America - what went wrong?

Last weekend I returned to Canada for a book event and some media appearances in Calgary, Alberta. I was so struck by the differences in our two countries that I felt compelled to write about them.  There was a time when Canada seemed to follow the United States and we were the free world’s leader.  No more.  Being in Canada really showed me how far wrong we have gone, here in America.

The Culture of Fear

When I was a teenager, I hitchhiked all over New England.  I never feared for my safety, and I never got attacked.  Today, many Americans are afraid to drive cars alone many places, and hitchhiking is asking to be killed.  Yet the statistics show that the chances of being assaulted while traveling are actually lower today than they were forty years ago.

We have a few cities that are deemed walker friendly, but most are dangerous, either in spots or in total.  I don’t know if that is really true, or just a perception, but the perception of Canadian cities is that it’s safe to walk anywhere, any time.  And enough people do it that I think I’d know if reality were otherwise.

I got lost on one of my walks, and strolled into a Calgary police station to ask directions.  When I walked in the door I found a broad counter, with an officer at a computer terminal, helping someone else.  When he finished I asked for directions to the freight yard, and he went to Google Earth and printed me directions.

I was struck by his friendliness, and his accessibility.  In an American city, the desk cop would have been hiding behind inch-thick bulletproof glass.  My own town – population 20,000 – is like that.  What are we afraid of here?  Do we perhaps invite attack by such unfriendly facilities?

The difference between the feel of the Canadian police station and similar places in the US is striking.  Individual cops may well be the same, but there is an institutional accessibility and friendliness in the Canadian structure that surely influences every interaction within. 

I asked the cop if it was safe to walk there, and he looked at me in surprise.  Of course, he said, it’s safe to walk anywhere.  Just watch out for cars!  You would never hear that in a big American city.  Why not?  Is it all attitude?

I saw that same friendliness in most everyone.  Business people, waiters, people on street corners, kids on skateboards . . . all welcomed me.  

And then we have the airports . . . 

When you walk through any American airport you are assaulted by endless recorded messages.  The threat level is Orange.  Do not let your bags our of your sight, lest someone stuff dangerous objects into them.  And on and on.  What has all that achieved, besides making air travel a lot more uncomfortable?

Walk through any Canadian airport and the lack of threats and warnings is refreshing.  It’s like walking through an airport here, twenty years ago. 

The costs of our airport security are obvious.  Where are the benefits, as compared to other countries?

The economy

Right now, Canada’s published unemployment rate stands at 7.6%.  That’s quite a bit better than our rate of 9%, but that one number does not tell the whole story.  Canada’s rate has averaged just over 8% for the past 35 years, whereas our unemployment skyrocketed from 4.5% to 10% when the economy collapsed a few years ago.  They do not seem to have the ups and downs we have here.

And the other part of that story . . . taxes in Canada average 10% higher than what we pay here, but in exchange for that Canadians get health care and security that we seem to strive for and never attain.  For me, the $14,000 I pay for health insurance alone would more than make up any tax difference.

Walk through most major cities in the USA, and you see shuttered buildings everywhere you go.  In places like Buffalo, whole sections of the city lie abandoned.  Canada has nothing like that form what I have seen this year.

The result: Just as Canadians do not seem to fear their neighbors and their cities, they do not seem to fear for their jobs or economic security. 


An analysis of American news stories shows that we devote a disproportionate share of our media coverage to inter party squabbles and scandal and tabloid coverage.  Reasoned discussion of the hard issues facing our country has fallen by the wayside.  How is it that the Canadians have avoided this “tabloid trap?”  I don’t know, but I wish we could devote a bit more effort to solving the real problems in this country.  Congressman Weiner may be entertaining but there is a real fundamental problem when stories like his dominate the news, and we remain mired in a war no one wants with one person in six in my home city out of work.

Population and production

Is the fundamental problem that we have too many people here?  Or is the issue that too many Americans are riding on the backs of too few real production workers.  I could not find any statistics to show the percentage of Canadians engaged in actual production versus administration and government workers, compared to the USA.  But I’ll bet it’s lower.

Creating and making things is what made this country great and strong, yet that is not where we focus our education or job creation efforts.   I wonder if we can bring that back; at times it feels like the bureaucracies are too entrenched.  Would our TSA workers move from their current jobs to doing something that adds value, like making cars or computers?  So many of the new jobs we’ve created in the past 20 years actually harm our country’s efficiency and its ability to compete globally.


I have been fortunate to eat in good restaurants, both here and abroad.  One thing I notice when comparing Canada to the US is the greater emphasis on natural and organic foods.  Our Canadian neighbors seem to have a better handle on food that’s safe and healthy.

The environment

The Canadians have some notable environmental messes, like the oil sands mining.  However, that is contrasted with much more use of wind and water power, and a generally grater regard for the environment.  For example, Canada uses much less salt on its roads and they have reduced salting in the past decade.  We have gone the opposite way in the Northeastern US, and our roadside grass is dead while our cars rot away. 

I’ve been a believer in our country all my life.  But seeing the contrast between the American of today and our neighbor to the north brings home just how far we have diverged from the image of America the great I had as a kid. 

I wonder if we can move back in that direction?            


KB said…
I definately agree with your estimation of the friendliness, general feeling of trustworthiness and less cynicism amongst Canadians. Something I experienced on a recent visit to Banff. I also agree that folks were more engaged in political discussion as there really was something of worth to discuss and there seemed to be less apathy and among aspergerians a feeling that as 'stakeholders' a whole group might have a voice in the direction of research into autism as well. but here's a bit of negative evidence s well, On my way to Calgary, I had to stop through Toronto where security was just as bad as in the US. in fact, I almost misSed my flight because I had to be taken through security a second time with a bag that was mistakenly left behind. It was awful and I was very upset. Perhaps Toronto is already too close to US culture to count as Canada??!
Caitlin Wray said…
I am heartened that you felt these differences on your visit to Canada, which is my home. Many if not most Canadians would share your assessments, which is one of the reasons we have a huge movement to keep Fox News out of our country.

I think our two nations have so much to share and learn from each other though - as our current Prime Minister is set to take us back to what the US had in the Bush administration, while your country moved leaps and bounds in electing Obama.

As an amateur photographer I really enjoyed your camera's perspective on Calgary. I am just a few provinces over in Manitoba - we do hope you'll consider visiting us sometime soon. We are in the final stages of constructing the International Museum for Human Rights, and we have one of the oldest running vintage trains on the continent (

I'm on the Board of Directors for the Asperger Society of Manitoba, and my son is an Aspie. We have an annual conference here and would love to be able to host you as a keynote speaker one year!
Anonymous said…
I think it really is about unplugging. I have no problem walking just about anywhere I want to in Chicago. On the other hand, I haven't had home television service in three years and I haven't had home internet service in about eight months. I think our emphasis on constant communication has been an immense driver for progress and at the same time our greatest weakness. If you really get to know the Canadians, they really know how to unplug from all the massed incoming data stream that dominates American minds and our social life. That's where all the fear is. I think if you were to hit the U.S. with an EMP burst that disrupted our networks for weeks, the real surprise would be how many stories of people being kind and helping one another out would be reported on during the interim.
Anonymous said…
And as proof of concept, I'd invite anyone looking for a little genuine sentiment and kindness to ride the rails here in America sometime, rather than take a plane. The trains are far from perfect, but I've almost always had better experiences on Amtrak trains than when having to fly. People know they are going to be stuck together for a while and they make allowances. Doesn't happen that way on a plane.
By: Kate Nadeau said…
Let's not forget that the Canadians also offer 12 months of maternity leave. Here in the US many women are not offered any maternity leave, and if they are it's only 6 weeks.
Celestial2920 said…
My first trip to the US was in 1991... travelling to Spokane from British Columbia... never have I seen unfriendly border guards armed with honking huge guns with the attitude of "what the hell you coming to my country, boy?" while coming back.. Canadian customs were friendly, courteous and very nice... but don't push them. A friend of mine's sister used to work for customs in Victoria, and told me a number of stories of what can happen if you tick them off.

Canadians.... a lot of us are nice people... but like the Hulk... don't get us angry!
forsythia said…
Much food for thought here. Wish I had time to write more, but we're leaving on a short trip, and the computer isn't coming along.
Barney said…
Much of the trouble seems to be in the hygeminy of junk culture. This includes junk food, i.e. McDonald's, Nestle, Kelloggs, food makers owned by tobacco companies, Wonderbread, junk literature, tabloids, true romance novels, the liokes of Brittany Spheres and Michael Jackson that pop culture demands that we esteem as equal to the music of Beethoven and Mozart, the cultivation of a beer belly and the requirement that it be considered as majestic as the physique of a body builder, the paying of football coaches salaries several hundred times as high as the salary of some PhD faculty.
Might this not produce such a decline. Is the American empire in an irrecoverable decline like the Rome's glory in Wagner's opera "Rienzi"?
crtampa7 said…
I enjoyed your article about Canada vs The United States. I think that yous were right on point with a lot of issues. I completely agree that both parties are at fault for the issues in this country.

High unemployment can't be fixed when we continue to create government jobs and unions. Who pays for this? The taxpayers who are working.

If we continue to ship jobs to other countries what exactly are we going to do?

We continue to put more restrictions on small businesses so that they can't hire new people which in turn means more unemployment.

Men are no longer in the house to teach the next generation of little boys to be men. Some have never even seen their father. Who is teaching them values of work and responsibility. Little boys and girls need their father.

As the family goes so goes the country.

I could write pages and pages about this issue. To say I am very passionate about this would be an understatement.
Creating and making things is what made this country great and strong, yet that is not where we focus our education or job creation efforts. I wonder if we can bring that back; at times it feels like the bureaucracies are too entrenched.

Wonderful. So glad to hear someone else say it. We've become a service industry economy, with nothing to feed it. Hands on kids are lost in our schools.
Anonymous said…
I live 30 minutes from the Canadian border, and have always marveled at the differences and similarities between our countries. Canada is definitely a saner, more secure place to live.

Canada's banks are nationalized as is their health care. Canada does not engage in "nation building" outside of their own borders. I think there is a message here. However, Canada's labor union antics and postal strikes are legendarily horrendous. Maybe this is a small price to pay, comparatively speaking.

It used to be that the Canadians seemed to suffer from an obsessive inferiority complex, because they weren't us (U.S.?). The tables have turned, in my life time.
Anonymous said…
Personally I feel that the zero tolerance for risk (perhaps created by the litigious society we find ourselves in) is killing us as a nation. The strange thing is that people seem to recognize that there is a problem, but we seem unable to do anything about it.
I created a blog post last year called The Price of Fear that talked about how fear is stopping us from doing the things we really want to do. It was BY FAR my most popular post.

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