A few minutes later, I heard a Dutch audience member make a similar, if stronger, point. The average American, he said, is much worse off than the average Swede. Why can’t America be more like Sweden?
I actually don’t think that the latter point is true; if you plucked an average American (mean, median, or modal) out of Kansas City or Aurora, and plopped them down in the middle of Gothenburg, the average American would be very unhappy. Yes, they’d have generous social benefits and lots of vacation, but they’d also be crammed into a small apartment in a very small country. They wouldn’t be able to afford services that average Americans take for granted, like lots of restaurant foods and extremely high levels of customer service, which means they’d spend a lot more time doing basic housework, childcare, and so forth. They would find it very expensive to fuel their car, and the insular, almost formal culture would make them crazy.
This is also true the other way, by the way; the average Swede would not be happy living in America. Sure, they’d have a huge house, filled with cheap consumer goods, and they could drive their car everywhere, particularly to their incredible array of dining options. But they’d miss their vacation and find America’s looser safety net both terrifying and inconvenient. They would hate the inefficiency of our government services, and miss their cozy circle of friends and family. Part of the reason that we have different systems from the Swedes and the Germans is that we place different emphasis on various possible sets of amenities, and of course, the availability of various amenities changes what we think of as the basic package for a decent life. In most of America it includes a house, preferably detached, and a car. In Sweden it includes a year of mandated maternity leave and a well-run streetcar system. Losing any of those amenities is usually more painful for people than getting whatever the other folks have–which is why most expats are some combination of young, unhappy in their home country, or wealthy enough to buy the stuff they miss.