I’ve been talking to my American friends overseas about differences between the U.S. and the countries they’re living in.
Top on the list are infrastructure and what the government does for the people it represents. I think government services rank so highly because when you get to know them, people tend to be the same everywhere. They usually know differences in food before they go. After the people you notice what you have to pay for or not. And once people get used to services like trains, health care, internet, and such included with their taxes, they notice their absence when considering returning to a country where such things cost a lot.
I just spent a few days with two American friends in Seoul. You can find free internet everywhere. Subway stations are air-conditioned. I think they’re continuing to build many new stations. Prescription medicine costs a few dollars.
By comparison, U.S. policy on government providing services for its citizens seems to be “Fuck you!” Passing laws requiring companies to show the calories in food is controversial. School lunches give kids rejected food — in high school a friend saw boxes delivered to the lunch room labeled “Grade D: Edible.” Somewhere on the internet I saw a picture of six trains in six countries — Japan, Germany, France, and two other countries had sleek bullet trains. The U.S. had an aging relic you couldn’t imagine hitting 100 miles per hour. With insurance my health care costs are way above my friends’, and I’m not sick.
Why the difference?
We asked ourselves the cause of the difference.
My first response is that our government, especially those who oppose providing services to the population, holds some ideals above what works (rejecting other ideals). We value independence and shun what we suspect might demotivate people from working. People say private profit motivates people to act and the lack of it doesn’t. But they don’t ask if the results meet that expectation.
How the U.S. doesn’t have bullet trains between DC and Boston and between San Francisco and LA boggles the mind. Well, it doesn’t when you realize how spending money on something that generates no private profit jars with the one-sided idealism that gets people elected.
Ronald Reagan famously said, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” doubly stating the source of the difference. First, it presumes a crisis. When you say there’s a crisis, you can propose extreme solutions, giving a central leader power. Second, it misstates what government can do and what it can’t do. Some things no private entity will do, but benefit everyone, like an interstate highway system, a military, or a judicial system.
The U.S. is watching other countries succeed at things we don’t even try. And they benefit where we don’t. And large segments of our population self-righteously feel superior while they lack basic services other countries take for granted, still paying a lot for them.
My point is not to criticize the U.S. New York City is my favorite place to live in the world. One of the major points I’ve learned about leadership is the value of doing the job over the abstract concept of feeling right — that is, behaving self-righteously.
It’s hard for me not to think of the scene in the Big Lebowski I posted about a while ago. Unfortunately we’ve opted to generate leaders that win debates over those who might improve the country.
A deeper cause
I wondered why the U.S. might favor ideals over effectiveness. I mean, as humans we share the same DNA as other countries so we aren’t different under the skin. They can read Ayn Rand as well as we can. So why do Americans not see the consequences of thinking that way?
A big difference is that as a country young compared with the time it takes for consequences to show, the country hasn’t faced the consequences of its decisions. Even spending trillions fighting in dozens of countries since WWII won’t destroy an economy of a country with a bread basket feeding us and two huge oceans protecting us.
The first founding document of the country starts by declaring its independence, a fundamental ideal now used to oppose those government services for citizens other countries take for granted. Some people think the government helping people will undermine their independence and ruin them and therefore the country. Feeling right feels great, but that doesn’t make your hopes happen.
Actually, I can think of one case where the U.S. dove headlong toward self-righteousness and saw the consequences of acting on some ideals in the face of what worked — the disaster of prohibition.