Some of this post is adapted from a Facebook comment I wrote earlier in the year in response to this CBC article. Many of the statements in this post are conjecture based on my own experiences and perceptions; I do not claim that everything in it is broadly applicable.
May of 2015 marked the beginning of my fourth year in the United States. Now that I have a green card and don't have to worry quite as much about saying the wrong thing and getting kicked out of the country, I wanted to take the opportunity to discuss what it's like to live here from my perspective. I was going to write "from a Canadian perspective," but of course, I don't speak for all Canadian immigrants.
Before I started my career, I had never really planned to come to the US. I was only part of the way through my senior year at the University of Alberta when I happened upon a Microsoft recruiting booth at a career fair. Microsoft was the only real technology company present; most of the others were oil and gas companies, that being what Alberta's economy is primarily based on. I left a resume with them, not really expecting much to come of it.
As it turned out, I did get a call back (which I almost missed—funny how such small events can result in drastic changes in one's life). A few weeks and several highly stressful interviews later, I had signed a job offer. Shortly after I graduated, my wife and I were on a plane to Seattle. Even at that point, I didn't really expect to live in the States for more than a year or so. My goal was primarily to get a "marquee company" on my resume (a piece of advice a friend and former colleague gave me) and then use that as a bargaining chip to get a better job back home. But now it's been more than three years, and not only am I still here, but I no longer have plans to leave in the foreseeable future.
I guess it would make sense for me to start with immigration. This could easily be the subject of its own post, but I always find some of the rhetoric in the H-1B debate perplexing. Suffice it to say it is neither easy nor cheap to bring a foreign worker into the US on an H-1B visa. The assumption, then, that companies are using low-paid H-1B workers to replace American-born workers doesn't make economic sense to me. I won't claim that no companies ever do this, but I very much doubt that it's as widespread as it's sometimes made out to be. Getting an employment-based green card is more difficult still.
I think it's probably a minority of Americans who really have a problem with immigration, but they are a vocal minority. And honestly, I don't begrudge anyone their desire to be selective about who is allowed to enter their home. I think immigration raises some difficult questions even if one is not a nativist (and I am not). People on both sides speak as though they have absolute certainty about what effects immigration will have, but in my experience, it's hard to find solid, unbiased empirical data.
Nevertheless, my belief based on the data I have seen is that protectionist policies will not allow the States to continue to be competitive in the global economy. I don't think it's a stretch to say that the US economy benefits massively from the "brain drain" that other countries experience: students get a government-subsidized education at home and then move to the US, depriving their home countries of cognitive capital, entrepreneurship, and tax revenue. (Obviously, I am part of this problem.) It seems self-evident to say that without this influx of talent, the US would not be as successful as it is, especially given that educational achievement here falls below the OECD average and has been trending downwards.
I live in a special sort of bubble in Redmond—there are probably more immigrants here than non-immigrants. Even among the non-immigrants, most are "transplants" from other states. There's sort of a unique character to a community which most people have joined by choice rather than by accident of birth—a real understanding of the tradeoffs of living in this particular place, and a worldliness you don't always get in other communities. Of course, much of this is probably due to people here generally being financially comfortable and well-educated, so I hesitate to draw too many conclusions. Whatever it is, it's a good thing; I've met so many people here who are so much wiser and more knowledgeable than I am, and that can only help me improve.
I've seen more of the American healthcare system than I would have cared to over the past three years, but this has given me a fairly good basis to compare against my experience with healthcare in Canada. Non-emergency care is definitely much faster here, if you can afford it. Of course, that's a big if; many Americans simply can't. If I had to choose which country to live in on this basis alone without knowing whether I'd be poor or rich, I'd definitely choose Canada; it has a much better social safety net. However, I have to admit (somewhat ashamedly) that the quality of the system in general all seems very hypothetical when you're sick and you want to see a doctor as soon as possible. In that respect, the American system is enticing.
It's often said that the United States has "the best hospitals in the world," at least with respect to the treatment of rare and/or serious illnesses. I don't know if this is true. Thankfully, I don't have any experience in those matters. It certainly does seem to be true that the United States is a world leader in medical research and pharmaceutical development, though, and that's nothing to sneeze at.
I want to make sure I'm clear here, though: I'm still not endorsing privatized healthcare over public. Data are always more important than personal perception, and the data here are very clear. Other developed countries have similar or better outcomes and are able to achieve those outcomes for less money. Still, my experience with the American system has been very good so far.
There are days where I shake my head and wonder why I choose to live in the US. Usually, these are days on which I read about yet another mass shooting. The amount of gun violence in this country, while not something I worry about on a daily basis, is truly astounding. As of today, there has been an average of more than one mass shooting per day in 2015 (defined as four or more people shot in one event). 2013 fell just short of an average of one per day with 363 mass shootings throughout the year. Of course, these mass shootings represent a small percentage of overall violent crime in the United States, but they're especially disturbing because the victims are usually innocent people with no connection to the shooter. There seems to be little political will to make any serious attempt at fixing this problem. To quote The Economist, "Those who live in America, or visit it, might do best to regard [mass shootings] the way one regards air pollution in China: an endemic local health hazard which, for deep-rooted cultural, social, economic and political reasons, the country is incapable of addressing. This may, however, be a bit unfair. China seems to be making progress on pollution."
To be honest, I'm not entirely sure what to make of the gun control debate myself. On the one hand, research seems to suggest that more guns lead to more homicide, and that gun control measures have a strong negative correlation with gun deaths (even stronger than other factors such as mental illness which are often blamed). On the other hand, at least one analysis indicates that more guns lead to less crime overall. I haven't yet read all of the research myself, and I'm not sure I have the statistical background to make a competent determination of the quality of each study. That said, it seems blindingly obvious to me that more guns would lead to more homicide even if they did in fact reduce the rate of other types of crime. That tradeoff does not seem worthwhile to me.
In any case, as 3D printing technology continues to improve and become cheaper, it seems that it may only be a matter of time before gun control laws become significantly more difficult to enforce—not just in the US, but in every country. If that happens, the whole question may be moot, although cultural factors could still play an important role in moderating gun violence. Whatever the cause is, the US is an outlier among developed countries when it comes to gun violence, and I don't foresee that changing any time soon.
Many things here are cheaper than they are in Canada. Gas is a big one. People in the States complain about gas prices just like everyone else does, but gas here is much cheaper than it is in most other countries. Even when the Canadian dollar was at parity with the US dollar, I was able to get a tank of premium here for less than the cost of a tank of regular back in Canada.
There are a lot of services available here that either aren't available in Canada or aren't as good—for example, Amazon Prime, Amazon Fresh, and Netflix. Canada has some of these services, but for Netflix in particular, the content isn't nearly as good. In general, it's much cheaper and faster to get things delivered here; I think this is both due to greater population density and better transportation infrastructure. The interstate system is awesome; I didn't realize until I lived in the US how laughably bad some parts of the Trans-Canada highway are considering that it's Canada's only cross-country highway.
Taxes vary between states and provinces, so I'm not sure I can definitively say that taxes are lower here than in Canada. Washington has no state income tax, and the federal tax rates are lower, so I'm definitely paying less here than I would be in Canada. Of course, all of the economic benefits of living in the States have to be balanced against the fact that there are greater levels of wealth and income inequality here. This has a lot of negative consequences (including higher levels of crime).
I'm not sure if Americans are more politically engaged than Canadians or if it just seems that way because politics here is more polarized, leading to angrier, louder arguments. In one sense it's hard not to be politically engaged when you're in a never-ending election cycle, as the US seems to be. The presidential election won't be held until November of 2016, and yet the Republican and Democratic primaries already dominate the news. And when there's no presidential election on the horizon, there's always a mid-term election no more than two years away, not to mention state and local elections. By contrast, this year's Canadian election campaign, which started in early August and is expected to run until mid-October, will be the longest campaign since 1872.
The candidates for the 2016 presidential election don't inspire confidence. Things could still change before the election is held, but right now it looks like it's going to be one war-loving, civil liberties-hating neo-con (Hillary) versus another (whoever ends up winning the Republican nomination). I'm not even going to mention you-know-who. It seems to be a common sentiment among Americans that government in the country is badly broken. This is not new, but even so, I suspect the current election cycle is profoundly embarrassing to liberals, moderates, and sensible Republicans alike.
That said, Canada's political system has its own faults. Like the US, it uses a horribly non-representational "first past the post" voting system, but the problem is exacerbated by the fact that there are actually multiple viable parties. In the last election, the Conservative party ended up with a majority government despite 62% of the populace voting for more left-leaning parties. I'm hopeful that the NDP or Liberals will win this election; both have promised to revise the electoral system to make it more representative. (Plus, I don't like the Harper government or their disastrous policies on the environment, science, and the economy.) It's a very close race at this point, though, and the Liberals are apparently not open to forming a coalition with the NDP should the Conservatives win again.
There are also certain aspects of the American political and legal system that I prefer. I like the idea of states as "laboratories of democracy" with broader control over local legislation. There are downsides to this as well—it can lead to negative outcomes vis-à-vis civil rights, and when state and federal laws contradict each other it can result in confusing and volatile situations. Nevertheless, I think it's generally a good thing that states have some ability to catalyze progress in the country by demonstrating the viability of legislative changes that the rest of the country isn't yet on board with.
I also really appreciate the commitment to freedom of speech in the United States. The first amendment, which protects all kinds of speech (including "hate speech"), is venerated here. I think this is a wonderful; in fact, it's possibly one of my favorite things about the country. The US has, to my knowledge, the strongest legal protection for free speech of any country on Earth. Canada, meanwhile, has "human rights tribunals" (perhaps better known as kangaroo courts) which have been known to fine comedians for making offensive jokes.
It's pretty much the same as in Canada.
Okay, not entirely. One of the first things I learned about living in America is that, culturally, the country isn't actually all that unified. Sure, there's a federal government and a shared constitution and whatnot, but there are some pretty marked differences in attitudes and customs between states. Texas is far more different from Washington state than Washington is from British Columbia. California is different from both Texas and Washington. Michigan is different still—you get the picture. In some respects, visiting a new state is almost like going to another country.
One thing that's always struck me as paradoxical about the United States is the country's religiosity. To quote Richard Dawkins, it is surprising that the US, "founded in secularism, is so much more religious than those western European countries that have an official state religion, like Scandinavia and Britain." The constitution states that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." The First Amendment further specifies that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." And yet, in practice, religion and politics are more intertwined in the US than they are in most other developed countries. As of 2012, only 54% of Americans said they would vote for a well-qualified presidential candidate who happened to be an atheist. "In God We Trust" is on the currency (since 1956), and politicians are constantly talking about God; a significant minority would doubtless be offended if a major politician were to end a speech without saying "God bless America." In Canada, to my recollection, politicians simply don't mention religion most of the time.
There are other paradoxes, as well. Politics, as I mentioned, seems to be all-encompassing, and yet is a taboo subject in polite company. Free speech is a foundational value, but American colleges seem as if they're becoming world leaders in trying to coddle students and protect them from "dangerous" ideas. The "war on drugs" has been more thorough and brutal here than in most developed countries, and yet America is one of only a handful of countries which have legalized marijuana (albeit only in some states).
Individualism is considered much more important in the States than in other developed countries, which tend to be more socialist. This, too, has downsides; the virtue of personal responsibility is preached, often hypocritically, with a callous disregard for the immense inertia the lower classes have to overcome to be successful. Nevertheless, I'm glad the ideal exists. Other countries often go too far in trying to protect citizens from everything that could possibly harm them, regardless of whether or not anyone consents to the "protection." The United States has its own overreaches of this sort, of course, but it's still better than most. For instance, it would be almost unthinkable difficult and unpopular1 to censor broad swaths of the Internet here, as is done in the UK. I also think the American attitude toward individual freedoms (along with the autonomy of states that I mentioned above) can do a lot of good; I suspect it's part of the reason the country is slowly moving toward more progressive drug policies.
The United States has reshaped the world many times over in the past few centuries. Needless to say, this hasn't always been for the better, but it's worth reflecting on all of the remarkable innovations that have come out of the States, and how different the world would be without them. This is especially pertinent to me, because my entire field was essentially invented here. I don't want to downplay the important contributions of other countries, and many American innovations are actually innovations by American immigrants. Still, the transistor, the microprocessor, the graphical user interface, Unix, most successful programming languages, and countless other advancements were made in America. This, I think, is a large part of the reason that the United States still dominates the information technology market today.
As I mentioned above, my immigration to the US was largely not planned, so saying that I was drawn here by some particular thing would likely just be rationalizing the decision after the fact. But I think the culture of innovation is what has kept me here. I want to work on something with global reach—something that might, perhaps, have an impact on people's lives. Especially for a technologist, there is no better place to do that than the United States.
It took me a long time to get around to writing this post, so now I'm already a third of the way into my fourth year in the States. The US isn't perfect, but I've been incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunities I've been given, and I'm grateful to the country and particularly to my friends and colleagues in Redmond for making me feel welcome here. I'm happy to be here.
I originally wrote that it would be "almost unthinkable" to censor the Internet in the US, but a friend pointed out that continuous attempts to pass legislation like SOPA contradicts this. Copyright and patent laws are one of my least favorite things about the US, and one of the spheres in which I think the US has a significant negative influence on other countries. That's a subject for another post, though. ↩