I am traveling home today from Switzerland, having been there for a week for a few board meetings (and also some amazing skiing in between, notching a life goal I've had since I was a teenager).
Every time I travel to Europe I end up fixated on the fact that the physical infrastructure there is so incredible. There is this combination of both really beautiful old things (castles, buildings, streets, canals, etc.), and really beautiful new things (trains, airports, etc.). And just a general sense of loveliness.
This is especially the case in Switzerland, where the transportation infrastructure is nothing short of miraculous. The trains and trams are basically perfect -- always there when you want them, going exactly where you need, spotless and comfortable, smooth and quiet, with amazing apps tying it all together. You get used to it really quickly, and it's clear how it lays the foundation for an exceptionally high day-to-day quality of life.
Uetliberg train station, overlooking Zurich (credit: jaeschol on flickr)
The common thread that seems to tie together the beautiful old and the beautiful new is a commitment to permanence. When Europeans invest and build, they tend take their time and do it once.
This commitment to permanence also applies to social issues. Generally speaking, the European approach is one of social welfare and a goal of societal stability. A system that is livable, sustainable, and then, relatively un-changing. When things are so lovely and beautiful, why change?
Of course, a commitment to permanence on social issues also means a lack of mobility. Old money has had centuries and millennia to accumulate and calcify; social classes would seem to be more rigid and impermeable. Permanence can have its downsides.
For example, I had lunch with a friend yesterday, who was explaining the dynamics of the real estate market in Zurich. Apparently it is nearly impossible to buy property there -- it's an illiquid market. The reasons for this seem to be: 1/ most of the buildings are long-term assets held by long-term holders. Banks, institutions, old money, etc. And 2/ the structure of the mortgage market discourages re-selling, primarily by disallowing prepayments. In other words, when a housing lender locks in 5% for 30 years, they expect to get the 5% for all 30 years, regardless of who owns the property. Perhaps there are other dynamics at play here as well, but with just these two factors alone, you can get a sense for how this form of permanence results in a lack of economic access and mobility.
The US, on the other hand, rebels against permanence. We prefer change, and optionality. Roads and cars vs. trains and trams. New startups & technological innovation vs. industrial perfection honed over centuries. Social mobility vs. social safety. An endless frontier.
What we end up with, as a result, is a system that is full of excitement and opportunity, but is extremely messy.
I think about my Great-Grandfather, who was murdered in Kiev for being a Jew. And then about my Grandfather who escaped that to come to the US in the early 1900s, an immigrant with nothing at all. And then about my father who didn't go to college but managed to learn a trade (computer programming, in the 1960s) and then start a company through pure hustle and force of will. And now here I am a graduate of a top university and a venture capitalist. That's a lot of change in 4 generations, and is kind of the iconic American story. I'm so lucky because of it.
That's the opportunity side of America. The flip side is risk, and mess. We don't ensure that everyone is basically ok. We don't ensure that our infrastructure is sound and serves everyone well. Ours is a raw fabric, where we encourage and allow for change, but can't make many guarantees.
In the end I just feel conflicted. The European model is so lovely, but potentially so stifling. The American model is so full of opportunity, but so lacking on the fundamentals. I wonder if the right balance can be achieved, and where.
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