Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Here or There

As someone who has had the experience of living on both sides of the pond, I've lived both within a capitalist free market society and a socialist society.  Often people ask me what system is better and to be honest, after spending my first 30 years in the US and the last 15 abroad I can honestly say that both systems have their benefits and both have their drawbacks and the benefits are super fantastic and the drawbacks suck total ass.  Also in my experience living abroad I have had the privilege of knowing a great many people who were also living abroad.  You have to know that immigrants always bond over what sucks about their adopted home and what is always so much better "back home." It is the subject of much lunch and cocktail party chatter and there are lots of blog sites devoted to this.  I have had the good fortune to have two adopted homes, Israel and the Netherlands and while both countries are very different, that was the same.  Immigrants waxing poetic on how much better things are at home as opposed to where they now live.  There is a certain comfort in it and it is very easy to bond over.  Put any two immigrants together and even if they don't know each other, within a few short minutes, the conversation always heads over to how here sucks and back there is fairyland.  It turns the best of us immigrants into arguing, sniveling women like those on The View, not you Babs -- I am thinking more like that obnoxious pseudo-neoconservative, the one that was on Survivor and believe me, I respected her opinion a whole lot more when she was eating bugs then when she is trying to pretend to be an intellectual and that other one, Joy Behar).

So this is not an exhaustive discussion and doesn't get into things like culture, the people, etc. but here are just a few thoughts I have about what is better here and there.  Just to be clear, when I say here, I mean the Netherlands and there, I mean the US.


Convenience.  No one beats American society on convenience, and I am not just talking about being able to get a burger and fries or a Krispy Kreme donut without having to leave your car.  When I first moved to the Netherlands nothing and I mean nothing was open on Sunday.  OK scratch that, in the heavy tourist areas, touristy, cheesy cafes and restaurants were open and in the dead center of Amsterdam stores were open, but anywhere else, everything was closed.  The Netherlands was a true 9-5 society when I moved here.  Stores closed at 6.00 PM, so if you ran out of milk your only real option was to go to what they called 'Night Shops' which are like the small town equivalent of a 7-11 and buy milk at twice the price of the grocery store.  This really means that your Saturday is just a wasted day because you spend the whole day grocery shopping, running errands and trying to get everything done before Saturday at 5 when civilization ends and we head back to the Dutch version of the Paleozoic era.

In the Netherlands, drug stores and pharmacies are two separate types of businesses.  A drug store is where you can buy over the counter meds, vitamins and beauty products.  A pharmacy is where you get prescriptions filled.  I remember when I first started working and needed a prescription, the pharmacy was only open from 9-5 Monday through Friday and Leo and I had to work out how we were going to drop off and get that prescription.  Leo thought it was crazy when I told him that pharmacies and supermarkets were mostly open 24-7 in the US and that when I lived in the US I mostly did that kind of stuff in the evening hours since it was convenient for me at the time and since it was always less crowded then.   Here you have to think about and plan what you wanted to eat from Saturday afternoon through Monday morning.  G-d forbit you should have a spontaneous hankering for I don't know, chocolate pudding, you can't get it.  Maybe that is why the Dutch are the least spontaneous people on earth.  If you want to have drinks with your Dutchie friend get out your agenda, you will probably get a date 1-2 months later.   To be fair though this is something that is changing in Dutch society.The bigger grocery store chains are now open until 9 or 10 PM during the week and open most Sundays and holidays.  And many other stores are following suit.  Although when the store we shopped at first started opening on Sundays, I said to Leo, "great, let's shop on Sunday and beat the crowds."  Of course the first Sunday morning we went over there, I realized that they were open but they didn't stock the shelves, so there was no bread, milk and all the salad was  picked over.  They have wised up a little since then and have realized that if they want to turn a profit on Sunday they need to at least stock up on basics (although don't look for baby lamb chops or salmon filet).  So now if I have a yen for M&M's on Sunday afternoon I have an actual chance of getting some.  Whew!

Also when I came returning stuff to stores was difficult or near impossible.  Many stores just didn't.accept.returns.  I once bought a set of glasses and opened the box and one was broken and even with that it took a half hour of me opening up a can of whoop-ass to be able to exchange them (and I am pretty sure that the only reason they begrudgingly took it back was just to get my, shrill loud American voice the hell out of their nice, calm store).  Now most stores will accept returns within a specified time frame (1 or 2 weeks and a few give you 30 days) but a lot still won't give you your money back but will only give you store credit.  And if you don't have a receipt? Sorry, Charlie you are SOL.

Service.  Service in the US is just leaps and bounds ahead of the Netherlands (and Israel) and probably most places in the world except maybe whorehouses.  In a Free Market Driven, Capitalist society like the US it is the buyer of goods and services who has the power (and I don't mean in the economic sense but in the receiving service sense).  The establishment you are purchasing from knows you can go to any number of its competitors and get it for roughly the same price or cheaper or with better service or more add-ons, bigger portions, etc.  Therefore businesses strive to provide you the best service to keep you coming back.  In Dutch society, not so.  The attitude is pleasant but aloof and the underlying message they push toward you is "if you are not  happy, well we are sorry, but it is not our fault and if you are really unhappy you can get it somewhere else."  In  the US if your steak comes out medium instead of medium rare, you send it back, you get a visit from the manager and if it goes really wrong,  something to compensate like dessert or drinks or even gift certificates are given to ensure a return visit.  Now, I worked in the corporate restaurant business for years and customers did abuse this and complained just to get free crap, the restaurant knew it and still did it even though they knew people were getting something over on them.  Want to know why?  Because the whole point is to get your repeat business, because there are 37 other places on the same block you could go for dinner and get the same quality and service for the same price.  Their businesses depend on your returning.  Here, that would never happen unless something was REALLY wrong, like a bug came crawling out of your steak.  Actually when you get your food in a restaurant here they never do the classic American check-back (1 or 2 minutes after getting your food and you have had a chance to take a bite, check back to see if things are to the customers' liking).  That just doesn't exist here.  You get your food and they come back when you are finished to clear your plates.  Sure they ask you then if you liked it, but then it is too late.  If you didn't like it, you get a little uncomfortable glance from the server, kind of like you just asked them to remove their trousers and a walk away.  It is just a different attitude.  If you don't like it, well we are sorry but it's not our fault.  They get disjointed here if you do anything out of the norm.  If you go someplace for dinner, you are absolutely expected to order an appetizer (which they call a first course) a main course and a dessert.  And your not getting any salad or refills.  Most places won't even give you tap water.  You want water?  You have to buy it.  My inlaws are not big eaters and now that they are a bit older even less so and 3 courses is too much for them.  They prefer to eat two first courses because they are smaller.  Many places won't even allow that.  A restaurant we frequent does and therefore they don't like to eat anywhere else.  I remember once we had friends from the US visiting us and we went out to eat and they wanted to order the cheese plate as a starter rather than dessert and you should have seen the looks they got for that.  Dutch restaurants are also not built on the turning-your-tables philosophy.  In fact most seat only once a night or maybe twice (but that is very rare), so that is why you can't get tap water and why eating out comparatively speaking is leaps and bounds more expensive here than it is there.  They charge more per head rather than turn-'n-burn.  It's a good thing they don't do the latter, because the Dutch are not good multi-taskers (and actually I shouldn't pick on the Dutch, that seems pretty universal throughout all of Europe - maybe a tad less in the UK, but not really.).  Europeans can't multi-task for shit.  Period.

I do think this largely has to do with the security a socialist society gives you as a working person (or a non working person for that matter) as opposed to capitalist society.  In this restaurant example, US servers rely almost completely on their tips for their income.  In socialist society servers are paid a salary and tips, while certainly welcome are just a few coins usually, if you are really lucky 10% at a nicer restaurant.  But they don't live on their tips.  It's extra money and they are shared among everyone.  And if you don't tip they are not happy about it but it doesn't mean they just wasted two hours on you and won't be able to make their mortgage because you didn't tip them.  I think they don't bend over backwards simply because they don't have to.  I'll get back to job security and necessity a bit later.

Variety.  The US due to its size squashes every other country in terms of the sheer variety of stuff there is to purchase, the type of foods there are to eat and just the variety in everything.  In the Netherlands (and in Israel) there is a lot less.  When I studied history and in particular communism I learned that the Soviet Union's biggest challenge (besides a warm water port) was always how could they produce both guns and butter, meaning how could they keep up in the Cold War with the US and weapons development and still produce enough consumer goods to support their nation.  The US has perfected that to a degree that no other country even comes close to. They also have a huge market of consumers who consume way more than their European counterparts (and that is a whole vicious circle I am not touching today either).

 I remember taking my husband to the US for the first time and taking him in a US Grocery store and he was astounded at the cereal aisle.  In the Netherlands there are 5 or 6 different kinds of cereal, Leo just walked up and down the cereal aisle that very first time and counted more than 100 different brands of cereal and believe me the entire two weeks he was both amazed but also said it was too excessive.  Although when we returned here and there was the choice of Corn Flakes, Raisin Bran, Rice Krispies and Muesli, he started complaining about how the "Dutch don't have anything."And we immediately started having people send us Captain Crunch and Cheerios.    One day at my mom's, she asked him to go to the store for her and get ground beef.  About 15 minutes later he called me and asked me what the difference was between ground chuck, ground round and ground beef.  Here we just have ground beef and lower fat ground beef.  In the US if you need to get your basic school supplies for your child, say markers you can pretty much go to any  Target, Wal-Mart, Walgreens, Grocery store to get it.  Here not, a few department stores might have it, but you have to go to a stationary store and guess what, they will probably have only one or two kinds to choose from if you are lucky.  And if you need gold stars, they may only carry silver stars or no stars at all.  Coming from the US to live here you really have to scale back your expectations. I do think that while fads and things are pretty current over here, in terms of consumer goods Europe is a good 15-20 years behind the US and they will never, ever have that kind of variety.


Health Insurance.  Who didn't think that would be number one on the list?  It's true though.  Although we do not have socialized medicine in the Netherlands like everyone thinks.  In some way we do, but it is not that you don't have to pay for health insurance.  The system changed since I first moved here though, it was more socialized then.  You had what was called the 'Sick Fund' (Ziekenfonds) which was the communal pot of money paid for by taxes and people's direct contribution to the fund which paid people's health care costs.  And actually Health Insurance is only used for the smaller medical costs (doctor's visits, routine illnesses, tests, etc.  When you are in a situation where you have 'major medical issues' this is not paid through your health insurance but through the taxes everyone pays.  This was true in the old system and in the current system.  When I first came Leo was insured by the Sick Fund.  He paid a small monthly contribution for his health insurance (if I remember it was between $80-$100) per month.  Those with incomes above a certain level did not qualify to be insured through the Sick Fund but had to be insured through 'private' means.  You still had to pay your Sick Fund contribution, but the contribution was credited to your private insurance policy and you paid the difference (which was only and extra may $30-50 a month).  Kids from 0-18 years do not pay anything for health insurance both under the old system and the new one, it is fully covered by tax money.  A few years ago they privatized all the health insurance and did away with the sick fund as health insuramce altogether and now everyone needs to get private health insurance and the costs have gone up a lot.  Now for Leo and I, I pay about $500 per month, where under the old system we paid about $230.  Both the old and the new systems are socialized in that those who earn more need to pay more for their insurance.  But as far as I know there are no uninsured persons in the Netherlands with the exception of illegal immigrants (and illegal immigrant children up to the age of 18 are covered).  It is not possible to not have health insurance as far as I know.  You might have lesser coverage but not no coverage.  Insurance companies are not allowed to reject you for pre-existing conditions (they can reject you from the extra coverage meaning, you can't get a private hospital room or eye glasses every year or get medical pedicures) but again if you have a major medical situation like cancer, an injury, etc. this is covered through the major medical supported by taxes.  And you Americans wonder how the economy hasn't collapsed on itself by supporting all these people and their health problems?  Because the government strictly controls how much doctors and hospitals can charge for their services and medicines and what services a practitioner can offer.  For instance, a visit to your family doctor during the day costs $35, an evening or weekend visit (to an urgicare or Emergency room) costs $50.  Maya's antibiotics today cost $6.  And your house doctor isn't allowed to also have a lab, a gynecology practice and an X-ray facility so that all the costs come to his/her practice.  You need blood - you have to go to the lab, X-rays, to the hospital.  And you can't demand that stuff yourself.  You need a referral from your house doctor (or specialist) for any type of tests.  The only way your doctor can make more money is to see more patients.  So doctors here don't order every test in the book for a headache or even a recurring headache.  Their usual first answer is, let's wait and see if it goes away by itself.  That can feel quite incompetent for people coming to the US who are used to getting an MRI and blood work automatically when they have a headache.  It took me a while to adjust to that.

And being insured is 100% insured.  There isn't this 80% shit which leaves you struggling financially after you have had a major health crisis to pay the 20% or to argue with your insurance company on what is or isn't covered.  In the Netherlands depending on the type of insurance you have, you can have some personal liability but the absolute maximum personal liabilty per year is $300.  That can be a lot to a minimum wage family sure, but don't forget the minimum wage is actually a livable wage here.  You just can't go broke by getting sick.  When I was sick during pregnancy I was hospitalized for a month, had to have gallbladder surgery and follow up care.  It didn't cost me a nickel and not only that, I didn't have to argue with anyone about whether or not something was covered.  I just got a receipt a month later showing me the costs and that it was paid by my health insurance.  When you are sick here you don't have to worry about bureaucracy or how you are going to pay for things.  You can focus 100% of your attention on recovering.

Doctors earn a good living here, but they are by no  means rich.  Being a doctor here doesn't turn you into a millionaire (first of all it is socialism, the only way to really become a millionaire is to be born one).  You also don't have a free hand here to sue doctors on a whim like you do in the US and I think that has a lot to do with how the Dutch have been able to keep health care costs in line.  I am not sure what the standards for this are but you cannot just sue a doctor when you are not happy with your treatment or when you see a huge pay day. Even if you can sue it is not a huge pay day.   So while they are covered by malpractice insurance and there are malpractice cases here from time to time, it is not possible to sue for millions in punitive damages.  I am not even sure there are punitive damages here.  And because your medical costs are covered you can't sue for that either.

I was at first shocked  to learn that I didn't need to get a Pap smear every year to test for cervical cancers but that the standard is once in 5 years unless you are not in a monogamous relationship.  In the US I think it is advised to get a baseline mammogram at 35 or 40, here not until 50 unless you have a history of breast cancer in your family or if you find something through breast self exam.  I do sometimes wonder if their more laissez-faire attitude means that less cancers are cured since perhaps they are not detected as early.  Maybe one day I need to look into that.  Again though, those screenings are paid for by the government, you don't pay a nickel for that.  You get a postcard in the mail which tells you to make an appointment with your doctor, you go, take the card and finito.  It is clearly a better system, prices are not overinflated to pay for malpractice premiums or the uninsured, there is a good standard of care for everyone and even though you pay more if you earn more, compared to US insurance rates and the 20% that your policy doesn't cover and the costs of prescriptions, it was cheaper than what health care costs in the US.  The whole system is just more controlled.  The US Health system in my humble opinion is one of the worst examples of the downsides of capitalism there is.

Job security.  Although there is a big flip-side to this, which I will get to in a second, I do think overall you have a better sense of job security here.  Companies cannot just fire you on a whim, they have to have an actual cause and can't just decide from one day to the next that they don't like you and you are gone.  Everyone works under contract here.  When you first get hired it is usually for a fixed amount of time (say 6 months or a year) and the company gives you a contract which explains the terms and conditions including the length of the contract, how much they will pay you, what social benefits you get (like number of vacation days, pension, etc.).  You are guaranteed that salary for the length of the contract.  Even if they want to let you stop working, they need to pay you out your contract.  After 3 temporary contracts if they want to keep you they need to give you what is called a permanent contract, which is a contract without a specified amount of time which guarantees your salary and other benefits.  If they want to terminate the contract, they need to have a legitimate reason for this (performance, restructuring, financial reasons or the like) and either get permission from the government to terminate your contract or make an agreement with the employee to terminate the contract under certain terms and conditions (meaning money).  If you are an underperformer the company needs to build up a file putting on record that you are not performing, stating the reasons why and giving a fair chance (3 months) to improve, including offering you any training or coaching necessary to bring the employee's performance to the proper standard.  If you don't have a file built up the employee and employer can negotiate an end to the contract but the company then needs to fulfill the maximum obligations under the law for termination of the contract (fulfilling the notice period outlined in the contract) and offering severance pay.  Age and length of employment play a role in determining severance.  It's a complicated formula but a few years ago, when my husband's company tried to terminate him (and didn't have a file built up and moreover promised to provide him coaching which they didn't provide), my husband through his labor union negotiated a settlement.  He had worked for the company for 7 years and had a 4 month notice period in his contract.  He received a year's salary (plus he sat at home collecting his salary for about 8 months until they reached an agreement).  The negotiation, which was long and complicated thanks to yours-truly-not-being-willing-to-back-down-since-they-had-nothing-on-him.  The downside of this is that when you want to fire someone you have to really spend a lot of time doing it and if you have someone that knows how to work the system just 'enough' it can be difficult to get them out unless you are willing to basically pay them to go away.  The other real obvious downside is that you get people that just do the minimum required day after day and year after year because you don't have grounds, you don't want to pay them a little pile to go away and often what you get is just a whole lot of mediocrity and even worse, mediocrity that passes itself off as excellence (but that is a whole other blog post).

So those are just some of my thoughts on the societies.  What do you think?

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