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Why Do We Only Compare Our Quality of Life to the Worst in the World?

Photos of Spain provided by Pedro Ortiz Garcia Night view of the Salamanca Cathedral, Spain

Photos of Spain provided by Pedro Ortiz Garcia

Night view of the Salamanca Cathedral, Spain

Most days during the week I practice Spanish in language exchange sessions via Skype with people who live in Spain. Although I live in Mexico, I set these sessions up with Spaniards because I need to practice in the morning, when most Mexicans work.  

Having first been introduced to the language in Valencia, Spain over 30 years ago, I’m still interested in Spanish culture and what’s going on in Europe.

The sessions have evolved into much more than language practice. I learn what it’s like to live in Europe today from a European perspective, something few older adults in our country have the inclination or opportunity to do.

It’s too bad that more American voters don’t talk once a week with someone from another country where their citizens also in general have a good quality of life.  They might find it enlightening.

Rural countryside in Asturias

Rural countryside in Asturias

Over the course of many weeks, my language exchange partners and I have talked about all the usual topics; politics, technology, music.  There's one thing that really gets my attention in our conversations though.

They feel sorry for us.

They don’t feel sorry for us over the results of the election. As citizens of a much younger country, Americans can't imagine how different a European’s political perspective is.  

If you consider the end of Roman Rule to be the beginning of the history of England, for example. their history started in 500 A.D. The medieval Kingdom of France emerged around 980 A.D. Germany is the youngster as their history is considered to have started in 9 A.D. after the Battle of Teutoburg, in which a Germanic tribe managed to defeat the Romans.  

While we may be surprised by our politics, I think it’s safe to say that Europeans have seen it all.  Vulgar government leaders are still something of a novelty for us.

Ria de Llanes (Yes, "Ria," not "Rio.")

Ria de Llanes (Yes, "Ria," not "Rio.")

No, they don’t feel sorry for us because of Trump. They feel sorry for us for the numerous aspects of American life that are inferior to theirs.  So much wealth and still so inferior.

The people I talk to are middle and upper-middle class Spaniards. Their jobs include a writer/artist in Seville, museum administrator, quality control engineer and a high-profile retired telephone company executive.  

They are not socialists or on the government dole.  They pay high taxes relative to ours.  They are your peers. The Spanish system of paying for their children's higher education and their healthcare system are two things that Spain gets right.

They can’t imagine being afraid to get sick because of the cost of healthcare. They can’t imagine not being able to send their children to college if they do the work and pass the prerequisite exams. Of course Europeans have always felt sorry for how hard we work, our meager two-week vacations and how little we enjoy our lives in comparison to the average European. 

As one Spanish practice partner put it, “Whenever I start to complain about taxes or some other thing about my culture that bothers me, I tell myself, “At least I don’t live in America.”

So there.  Or as an American friend of mine who now lives in Amsterdam recently remarked, "It's unbelievable what Americans will put up with." 

In one of the most unusual and unexpected responses I've heard recently in an interview from a high-level government employee in the U.S., Philip Mudd, a former CIA Counter Terrorism Expert, was asked what our largest security threat was in the U.S.  He replied

"When we call ourselves [as a country] exceptional when we talk about our educational system; that it will bring joy, money and success to kids. How does it compare to the Europeans and Asians?  How do we give an inner-city kid the choices we had? The answer is: we don't.

While we are feeling sorry for people from Syria, Central America, and North Korea, those in other first-world countries are feeling sorry for us. Okay, they don’t feel sorry for us in the same way they feel sorry for their refugees, but I hope you see the point I’m trying to make.

They base their quality of life comparisons on comparisons between relative equals. Unlike us, they compare their lives to their peers in Europe, to Australia, the U.S. and Canada, not to that of their immigrants and refugees. They believe that in those comparisons between peers, they clearly have us beat. 

If you think they are wrong, ask yourself if you have ever said, “At least I don’t live in France!”  

Europeans don’t compare their lives to the lives of poor people from poor countries. It’s like winning a race against a guy with one leg.  That would be hard to feel good about. They compare themselves to their competitors - other first-world countries.

If we are truly the fierce competitors we like to think we are, shouldn’t that make us want to prove the quality of life for everyone? Shouldn't we feel more compelled to compete for the title of Best Country in the World, which by definition would mean for the most people, instead of Best Country for the Brilliant."

In his documentary "Where to Invade Next," Film director Michael Moore explores various countries' education system, healthcare, sex education, drug and workplace policies and marvels how different they are. Why don't any of these ideas make it into our national debates?

Like most Americans, particularly older ones, I was brainwashed to believe that my country and lifestyle were the envy of the world, that they all wanted to be us.  I often still hear people spout euphemisms like “Yes, it’s expensive, but our healthcare is the best in the world!” (It’s not - that distinction belongs to Luxembourg - basically France). 

“Our colleges are the best” (England may take issue with that), or “Hollywood makes the greatest movies and the greatest television in the world!" - Well, at least they got that one right.

Up until a few years ago, I believed those things, those things about being the best, too. When things get repeated enough, you think they must be true. They often are not.  It has taken me most of my 50 years to learn that.

From here inside our American bubble, most of us never see television programming or newspapers from other affluent countries. We are blind to the ways in which features of life in those countries are superior.  We are much busier contemplating people in news features from the most wretched parts of the world and thinking how lucky we are not to be them.

Sanctuary of "Nuestra Senora de Covadonga" in Asturias.

Sanctuary of "Nuestra Senora de Covadonga" in Asturias.

Generally, I leave my Skype conversations feeling like I’d like to live in their country some day. They never express a bit of interest in living in mine.

They separate America as a place with many interesting things to see. I separate their countries as places I’d like to live.

We should be making comparisons between the quality of life in the U.S. that of our global peers. When they have universal health care, college education for those who qualify, worker protections and safety nets for their most vulnerable, who has the more advanced society?  

A great deal of our news focuses on starving, dangerous places, and how desperate they are. Maybe we should spend a little of that time studying positive features of life that citizens in other advanced nations have and we don't, and then come to the mutual agreement that Americans deserve those things too, even if we provide them differently.

There's a lot of talk in America about there being nothing we can agree on.  Let's just start with having the best of what other first-world countries have as a goal.  Too simplistic?

From that baseline, maybe people from these more advanced countries (if you are to use Gandhi's adage that a society should be judged by how it treats its weakest members), our affluent neighbors might think of America as having finally grown up to become a real country, rather than an experiment.

Related links:  Get a different social perspective and learn a language at the same time with Skype language exchange  Ventanas Mexico

One of the things that Mexicans do in a superior way is hang-out. Ventanas Mexico

Most recent:  Help your Spanish-speaking friends learn English with free online tools that teach both English and Spanish. 

Next up:  An interview with Mexican Healthcare broker Juan Chong and some ideas about health insurance when you live in Mexico for extended periods 

Kerry Baker

Kerry Baker

Hola - I am partner with Ventanas Mexico and author of the "Interactive Guide to Learning Spanish Free Online," the quickest, most fun route to the best language website features on the web, complete with lesson plans, reviews and links by level and skill being used.  I also just released "If Only I Had a Place" a guide to renting for aspiring expats.