Update from Italy: Life on a Human Scale

Photo by Suzi Kim on Unsplash

After I published a piece two weeks ago about the American work ethic, a friend asked, but what can we do to help effect the change? It seems many people are unhappy with the turn American culture has taken. What can we do to bring it back around to something on a more human scale?

The human scale is a concept I came to appreciate in Europe as a student, and my gratitude has only deepened in the past three decades. A day and a neighborhood that are human-sized for walking and interacting. A manageable day, week, year. Parks and sidewalks. A neighborhood. Cafes and small grocery stores close by. Basic shops within walking distance. Quotidian circuits you can actually do without driving 45 minutes in each direction, and sometimes in a multi-destination route, example: home, daycare, work, daycare, home, spending two hours per day or more in a car. This is not sustainable, but it is normal for many people living and working in America.

Everything has gotten more extreme. This has happened everywhere; in America, especially so. The weather. The climate. Politics. What passes for news. Elections and recalls. Clock speed. Work weeks. The cost of living. Anxiety. Enmity. Fractures and fault lines in community and culture. The pandemic and public health. There is no middle ground. Where is the firm footing? The ice is so thin. How can everything be getting more and more extreme every day, rocketing toward the far right end of the spectrum?

Do Americans even want the culture to change? I wonder. Everyone has to want it in order for it to change. A social contract is only as strong as the collective goodwill that supports it.

This takes the shape of YOUR support and votes for leaders and policies that support families and individuals in meaningful ways. I am talking the Maslow’s Hierarchy here (thanking my ninth-grade health class for a concept I often refer to):

Universal guaranteed healthcare. (I have another post coming about how the lack of healthcare in America has led us down the road of the opioid crisis and legalizing weed faster than a high school sophomore will cut class after lunch. For a different day….) Also and on a side note, if you’re celiac, Italy gives you a nice monthly rebate on groceries because it’s hard to shop gluten free and wouldn’t it be nice to have a bit of help where it counts?! On your groceries? What would that cost per day for the US? NOTHING like the $273 million per day we spent over twenty years in Afghanistan.

Guaranteed parental leave. The United States also fails to mandate paid parental leave, unlike countries such as Germany, Mexico, and Niger. See UNICEF on this for excellent information.

Universal childcare. See UNICEF again on this. I remember once when a coworker in his early twenties was shocked when I told him that our bill for childcare in a given year was more than our annual mortgage payments. Younger people do not know this. Older people have not lived it. His response? Blargh.

Universal retirement. Starting at a dignified age. Perhaps 68. I don’t know. Not 75.

Guaranteed sick leave. 93% of the world guarantees paid sick leave. (PRI)

Guaranteed holiday time off.

Universal education at all levels of instruction.

These items cannot simply be commodities reserved for the wealthy or the fortunate, for those who judged to have worked “hard enough” and are therefore deemed to have “earned” these things. Does every person not have a life span that naturally incurs different needs? Pregnancy and parental leave for infants, childcare for working parents, school for the youngest among us. Bodies get sick, both our own and those of family members. Bodies and minds grow old – and sometimes sick – with age, and cannot work like a younger person. We all have bodies. We all know these things will happens to our persons. Why make the ridiculous bet against reality? Why shame people for being ill, or pregnant, or for having ill or pregnant family members, or small children who don’t raise themselves and need lots and lots of care? Have you seen a newborn lately? Your home basically becomes something like an ICU until the kid is six months old, and then you’re in a form of occupational therapy until the kid is 2 or 3 years old. Why is this a dirty secret, a reality to be swept under the rug, when it comes to public policy? American families are under stress because it is hard as hell to be an American family. The very structure of an extreme system deals almost every hand against you, and dares you to survive it.

Maybe fractured American families are broken under the weight of a system that refuses to support them, yet makes them pay and pay for everything, out of pocket and after taxes, with no time off. Unless you’re sick, in which case, you’re using your paid holiday leave to be home sick from work. Does this sound like a recipe for success? It is not. It is insane.

Education offered at no cost to anyone, if public – leave the private institutions for those who work there, and for those who wish to pay and who have the resources to do so. There are a few private institutes of higher education in Europe, for example, but far, far fewer that what we have in the US, because public education carries a very low economic threshold to access in the EU. Typically a few hundred euros of fees per year, plus books. Sometimes a couple thousand euros per year, but I don’t think it’s ever more than that. (The UK used to have a more accessible EU model, but that public payment structure has been dismantled over the past couple of decades, and British students now take out loans like American students for college. Not as much as we do, but a lot, compared to what they paid before, I think in the neighborhood of £7,000-8,000 per academic year.)

Healthcare, for everyone, all ages, all conditions. This can be done for less than what the US spends on healthcare per capita currently. Medicaid, Medicare, the US military and the VA, and Congress all currently operate on what is basically a universal healthcare system. Along with this, guaranteed sick leave for all workers. I can’t believe how no one in the US talks about this. It’s just not on the radar for the frogs in the proverbial boiling pot. About 20 years ago, all worker sick leave was combined with holiday leave so that we were forced to to use holiday pay when ill. Sick a lot this year? No holiday for you! Italians are always shocked when I tell them this. I guess I just got used to it in the US. Since employers in the United States aren’t required to provide any paid sick leave to their employees, many do not. About 32 million workers in the US have no sick leave whatsoever, with less lucrative jobs less likely to offer sick days (Pew).

The US GDP is almost $23 trillion annually. (So that $3.5 trillion bill in Congress is worth about a quarter of our annual GDP…. yes the one certain people are saying costs too much … like they’re buying a sofa or a car or something. Honestly, people should not be in public office if they don’t understand how public spending is different from private spending.) We’re a G7 country, at the top of the rich democratic heap. The wealthiest of an elite group of nations How much of that money is tied up at strategic points, like a blood clot, in massive corporate ventures whose profits become CEO paychecks? Or the defense budget? Our citizens are on the verge of a collective stroke because money and services are not flowing freely through the accounts of individuals. How much would it seriously cost to provide all these things to everyone in our country? Is American culture truly still so puritanical that we think that the only people who deserve a clean shot at a civil life are those who have worked “the hardest,” without “complaining,” eating cold gruel, and weathering numerous setbacks? (Trying to sketch a picture as Puritan as possible…)

So, here is my view on the path forward. If you feel crushed beneath the wheel, vote for the well-being and support of every person in America. You might not need that help now, but there is a 100% chance you will at various points in your life when you are called upon to confront the reality of the physiological needs for you and the people in your family, whom you assumedly love and wish to see happy and well cared for. And well communities make for calmer homes with happy people in them. Happy people tend to be able to better parent, and if they’re married or committed to one another, they’re more likely to remain so if every day is not some infernal slog where everything is difficult and respite is nowhere to be found.

I’m passionate on this topic. Still scarred from medical crises, a few pregnancies, working, babies, and parenting in the US, trying to combine two careers and one marriage in a culture where the pieces just don’t fit together, our savings are drained by normal daily expenses, and we never made enough money, while we are somehow gaslit as people and convinced that it is our fault for not working hard enough or making smart enough decisions. It can be a different way. It has to be, because the way the US is trying to do things – they way things have devolved in the US – is just not tenable.

Vote, then, for the public good. Support the new infrastructure bill. Be humane, and civil. Imagine life on a human scale, because it is certainly possible. We just have to believe it and want it to happen.

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