When considering an object’s value or utility, there are perhaps two ways of approaching the question: you can judge it by its quality or by its quantity. With wines, this is easy (especially with help from an old label): a bottle of Bordeaux from a respected chateau is likely better than a jug of plonk from a farm south of Fresno. But with commodities, like corn for example, quantity and value are conflated: one begets the other. The main differences between French and American culture can, in fact, be distilled this way.
In the United States we’re quantity-oriented. That’s why Costco deals make meat hoarders out of people who only have steak once a week, and why we feel slightly cheated if we don’t use our extra 50 cents to Super Size our value meals, even if we’re not that hungry. It’s why I eat Jelly Beans a mouthful at a time even though just one would taste better. It’s why we shoot for more square feet, even though it’ll tighten our budgets and we’re still just one person, and why we need to “flip” houses when the market is down. It’s why we tie so much of our self-worth to our salary.
And considering the close correlations between earnings and educational attainment, maybe it’s even the reason some people spend most of their 20s getting multiple degrees: more means more expertise, more security, and a higher salary, in theory. But it usually also means more debt, which is fine because we’ve learned to live with that too. It isn’t seen as the cost of doing business; today it’s the cost of living, of competing.
“Treat it as money,” my mother, a former real estate broker, once said. If only money treated me so well. It took a career blow-up, a market collapse, a mountain of debt, and, ultimately, a one-way flight to Europe for me to learn the value of unthinking the American Dream.
Quick start, wrong path
During college, I worked briefly at the Student Store, then the Sunglass Hut across the street. After a year of breaking paltry sales records, I got a 10-cent raise instead of the $1 raise I’d wanted. So I left and found a customer-service job at an Oakland startup, where, thanks to a combination of chainsmoking and always working weekends, I was promoted to the marketing department.
I also had a plan: grow my net worth 1,000% every year. By my calculations and if I succeeded through wise investment, I’d be a millionnaire right on time for my 25th birthday.
With help from my parents and some good stock market picks, I put 20% down on a loan for my own loft in my third year of college. Its cost was nonetheless astronomical: $608,000 total, with a mortgage that was only manageable because of an ARM. I knew the risks, that the monthly rate would double in a year, but I was betting on a promotion — which, luckily, I got. Before my fourth year of college was over, I was a Marketing Director. I traveled, cut deals, operated complex algo-based online ad campaigns and wore a coveted pair of Hugo Boss heels, whose clack-clack across my loft’s sunlit wooden floor was the stuff of dreams, until it simply stopped mattering.
Meanwhile, the value of the house fell: 30% in the first few months of the housing bubble’s burst, then well over 50%. When the ARM doubled, I managed to “buy” a lower interest rate for one year from a man with a Texan accent referred to me by my loan rep. He assured me I could renew or renegotiate the rate the year after, but by then the proverbial sh*t was hitting the fan. I called the bank and they said to call back in three months, that President Bush is preparing to pass a relief plan. Three months became six. Then no one picked up the phone — and the voice-mail box was full.
I put in full-time hours Monday, Wednesday, Friday and most weekends. I attended school Tuesday and Thursday, if at all. I changed my major from English to Mass Communications to better coincide with my career path.
I stopped sleeping and lived on a diet of coffee, vodka and cigarettes. In a very narrow sense, my standard of living rose, but so did my expectations and debts. I went on angry shopping binges and bought lavish dinners, often consumed alone. Beyond a couple of alcoholic executives, a menagerie of empty-faced VCs who didn’t like you unless you had a startup, and some other obsessively ambitious friends, I spoke to few people. There was simply no time.
I became callous and slightly sadistic. In part to distance myself from people I felt were counterproductive to my ambitions, I went freelance and moved to New York. Then, when I properly burned out, I did something crazy: I moved to Paris.
The culture shock was tremendous, and I suppose I stuck it out for the reassuring feeling of anonymity and the sense I could conquer something else. But I didn’t conquer anything; instead France took me, slowly and entirely.
In France, few live beyond their means: to start with, it’s hard to get loans. Versailles might be one of the nation’s most famous sights, but ostentation is a sign of poor taste, not wealth. Here, people live by the philosophy that there are greater pleasures to be had in life than the empty highs one gets from a shopping spree or an exceptional day trade.
Meals aren’t eaten over the sink and coffees aren’t served to go; you sit and enjoy them, which incentivizes people to shoot for better food, eaten slowly in the company of others. Jobs aren’t where life begins and ends; it’s unusual not to take time off when the weather is beautiful, not to enjoy weekends or profit from your family. (Paris offices are practically all closed in August.) Vacations to places like Bali, Corsica and Thailand are stories co-workers share over coffee. They aren’t just splurges for college-age backpackers or the exclusive terrain of the rich.
Care for your money is a day-to-day value, not a scramble for millions. Ways to save and make efficient use of space is what you’re taught by parents and friends, simply because space and money are limited, so people take time to make choices, to maximize the benefit from the expense. Bigger in France is not necessarily better — quantity and value are decoupled in a way I didn’t know they could be.
Today I live in 40 square meters with barely enough room for two in the kitchen. It is clean, carefully furnished and feels curiously ample. I think often of the loft, all 1100 square feet and three stories of it, how I loved it on paper and then moved in and utterly ignored it. It became, at best, a place to sleep before the next liftoff; at worst, it became a place to drink alone and be angry in.
Taking the cure
The French healthcare system was an even bigger surprise. It costs plenty in taxes but you are protected in ways I couldn’t have fathomed in the U.S., simply because, once I passed the age when I could share my father’s, no employer ever offered me insurance. Any emergency I had — hives, accidents, a severe horsebite (long story) — were paid out-of-pocket at significant, sometimes debilitating cost — paid, often, to slipshod doctors. The last time I had the stomach flu in France, a doctor came to my house and treated me, with great diligence, for less than $50. When I finally had all four of my wisdom teeth removed, I discovered it cost less than what I paid to have a cavity filled in upstate New York: $450! The hospitals are good, the doctors and nurses well-trained, and the lines short … a huge relief when my grandfather had his first stroke here.
One argument frequently trotted out against universal healthcare is that demand will make supply less reliable and more shoddy (like waiting to get a phone line in the old U.S.S.R.), and that it is also financially unsustainable. But behind that is a bigger judgment: if something bad happens to you, or to your family, and you can’t pay for it, it is somehow your fault. Maybe we feel we deserve the kind of punishment thrust upon Job of the Old Testament. And, like Job, we still believe in the superiority of this arrangement.
Fewer employers are offering insurance to their employees. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s annual survey on the topic, just 60 percent of companies offer full-time employees health benefits, down from 68 percent at the beginning of the last decade. And that’s just for full-time employees, to say nothing of the bellhops, waitresses, and busboys in our rapidly-expanding service sector.
This absurdly unjust system is the way of things in the U.S. It’s like water to fish. Before arriving in France, it never even occurred to me that affordable healthcare should be a right.
One of the greatest triumphs of American capitalism is how well it weds itself to the Protestant work ethic. Our Horatio Algier forebears distilled Protestantism to its lowest common denominator, a worldview that’s still woven into the national DNA. And the immediacy of the Cold War in our collective memory paints any and all social welfare programs a deep, Soviet red. To many Americans — indeed, even ones in high elected offices who purport to have a good handle on economic matters — socialism means communism, and communism represents the horrors of the Soviet Union. Worst of all, it means laziness, and Protestants don’t tolerate layabouts.
Our distaste for laziness is in many ways a good thing: The United States is a wildly productive country, but the cost to our happiness (unless your happiness really is just your job) is high. Most of the American women I knew who had children didn’t even take maternity leave; they contrived ways to have their babies over the weekend and minimize the absence from their desks. We receive the fewest paid vacation days of any other developed country (zero mandated time) … and are the least likely to take them. It merits saying that despite its generous vacation packages and multiple holidays, much maligned by American politicians, France is among the most productive countries per working hour of all developed nations.
I still think free markets are beautiful in their efficiency: at best, they push merit to the top and spark innovation. These are two things France struggles with. It’s a culture of discretion and risk-aversity, two things that don’t help their startups. But free marketeers don’t take into account that there are people who cannot add value and productivity to the economy at all times, people we want to protect: the aged, the infirm, children. Europe’s been around long enough, and been through enough that it knows this. It provides, or at least tries to, without dithering over whether people deserve it — a conversation we’re always having in the States, because if you can’t perform and you can’t pay, it’s somehow your fault.
In Europe there’s this not-so-revolutionary notion that people deserve quality health care, regardless of who they are or what they did. For an American experiencing how deftly and unquestioningly they manage this day-to-day, that is amazing. We have forgotten how to do the math that takes the unquantifiable into account. We obsess over tax brackets and have forgotten what other variables contribute to happiness.
Over the course of my short working life, a lot of money has come and gone. Most of it came and went in the U.S. I spent much of that time believing my value as a human was tied to my ability to consistently turn some money into more. I concede that this was largely driven by my own obsession for untold riches, but that’s also the dream we’re sold. Under the shadow of Silicon Valley, where I grew up, it’s a noble enough reason to neglect your family and friends: people who don’t support you aren’t really constructive elements, are they? And if you do it right, you’re putting in three years of endless work in exchange for 60+ years of leisure, aren’t you?
In another country you don’t just learn a new value system, you learn new dreams: live within your means, do work you care about and still make time for the people that matter. To be able to find balance in work and life ought to be a definition of success, because it’s surprisingly difficult. Things come and go, ambitions change: I realized I wanted a life that resembled a rich, carefully-constructed tapestry, not a bar graph.
The nice thing about the world we’re in now is that it’s getting smaller. Every frontier — even those we thought were fixed — is up for negotiation. In the U.S., I’m happy to say this is one of the defining characteristics of my generation and the one that gives me hope: people are asking questions about what we value, how we treat money, and why. And we’re building enterprises that don’t just reflect a desire to get rich — a symptom of the first tech startup bubble — but rather a desire to build value while building a better world.
It’s been three years since my arrival in France. I speak French and am writing and consulting for my keep. Two years ago I lost the loft in a shortsale. It hurt, but the sting of losing it was outweighed by how good it felt to dislodge that immense debt, to know it was just a thing. I already had many of those, and will have many more. In the end it wasn’t defining.
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