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Europe Is a Base, America Is a (Final) Destination
Today: The main difference between Europe and America, Berlin’s new airport, and other thumbs up/down.
The Agenda 👇
America is a dead end, which explains a lot
Berlin finally completed its brand new airport
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We know more about the coronavirus
8 days to the US presidential election
Europe can live without Facebook
Sweden’s approach was a failure
After almost 30 years studying the US from every angle, I think I’ve understood what might be the main difference between Europe and the US: the former is a base, while the latter is a destination.
🇪🇺 By Europe being a base, I mean that it’s a place with which you or your ancestors have a connection; you can leave it when you want, pursuing opportunities elsewhere, but the connection remains intact and you can always come back. And so you always feel that there’s an exit: most ambitious Europeans I know stay here, but at any moment they still have options elsewhere, whether that’s moving to America to build a company in Silicon Valley or moving to China to try and expand their business.
Note that these two options are becoming less viable these days: America is less welcoming to immigrants, and China is effectively closed to foreign businesses. But the ‘Europe as a good base’ mindset endures.
🇺🇸 America, meanwhile, is a destination, a place where people go in search of opportunities—the range of which is potentially infinite, which means these people are not coming back:
As my old English teacher used to say, the US is a “very large country”: there’s always room for more people, and everyone can find a place that fits their particular preferences—whether it’s Silicon Valley, New York, Texas, New England, Colorado or elsewhere.
Also, the US is uniquely self-reliant: as Peter Zeihan remarks in his writings (notably Disunited Nations), it has more than land to inhabit, it also has vast areas for growing crops to feed everyone, and massive reserves of oil and gas on its own soil.
Culturally-speaking, there are also many options. You can maintain a culture that’s different from that of your neighbors, even speaking a different language at home. The American brand of low-context communication helps to bridge the gap.
Finally, there’s what Bruno Maçães calls “escapism”: even if you don’t fit in in the physical world, America lets you escape to virtual worlds, whether by joining a fringe church, putting on your VR headset, or electing Donald Trump and playing the authoritarian state game.
The consequence of America being a destination with infinite potential is that once people move there, they tend to stay:
For some people, it’s because their base has disappeared altogether. I said that Europe is a base, but that’s not true for the Jewish people who lost their families at the hands of the Nazis, seeing their entire community disappear. For instance, a Lithuanian Jew has no base in Europe anymore: before World War II, Vilnius was known as “the Jerusalem of the North”; now there are hardly any Jews left, meaning there’s no point in coming back.
Likewise, if your family emigrated to the US a long time ago, you might remember that you have Irish, Italian, or German roots, but you don’t speak the language (assuming it’s not English), you don’t have any meaningful connections there, and you might travel there once or twice in a spirit of pilgrimage but that’s about it.
🇮🇱 Interestingly, Jewish Americans can see a base having been established under the form of Israel, so there’s that option for ‘coming back’. But for most Americans, they have reached the destination, the bridges are burned, and there’s really no other option than staying in America forever.
As a European, I can’t really relate to being in one place, and not having explicit options to exit and emigrate elsewhere. Again, most Europeans stay in Europe, but there’s always the possibility of emigrating elsewhere, notably to America.
On the other hand, most Americans stay in America because there’s literally no other option on the map (geographic or mental). They’re trapped in a very large country where there’s physical and cultural room for everyone, but they’re still trapped—hence Bruno’s “escapism” and the many political problems that it triggers, including electing Trump even if only to test out a different reality.
One thing that strikes me is that many American institutions reflect the fact that the country is a final destination:
I wrote about how difficult it is to renounce your American citizenship. Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin is a notorious case, and now he cannot go back.
When it comes to taxes, we Europeans pay our taxes in the country where we live (I was a UK taxpayer for 5 years, I’m about to become a German one). But Americans have to pay taxes in the US forever: the idea that you can leave and make your life elsewhere doesn’t fit into the US tax code (and foreign banks make your life miserable for it).
And then there’s the whole immigration system. Currently the US is not that welcoming to immigrants, but that’s in sharp contrast with America’s history as a nation:
There’s the whole Ellis Island ritual that you can see played out in The Godfather II, for instance.
There’s again the fact that you can keep your own culture and your own customs, with the low-context communication style still making it possible to interact with other Americans.
There was a time when political city machines effectively paved the way for immigrants to find their place by helping them learn English, find a job, access support in case of problem—all in exchange for a vote for local officials that were part of the machine. Have a look at this great article by Kevin Baker: The Case for the Bringing Back the Political Machines.
Being a destination is what made America so prosperous, because welcoming immigrants that have elected to make America their final destination comes with two advantages:
Immigrants have an entrepreneurial mindset that will lead to them founding businesses. In some cases, such as mom-and-pop stores and restaurants, it’s because that’s a family’s only option (employers being reluctant to hire someone who speaks with an accent or has dark skin). In other cases, it’s part of the mindset: emigrating is an entrepreneurial endeavor in and of itself and it comes with many risks, so why not take some more once you’re in America?
Also, immigrants have a propensity to take any job that is offered to them, so they are major contributors to staffing jobs that are badly paid and come with no benefits due to their being newly invented. These used to be jobs on assembly lines (before the New Deal, manufacturing was a terrible sector to work in); now it’s jobs in proximity services (ride-hailing, food delivery, etc.). America can grow new, innovative industries because immigrants provide the workforce to staff them!
On the other hand, countries that are not as welcoming to immigrants have a hard time developing their economy over the long term. Either you need to implement a very proactive approach to managing the workforce, with an early triage that directs part of your local population toward low-skilled, low-wage jobs (that’s the situation in Switzerland, for instance, and to a lesser extent Germany and the Scandinavian countries). Otherwise you simply can’t staff those new low-quality jobs that local citizens consider undignified.
There are really two scenarios when it comes to the future of America:
If it ceases to be a destination, as would be the case under a second Trump mandate, then we will witness swift change in the social and cultural fabric of the US: some Americans will start seeing their country as more of a base and emigrate to other destinations (I know a few of these already in Europe; but while Trump has clearly accelerated the trend, it’s still marginal). And then considering the state of America, who would want to move there, anyway?
Or America can decide to double down on its tradition as a destination and aim much higher from a demographic standpoint. That’s the core argument of Matthew Yglesias’s latest book One Billion Americans, which I haven’t read yet, but you can listen to his podcast conversation with the American Enterprise Institute’s James Pethokoukis.
Finally, let me conclude with this great quote from the old series Boss (about a fictitious, corrupt Chicago mayor and how he manages the city):
[Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak] was a bohemian, an immigrant… Working class… He utterly lacked charisma. But he had a gift. He understood people.
He was the first to force the Irish into sharing power with the other ethnicities. His “House for all peoples” he called it. From here [the rooftop of Chicago’s City Hall] he had an uninterrupted view of the whole thing, all 50 wards. North Side, Lincoln Square—the Germans; Northwest, Division and Ashland—the Polonia Triangle, as well as the Czechs and the Jews; West Side—the Italians; South Side—the Blacks; all the rest and in-between the Irish.
These were tribes. They hated each other. They fought, maimed, killed and rioted against each other. Cermak weaved a thread through the lot of them and pulled them in forming the first truly dominant political force this country had ever seen.
And he did it because he understood something basic about all people—they want to be led. They want their disputes settled. They want their treaties negotiated, their jobs dispensed, their mutinies punished. And they want their loyalties rewarded.
To those who lead them to all they want, they get power. It’s a covenant, unspoken and elemental. When a part fails… it needs to be fixed.
😀 Berlin finally has a new airport. The terrible state of the current ones (Tegel & Schönefeld) is one reason, among several, why my family and I are moving to Munich rather than Berlin. But as written here (the New York Times), “the ultimate irony is that after all this, after 30 years, hardly anyone is flying.”
🙂 Bruno Maçães just joined the rest of us in launching a Substack newsletter (World Game), and he’s been a very prolific writer over the past 10 days. I highly recommend signing up if you want his sharp, occasionally controversial view on the state of the world, from China to Turkey to Europe to the US.
😏 We know more about the virus and how it spreads from person to person. One of the best pieces you can read is this one by Zeynep Tufekci (who also launched a Substack newsletter). And being that the virus is airborne and easily transmitted indoors, well, we’re not sure about the future of restaurants.
😐 The last presidential debate between Biden and Trump was apparently bland and ineffectual. I don’t watch debates and I’m certain they don’t make much of a difference. The good news here is that Trump missed yet another chance to regain the advantage. Let’s see what happens.
😒 In reaction to a ruling regarding transferring personal data to the US, Facebook has threatened to cease operations in Europe. Enrique Dans makes the case for imagining a Europe without Facebook. I, for one, like to remind everyone that we just spent several months imagining the US without TikTok.
😖 COVID-19: the Swedish approach doesn’t work. At least, that’s what’s been documented in great detail in this article by Wired UK’s David Cox. This is all the sadder since Europe seems to have embraced the Swedish approach, with similar results—which are bad.
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From Normandy, France 🇫🇷