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.

Review: The Speech

The Speech: A Historic Filibuster on Corporate Greed & the Decline of Our Middle ClassThe Speech: A Historic Filibuster on Corporate Greed & the Decline of Our Middle Class by Bernie Sanders
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Greed, in my view, is like a sickness. It is like an addiction.

Say what you will, this presidential race has been, at the very least, an intensely interesting affair. Of course, there is the debacle of the Republican primaries; but those are mainly interesting in the same way that a car accident is interesting—you can’t help but rubberneck, even if you’re a bit disgusted with yourself for doing so. Much more engrossing, for me, has been the rise of Bernie Sanders, something which seems to have surprised everybody, even Sanders himself.

I should admit, right off the bat, that I like Sanders; but I’m going to try my best in this review, however ineffectual that may be, to maintain some skeptical distance. I suggest you do the same for me.

This book was first released in 2011. As its back cover will tell you, it is a transcription of Sanders’s long filibuster speech, delivered on December 10, 2010, on the eve of a deal, brokered by Obama and the Republicans, which extended the Bush tax cuts on the super-rich, among other things. The whole speech is on YouTube, if you’re interested, all eight-and-a-half hours. This book is just a transcription of the speech.

As Sanders warns in the beginning, this speech is quite repetitive, deliberately so; he expected viewers to turn in for only a few minutes on CSPAN, and not to stick through the whole thing. This redundancy is probably the worst aspect of this book. I don’t see why it couldn’t have been edited and neatened up. Even so, despite the recurring sections, there is just enough new material scattered throughout the speech to keep the reader’s interest—or at least, to keep mine.

The subject of Sanders’s speech is most immediately the financial legislation in question and its shortcomings; but Sanders uses this as a jumping-off point to discuss what he sees as the pressing and dire problems facing the United States. Sanders is a remarkably consistent politician, and you will see him focused on the same issues, often using the same language, that he’s employed during his presidential bid this year.

The core of Sanders’s campaign, and this speech, is income inequality. Truly, the level of income inequality in the United States is staggering and hard to wrap one’s head around. Sanders does his best by hammering his listeners with statistic after statistic, numbers so big and so stark that they baffle the mind. After about five repetitions, they start to sink in; and after ten, your own moral outrage begins to simmer along with Sanders’s.

It’s worthwhile to compare Sanders’s speaking style with that of Obama. Obama is, I think, certainly the stronger and more versatile speaker. He is capable of sharp wit, of passionate outrage, of good-natured jocularity. But where I think he most excels, and what was his biggest asset when he ran for president, was his ability to inspire. He does this mainly through the use of anecdotes. He makes his speeches very personal; the way he speaks of nurses and teachers and firefighters is not at all condescending or pandering, but really makes you feel he knows them, knows them personally and intimately.

Sanders’s approach is quite different. For one, he is certainly more narrow in ability and focus. What Sanders conveys, with his voice, with his words, with his thrashing body language and unkempt appearance, is moral outrage. Indeed, I find something Biblical about Sanders’s speeches. He shouts until his voice cracks, until he is absolutely hoarse, detailing in a long, grotesque list how unfair and unequal our society has become. You don’t so much feel inspired as galvanized, jolted with a mixture of desperation and indignation.

To create these feelings, he does not tell stories, but recites facts. It’s astonishingly simple, really; he just has to read off a long list of ways that America is doing poorly—our shamefully huge prison population, our crumbling infrastructure, our soaring college tuition and health costs, and of course the absurd level of wealth and income inequality, which seems to grow more every year.

To speak personally for a moment, I remember the moment when his message really hit me. First I have to tell you that, among my friends, it’s almost a cliché to talk about how much better life in Europe is than in America. In fact, one of my friends, after a long vacation in Europe, said to me: “It’s honest really depressing how much better life is over there.” And it’s not just us; a lot of people have these thoughts. You get used to thinking of the United States as poorer, less prosperous, more benighted than places like Germany and Denmark.

Anyhow, one day when I was listening to a Sanders speech, he said: “Some of you may not know this, it’s easy to forget it sometimes, but the United States is the wealthiest country in the history of the world.” This really made something click within me. I’d gotten so used to thinking of the United States as poor and inferior—a place where you can’t afford to go to school or to get sick—that I was shocked to be reminded that we have more wealth in this country than anywhere else. This is, I think, what’s so effective and compelling about Sanders: you feel you’re being snapped back into reality.

So this is what I like about Sanders. What I dislike is his tendency to demonize the rich. He speaks of the super-wealthy as if they’re a bunch of nefarious, mustache-twirling, conscience-less devils trying to enslave the rest of the world. I just don’t see this rhetoric as necessary. First, everybody pursues their own interests—the poor, the middle-class, and the wealthy—so I don’t see any reason to act morally superior. And second, I simply don’t think it’s true, strictly speaking, that the economy is hurting solely because of the greed of the wealthy. Yes, I am sure that a lot of stupid, selfish greed contributed to our economic situation today; but the economy is bloody complicated; it’s not a moral playground, but a vast system that even the best minds have failed to understand.

The cynical side of me sees this finger-wagging as just the sort of us-versus-them rhetoric that politicians use to gain power. But I do think, to be honest, that Sanders is not capable of something so underhanded. He’s been ragging on the rich for his whole career; it’s only recently that this strategy has started to pay off. And besides, I do think his larger point is not only valid, but vitally important—namely, that the influence of the wealthy class on politics, with campaign contributions and corporate lobbyists, has to be curtailed in order to preserve a working democracy.

As for Sanders’s political vision, I can’t deny that it appeals to me deeply. In a nutshell, Sanders’s vision is to make the United States more like Europe, with cheap college education, with free healthcare, with a strong social safety net, with higher taxes on the rich, with stronger infrastructure, and with a great deal more economic regulation. For the truth is, life in European countries often sounds too good to be true to young Americans.

Let me give you some concrete examples. Just the other day, I was in a car with a Spaniard. We got on the topic of vacation. She said she has a friend in the States who only gets 8 vacation days per year. “Is that typical?” she asks. Yes, we tell her. In my last job I got 15, but my girlfriend only had 5. Our driver is aghast. “I get thirty,” she says, “and I think that’s too few!”

Here’s another example, with regards to infrastructure. A monthly subway card in New York City costs $117; the equivalent here in Madrid costs 55€, and only 20€ if you’re 26 or under. What’s more, the subways in New York are overcrowded and dirty, with constant delays due to lines being shut down for repair; whereas the metro here is clean and always has good service. I’ve even seen a video—here’s the link—which shows some of the machines being used today in the NYC subway system. They were built in the 1930s, if you can believe that.

And this is not to mention the looks of shocked disbelief on the faces of Europeans when I tell them just how expensive college and healthcare are in the United States. So, really, when you’re reminded that your country—the place with the slow and expensive and obsolescent trains, where every young person is several thousand dollars in debt from college, and where we still have high levels of unemployment and child poverty—is the richest country in all of history, it hits a nerve.

And while I don’t like demonizing the rich, I do agree that the rich in the U.S. live in a world apart. This was illustrated for me last year when, by chance, I found myself looking through a yacht magazine. Have you ever seen one? It was unbelievable, and I mean I honestly couldn’t believe what I saw. These ships were just huge. Inside they had bowling alleys, movie theaters; they had personal gyms and helicopter landing pads; they had living rooms created by world-famous interior designers. The boats were, I admit, super cool. But what does it say about our society that there are people who can afford things like this, when on every corner is somebody on the street?

This review has already dragged on too long, and still there is so much to be said about Sanders and what his campaign means. The pundits dismissed him before he began, and even now, even in some liberal publications, he’s discussed—discussed all too rarely—with a kind of guarded skepticism. Some have said that the media is ignoring him because of their corporate overlords. But in general, I don’t think conspiracy theories are necessary. The news media in the U.S. is not evil, it’s just shamefully bad.

For example, on several occasions I’ve heard pundits criticize Sanders for focusing on income inequality in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. What a bizarre situation we’re in, when a politician is criticized for not trying to whip up fear. Other pundits have dismissed Sanders based on poll numbers; but even when Sanders was leading in Iowa and New Hampshire, Hillary was regarded as inevitable. Besides, my understanding is that these poll numbers, which change every week, are done on landlines—and thus probably exclude most young people, the bulk of Sanders’s supporters. Ironically enough, the only thing that seems to get the journalists’ attention is how much money Sanders is managing to make without accepting donations from corporations—which says quite a lot about the American media.

Almost every prediction I’ve heard about this election cycle has been shown to be foolish, so perhaps I should demure. But let me give it a go. Even if he doesn’t quite win, I think Sanders will surprise everyone on election day by how close he gets. And even if he loses, I predict that his presidential run will serve a similar function as Barry Goldwater’s did, back in the 60s, giving impetus and direction to a new political movement in the country. In other words, even if he loses the political battle, I think he’s already won the battle of ideas. And, who knows? Maybe he’ll win the political battle, too.

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