Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Lessons from Abroad

The following essay comes from a discussion about the nature of healthcare policy in the United States.  I started out wanting to talk about healthcare, and wound up addressing the entire Spanish economy as an illustration of problems we deal with in healthcare, education, employment, and government--i.e. economic and politics generally.

My personal feeling is that the USA is simply too large to have a coherent, consistent public health agenda that extends nationwide. Europe benefits from smaller administrative regions, with more homogeneous culture(s). In my experience, Europe is a gated community built to exclude outsiders (who respond by seeking to replace rather than assimilate: immigrants from the Third World do not become French, or Spanish, or Scandinavian, by and large). America is the opposite (though we keep trying to repent and become more European; unfortunately, we need cheap labor, too).

When I was living in Spain, there were serious political movements in every place I stayed whose central goal was complete autonomy. I did not meet a single population in northern Spain (over two years, I lived in these provinces: Castilla y Leon, Galicia, Vizcaya) without a significant minority who wanted nothing to do with Spain or Madrid. Some parties even wanted autonomy for smaller regions (there was a party that wanted to get Castilla out of Leon). People grew up in small regions, in neighborhoods where they could point to the house their great-grandparents occupied (which often as not was a cottage predating modern civilization). There was a very strong trend to shut the world out, to suspect "growth" and "progress" as cloaking devices for "rape" and "pillage," and to distrust outsiders permanently (because they are not from here, they do not know this place, they will take our stuff and make good with it somewhere else, somewhere we cannot follow). In America, I can move thousands of miles to a neighborhood where people have never seen me before, and the common reaction is, "Hello! Welcome to the block!" In Europe (Spain anyway), this reaction is still there (particularly if I am talking to foreigners or people who live in the city), but it is supplemented by another: "You're not from around here? Fuck you! Go back where you came from. We don't need foreign shit. It is hard enough to deal with all our own."

Everything is different (healthcare, economics, religion) in areas where people have deep-seated distrust of the novel, the foreign, the unusual. America thrives on imagining the novel optimistically: "This new treatment could work wonders for me! I might survive this illness and even come out stronger than before!" In my experience, Europeans imagine it pessimistically: "This new treatment is probably going to make me die even faster than I was already, smoking two packs a day. Fuck it, and the white horse it rode in on." My experience is colored by the reality that I have never lived in the "really cool Europe" that American Leftists like to gush over. While I met plenty of German, Dutch, and Scandinavian tourists (who were invariably tall, healthy, and very articulate in English), the local populations I met were Iberian (short, not so healthy sometimes, and incomprehensible in English). I know that Spain is not Germany, or Holland, or Sweden (or Finland: man, I love that place, though it does have a rather high suicide rate for being so awesome in so many other ways). If there is anything I learn from my limited experience with Europe, it is that poor people (in particular) do better trusting authority and novelty less. The less we aim at "wealth" (move to a big city, get a nice job and a fancy-ass house, settle down) and the more we aim at "competence" (move to a quiet place, acquire skills that make any particular job unnecessary, and live in the cheapest hovel you can afford)--the happier we will be.

Happy Spaniards knew their neighborhoods (their grocer, their doctor, their teachers), and were busy building those neighborhoods themselves--they did not trust you to come in and fix them. Even when your motives were entirely pure and you had no evil track record, they wanted you out of the way so that they could keep planting and building what they wanted, not what you wanted to give them. My purpose living in Spain, as readers of this blog know, was offering folks a chance to become Mormons. Needless to say, that did not go over very well. But I learned a lot--including two really important things about myself: I am a terrible salesman, and I hate sales. I did not sell the Spanish on Mormonism, but they certainly sold me on hating sales. That visceral distrust and dislike of advertising is something I think Americans could stand to learn.

To end this interminable comment en pointe: the official policies coming from Madrid make Spain sound like utopia (or at least, like France): free healthcare, job security, political democracy, etc. But the reality on the ground is rather different. You see, making this utopia real requires more economic strength than the nation has (leading some of the least economically depressed regions, e.g. Catalunya and Vizcaya, to produce large numbers of citizens who openly, loudly, and even militantly desire to secede from Spain). This is because there is a high ceiling for legal employment (meaning that employers and the state together have to be able to guarantee healthcare, wages, votes, and acceptable living conditions to legally employed persons, such as I was during my stay). But crap jobs still need to be done, so as we do in America, the Spanish hire foreign slaves (Africans and South Americans, and some Eastern Europeans)--who are willing and able to work for pennies that people have as opposed to the euros that dreamers (officials, humanitarians, managers, EU bureaucrats, Spanish bureaucrats) want to give them. There is this perverse dynamic at play whereby native Spanish youth have nothing to do (employing them would be exploitation, i.e. illegal and punishable as a criminal offense), so they must sit around on the street and in their parents' basements collecting pensions from the state (mostly; it occasionally cannot pay!) while Africans, Arabs, native Americans (many from Ecuador and Colombia), Bulgarians, and Albanians keep everything running for wages. The Spanish folk in my age bracket, while I was there (as a 19-, 20-, and 21-year-old) spent most of their time walking around town, smoking, making out in street-corners, getting drunk, playing video games or watching TV, and harassing people like me. Were they better off than I, health-wise, job-wise, education-wise (tuition was cheap)? In some ways, yes. In others, no

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