I was talking to two friends in their twenties recently, about our travel experiences in foreign parts, and we circled around like an airplane looking for a landing place before we all agreed that foreign parts are all very well, but they’re not… comfortable.
Now, sometimes it’s worth it to endure some discomfort in the name of travel — of seeing new places and broadening your horizons. I put up with an awful lot of it when I was a kid, traveling by train across Europe. It was worth it because I had stuff to see and places to go.
But… in normal life? Every day?
We Americans get all sorts of opprobrium from Europeans and other self-designated superior life forms about our obsession with being comfortable, being at ease, doing things in the easier, most direct, and – often – cleanest way possible.
Agatha Christie in “At Bertram’s Hotel” makes a comment about Americans liking their rooms warmer in winter, and needing air conditioning in the summer. There was a faint sneer to the words. Americans, you know, like to be comfortable, and aren’t hardened, easy-going travelers like the rest of the world. They don’t put up with discomfort and inconvenience with a smile. For some reason, this is held against us.
The thing is, you stack all your cathedrals, all your palazzos, the broad expanses of European plazas, of arches and columns and ancient paintings, and they’re all very fine, very impressive, very worth seeing. But you can’t have them and ease and comfort in the same day. Because nowhere in Europe, no matter how much you’re paying (unless you are at the very top of the tree and paying multi-millionaire type of money), will you find the consistent comfort and ease of American life.
I don’t say this to be derogatory of Europe. They’re used to their little discomforts, they aren’t bothered by them, and that’s fine for them.
But we’re not made of the same stuff. The idea of America, where citizens rule and every man is a king, permeates our daily life.
Our system (derogatorily called consumerism) has unleashed market forces to cater to the comfort, the whims, and yes, the needs of the consumer.
I remember my mom being bewildered in the detergent aisle of our grocery store in a tiny town (we then lived in) in Colorado. “Who needed that many detergents?” she asked. Why the bewildering profusion?
My answer was: Because we can. Because they find a market.
Which is the essential point of this: No one decides what we need. No one says, like Bernie Sanders, “why do you need more than one brand of toothpaste?” Or rather, people like Bernie Sanders say it, and the rest of us answer, “Because we can. Because they find a market.”
Sheer competition, to make your product sell better than the next one, leads you to add more features, more bells and whistles.
This is why many old manses in Europe have no heating, but our humblest mobile home has (usually forced air) heating, and more than likely air conditioning too.
Oh, we’re not perfect. Our “free market” is less and less so as time goes by and regulators hem us around with regulations that make it hard to invent new things and profit from your invention, or to market new things and run your own company. The Obamacare Boondoggle alone killed startups aborning because when you pass thirty employees you have to shovel money into its maw. And there are others – more than any of us can name – that make it almost impossible to compete with big conglomerates.
But Europe is more advanced than we are down this path, and besides, has an ethos of “good enough” (which is considered a compliment in Swedish, believe it or not). The big companies, more often than not owned by the big families, have a tendency to think “good enough for the common people.” The existing companies (as they’re becoming here) are protected from competition (and often government subsidized: Hello, GE, we’re waving at you) and thus see no reason to improve or strive to be better to compete.
Normally we call the things that don’t happen because of regulation and restrictions on free enterprise “squid farms on Mars” in my circles. Because, you know, we have no way of telling if, without all those restrictions, we wouldn’t, by now, have squid farms on Mars.
But Europe doesn’t need to posit squid farms on Mars. Without their self-imposed shackles, they could be the U.S., where even the poor can afford air conditioning, refrigerators, clean water and decent food. (And no, I don’t believe the people on food stamps are starving. I’ve lived on less and not lost weight.)
Fortunately for those holding the boot on their neck, the Europeans prefer to pretend that not having what we have makes them better. They talk about us being weak and fat, lazy and contented, as though socialism were some kind of holy religion and suffering discomfort, inconvenience and restriction in the world will get them a palm of glory in the next. Or they lie outright. If I had a dime for every time I had to disabuse some European commenter on forums from the charming notion that most of America is homeless or dying, untreated, in front of hospitals (when we’re not shooting each other in the street), I wouldn’t need to work for a living.
The truth is that Bernie Sanders is wrong again. I know you’re shocked. When he claimed “the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer,” he was, as usual, talking through his hat.
Unbiased America has an analysis, and if you have a Facebook account, you can see the details and their citations, but the conclusion is this: No, all Americans are getting richer.
More than that, we’re getting more comfortable. This is not a measure of money, but a measure of being able to do things like order shoes for my son (depending on the cut of the shoe he wears anywhere from a 15EEE to a 17 EE) online instead of what we had to do ten years ago, driving a hundred and fifty miles to the one store that carried his size (maybe), hoping they had a pair in stock and that it was what he needed. I can even – often – order them on sale.
Beyond that, even when I was down and out and as broke as possible, I could go into a store and be treated as “the customer,” which in America means more or less “like a king.” I might be spending our week’s allotment of money for meat on books (we bought meat for the kids only many weeks) but to the store I was a habitual and valued customer, and since they were competing with all other bookstores, they treated me as a special person, because even my $20 was real money and helped them stay in business.
America might not have built a lot of palazzos (oh, some sure) and Europeans might sneer at our bad taste, epitomized by a president who thinks everything goes better with gold.
But when shopping or traveling (except by air, and oh, there are reasons for that, mostly in the form of government subsidies and protections), when visiting public spaces, even when working, and particularly when coming home, taking off your shoes, putting on your slippers and breathing a contented sigh, America has built the most comfortable civilization in the world.
We’ll have our air temperature where we want it, we have almost won the war against parasites and pests, we have cured more illnesses than any other civilization, and we have palliative medicines for the ones we can’t cure. We sit at the apex of civilization, looking down at all of history and thinking it looks a little itchy.
There are no prizes for enjoying discomfort, and human civilization can be described as a long crawl away from a life that was nasty, brutal and short.
America is winning that race.