures. Specifically, I want to focus on what Hofstede calls “power distance.” This is basically the degree to which a society accepts a hierarchy as legitimate. In other words, you can think of it as the difference in respect granted to a boss or an employee, or a parent and a child. Now, according to the Hofstede consultancy website, Spain scores significantly higher than the United States in this regard, meaning that it is a less egalitarian culture. But I have doubts about this. Much of the data was collected in the 1970s and focused exclusively on IBM employees (Hofstede worked for IBM). A lot has changed since then.

Instead, I’m prepared to argue that the “power distance” in Spain nowadays is, on the whole, quite a bit lower than it is in the United States. A lot of little things lead me to this conclusion. One obvious clue is in the Spanish language itself. Spanish, in case you didn’t know, has two forms to say “you,” a casual version (tú) and a formal version (usted). However, in Spain the formal version is rarely used. Even when you meet a total stranger or you’re in a shop, it’s expected to use the casual . To be honest, I’ve used the usted form so rarely that I’m not even good at it. Now, this is not the case in many Latin American countries. And a few decades ago, it wasn’t the case in Spain either. The language itself has stopped encoded differences in respect.

Another striking piece of evidence of this is how teachers are addressed. In America teachers are called by their last name. So I would be Mr. Lotz. But in Spain, teachers are universally called by their first name. So here, I’m Roy. I’m not even Mr. Roy or Teacher Roy. Just “Roy” to my students. This isn’t just some curious fact. Believe me: the relationship between teachers and students is very different in Spain than in the United States. Growing up, I remember seeing my teachers are unquestionable authority figures, someone to disobey at your own risk. In Spain, students just don’t have this fear of teachers like I did. There’s a definite casualness in the relationship that can drive you crazy if you’re trying to quiet down a class.

Here’s another example from the classroom. (As a teacher, this is where most of my experience is.) In American high schools, there’s a definite hierarchy among the students. There is a continuum from cool, popular kids to uncool, unpopular kids. Think of any American movie about high school you’ve seen. Besides this, there are quite noticeable cliques or groups of students in any given American class. Certain people hang together. In a Spanish classroom, these factors are refreshingly absent. At least from my perspective, there is no definite hierarchy of popular to unpopular, and the students mix pretty freely. So most of the time you can randomly group students together without fearing any issue. 

But there are other signs of this cultural trait, too. One thing that’s striking for an American is how rarely Spanish people talk about their jobs. In America, it’s one of the first things we ask about a person. And we kind of assume that a person’s job defines them, at least partially. But in Spain people often don’t ask, and never seem to want to talk about their work very much. Now, again, I don’t think that this is just a curious fact. In America, your job defines your role in a grand hierarchy. This, I think, is one of the main reasons we want to know it: because our attitude changes if we are talking to a janitor or a lawyer, even if we’re not aware of it changing. If you’re an American listening, try to imagine knowing someone for weeks and weeks without knowing what their job was. Would that make you uncomfortable?

I also think that power distance is encoded into forms of politeness. Specifically, I think about the American tendency to say “please” and “thank you” rather obsessively. Spaniards say please and thank you, of course, but not nearly so often or in so many different situations. To me this is very telling. The words please and thank you are for making requests and receiving benefits. The fact that you have to say it implies that you are not owed anything by the other members of the group, and so every benefit you receive should be treated like a generous gift (even when it obviously isn’t). The funny thing about it is that you normally say please and thank you when you’re in a situation where there isn’t a lot of choice. For example, an American might say “thank you” when a worker in a restaurant fills up their glass with water, but of course if that worker didn’t do so in a timely fashion, they might get fired. Similarly, you say “please” when ordering in a restaurant, but not when asking your friend to pass you a beer.

My point is that these words, far from indicating a situation with equal power, are most often used when there is unequal power—such as a boss telling a worker what to do, or ordering in a restaurant, and so on. Please and thank you serve as a kind of respectful mask for unequal power distributions. This is why, in some cultures, inappropriately thanking someone can be seen as disrespectful. Even in Spain, if you impulsively thank your waiters in a restaurant for everything they do—take your order, give you a beer, serve your food—then they might look at you funny. The attitude is that it’s their job and that’s it. You’re paying for a service and receiving it.

And while I’m on the subject of Spanish restaurants, I think the attitude of waiters also illustrates an important difference. To be a waiter in many American restaurants, you need to be an actor as well as a server. Waiters are expected to smile and be chipper and pleasant. In Spain, there really isn’t nearly as much of a notion that waiters should take on this role so completely. And I think this applies to many jobs: even while they are working, Spanish people tend to treat their jobs as jobs, not as roles in a play. This, to me, signals an unwillingness to identify with their level in the hierarchy of status, maintaining their primary identity as independent of their temporary social role.

This, in short, is why I think Spain’s culture has a lower score on the “power distance” scale.

While I’m on the subject of these big cultural differences, I thought I would also mention another important way that cultures can differ: individualism vs communalism. As is often noted, the United States is highly individualistic. As a Western country, Spain is pretty individualistic, too, though significantly less I think. Here, again, I think that forms of politeness give us a clue. While saying thank you and your welcome are not as important as Spain as in the US, it is significantly more important to say hello and goodbye. Spaniards take greetings seriously. When you’re introduced to a group of people in the United States, you can just wave to everyone and say “hello.” But in Spain, you need to make your way around the circle.

Similarly, you have to say goodbye (technically, “see you later”) when you leave a space, even if you’re talking to perfect strangers. This applies to a lot of situations that strike Americans as strange. You walk into the staff room at school to pick up a pencil, and you have to say “hasta luego” as you leave. Or if you visit someone and leave their building, you say goodbye to the doorman. Or even if you’re in an elevator in a crowded office building, you say “hasta luego.” This strikes an American is really bizarre. But it makes sense in a more communal culture, where being together, in a group, is a strong value in itself.

You can even get a taste of this if you look at the two countries on Google Earth. Americans live alone in big houses, separated by wide spaces. Spaniards live all bunched up together in apartment buildings, even in rural areas they bunch together in a heap rather than spread out. You can drive for miles without seeing a sign of human habitation, and then all the sudden you can see a dense village. As an American, you naturally think: why don’t they spread out? But Spanish people love being together.

As a last cultural aspect to consider, there is what Hofstede calls “masculinity,” which I think is a bad name for a useful concept. This is (and I quote) “the degree to which a society will be driven by competition, achievement, and success.” You can just call this competitiveness rather than masculine, I think. In America, life is conceived of as a struggle of all against all, a universal rat race, a giant zero-sum game. Americans want to have high status, and there is only so much status to go around. Spanish culture is not nearly so competitive.

You can see this very clearly if you teach high school. In America, we separate students into tracks: normal, honors, and AP (advanced placement). Not only that, but students in American high schools must constantly scramble to accomplish as much as they can—get high grades, engage in extra-curriculars, sports, music, dance, theater, etc. Again, in America status depends on success, success depends on money, and money partly depends on education—and, of course, there are only a few coveted spots in elite universities. Spanish high schools are not like this at all. They don’t even have official sports teams that compete against those of other high schools. And in general getting into university has none of this rat race quality that it does in America. 

To me it’s obvious that all of these cultural qualities are interrelated: a culture that is more egalitarian will be more communal and less competitive, and vice versa. 

Well, this podcast has already gone on long enough. But I hope I at least gave you some food for thought about cultural differences. I wasn’t trying to argue that either one was better, by the way. In some cases it’s nice to have a low score on the power distance scale. But believe me, as a teacher, sometimes you wish there was more of a power distance between yourself and students. On the other hand, I think that the competition to get into good colleges is psychologically and socially unhealthy. So, pick your poison I guess. 

Thank you.

Letters from Spain #12: Crime and Punishment

Letters from Spain #12: Crime and Punishment

Here is the next episode of my podcast.This one is about crime and punishment in America and Spain:

Here is the Apple podcasts link:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-12-crime-and-punishment/id1469809686?i=1000464236724

And see below for the transcript:


Hello.

I must, unfortunately, begin this podcast with some bad news. Well, it’s bad for me anyway. This past Saturday, as you may know, was Chinese New Year. To celebrate, I decided to go to the big parade in Usera—the Madrid equivalent of Flushing, Queens. The parade was packed. It took us twenty minutes just to walk a couple blocks, and even then our view of the parade was obscured by the crowds. I still managed to take some good pictures, though.

But you will most likely never be able to see these pictures, since shortly after the parade ended my camera was stolen. I’m not sure how it happened. The most likely story seems to be that it was nabbed while I was sitting down at a Chinese restaurant. There were tons of people around and the place was very busy. For half the meal, both me and my brother had our backs to the door, and I carelessly placed my camera on the floor. When we got up, it had vanished. My theory is that someone walked in, spotted it, and nabbed it before anyone took notice. Either that, or I did something even more stupid and left it on a chair or something.

Anyways, this loss, bad as it was, did at least connect me with a universal experience for tourists in Europe: being pickpocketed. There is not a whole lot you can do after the fact. In my case, I looked up my camera’s serial number (which is encoded with every photo you take with it) and then filled out a police report. Though I’ve heard stories of people waiting for hours in the police station, I filled out the report online and then went over to the station to sign all the paperwork. It took me about ten minutes. Every pawn shop in the city is required by law to keep a list of all the serial numbers of its products, and to submit that list to the police. But thieves must have their own workarounds, since business in the pickpocket industry is booming. In fact, judging anecdotally, theft seems to be on the rise. So be careful out there. 

Well, to repeat, pickpocketing is a common hazard for travelers everywhere. Though strangely, it seems to be far more common in Europe than in the United States, and particularly bad in Spain. Barcelona is commonly called the pickpocketing capital, with Madrid not far behind. Again, judging anecdotally, the situation is really quite bad in Barcelona. Judging from the stories I see on Facebook, it can seem like half of the tourists who go there lose their phone. Pickpockets are quite good at what they do.

Pickpocketing statistics are naturally very difficult to collect. Many people don’t report the crimes, and even if they are reported it normally cannot be proven that a missing item was stolen and not merely lost. Besides that, pickpockets are only rarely caught by the police. The only figure I’ve been able to get my hands on is 10,000 robberies a year in Madrid, done by about 500 pickpockets who mainly prowl the city’s metro. But I’m not sure how far to trust those figures. In any case, I am constantly hearing about phones and wallets stolen in Madrid.

By contrast, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a pickpocketing story about New York City. This is really strange. There are lots of needy people in NYC, and the dense crowds would make it an ideal place for pickpocketing. So why isn’t there more petty theft? Is it a cultural thing? Better law enforcement? Harsher penalties?

While I’m on the topic of crimes, I thought that I would compare some other crime statistics across my two countries. I quickly found that, while Spain may be worse than the United States when it comes to theft, the US is a lot more violent. Here the relevant statistics are easy to find: In America there are a little more than five murders per 100,000 people. In Spain, the number is 0.63—eight times smaller. Now, call me a liberal snowflake, but I can’t help thinking that this huge difference is largely due to greater access to guns in America.

The American statistics on sexual violence are just as bad. The relevant figure for the United States is 27.3, while in Spain it is a measly 3.4. Of course, rape is also difficult to measure, since it is underreported and under-prosecuted almost everywhere. Here in Spain there have been notorious cases of rapists walking free. So it’s certainly not great anywhere.

Now, Spain may or may not be better than America when it comes to crime rates as a whole. But Spain—and the rest of the world, for that matter—definitely has America beat when it comes to incarceration rates. The United States has the highest percentage of its population behind bars of all the countries in the world: 655 per 100,000. Believe it or not, the United States also has the biggest total number of prisoners in the world—well over two million—significantly more than China, a country with a much bigger population, and which we usually disparage for being totalitarian. The incarceration rate for Spain is 126 per 100,000, about five times lower.

When you consider that Spain experiences significantly less violent crime than America, I don’t know how one can justify such an insanely high incarceration rate. To be honest, I really can’t see any way to explain it other than by drawing the conclusion that we are throwing way too many people into prison in America. (And of course a disproportionately high number of them are black.)

Apart from this, prisoners are generally treated better in Spain than in America. The prisons are less crowded, for one thing, and are therefore more comfortable. Prisoners can pay to have a television or radio in their cells, and can even vote in the elections. Most shocking for me, conjugal visits are allowed, even for non-married partners (they are only permitted in four states in America, and they are not easy to arrange).

But maybe the biggest difference is the death penalty. The United States is the only country in all of the Americas—north, central, and south—to maintain the practice, and also the only so-called Western country to do so. In Europe, only one country (Belarus) continues capital punishment. Spain is a typical European country in this respect: the death penalty has been abolished since the 1970s, and even abolished in the military since the 1990s.

If you ask me, it is way past the time that we do the same in America. There’s little evidence that capital punishment serves as an effective deterrent. And since such a disproportionate percentage of our population is in prison, it stands to reason that we are in general over-prosecuting, and sending many innocent people to jail. Morally speaking, I think it’s worse to kill an innocent person than to insufficiently punish a guilty one.

As a last little piece of data for my informal comparison of crime and punishment, we can look at police killings. In America, there were 119 police killings in 2019, and 390 before that.* And of course the victims are, as usual, disproportionately black. Meanwhile, I can’t even find any statistics about police killings in Spain, and I’ve never heard of it happening. Once again, I suspect that a big culprit is guns. When the population is armed, it naturally makes police officers more prone to panic and overreact with deadly force, since there is a substantially higher risk for them. But if guns are extremely uncommon, then police officers can more easily remain cool. And a calm officer is obviously one less likely to open fire. (But this is just my little hypothesis about this.**)

Well, there you go, a little picture of crime and punishment in Spain and America. All told, Spain looks pretty good by comparison—with significantly less violent crime and far fewer people locked up in prisons. But all this doesn’t change the fact that I’m still missing my camera.


* According to this database, these numbers should be much higher. Apparently there is no government agency that collects statistics of this kind, or any mandate that the data get reported. So it is up to journalists and activists to do so. The database also contains lots of information on the factors that influence police violence.

** According to this article, police killing in America is far worse than in any other Western country. (The Guardian also collects its own statistics on police killings, which don’t quite match the above database, but it’s close.) The portrait that this article paints of American police violence is grim. My gut feeling is that the most likely way to explain this huge disparity is the presence of guns in America, though I’m sure this must be an oversimplification. The database above mentions several policies that are proven to reduce police killings, such as requiring that use of force be reported and that using deadly force be a last possible alternative. Considering America’s abysmal record in this regard, I think it’s clear that we should do something. We shouldn’t accept a situation as inevitable that does not exist elsewhere.

Letters from Spain #11: The European Way of Life

Letters from Spain #11: The European Way of Life

At long last, here is my first podcast of the new year. Some of my older podcasts are unavailable on iTunes now, but they are all on YouTube, including this one!

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-11-the-european-way-of-life/id1469809686?i=1000463500918

(For the transcript, see below.)


Hello.

Happy New Years to all five of my listeners! It feels good to be back.

For this letter, I want to finally talk about something that has been on my mind a long time, and that is the contrast between the American and the European ways of life. I think this is especially relevant now, during our endlessly long election season back in America, because this contrast between America and Europe has actually exerted a strong influence over progressive American politics. You could arguably boil down the progressive platform—championed by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—to the following statement: that America should be more like Europe. So what’s Europe like?

One of the most obvious contrasts is healthcare. Spain, like Germany, France, or Denmark, has a nationalized healthcare system. That means that every citizen is automatically covered at all times, free of charge or nearly so (although some people do supplement their public healthcare with private insurance). This is radically different from the United States, where most people have private healthcare, usually tied to one’s job. The difference is profound. In America, people really worry about the cost of healthcare. Even relatively well-off people.

The cost of an ambulance is one example. If you pass out in the street and somebody calls the ambulance for you, you can wake up in debt. There’s a famous story of a woman who fell between the subway car and the platform, who begged people not to call an ambulance because she couldn’t afford it. People go bankrupt in America because of illnesses and injuries—something almost unheard of in Europe. It’s not uncommon in America to see GoFundMe campaigns for people struggling with medical costs. But this isn’t just a question of insurance. It’s also because anything related to healthcare is absurdly expensive in the United States. A hip replacement, for example, is six times more expensive in the US than in Spain. That means you could take a nice long vacation in Spain, and then get your hip replacement, and it would still cost less money. And medication prices are wild in America. Insulin is so expensive that some people try to ration it, and a few have died in the process.

There are lots of reasons for the high cost of healthcare in the USA. One is the bureaucratic complexity needed to deal with all the different private insurers. Some hospitals need just as many administrators as hospital beds to process all the intricacies of insurance claims. Another reason is that, in most countries, medicine is bought in bulk by the government from the drug companies, while in the United States each person buys directly from the drug companies—and there’s no bargaining power in that situation.

Anyways, I don’t want to set myself up as some expert on healthcare, which I’m clearly not. What I can say is that I’ve never heard a Spanish person worry about whether they’ll be able to afford going to a doctor, while in America the financial costs of getting sick are at times even scarier than the actual sickness. On the other hand, I have had a bad experience with a Spanish dentist here. They often try to rip you off. (Though admittedly most dentists are private in Spain.)

Speaking of health, another big difference between America and Europe is our eating habits. We eat a lot in America—a lot of food, and a lot of junk food—and as a consequence obesity rates in America are over twice as high as they are in Europe. This tends to make us sick, which only exacerbates our healthcare problem. One thing that we Americans do have over Spain, at least, is that fewer people smoke in the United States (15%) than in Spain (about 22%). But America definitely loses when it comes to physical activity. Since so much of our country is designed for driving, the average American walks less than 5,000 steps a day, as compared to more than 9,000 for Spain. This, combined with other factors like Spain’s diet, led Bloomberg to proclaim Spain the healthiest country in the world. (The United States ranked 35. In fact, the average life expectancy in America has been falling for the last three years.)

So much for health. But there are still more striking contrast between Spain and the United States. One big one is maternity leave. Every European Union country guarantees at least 14 weeks of maternity leave, and several also give paternity leave. This means that a new mother can take over three months with her new baby, while receiving full pay, and guaranteeing a job when she returns to work. I have no idea why this isn’t a more outrageous issue in the United States, where the government guarantees no days of paid maternity leave—everybody likes mothers, after all. By the way, America is also unique for offering no minimum paid vacation days, and no guaranteed paid holidays. Spain, by contrast, offers a minimum of 22 working days off, plus a mandated 12 paid holidays, and an optional 2 more holidays that local governments can choose.

The last major contrast I’ll mention is university. The cost of going to college in America is incomparably higher than it is in Europe. Even a public university can cost tens of thousands of dollars per year. Student debt has become a way of life in the US, and virtually everyone graduates with at least a few thousand dollars of loans they need to pay off. This has a huge effect, not only on our economy, but in our educational decisions and philosophy. It influences everything from what we study, to grade inflation, to job choices after college. Meanwhile, in Europe, getting a degree is cheap and in some places even free. With a stipend, you may even be paid to attend a university. As you can imagine, this makes a big difference.

There are many other differences, too—the strength of workers’ unions in Europe is a big one—which combine to make Europe substantially more egalitarian than the United States. Here are some figures. From 1970 to the present, the share of total income going to the top 1% in America rose from 8% to 20%. In Europe, it also rose, but from 7.5% to 10%. That is, in America it increased by 150%, while in Europe by about 33%. That’s a big difference. In this same time period, the share of income going to the bottom 50% of the population fell by 7% in America (to 13%), and by only 2% in Europe (to 18%). To sum up, in America the gap between the rich and the poor has grown far wider than in Europe. 

And this brings me to a central contrast. In America we talk about the American “dream.” That is, our model is based on the idea of people “making it”—pulling themselves up by their bootstraps into another economic echelon. And of course there are success stories. But this narrative hides the fact that, if you don’t “make it,” then life in America can be rather harsh. Even more importantly, getting to the top is extremely rare. Besides the fact that having a highly unequal society means that there is less room at the top and more room at the bottom, America does not score particularly well on social mobility. According to the World Economic Forum, the United States ranked 27th globally. The top 13 countries, by the way, were all European. And the top five are the Nordic countries, famed for their socialist policies: Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Iceland (in that order). 

Admittedly, Spain ranked just below America, at the 28th spot. But the important thing to note is that, in Spain, social mobility is not vitally important to well-being, since a robust social security program guarantees a high minimum standard of life. This is why I refer to the “European Way of Life” rather than the “European Dream.” Because the idea in Europe is that the good life should not be a longshot, rags-to-riches, one-in-a-million dream, but something taken for granted.

My point has not been to convince you with statistics. These issues are extremely complicated, and of course Europe has its own problems. My point is this. When Americans, especially younger Americans, look across the Atlantic and see all of these differences—healthcare, education, maternity leave, vacation—many of them naturally wonder why we cannot do the same thing in our wealthy country. Why is America so exceptional in these rather unfortunate ways? I can’t say I know the answer to this question. But I know that awareness of this discrepancy is growing, and has already had a major effect on our own politics as more and more voters react with outrage. Americans put up with many things that, in Europe, would cause mass protests. But will Americans continue to do so?

Thank you.