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July 15, 2015

Poland and the United States: all that begins must end

With my previous entry, I wrapped up an impromptu series of articles that chronicled my childhood experiences in Poland and compared the culture I grew up with to the American society that I'm living in today. For the readers who want to be able to navigate the series without scrolling endlessly, I wanted to put together a quick table of contents. Here it goes.

The entry that started it all:

  • "On journeys" - a personal story recounting my travels from Poland to the US.

Oh, the places you won't go:

Poland (and Europe) vs the United States:

And now, back to the regularly scheduled programming...

Poland vs the United States: American exceptionalism

This is the fourteenth article talking about Poland, Europe, and the United States. To explore the entire collection, start here.

This is destined to be the final entry in the series that opened with a chronicle of my journey from Poland to the United States, only to veer into some of the most interesting social differences between America and the old continent. There are many other topics I could still write about - anything from the school system, to religion, to the driving culture - but with my parental leave coming to an end, I decided to draw a line. I'm sure that this decision will come as a relief for those who read the blog for technical insights, rather than political commentary :-)

The final topic I wanted to talk about is something that truly irks some of my European friends: the belief, held deeply by many Americans, that their country is the proverbial "city upon a hill" - a shining beacon of liberty and righteousness, blessed by the maker with the moral right to shape the world - be it by flexing its economic and diplomatic muscles, or with its sheer military might.

It is an interesting phenomenon, and one that certainly isn't exclusive to the United States. In fact, expansive exceptionalism used to be a very strong theme in the European doctrine long before it emerged in other parts of the Western world. For one, it underpinned many of the British, French, Spanish, and Dutch colonial conquests over the past 500 years. The romanticized notion of Sonderweg played a menacing role in German political discourse, too - eventually culminating in the rise of the Nazi ideology and the onset of World War II. It wasn't until the defeat of the Third Reich when Europe, faced with unspeakable destruction and unprecedented loss of life, made a concerted effort to root out many of its nationalist sentiments and embrace a more harmonious, collective path as a single European community.

America, in a way, experienced the opposite: although it has always celebrated its own rejection of feudalism and monarchism - and in that sense, it had a robust claim to being a pretty unique corner of the world - the country largely shied away from global politics, participating only very reluctantly in World War I, then hoping to wait out World War II up until being attacked by Japan. Its conviction about its special role on the world stage has solidified only after it paid a tremendous price to help defeat the Germans, to stop the march of the Red Army through the continent, and to build a prosperous and peaceful Europe; given the remarkable significance of this feat, the post-war sentiments in America may be not hard to understand. In that way, the roots of American exceptionalism differed from its European predecessors, being fueled by a fairly pure sense of righteousness - and not by anger, by a sense of injury, or by territorial demands.

Of course, the new superpower has also learned that its military might has its limits, facing humiliating defeats in some of the proxy wars with the Soviets and seeing an endless spiral of violence in the Middle East. The voices predicting its imminent demise, invariably present from the earliest days of the republic, have grown stronger and more confident over the past 50 years. But the country remains a military and economic powerhouse; and in some ways, its trigger-happy politicians provide a counterbalance to the other superpowers' greater propensity to turn a blind eye to humanitarian crises and to genocide. It's quite possible that without the United States arming its allies and tempering the appetites of Russia, North Korea, or China, the world would have been a less happy place. It's just as likely that the Middle East would have been a happier one.

Some Europeans show indignation that Americans, with their seemingly know-it-all attitudes toward the rest of the world, still struggle to pinpoint Austria or Belgium on the map. It is certainly true that the media in the US pays little attention to the old continent. But deep down inside, European outlets don't necessarily fare a lot better, often focusing its international coverage on the silly and the formulaic: when in Europe, you are far more likely to hear about a daring rescue of a cat stuck on a tree in Wyoming, or about the Creation Museum in Kentucky, than you are to learn anything substantive about Obamacare. (And speaking of Wyoming and Kentucky, pinpointing these places on the map probably wouldn't be the European viewer's strongest feat). In the end, Europeans who think they understand the intricacies of US politics are probably about as wrong as the average American making sweeping generalizations about Europe.

And on that intentionally self-deprecating note, it's time to wrap the series up.

Poland vs the United States: work and entitlements

This is the thirteenth article in a short series about Poland, Europe, and the United States. To explore the entire series, start here.

In one of my earlier posts, I alluded to the pervasive faith in the American Dream: the national ethos of opportunity, self-sufficiency, and free enterprise that influences the political discourse in the United States. The egalitarian promise of the American Dream is simple: no matter who you are, hard work and ingenuity will surely allow you to achieve your dreams. From that, it follows that on your journey, you are not entitled to much; the government will be there to protect your freedom, but it will not give you a head start.

Unlike many of my peers, I suspect that there is truth to the cliche; the United States is a remarkably industrious nation and the home to many of the world's most innovative and fastest-growing businesses. It certainly treads ahead of European economies, still dominated by pre-war industrial conglomerates and former state monopolists, and weighed down by aging populations, highly regulated markets, and inflexible, out-of-control costs. America's mostly-self-made magnates, the likes of Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett, are also far more likable and seemingly more human than Europe's stereotypical caste of aristocratic families and shadowy oligarchs.

On the flip side, the striking upward mobility of rags-to-riches icons such as Steve Jobs or Oprah Winfrey tends to be an exception, not a rule. Many scholars point out that parents' incomes are highly predictive of the incomes of their children - and that in the US, this effect is more pronounced than in some of the European states. Such studies can be misleading, because in less unequal EU societies, moving to a higher income quantile may confer no substantial change in the quality of life - but ultimately, there is no denying that people who are born into poor families will usually remain poor for the rest of their lives. And with the contemporary trends in outsourcing and industrial automation, the opportunities for unskilled blue collar labor - once a key stepping stone in the story of the American Dream - are shrinking fast.

In contrast with the United States, many in Europe reject Milton Friedman's views on consensual capitalism and hold that it is a basic human right to be able to live a good life or to have an honest and respectable job. This starts with the labor law: in much of the United States, firing an employee can happen in the blink of an eye, for almost any reason - or without giving a reason at all. In Europe, the employer will need a just cause and will go through a lengthy severance period; depending on the circumstances, the company may be also barred from hiring another person to do the same job. Employment benefits follow the same pattern; in the US, paid leave is largely up to employers to decide, with skilled workers being lured with packages that would make Europeans jealous - but many unskilled laborers, especially in the retail and restaurant business, getting the short end of that stick.

In Europe, enabling the disadvantaged to contribute to the society and to live fulfilling lives is also a matter of government policy, often implemented through sweeping wealth redistribution - or through public-sector employment orchestrated at a scale that rivals that of quasi-communist China and other authoritarian countries (for example, in France and Greece, about one in three jobs is run by the state). Such efforts tend to be more successful in small and wealthy Scandinavian countries, where the society can be engineered with more finesse. In many other parts of the continent, systemic, long-term poverty is still rampant, with the government being able to do little more than providing people with a lifetime of subsidized basic sustenance and squalor living conditions. Ultimately, when it comes to combating multi-generational poverty, financial aid administered by sprawling national bureaucracies is not always a cure-all.

Perhaps interestingly, the benefits that are most frequently described as inadequate in the US are not as strikingly different from what one would be entitled to in the EU. For example, the minimal wage is quite comparable; it is around $2.60 per hour in Poland, about $3.70 in Greece, some $9.30 in Germany, and in the ballpark of $10.00 in the UK. In the US, the national average hovers somewhere around $8.00, with some of the states with higher costs of living on track to raise it to $10.00 within a year or two; in fact, some progressive municipalities are aiming for $15.

Unemployment and retirement benefits, although certainly not lavish, also follow the same pattern. When it comes to unemployment in particular, in the States, workers are entitled to about half of their previous salary for up to six months - although that period has been routinely extended in times of economic calamity. In Europe, the figures are roughly comparable, with payments in the ballpark of 50-70% of your previous salary, typically extending for somewhere between 6 and 12 months. The main difference is that the upper limit for monthly benefits tends to be significantly lower in the US than in Europe, often putting far greater strain on single-income families in places with high cost of living. In France, the ceiling seems to be around $8,000 a month; in the US, you will probably see no more than $2,000.

Another overlooked dimension of this debate is the unique tradition of charitable giving in the United States - a phenomenon that allows private charities to provide extensive assistance to people in need. Such giving happens on a staggering scale, with citizens donating more than $350 billion a year - more than twenty times the amount donated in the UK. The bulk of that money goes to organization that provide food, shelter, and counseling to the poor. It is an interesting model, with its own share of benefits and trade-offs: private charities operate on a more local scale and have a far stronger incentive to spend money wisely and provide meaningful aid. On the flip side, their reach is not as universal - and the benefits are not guaranteed.

Many of the conservatives who preach the virtues of the American Dream vastly underestimate the pervasive and lasting consequences of being born into poverty or falling onto hard times; they also underestimate the role that unearned privilege and luck played in their own lives. The progressives often do no better, seeing European social democracies as a flawless role model, even in the midst of the enduring sovereign debt crisis in the eurozone; breathlessly reciting knock-off Marxist slogans; and portraying the rich as Mr. Burns-esque villains of unfathomable wealth, motivated by just two goals: to exploit the working class and to avoid paying taxes at any cost. In the end, helping the disadvantaged is a moral imperative - but many ideas sound better on a banner than when implemented as a government policy.

For the next and final article in the series, click here.

July 14, 2015

Poland vs the United States: governance

This is the twelfth article in a short series about Poland, Europe, and the United States. To explore the entire series, start here.

The American model of government is a complex beast. To a visitor from continental Europe, accustomed to the Napoleonic traditions of civil law and to the political realities of unitary states, the sight can be also a bit perplexing: after all, how does a country of this size prosper with a bitterly partisan, gridlocked Congress that repeatedly fails to even pass the budget on time? And how is it possible that, with an approval rating of 15%, the elected officials are not facing a wave of widespread social unrest?

I suspect that the key to solving this riddle lies in the fact that the United States is still very much a federation of self-governing states - and that most of the decisions that affect the lives of ordinary citizens are not made in Washington. Each and every state establishes its own criminal and civil law, levies its own taxes, runs its own welfare systems, and appoints its own judges - sometimes by popular vote. In fact, the states routinely confer far-reaching powers onto individual municipalities: for example, most towns and counties operate their own, completely autonomous police departments that respond to local officials, not to a career politician on the East Coast.

All this makes the government feel quite different from what you are likely to experience in Europe. Let's stick to law enforcement: in Poland and in some other European states, where the police are a part of a sprawling national bureaucracy, the citizens may have very few options for addressing concerns that do not rise to the level of national debate. In the US, dismantling the entire police force may seem trivial in comparison: the concerned citizens may need to get a local newspaper interested in their cause, then band together to recall the local official who is ultimately on the hook. Of course, the independence comes at a price: small, self-funded police departments can be quicker to adopt questionable practices that would not stand to broader scrutiny, such as racial profiling or the rash application of civil forfeiture.

When it comes to the role of the federal government, the picture is complicated. In principle, the constitution gives it only a couple of duties; for example, the feds control various aspects of interstate commerce, print money, maintain armed forces, and handle foreign affairs. Of course, over the years, their responsibilities have expanded considerably, with the legislators exploiting the vagueness of the concept of "interstate commerce" in all sorts of creative ways. Today, the ongoing debate about the appropriate boundaries of this practice fuels the partisan gridlock in Washington. Modern-day Republicans, swayed by the conservative Tea Party movement, argue that the feds should honor the vision of the Founding Fathers and not meddle in the affairs of the states. The Democratic party, taking notes from the vaguely leftist Occupy campaign, increasingly sees the federal government as a flexible tool for establishing country-wide standards of environmental protection, labor rights, welfare, gun control, education, and other progressive causes historically associated with European social democrats.

On that matter, the voters themselves seem to be split. In polls, a robust majority of Americans declare that their government regulates too many aspects of their lives, tries to solve too many problems, wields too much control, and is inherently less efficient and less fair than private enterprises; about two-thirds of respondents see the feds as more of a problem than a solution, and a shocking 50% believe that the apparatus poses an immediate and serious threat to civil liberties. Yet, despite holding views that would make Milton Friedman proud, when asked about specific programs and entitlements - be it defense spending or Medicare - most voters oppose budget cuts. Ultimately, the equally powerful distrust of big corporations, coupled with the allure of European-style welfare systems, often sends the public into the embrace of big-government progressives who promise to solve a growing range of societal ills using federal-level income redistribution and overarching legislative frameworks.

Either way, owing to the parties' newly-found tendency to pander to populist fringes and their inability to compromise, the dysfunctional Congress gets very little love from the average voter; but somewhat paradoxically, the representatives from each and every district are usually well-liked by their own constituents and get reelected with ease. Some blame gerrymandering, but a simpler explanation exists: most of the candidates have strong ties to the districts they represent, many of them having a track record as local politicians or successful businessmen. As a result, they understand what matters to their constituents and often meaningfully work to advance that agenda. They also live and die at the mercy of local newspapers, sometimes lending a hand to the voters who write or call them to resolve bureaucratic hurdles and address other everyday grievances. The practice of getting your representatives involved in such matters is almost unthinkable in Poland, where the slots on local ballots are traded by party officials - and are routinely handed out to people with little or no connection to the region they are supposed to represent.

With American political campaigns financed from private funds, it is often argued that the representatives in Congress are disproportionately influenced by the wealthy few and by a variety of organized lobby groups. This is likely true, although the disparity is at least partly offset by the public's fascination with human interest stories and the tendency to root for the common folk. Ultimately, even the most cynical congresspeople can afford to be persuaded by money only when it comes to the topics that their constituents are fairly indifferent to.

Beyond the legislative and executive branches of the government, some distinct undertones of self-governance are present in the US judicial system, too. The country borrows from the traditions of British common law, rather than the civil law system utilized in much of continental Europe. It embraces the significance of legal precedent and emphasizes humanist values over the strict application of legal codes, with remarkably broad powers vested in the judges and in the juries of peers - up to the notion of jury nullification. Ultimately, the system seeks to limit the consequences of the fallibility of legislators, who often struggle to properly consider all the implications of the laws they pass; it trades it for the increased risk of fallible courts - who bring in their own subconscious biases into the mix.

For the next article in the series, click here.

July 06, 2015

Poland vs the United States: immigration

This is the eleventh article in a short series about Poland, Europe, and the United States. To explore the entire series, start here.

There are quite a few corners of the world where the ratio of immigrants to native-born citizens is remarkably high. Many of these places are small or rapidly growing countries - say, Monaco or Qatar. Some others, including several European states, just happen to be on the receiving end of transient, regional demographic shifts; for example, in the past decade, over 500,000 people moved from Poland to the UK. But on the list of foreigner-friendly destinations, the US deserves a special spot: it is an enduring home to by far the largest, most diverse, and quite possibly best-assimilated migrant population in the world.

The inner workings of the American immigration system are a fascinating mess - a tangle of complex regulation, of multiple overlapping bureaucracies, and of quite a few unique social norms. The bureaucratic machine itself is ruthlessly efficient, issuing several million non-tourist visas and processing over 700,000 naturalization applications every year. But the system is also marred by puzzling dysfunction: for example, it allows highly skilled foreign students to attend US universities, sometimes granting them scholarships - only to show many of them the door the day they graduate. It runs a restrictive H-1B visa program that ties foreign workers to their petitioning employers, preventing them from seeking better wages - thus artificially depressing the salaries of some citizen and permanent resident employees who now have to compete with H-1B captives. It also neglects the countless illegal immigrants who, with the tacit approval of legislators and business owners, prop up many facets of the economy - but are denied the ability to join the society even after decades of staying out of trouble and doing honest work.

Despite being fairly picky about the people it admits into its borders, in many ways, the United States is still an exceptionally welcoming country: very few other developed nations unconditionally bestow citizenship onto all children born on their soil, run immigration lotteries, or allow newly-naturalized citizens to invite their parents, siblings, and adult children over, no questions asked. At the same time, the US immigration system has a shameful history of giving credence to populist fears about alien cultures - and of implementing exclusionary policies that, at one time or another, targeted anyone from the Irish, to Poles, to Arabs, to people from many parts of Asia or Africa. Some pundits still find this sort of scaremongering fashionable, now seeing Mexico as the new threat to the national identity and to the American way of life. The claim made very little sense 15 years ago - and makes even less of it today, as the migration from the region has dropped precipitously and has been eclipsed by the inflow from other parts of the world.

The contradictions, the dysfunction, and the occasional prejudice aside, what always struck me about the United States is that immigration is simply a part of the nation's identity; the principle of welcoming people from all over the world and giving them a fair chance is an axiom that is seldom questioned in any serious way. When surveyed, around 80% Americans can identify their own foreign ancestry - and they often do this with enthusiasm and pride. Europe is very different, with national identity being a more binary affair; I always felt that over there, accepting foreigners is seen as a humanitarian duty, not an act of nation-building - and that this attitude makes it harder for the newcomers to truly integrate into the society.

In the US, as a consequence of treating contemporary immigrants as equals, many newcomers face a strong social pressure to make it on their own, to accept American values, and to adopt the American way of life; it is a powerful, implicit social contract that very few dare to willingly renege on. In contrast to this, post-war Europe approaches the matter differently, seeing greater moral value in letting the immigrants preserve their cultural identity and customs, with the state stepping in to help them jumpstart their new lives through a variety of education programs and financial benefits. It is a noble concept, although I'm not sure if the compassionate European approach always worked better than the more ruthless and pragmatic American method: in France and in the United Kingdom, massive migrant populations have been condemned to a life of exclusion and hopelessness, giving rise to social unrest and - in response - to powerful anti-immigrant sentiments and policies. I think this hasn't happened to nearly the same extent in the US, perhaps simply because the social contract is structured in a different way - but then, I know eminently reasonable folks who would disagree.

As for my own country of origin, it occupies an interesting spot. Historically a cosmopolitan nation, Poland has lost much of its foreign population and ethnic minorities to the horrors of World War II and to the policies implemented within the Soviet Bloc - eventually becoming one of the most culturally and ethnically homogeneous nations on the continent. Today, migrants comprise less than 1% of its populace, and most of them come from the neighboring, culturally similar Slavic states. Various flavors of xenophobia run deep in the society, playing right into the recent pan-European anti-immigration sentiments. As I'm writing this, Poland is fighting the European Commission tooth and nail not to take three thousand asylum seekers from Syria; many politicians and pundits want to first make sure that all the refugees are of Christian faith. For many Poles, reasonable concerns over non-assimilation and extremism blend with a wholesale distrust of foreign cultures.

For the next article in the series, click here.

July 05, 2015

Poland vs the United States: crime and punishment

This is the tenth article in a short series about Poland, Europe, and the United States. To explore the entire series, start here.

Throughout much of its history, the United States has been a comparatively violent nation. From the famed lawlessness of the western frontier, to the brawling biker gangs, to the iconic Italian Mafia and the fearsome Mexican drug cartels, the thirst for blood has left a mark on the American psyche - and profoundly influenced many of the country's most cherished works of literary and cinematic art.

But sooner or later, a line gets drawn. And so, when a tidal wave of violent crime swept the nation in the late 80s, the legislators and the executive branch felt obliged to act. Many wanted to send a message to the criminal underworld by going after it with relentless and uncompromising zeal - kicking off the multi-decade War on Drugs and rolling out policies such as the three strikes law in California or stop-and-frisk in New York City. Others saw the root of all evil in the pervasive gun culture of the United States - successfully outlawing the possession or carry of certain classes of firearms and establishing a nation-wide system of background checks.

And then, in the midst of these policy changes, something very interesting started to unfold: the crime rate plunged like a rock, dropping almost 50% over the course of twenty years. But why? Well, the funny thing is, nobody could really tell. The proponents of tough policing and the War on Drugs tooted their own horns; but less vindictive municipalities that adopted programs of community engagement and proactive policing heralded broadly comparable results. Gun control advocates claimed that getting AR-15s and handguns off the streets made a difference; gun rights activists found little or no crime gap between the gun-friendly and the gun-hostile states. Economists pointed out that people were living better, happier, and longer lives. Epidemiologists called out the elimination of lead - an insidious developmental neurotoxin - from paints and gasoline. Some scholars have gone as far as claiming that easy access to contraception and abortion caused fewer children to be born into multi-generational poverty and to choose the life of crime.

Europe certainly provided an interesting contrast; the old continent, having emerged from two unspeakably devastating and self-inflicted wars, celebrated its newly-found pacifist streak. Its modern-day penal systems reflected the philosophy of reconciliation - abolishing the death penalty and placing greater faith in community relationships, alternative sentencing, and the rehabilitation of criminals. A person who served a sentence was seen as having paid the dues: in Poland and many other European countries, his or hers prospective employers would be barred from inquiring about the criminal record, and the right to privacy would keep the indictments and court records from public view.

It's hard to say if the European model worked better when it comes to combating villainy; in the UK, crime trends followed the US trajectory; in Sweden, they did the opposite. But the utilitarian aspect of the correctional system aside, the US approach certainly carries a heavy humanitarian toll: the country maintains a truly astronomical prison population, disproportionately comprised of ethnic minorities and the poor; recidivism rates are high and overcrowding in some penitentiary systems borders on the inhumane.

Untangling this mess is not easy; most Americans seriously worry about crime and see it as a growing epidemic, even if their beliefs are not substantiated by government-published stats. Perhaps because of this, they favor tough policing; reports of potential prosecutorial oversight - such as the recent case of a tragic homicide in San Francisco - tend to provoke broader outrage than any comparable claims of overreach. Similarly, police brutality or prison rape are widely acknowledged and even joked about - but are seen as something that only ever happens to the bad folks.

For the next article in the series, click here.

July 04, 2015

Poland vs the United States: the cutting edge of technology

This is the ninth article in a short series about Poland, Europe, and the United States. To explore the entire series, start here.

No matter what's your take on the United States, there is no denying that the country has been on the forefront of scientific and industrial progress for much of the past century. In that time frame alone, the nation's research institutions and corporations have made countless fundamental contributions to almost every single aspect of contemporary technology - from polymer science, to computing, to aviation, to medicine, to nuclear power, to space exploration, to communications, to modern warfare.

Given the country's track record of relentless innovation, one would expect its residents to be quick to embrace technological novelties and futuristic design trends. But when it comes to everyday living, I find that the opposite is often more true. Let's take banking: many of my Polish friends recoil in terror when they find out that the world's most sophisticated financial system still settles many private transactions by writing checks; that in stores, you usually swipe the magnetic strip and scribble your name on a piece of paper; or that sending a wire transfer usually involves a trip to your bank, a hefty fee, and waiting a couple of days.

For many of them, it must be equally perplexing to visit a typical well-off American home. Kitchens are a good example: in much of continental Europe, the standard of upscale kitchen architecture tends to revolve around sleek, sterile looks constructed out of flat panes of glass, steel, plastic, and concrete; the drawers and cabinets will cleverly blend in to reveal space-age appliances hidden inside. The kitchen is, in essence, the embodiment of technological progress and of modern design aesthetics.

In the US, the European school of design has gained some foothold in pricey downtown apartments targeted at the wealthy youth - but the dominant, all-American archetype looks nothing like it. Many of the newly-built houses will feature old-fashioned, bulky granite countertops and ornate but functionally basic colonial-style wooden carpentry; most of the fancy small appliances will feel like they were pulled straight out of the 30s, too. Decorative details, such as crown moldings, vaulted ceilings, and marble columns are thrown in to differentiate luxury developments from the housing available to the middle class. Elsewhere in the house, featureless top-loading washing machines and clunky upright vacuums are a common sight.

The contrast is interesting and difficult to explain; it's certainly not that Americans are Luddites: they are quick to take lead with many types of utilitarian technologies. The country pioneered and popularized everything from refrigerators, to air conditioning, to dishwashers, to automatic transmission, to smartphones, to microwaves. It's also not that the residents show special reverence to the traditions of the bygone days. Perhaps the utilitarian principle is key: it may be that consumers judge many of their purchases based the utility and lasting value of the durable goods, more than their novelty or the image said goods may project.

If so, the observation would fly in the face of the country's reputation for rampant consumerism, a stereotype frequently contrasted with the meditated sophistry of Europe. But then, the conclusion may be overly broad: even within the United States, there are many interesting differences in how tangible goods are used to signal personal wealth. In Los Angeles or Miami, just like in much of Europe, luxury sports vehicles are a widely accepted symbol of affluence. In Silicon Valley, the practice is frowned upon, with many of the dot-com millionaires living in unassuming homes and driving fuel-efficient cars. Perhaps this is a matter of social conscience; perhaps of having different priorities; and perhaps simply of fearing that they would be vilified by the society.

For the next article in the series, click here.