On the optimism and pity of the non-Americans passing us by

My friend Pete and I eat lunch together a few times a month. Pete, who’s an academic, tells me of his travels to fascinating places like Malawi and Sweden, where he’s either conducting field research on the spread of parasitic diseases, or sharing his findings with leaders in the field of world health, and I regale him with fascinating tales of what it’s like to work in an office without windows, and parent small children at an unnaturally advanced age. Fortunately, as Pete has no other friends on this continent, he has no choice but to humor me. So, he tells me about the world outside the United States, as we share samosas, and I fill him in on what it’s like to change diapers with severe back pain… At any rate, during our last meeting, Pete, having just returned from Stockholm, said something that stuck me. He said, “It’s not like this everywhere.”

We’d been talking about the current crop of Republican candidates running for president, and their plans for the future of America, which run the gambit from eliminating restrictions on child labor, and slashing environmental regulations, to scrapping public eduction altogether and even further reducing taxes on the wealthy. I think I’d commented on how depressing it was, sitting by, and witnessing our world recede into the darkness of neo-feudalism, when Pete offered the observation that, in spite of how things were presently evolving here in the United States, the people he knew around the world, on the whole, were optimistic about the future.

To hear Pete tell it, folks around the world are actually looking forward to the future, investing in infrastructure, educating their children, and laying the groundwork for success in a world no longer dominated by the United States. As it had been almost a decade since I’d left the country, I had to take his word for it.

Well, the family and I headed north this weekend, into the heart of the country that gave us Tim Hortons, and what we saw would certainly support Pete’s hypothesis. Not only did the people that we talked with seem to be optimistic about the future, but things were booming. And, maybe it has to do with the fact that the Canadians are presently making a fortune in the oil and natural gas business, but my sense is that it’s broader than that. Not only are sky scrapers going up left and right in Toronto, but the landscape is covered in solar panels and windmills, which, at least to me, signify the existence of a forward-looking mindset.

There’s certainly a downside to the explosive growth playing out in Toronto, and we had an opportunity to hear about some of it firsthand from a former city planner that we had dinner with on Friday night. (He’s now a consultant, who works on behalf of developers.) He described it as being like the wild west, with developers pushing the envelope on a daily basis, aggressively tearing down buildings, and replacing them with ones that stretch ever higher into the sky. The ordinances, he says, are having a difficult time keeping up. And, at least it would seem to me, much of Toronto’s history, architectural and otherwise, is being put in jeopardy in the process. Still, the positive feeling that comes along with such growth is palpable. The subways are full, the markets are booming, and people are flocking to Toronto in unprecedented numbers.

I knew, or course, that other countries were getting on with their lives, and not everyone around the world was holding their breath, waiting to see how things would turn out here in the United States, but it was a bit of a revelation to see it firsthand, and to hear people from Canada commenting on the state of our country. They weren’t terrified, which is what I would have expected. They weren’t concerned, at least outwardly, about how a Santorum presidency, for instance, would impact them. If I had to sum the feeling up in a word, I’d say it was pity. They seemed to genuinely feel bad for us. And the pity, from what I could tell, didn’t seem to stem from the fact that ours is an empire in decline. The pity, I think, had more to do with the fact that we didn’t know how to make the transition gracefully. Maybe I’m projecting a bit, but my sense was that they felt sorry for us that we were descending into a state of anti-intellectual, religious fundamentalism where fear was more of a motivator than logic, where we didn’t care what our elected leaders said, so long as they wore American flag pins on their lapels, and told us that, despite the growing evidence to the contrary, we were still the “best” country in the world, and the one most favored by the God.

I don’t intend for this post to be a “Canada is so much better than the United States” piece. I know that there are problems in Canada. There’s homelessness, there’s corruption, there are threats to the environment, and I’m sure their politicians play upon the fears of the governed just as ours do here. It’s not a paradise. At least not now, in the winter. To a great extent, Canada is a big, open, wind-swept wasteland punctuated only by the occasional Tim Hortons. And, it can get damned cold. And, admittedly, I didn’t speak with everyone. I’m sure they’ve got their share of folks who would love to move to America for whatever reason. Still, though, my overriding impression was one of optimism. What I saw was a country investing in education, conservation, and alternative energy, and prospering as a result. It was like walking through the looking glass, into a world where the entire American dialogue had been turned upside down… where people weren’t talking about dismantling public education, selling off national parks, and tearing down the wall of separation between church and state that has served us so well these past few centuries. (Speaking of which, did you hear what Santorum said yesterday about the separation of church and state? He said that it made him want to vomit.) The cognitive dissonance made me want to vomit.

Anyway, while I don’t necessarily want this to be an ad for Canadian immigration, I would like to share a few relevant statistics.

First, while they don’t focus so much on teaching to the test, like we do under the regime of No Child Left Behind, the Canadian education system consistently outperforms ours.

Second, according to World Bank data, their country is has less wealth inequality than we have in the United States. In 2000, Canada’s Gini coefficient was 33. At that same time, the Gini coefficient in the U.S. was 41. And I suspect that the gap has widened over the last decade. [The Gini coefficient, according to Wikipedia, is a measure of statistical dispersion that measures the inequality among values of a frequency distribution (for example levels of income). A Gini coefficient of zero expresses perfect equality where all values are the same (for example, where everyone has an exactly equal income). A Gini coefficient of one (100 on the percentile scale) expresses maximal inequality among values (for example where only one person has all the income).]

Third, in a 2005 report by The Economist, 127 cities were ranked in terms of personal risk, infrastructure and the availability of goods and services. Vancouver, according to the study, was the best place to live. While no American cities made the top ten list of livable cities, several Canadian cities did, as did cities in Australia and Germany.

Fourth, Canada has a more robust safety net than the United States, offering, among other things, free health care to all of its citizens. (And, this is why Tommy Douglas was recently named The Greatest Canadian of all times.)

Fifth, (in part due to my last point, I’m sure) Canada ranks higher than the U.S. with regard to life expectancy (80.22 years in Canada versus 77.85 in the U.S.) and infant mortality (4.75 Canadian deaths per 1000 versus 6.50 in the United States).

Sixth, Canadian cities are diverse. Given the fact that Canada is welcoming to skilled (and wealthy) foreign nationals, the country is living up America’s promise of being a true melting pot, while we’re busy building walls and preaching xenophobia.

Seventh, the Canadian rich pay their taxes, enabling progress to continue, and quality of life to improve across the board. (For the details on the differences between our tax structures, click here.)

I could go on, but I think you probably get my point… Other countries aren’t sitting still while we work our shit out. They’re passing us by. And they’re no longer looking to us for inspiration. They’re looking at us with pity.

[The photo above was borrowed from and article in the Globe and Mail on Toronto’s construction boom.]

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  1. Edward
    Posted February 28, 2012 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    Let’s not give up on the United States yet. As Paul Krugman pointed out in yesterday’s New York Times, Sweden went through a period of deregulation and the like too, and they rebounded once more sane policies were put in place.

    The Republican story — it’s one of the central themes of Mitt Romney’s campaign — is that Europe is in trouble because it has done too much to help the poor and unlucky, that we’re watching the death throes of the welfare state. This story is, by the way, a perennial right-wing favorite: back in 1991, when Sweden was suffering from a banking crisis brought on by deregulation (sound familiar?), the Cato Institute published a triumphant report on how this proved the failure of the whole welfare state model.

    Did I mention that Sweden, which still has a very generous welfare state, is currently a star performer, with economic growth faster than that of any other wealthy nation?

    The article goes on to demonstrate how countries that offer strong public welfare programs can in fact be successful, contrary to the Republican narrative.


  2. Mr. Y
    Posted February 28, 2012 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    For those of you who don’t know your history, here are some photos of Iran in the 1970s, before the onset of widespread religious fundamentalism. They were a lot like us. These things happen if you aren’t vigilant. America is a few bad elections away from becoming a fundamentalist state.


  3. John Galt
    Posted February 28, 2012 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    This friend of yours, Pete, sounds like a Communist agitator. If I were you, I’d steer clear of him.

  4. Bob Krzewinski
    Posted February 28, 2012 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    Customs at the Detroit border crossing sums a lot of this up. Going into Canada is pretty much hassle free like they are almost glad to see you. But coming back into the US I feel like I am being treated like someone about to be arrested for some unknown charge.

  5. Peter Larson
    Posted February 28, 2012 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    The rest of the world is an extremely optimistic place, while the US just vainly treads water to hold on to its illusion of greatness. The rest of the world has nowhere to go but up.

    It’s not that we’re slipping, though, it’s that the rest of the world is coming up. I don’t know how American exceptionalism is going to pan out when China, Brazil and India catch up to us.

    If the US would just accept things, it could be a better place. In fact, Japan, after almost two decades of economic stagnation, is one of the most hopeful places I’ve been to. People just gave up trying to be the best, and have focused on making the best of what is. Americans could learn a lot from that attitude.

    We might have to live with more people, consolidate resources and be more clever about living our lives, but I don’t see that as so bad. What’s bad to me is the constant barrage of having to be the best of everything, despite the fact that a lot of us aren’t really good at anything at all. It’s unhealthy.

    As for Canada, it IS a better place than the US, though that must be qualified. Their economy wouldn’t function without ours.

  6. Posted February 28, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    I also dislike coming through the American border.

    They inevitably start asking me gotcha questions, one time even testing me on my Japanese language proficiency. The Japanese have never tested me on my English. After you get through all of their stupid hurdles, the border guys are usually fairly cordial.

    I realize my little blue passport allows me pretty much hassle free travel throughout the world, but it doesn’t allow me hassle free entry back in to the US.

  7. Mr. X
    Posted February 28, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    The insidious Canadian menace is making inroads in Ann Arbor. I just noticed that the good Ann Arbor coffee shop, Lab, is to be replaced by Tim Hortons.

    The chainification of Ann Arbor continues.


  8. Elf
    Posted February 28, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    Can I pose a serious question to the group? Why in the fuck do any of us still live here? Is it because we love the country, and want to fight to make it better, or is it just because we’re too lazy to leave?

  9. Gene
    Posted February 28, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    Elf: very good question. for me, it’s family/friends/roots. i’m not looking forward to weathering the storm, but gonna do it. untethered, i wouldn’t just leave michigan, i’d definitely try another country – my parents had the balls to do it, maybe someday i’ll try it too.

  10. j
    Posted February 28, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    @elf, as far as Michigan goes, as soon as the ink on phd is dry my family is outta here. We stay in the US because the only thing worse than domestic air travel to see friends and family is international air travel to see friends and family. If it was just me I’d be headed for the exit and put up with the hassle once a year, but I got a little one that needs to see the extended family a bit more often.

  11. Posted February 28, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    If I didn’t own property here, I’d already be gone.

  12. Posted February 28, 2012 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    Of course, then Mark would have no one to go to lunch with. So I stay.

  13. Eel
    Posted February 29, 2012 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    I stay to fight.

  14. Eel
    Posted March 3, 2012 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    I think this speaks to the hopeful mindset of the Japanese, which Peter noted.


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