Tuesday, August 26, 2008

How good we've got it

"You are so lucky to be born in America."

This is what came out of the mouth of a Hungarian girl I met while on a trip to Europe last month. These words were spoken during a conversation about life in Hungary, which isn't exactly the kind of place where you can sponsor a child for $1 a day. But it is a place, she described, where people don't make much money and taxes are high. In her words, "It is our money and the politicians are stealing it." Believe me sister, I know the feeling.

Except, when you are making $50K a year, and the government takes 40%, you are still left with $30K. On the other hand when you're making $20K a year and the government takes 40%, well, ouch. That's a paltry $12K.

And it shows in the Hungarian lifestyle. She said that if people want to save so that they can one day attain a house that they must sacrifice. That doesn't mean that they skip sending the kids to camp that summer and delay the purchase of a new car, it means that they go out to eat maybe once a month and deny themselves everyday luxuries like a trip to Starbucks. As she described it, for many people their daily routine consists of working, going home and watching TV, and then doing it all over again the next day. (Not that Americans don't do this also, but I think it is usually more due to laziness than to reach a savings goal)

Now, in the interest of full disclosure this conversation took place on a beach in southern France, but she was also an atypical Hungarian having lived abroad for most of her post-college life and earned money in other countries. Even so, she conceded that she should probably be saving more but said that she refused to sacrifice by having no life.

When you hear things like that and then see the packed restaurants, busy shopping malls and nice cars that so many Americans drive on our highways, you really do have to conclude that Phil Gramm was right.

And the point is not simply that Americans are better off than Hungarians. Staying with a friend in London I noticed that everything was simply...smaller. The cars are small. The apartments are small. The refrigerators are small. The jugs of milk and orange juice are smaller. Even the glasses are smaller. And things cost more. I noticed similar things in the Italian and French rivieras, not exactly the trailer parks of Europe.

We just don't know how good we've got it.

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