Europe, the United States, living standards, GDP, and the University of East Anglia (UEA)

I’ve only lived in Europe—and even then it was England, where I found that many people considered the country not part of Europe—briefly, but like Megan McArdle and Matt Welch, I “found it noticeably poorer than the United States.”

The debate is mostly symbolic and a proxy for U.S. healthcare issues, about which I know sufficiently little to not comment in public. Nonetheless, the living standards issue comes up because McArdle writes about “The Difference Between the US and Europe” in response to Paul Krugman’s comments on the same, where he says:

Actually, Europe’s economic success should be obvious even without statistics. For those Americans who have visited Paris: did it look poor and backward? What about Frankfurt or London? You should always bear in mind that when the question is which to believe — official economic statistics or your own lying eyes — the eyes have it.

McArdle and Welch think otherwise. My limited experience occurred at the University of East Anglia (UEA), which is in Norwich. The school was noticeably more run down than any university I’ve seen in the U.S. The dorm cots—they weren’t really beds—were tiny and hard; the desks made the ones at Clark University, where I was an undergrad, wonderful by comparison; and the campus had a general feeling of dilapidation that was enhanced by graffiti on walls.

That was just the physical plant. Classes were only taught for six hours a week. I have no idea what most students did the rest of the time. There were in effect no meal plans, so students were supposed to do their own cooking in dirty communal kitchens. To use the gym, one had to pay £6 to take a useless orientation class and then pay £1 or £2 to get in every time thereafter. It was so bad that a friend and I wrote a document called “About UEA” and e-mailed it to others at our home schools. Bathrooms were—charitably—vile.

But wait! Aren’t dorms terribly everywhere? Maybe so, but in the limited number of places I’ve spent some time in or on dorm beds, none have been nearly as bad as UEA’s, and that includes Clark, the University of Washington, Seattle University, Harvard, USC, and the University of Arizona. This isn’t a full sample, but the difference was obvious. So was the price of books, which did help explain why so many excellent used bookshops popped up but didn’t help the £10 trade paperback price or hardcover prices that verged on £20.

Perhaps because of exchange rate issues, the UK also felt very expensive. “Expensive” and “worse” is a bad and unusual combination.

The debate reminds me of the New York Times piece, “We’re Rich, You’re Not. End of Story,” which studies how rich Scandinavian countries feel relative to the U.S., Spain, and others:

After I moved here six years ago, I quickly noticed that Norwegians live more frugally than Americans do. They hang on to old appliances and furniture that we would throw out. And they drive around in wrecks. In 2003, when my partner and I took his teenage brother to New York – his first trip outside of Europe – he stared boggle-eyed at the cars in the Newark Airport parking lot, as mesmerized as Robin Williams in a New York grocery store in “Moscow on the Hudson.”

The plural of anecdote is not data, and I like what I’ve seen of European cities, especially because they feel more like cities and less like giant suburbs than places like Tucson, Arizona do. Europe is a lovely place in many respects and has decided, as a continent, on a different set of trade-offs than the United States. But the difference in living standards is noticeable, at least to me, and evidently to others, at a given income level; if you have enough money, almost anywhere can be nice.

EDIT: I uploaded “About UEA,” a document a friend and I wrote to warn our other friends about life at UEA. Commenters say the university has gotten better since, but I can’t tell if they’re astroturfers or the real thing.

EDIT 2: It appears that Britain has a well-known and measurable productivity gap, which is elaborated on and explained at the link. The post is interesting throughout and you should really read it, including this:

I’ll never forget the first time I visited the Netherlands in 1985. I was in Dordrecht and reading through the comments of a guest book for a modest hotel. The writer was British, and apparently was visiting the Continent for the first time. He/she expressed shock at seeing that virtually everywhere in the Netherlands was a nice place, compared to the home country, much of which was not so clean and not so nice. He/she lamented and apologized for this feature of Great Britain, and that is yet another way of expressing the productivity gap.

Oh, Zuckerman…

“I gave myself to him and he’ll never forgive me for it. He’s not merely a monster, he’s a great moralist too.”

—That’s from Philip Roth’s Zuckerman Unbound, although the edition I have is called Zuckerman Bound. It’s funnier still in context. I’m reading Zuckerman because I was inspired by a quote in Katie Roiphe’s much-discussed essay, “The Naked and the Conflicted:”

“The sight of the Zipper King’s daughter sitting on the edge of the bathtub with her legs flung apart, wantonly surrendering all 5 feet 9 inches of herself to a vegetable, was as mysterious and compelling a vision as any Zuckerman had ever seen.” I can’t decide what’s so compelling—I think it’s the middle, with the adverb adjective duo of “wantonly surrendering,” which seem like they should be pornographic but are mostly comic, or vice-versa. “Vice-versa” seems like a useful pair of words when dealing with Roth, because he’s constantly got me wondering exactly where in the circuit I stand: at the bottom, the top, the sides, somewhere else? It’s complexity that isn’t complex to read or enjoy.

Or maybe it’s something else about the sentence, like how incongruous or outrageous it is: the Zipper King has a sense of pathos, the idea of the daughter of the Zipper King is vaguely medieval despite the American seen, and the mystery that Zuckerman feels is almost religious in a very much not religious context. It’s got a lot of ingredients in the stew, and trying to pick them out isn’t easily accomplished, even if we appreciate the taste.

Books I've started and stopped lately

* John Irving’s Last Night in Twisted River. His newest book is better, at least in its first 50 pages, than the abysmal Until I Find You, but still doesn’t that umph that animates The Hotel New Hampshire, Garp, and A Prayer for Owen Meany, which seem to me his best books, although I still haven’t read The Cider House Rules. Yet.

* Nicola Keegan’s Swimming, which has an interesting premise about a rising Olympic swimmer and her obsession with the pool and, presumably, how that does and doesn’t translate to dry land. Only the dialog is rendered in annoying italics (a minor point, but still), and, at least in the early sections, too many parts say things like, “The window sits still, boring a hole in the flat sky. Why are you mean to me all the time?” Overall, Swimming is tough to get into and awakens a strong, almost irrepressible urge to read Lolita instead, which is perhaps the ultimate novel dealing with obsession (among other things). Really, why resist?

* Robert Kaplan, Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts. An up-close look at the parts of the military that work, and probably a useful corrective to hit’n’run media coverage of foreign places (Yemen is in the news again! Give me a 30-second soundbite!). As with Imperial Grunts, Kaplan delves deep, but stretches read like the spec sheets in Tom Clancy, and I’m looking for more… what? Synthesis? Something like that? Tough to say. The book isn’t bad, but it doesn’t feel essential, as something like Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience does, although that covers a wholly different subject.

I’d write more, but I just can’t summon the energy for it. As Orwell said:

[…] the chances are that eleven out of the twelve books will fail to rouse in [the reviewer] the faintest spark of interest. They are not more than ordinarily bad, they are merely neutral, lifeless, and pointless. If he were not paid to do so he would never read a line of any of them, and in nearly every care the only truthful review he could write would be: “This book inspires in me no thoughts whatever.”

I don’t think of myself as a reviewer—I prefer to imagine myself someone who happens to like to write about books—but the truth is that the works above inspired few thoughts in me whatsoever. None is outright bad. They just leave me… unfeeling. Too many books leave me feeling, or at least knowledgeable, to spend a lot of time on those that don’t.

Books I’ve started and finished lately:

* Francine Prose’s Touch and Goldengrove. Why didn’t I read these earlier?

* Most of Alain de Botton’s oeuvre, including On Love, The Architecture of Happiness, and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. This is half pleasure—everything de Botton has written, except The Romantic Movement, is enormously pleasurable—and half for a project I’m working on.

* A.S. Byatt’s Possession, as discussed at the link.

Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate — Diego Gambetta

Criminals use nicknames both to separate insiders from outsiders and to stymie potential investigations into their activities (which is itself a form of stonewalling outsiders). They use violence strategically rather than randomly, and prefer to send hard-to-fake signals about their badness and their inability to fit in any part of the larger world: hence the tendency toward showing incompetence at tasks other than criminality, as seen on The Sopranos, the tendency toward extreme tattoos, and the tendency toward group participation in criminal events. The last binds the participants together. You can see some of the same behavior in almost any group of people; for example, a group of teenagers might decide they’re poor math students, they like to wear black, and they prefer to smoke weed with one another, the last being necessary to ensure group culpability—”they try to force each other to participate and torment or ostracize those who refuse.”

This comes from Codes of the Underworld, a clever book that is actually about signaling, semiotics, and economics more than any other subjects, despite my introduction. Its conclusions feel obvious after reading, but I doubt I could’ve articulated them prior. It has an impressive range of detailed examples supporting its general observations.

For example, criminals are good at finding liminal spaces where criminality might be implied, but not completely; Gambetta cites drivers who would nominally “forget” cash when handing over their license to police:

A quick-witted and corrupt policeman could choose to pocket the banknote (or bargain for more); if not corrupt, he was unable to treat the display of the ostensibly “forgotten” banknote as sufficient evidence of attempted bribery.

Steven Pinker makes similar claims about linguistic issues in The Stuff of Thought, where he describes the verbal tango people in crimes, love affairs, and other situations undergo. In both crime and love affairs, very good reasons often exist for evading overt, blunt language: being caught by police in the former and being unambiguously rejected in the latter.

As the above issue regarding bribes perhaps shows, criminals are more rational than they’re often made out to be: “Far from being driven by a feudal or monarchic mentality, mafiosi display a surprisingly modern mind-set in managing their organization, at odds with much of the Italian nepotistic and corrupt style.” I like the sentence itself as well as the thought behind it: the sentence compacts a lot of material into a short space (“monarchic mentality,” “Italian nepotistic”), which alludes to allegedly common knowledge while also correcting that knowledge. Some parts are wonderfully academic in their obtuse cleverness, as when Gambetta says, “This sort of usage seems a jocular custom, a form of bantering, and it would be a stretch to attribute it to an instrumental motive.” In other words, friends sometimes greet each other affectionately and informally. But those moments are few, especially relative to the easy density in Codes of the Underworld and the fact that it also nearly functions “semiotics for dummies,” with a fair amount of the theory one might otherwise find in Umberto Eco or Roland Barthes. In short, it’s multidisciplinary and academic in the best sense of both words.

A blurb from Thomas Schelling on the back says that “[…] the book’s interpretations will carry well beyond the field of conventional crime.” He’s right, and one major strength is that, as with the best nonfiction books, Gambetta uses a particular field or example from a particular field (in this case, criminality) to comment simultaneously on a much larger issue (how people communicate and form social bonds) without straining too far to either side, which would destroy the whole.

(Here is Tyler Cowen’s take, or rather citation. I don’t know of any other interesting posts about the books.)

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