Friday, June 27, 2008

How Canada stole the American Dream

(MacLeans) The numbers are in. Compared to the U.S., Canadians work less, live longer, enjoy better health and have more sex. And get this: now they’re wealthier too.

How did this happen? Canada often comes out ahead when you look at squishy things like quality of life. But since when were we richer? Mintz credits the rising loonie, the boom in commodities, and better public policy. He says that over the past decade productivity growth in the U.S. has slowed, while we've been hacking away at our government debt and lowering taxes. In short, as a nation, we've been doing everything right, while the U.S. has been doing everything wrong.

When you look at how individual Canadian and American families make and spend their money, it gets even more interesting. The numbers show that our median household incomes are about the same, or at least they were back in 2005 when the most recent figures came out. That year the median household income in Canada was about US$44,300, after you adjust it for the exchange rate and our lower purchasing power, while the American median was US$46,300. Since then, the loonie has gained on the U.S. dollar, so we've likely narrowed the gap. But while our incomes may be similar to American incomes, we're still much wealthier because we have less debt. What you make isn't a good measure of how rich you are — to figure out your true wealth you should add up everything you have and subtract what you owe. And Americans owe more. A lot more. Here in Canada the average amount of personal debt per person is US$23,460. In the U.S. it's a whopping US$40,250. And all those numbers are from 2005, just before their housing market slipped into a sinkhole. If you looked at the numbers now, you'd find that Americans are even further behind, because their largest asset — their home — is worth less. "There has been a lot of destruction of wealth in the U.S. over the past few years," says Mintz, "and that would affect the net worth figures significantly. I would suspect that they would be even worse off today."

Certainly Canadians who venture down to live in the U.S. say there's a huge difference in how the two countries approach spending and debt. Gerry Van Boven grew up in southern Ontario but moved to the U.S. in 1985. Now he's 57 and living in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He says his American friends seem genuinely puzzled by his reluctance to load on huge piles of debt so he can buy a big luxury car and a monster home. "Most of the people that I know who were born and raised here are a lot farther in hock than I am, and they think that's quite normal," he says. "They're like, 'Can't afford it? I'll just put it on plastic.' Whereas I was brought up to believe that if you can't afford to buy it in cash, you can't afford it."

The numbers confirm that Americans like to spend big. They have bigger homes than we do, averaging about 2,500 sq. feet, compared to only 2,000 sq. feet in Canada. They spend about 34 per cent of their annual household expenditure on their homes, compared to just 19 per cent here. They also love big cars. In the U.S., luxury cars and SUVs make up 21 per cent of the market, whereas in Canada, they make up only 11 per cent. The most popular model overall in the U.S. is the more upscale Toyota Camry, whereas we prefer the basic Honda Civic. "They like the big SUVs here especially," says Van Boven, "or at least they did. A good friend of mine went out and bought one of those big GMC Yukons a while back, but now gas is at $4 a gallon. I saw him the other day and asked when he was going to get rid of it. 'I can't,' he said. 'I don't own it yet.' "

Bibby, the sociologist, says the great American debt load is a direct result of their relentless quest for the best. "American culture is more consumer-oriented due to a more intense and more vigorous marketplace," he says. "My sense is that more dollars are spent per capita on advertising, for example. Little wonder then that per capita debt is considerably higher in the U.S. than in Canada. It is largely a function of the aggressive and successful marketing efforts of American companies." Health care, too, is helping to keep Americans in a state of owe, and for all the same reasons. In the U.S., as long as you have a good insurance plan, you have access to the best health care in the world. MRI machines are available on an hour's notice, there's plenty of staff, and the specialists are the finest there are. But all of that comes at a cost, says Van Boven, and every American feels it. "The absolute biggest difference, financially, that I noticed was the cost of health insurance," he says. "When my wife got laid off, we found out that you could keep the insurance you got through work for a while as long as you paid for it. But it cost $5,000 a year, and that was back in 1986. We couldn't afford that. So since then I've had no health insurance." Eric Nay, who moved to Toronto from California, says that even Americans with good insurance feel the pinch. "When I taught for the state of California, I had the best health coverage on the planet," he reports. "But when my son was born — and it was totally by the book, no complications — my insurance only covered the first $10,000 of the hospital costs. The remaining $8,000 came out of my pocket. And that's with full coverage."

Meanwhile in Canada, not only are we wealthier, but we don't even have to work as hard to make that wealth. In 2004, the average Canadian worker put in 35 hours of work per week, while our American counterparts put in 38. Only 30 per cent of Canadians work 45 hours a week or more, compared to 38 per cent of Americans. We also get — and take — much more vacation time. Employed adults in Canada get about 17 vacation days a year, and we take 16 of those days, leaving just one on the table. In the U.S., they get 14 days of vacation, but they only take 11, making them the world leader in yet another category: the working drudge.

Because we have more time off, Canadians tend to have a lot more fun. We spend more time with friends than Americans do, and we're much more likely to have a sit-down dinner with the family at home each night. We also tend to drink alcohol more often, with 27 per cent of us having a drink at least a few times a week, compared to 19 per cent of Americans. Nay says that our richer social lives were one of the biggest differences he noticed when he moved to Toronto. "It was only in Canada that I found myself going to the pub with friends and colleagues," he says. "I spend more time in pubs here than I have in any other place that I've lived. It's partly the culture, and partly because the quality of beer is fantastic."

Christian Lander is another Canadian living among Americans. He grew up in Toronto, but the 29-year-old moved to Los Angeles 2½ years ago where he runs the popular Stuff White People Like website, and he's publishing a book under the same name on July 1. He also finds that Americans like to do things big, but that doesn't always mean better. "The expectations here are just different," he says. "There's more ambition. More ambition to acquire more in terms of money and career. Whereas Canadians seem to be more European in that we care more about enjoying life." He's lived all over the country and says that it's very difficult to sum up the differences between Americans and Canadians because Americans are so diverse. The gaps between rich and poor, or black and white within the confines of the U.S. are much deeper and wider than the gap between the two countries. And within that mix, he says there's a subset of Americans who are just like Canadians. "Left-wing urban Americans," he says. "Canada is just a country of left-wing urban Americans." Still, he says that the relentless zeal, the private schools, the long work hours, not to mention the fact that everyone in L.A. seems to carry a gun, well, it all gets him down sometimes. His wife, who's American, is pushing to move back to Toronto, he says. "And yeah, we probably will."

Reginald Bibby notes the irony of the situation. The U.S. is a country that aggressively pursues happiness, but Canada seems to have just stumbled onto it. While Americans are putting in overtime to pursue the American dream, we're at the pub having a few pints with friends. They may have bigger cars and bigger homes, but they're living under a mountain of debt. They look richer, but the numbers prove that they're not. The truth is that all of that competition, all of that keeping up with the Joneses, can take its toll. Getting ahead can be a lot easier when everyone is moving in the same direction. "The pursuit of happiness is ingrained in Americans as part of what it means to be an American," Bibby says. "But in Canada, happiness is almost something of a by-product of coexisting peacefully."

Be it sports, health care, business or wealth, Americans are still competing to be the best. And it's true that the best in the U.S. is the best you'll find on the planet. But when you look at the medians and the averages, their accomplishment pales. As the hard numbers in this report show, Americans have shorter lives, poorer health, less sex, more divorces, and more violent crime. Which may mean that perhaps America isn't the greatest nation on earth. After all, you can't judge a nation by the best it produces, you have to judge it by the success of the average Joe. And the average Joe in Canada is having a way better time.

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