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Jun 3·edited Jun 3Liked by Noah Smith

Americans can easily *travel* to other countries. But almost no Americans can *live* (i.e. indefinitely legally reside) in another country. I'm one of the rare Americans who has done the latter for almost all of my adult life, and to many different countries in two very different continents. And even then it's a humbling experience to accept how limited and perishable my life-experience and observations are about places I've lived.

For example: I've lived in Sweden since 2017. I'm married to a Swede. I have a Swedish son. I live within a small community of Swedish family and Swedish neighbors. I know Sweden very well. But those years in Sweden have seen perhaps one of the most dynamic shifts in Swedish politics and culture in decades. Had I lived in Sweden from 2000 to 2014 and then left, I'd have entirely missed out on the sudden influx of immigration to Sweden and its manifold backlashes since. EVERYTHING changed in 2015.

You could say something similar about the United States right around the same time, of course. And I didn't live there then as I don't now. So though I was a native-born American, very close to politics, and the son of an investigative journalist who saw the late 20th Century shifts in American culture up close and personal, I'm always a chastened by how little I now probably fundamentally understand the post-2015 shifts in American political culture. Sure, I could, like Noah, talk about how the roots of Trumpism go way back, actually, and that the 2020s are the new 1970s (before I was born). I could even dredge up late-childhood memories about the Newt Gingrich Era and its parallels to today. Or, more credibly, talk to the dawn of the 21st Century's GWOT era that was my introduction to adulthood and political awakening. But I don't really *know* Trumpism in my body the way somebody is now daily experiencing it on the ground now might. So, to me, my birth country is now rendered a little like Tim Urban's superficial glossing of the impenetrable psyche of the Japanese.

Or like immigrants and exiles who leave a place and then spend the rest of their days interrogating their memory of it!

Which is to say that even living in a place isn't enough to *continue* to understand it. The place is a Heraclitian river that just keeps flowing... and, worse, changing course entirely! Whatever feel for it you can get over many years or even decades of direct experience is only good for what it's good for: understanding a little of what's happening now, while you're here.

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You should write a substack about the changes you've seen in Sweden. I'd love to know more.

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Thanks. It's very interesting! Especially for Americans (and Brits and others) who talk about Sweden all the time as a kind of foil for political issues at home but seem to have an impression frozen in time and disconnected from the reality on the ground.

Two things:

1/ Sweden in the 1990s went through the same neoliberalization process that the US and UK went through in the 1970s and 80s. Here, the precipitating factor was a very serious financial crisis and recession in 1990-1994. As in the UK and US, this gave an opening for the right-wing to propose austerity and privatization as the solution. Sweden needed to cast off its Socialist malaise and become more competitive! We will argue forever about whether this was disastrous or the bitter medicine required at the time. But, it definitively bookended the long 20th Century experiment with Social Democracy in Sweden. Like in the US, the rightward turn wasn't able to entirely eradicate the existing New Deal/Social Democracy, but it severely undercut it. And, in fact, Sweden has privatized or created public-private partnerships for some surprising things including: the postal service, municipal waste collection, public schools (Sweden is alone among European countries for having publicly-funded private charter schools), and even "911" (there was a huge debate over a center-right proposal to actually have private healthcare app Kry handle emergency service calls!). Not only that, but progressive taxation was slashed, and Sweden now makes it about as easy for the wealthy to shelter their money and earnings from taxation as the US does. Swedes don't hardly pay property tax, have no gift tax, and have zero inheritance tax. As a result of all the above, Sweden has the dubious distinction of having the *single highest rate of wealth inequality in the entire world!* And one of the highest relative poverty rates in Western Europe (mind you, this is *relative* and not absolute poverty, but still). Nor did this right-wing austerity and privatization really unlock Swedish competitiveness and growth, as Sweden went from the second richest country in the world per capita in the 1980s to far behind even their Nordic neighbors in Norway, Denmark, and Iceland today. When I take a plane or send a package from Stockholm, it's now a Danish company handling it. Volvo, like so many other venerable Swedish brands, was sold to the Chinese and stripped for parts. One wonders whether it was merely a coincidence that the flowering of Social Democracy in Sweden coincided with Sweden becoming one of the richest and most successful economies on the planet...

2/ Later, Sweden in the 2010s went through the same identitarian shift/xenophobic backlash to increasing diversity that has always been there in ebbs and flows in the United States. This crested for Sweden in 2015, with the Syrian Refugee Crisis and the sudden influx of non-European minorities, especially from the Horn of East Africa, the Middle East, and Afghanistan. Before that, a centre-right prime minster could tell people to "open their hearts" to the refugees. Before that, the "Swedish Democrats" who now vie as one of the biggest parties in Sweden and anchor the current government, were a niche Neo-Nazi party that barely attracted single-digits of support. Now the center-right government's entire schtick is blaming every ill in society on those same refugees. They take marching orders from the "reformed" Neo-Nazis. The governing party even has the temerity to blame the direct effects of their 1990s and 2000s austerity policies on the immigrants. Which is very convenient! The "New Swedes" are both the reason for and the victims of high relative poverty rates, underfunding of schools and healthcare services, the hollowing out of the working middle class, etc. But it's not just that. The right-wingers also slashed the military and the police (examples of "wasteful state spending," too!), but now thump their chests and talk about the imperative to invest in both (without really investing that money). It's really tragicomedic.

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Fascinating. Thank you so much! I've read some big "Foreign Policy"-type articles about Sweden, but the daily differences are more interesting to me and are hard to find. You really could get a following by taking these topics and writing more about how they affect the "person in the street", and the changes you've seen to the lives of your neighbors, etc.

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Yes, I've realized that I haven't captured the situation on the ground. Governments don't elect themselves. People need to change their views or have their views changed. So another HUGE shift is the normalization of public bigotry in Sweden. When I first arrived here, all the Swedes I met were scandalized by any suggestion or admission that they were anything but progressive, cosmopolitan, and accepting of diversity. Not like we "racist Americans!" They loved to contrast themselves especially with Trump or Brexit, with the hapless Brits or Americans as the unflattering comparison to their implicitly superior social maturity. I was always asked to explain us to Swedes, like we Americans were crafted out of some unique essence. A horrifying if always compelling curiosity. Such foolishness would NEVER happen here, they assured me! They didn't even want to think about it. It was very un-Swedish, you know! I argued in vain that these were quite global trends and that I had been in their position only recently, arguing to posterity (and myself) that It Could Never Happen Here (despite Sinclair Lewis' eponymous warnings from way back in the 1930s).

Within only a few years, of course, things had shifted entirely the other way in Sweden and the Swedes got their own Trump Era. Our Trump here is rather more diminutive to the original, but the evident shift in widely held Swedish notions was much more rapid and dramatic. I hated to say I told you so!

So, what went wrong? Swedes stereotypically like consensus and dislike open conflict, a tendency that can, at times create Groupthink or a kind of "Don't Mind The Elephant in the Room!" level of absurdity. Other Nordic people (the Danes, especially) kind of laugh at the Swedes for being "very politically correct," with the implication being that the Scandinavian Big Brother can actually be a bit self-righteous or delusional. This is largely a vintage of the post-war experience and the Social Democratic Late 20th Century, represented perhaps most famously in the figure of the longtime former Social Democratic Prime Minister Olaf Palme. Sweden then became globally known for being an outspoken critic of American imperialism and a champion of left-wing politics and progressive causes. And, when Palme was assassinated in 1986, he became a kind of consensus civic hero the way Martin Luther King, Jr. or JFK did in the United States, with the tragedy of his death overshadowing the controversies and divisions of his life. So Swedes even of a more right-leaning bent became enamored by this flattering image reflected back to them of "The Humanitarian Superpower" and "The Good Country." There was, for a long time, a Big Church of Swedishness, which included an implicit consensus around a mixed economy with a robust welfare state and detente between Labor and Capital, progressive social liberalism and secularism, and a pacifist neutrality in foreign policy. The Social Democrats had won, politically and culturally. Even if they were stopped from going all the way toward Socialism in the 1970s.

But like in the US, many local right-wing edge-lords began to argue by the turn of the 21st Century that this progressive politesse itself was stifling "free speech" and "saying it how it is!" They now wanted the government to stop "virtue signalling." And this gained serious momentum after Sweden began to receive a surprising volume of refugees and immigrants from the manifold conflicts in the neighborhood over the last two decades. The new immigrants and visible minorities became useful scapegoats for the far-right. So, the far-right demanded the police and the media to stop "obscuring" the fact that ethnic minorities and immigrants were overrepresented in crime stats. They argued that the difficulty in cultural integration of all the new arrivals from places as distinct from Sweden as Syria or Afghanistan was underestimated and that we were naive to think that language classes could make Good Svenssons. But the far-right also spoke of far darker, long-dormant themes: that maybe diversity isn't good at all, especially to people far away from the more cosmopolitan cities who felt a sense of cultural threat from seeing black skin or hearing strange languages in their small community. They whispered in the public ear that perhaps some people couldn't and shouldn't come to Sweden at all (especially Muslims). At first, this regressive critique was rigorously resisted by the establishment. The mainstream political parties (including the Right) refused to countenance it. The "Swedish Democrats" (barely reformed Neo-Nazis) were considered ogres spouting off dangerous nonsense. The private media, largely dominated by centrist, "bourgeois" conservative-liberals who didn't have an appetite for far-right populism, dismissed the brash upstarts. But that only seemed to give it all more power and taboo appeal. And since even the center-right and the center-left agreed to not engage with this Nativist critique, the far-right could "own" this argument when immigration did create seemingly unanticipated difficulties.

And it did...

Because the tricky thing is that there was, as always, some kernel of truth in this (bigoted) critique. Immigration *is* complicated and integration of divergent cultures can be difficult. Sweden was perhaps a little naive or alternatively just unprepared to manage the changes, taking a very hands-off approach to the new arrivals but also not making very clear the responsibilities and expectations of us. There's no pre-packaged "Swedish Dream" projected to the world, complete with rights and responsibilities, the way you see in the United States. I've always felt as an immigrant here myself like I would have wanted maybe a kind of a booklet that was full of pro-Sweden fanfare, but also by "12 Easy Steps to Becoming Swedish." I would have been game! Most of us surely want to be good guests and to be part of our adoptive new group? What we got instead was rather impersonal and maybe even passive-aggressive (there are no rules... but, no, don't do THAT because that's un-Swedish... and we won't actually tell you, but will silently write you off...). 

It's fair to say, then, that even before the far-right anti-immigrant turn, Sweden kind of tolerated rather than celebrated its New Swedes. Once I became a citizen, I got as my proof of citizenship a bizarrely amateurish MS Word printout in the mail that looked like something a grade school teacher would have maybe given to the best reader in the class. Where was my grand, intricately decorated diploma with all sorts of suitably Latinate gravitas, like the new Americans all get in their Certificate of Citizenship!? Shouldn't there maybe be a parade? A solemn oath on a Constitution before some official? A rapturious round of applause? It didn't quite feel like something valuable that I had earned. Now, in fairness, they do have municipal citizenship ceremonies annually, but they were cancelled during COVID (so I didn't get one) and a lot of right-leaning districts cancelled or defunded them for their own reasons.

You don't meet many fellow immigrants who are REALLY JAZZED about being Swedish the way naturalized American citizens seem to all be. Perhaps the most common reaction from other immigrants here to learning I'm American is a kind of far-off dreamy look before they tell me that they long to move to AMERICA, or that they have family who are there. I try to tell them that the streets aren't paved with gold where I'm from. That the United States also has xenophobia. That they certainly won't get housing support or free language classes, much less public healthcare, childcare, eldercare or higher education. That it's hard even for native-born Americans now to make it as a regular work-a-day person. But they don't buy it. America is the promised land! Better than Sweden. This despite the objective fact that owners of Swedish citizenship are some of the most blessed humans to ever live! And if the Swedish state and society doesn't celebrate we immigrants sufficiently, can't we dance in circles at our own good fortune for landing in one of the (on paper) Happiest Countries on Earth? Nope, the vibes are all off. So, I feel this is a very missed opportunity on all sides.

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Thank you again for these fascinating comments, Geoffrey. You're quite right that my left-leaning friends still see Sweden as the perfect society, and the social safety net is CLEARLY much better there. It's so interesting to hear the first-hand account. Thanks for the effort you put into answering my questions.

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The far-right wouldn't have achieved their ultimate triumph if they weren't very clever at catering their argument to the audience and expanding their influence into unexpected corners. They started by peeling off half the blue-collar labor vote from the Social Democrats, by applying the same divide-and-conquer tactic that union-busters had in the US from the beginning: the immigrants are taking your jobs! The Social Democrats had long run out of enthusiasm for talking up the cause of labor. They took it for granted. They stood aside as the neoliberalism of the 1990s eroded the security of their working class voters. Like American Democrats, they began to see themselves as the educated urban-professional party.

The largest group of industrial unions in the country, LO, now sees its membership voting 50% for the far-right. That's an ASTONISHING shift in a Sweden where the LO unions were the incredibly powerful legion behind nearly a century of Social Democratic dominance. Without the union members and their Social Democratic political wing, the progressive Sweden we know today wouldn't have existed at all. And now the working stiffs are voting for the exact opposite ideology. And the Social Democrats, like the American Democrats, don't seem to have any plan to woo them back.

But the far-right were able to create an even more inverted Alice in Wonderland new reality by tailoring their appeal to other groups, too. They undermined Progressive Feminism by talking about how this influx of so many young men from traditional societies didn't understand Swedish gender equality and were rapists. And, also, they were hostile to gay right, too. So, here we have the bad-faith irony of masculinist, traditionalist chauvinists championing the cause of Sweden's women and LGBTQ groups. But, again, there was enough truth in this bigoted critique that it resonated: immigrants from Africa and the Middle East generally *don't* share the same gender norms and progressive cultural values as Swedes do (almost nobody does because Sweden is an extreme outlier in gender parity and social tolerance). And there *is* a serious problem of sexual violence in Sweden that has a cultural element. You can't ignore the headlines about children kidnapped and married off, FGM, acid attacks by jealous lovers, or even honor killings by family members, etc. So, if progressives are too afraid of being called racists to address that problem, then they lose support. The Social Democrats found the question of whether to address domestic abuse, child marriage, and gender-based violence within immigrant communities an impossible dilemma. Do you stigmatize traditional cultural groups and assert universal secular values? Is there any right answer without sparking a Culture War over hijabs, like in France? Instead of stepping out of the frying pan into the fire, they just ignored the issue. But the far-right challenged them: should girls be free to be married off at age 11 or have their genitals mutilated by their parents in the name of cultural tolerance? Things got even more absurd with the Left and Green Party trying to have it both ways. The small-but-influential Feminist Party basically disappeared.

The far-right also made parents and the elderly aware of how fragile the welfare system they relied on was [after years of right-wing austerity], but pulled the trick of blaming the effects of underinvestment on too many immigrants straining the limited supply. Like Trump, they made noises about supporting "Our People," but don't really have any serious plan to actually re-fund it all. Of course, it is true that an older immigrant who partakes of social services that they haven't invested decades of tax contributions to funding is a bit of a "free-rider." But it's also true that my preschool here would likely close or have to lay off teachers if it weren't for the many children with an immigrant background (including my own) who were keeping it going! It's also true that every time I go to the doctor or the dentist, I am catered to by a non-native Swede. And who do you think are the people working for low wages nursing or checking in on your grandparents? But nobody has made this positive case here for how immigrants revitalize declining communities, serve essential social roles, and keep Sweden dynamic and competitive ...and fun!

The most surprising gains that the far-right have made is among the immigrants themselves. How could immigrants vote for anti-immigrant parties? It makes no sense! Well, we all want to differentiate ourselves as "the good ones," don't we? And immigrants aren't a monolith! American Democrats made the serious mistake decades ago of lumping Latinos into the same category, ignoring that there were major ethnic, class, ideological, and historical differences between a wealthy Cuban exile and an unskilled Salvadorian or between a Leftist indigenous Guatemalan farmer and an Evangelical Mexican business owner. Swedish political parties had basically ignored immigrants (and their descendents) as a voting bloc, so the non-native Swedes didn't have a political home at all, despite us now comprising a whole third of the population! I and another American friend of mine here tried to get involved in local Social Democratic meetings as kind of immigrant emissaries, but I found the experience pretty alienating, honestly. They weren't very interested! I tried to tell them that immigrants like me were the emerging new progressive majority, the new working class, the biggest group of untapped voters, etc. But it was a small group of (very old) partisans who were still conducting their affairs like it was 1985. The last election, the party had their worst showing ever. And the local district I lived in flipped from decades of rule under the Social Democrats to an independent right-leaning party.

The far-right Swedish Democrats, by contrast, had a stroke of dark genius: they saw opportunity in immigrants not just as scapegoats, but even as voters! Even as an anti-immigrant party, you could divide and conquer among the immigrants and get many of them to support you. For example, Sweden had waves of Lebanese, Persians, Turks, and Kurds who came back in the 1970s and 1980s who are skeptical of the newly arrived Iraqis, Syrians, Afghans, Pakistanis, et al. Oftentimes, these old guard of immigrants were non-Muslim religious or ethnic minorities who suffered under Arab or Muslim rulers back where they came from and they would readily agree with the Swedish Islamophobes that Islam is the problem! (This is an underappreciated phenomenon in the United States, too, where most Middle Eastern immigrants are actually religious or ethnic minorities fleeing persecution in the countries they came from). Also, and this isn't talked about much among progressives: non-white people can also be racist and bigoted! The experience of being a visible minority subject to discrimination or persecution doesn't automatically make you empathetic or enlightened about your own bigotries unfortunately. I've had far too many conversations here where people with light brown skin tell me that the people with black skin are the problem. Or where Arab Christians tell me that Arab Muslims can't be trusted. Sometimes it's even more bizarre than that: an individual forsaking and condemning their entire nationality, since they, individually, are the only one worth a damn. Behind every such story is undoubtedly trauma and grievance. But I ultimately find it rather naive. "Sweden for Swedes" isn't going to make nuanced distinctions between the non-whites that they like or don't. But people never catch on to that until it's too late, do they?

Most of all, though, the far-right has targeted (and in doing so transformed) young, native-born Swedish men, who had grown up in this new, post-Social Democracy Sweden, where housing was unaffordable, good jobs more scarce, communities less stable, and it felt far too easy to be lost. Should they blame those who took away the infrastructure that their fathers and grandfathers had thrived in? No. It was the immigrants' fault! The angry young men became alienated from those fathers and grandfathers, who trusted the system that gave regular guys like them a great life and were lifelong Social Democratic Party partisans. And the young men also became alienated from young women, too. So, we see yet another Americanized feature of Swedish politics now: gendered political parties. Women vote Left and men vote Right. So now the men complain that women are poisoned by "the feminist agenda" and reject or refuse to submit to them. Which drives them to the far-right further. And so it goes...

Today, the new paradigm is far-right. The Swedish Democrats have won not just elections, but the argument: all the parties (aside from the far-left, Neo-Socialist Left Party) are now immigration skeptics and Law & Order hawks. They've all adopted the once taboo far-right, xenophobic framing. Immigration is a "problem" to be managed. Immigrants are a burden and a danger, guilty until proven innocent. Right across the water in Denmark, a Social Democratic-led government is scarcely differentiated in their hostility to immigration and harsh approach to forced integration. The Social Democrats here, out of power, go there to take notes from their counterparts if/when they return to authority. This is a huge, epocal shift in Scandinavian political culture. And it happened just in the few years I've lived here.

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+1

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Your text made me think of a passage in "Exit West", by Mohsin Hamid, when he tells the story of an old lady that has never moved from the same house, "and when she went out it seemed to her that she too had migrated, that everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it. We are all migrants through time."

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A co-worker told of visiting Sweden back in the 1980's. His wife's family had come to America back in the 1880's. While visiting family the conversation turned to the "Italian" family that ran the ice cream shop below. My friend found out that the "Italian" family came in 1810 when Count Bernardotte became the Swedish king.

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That's how it used to be, for sure. There was immigration in the 1970s and 80s, but it was definitely limited. Sweden wouldn't be in the EU until 1995 , so it wasn't a given that even any Europeans could just up and move here, much less the non-Europeans from the Middle East and Africa who are a majority of immigrants in the last decade.

Also, in the 20th Century was a decent amount of bigotry against even native-born Swedish people who didn't fit the Swedish mode. For example, Swedish Finns! Up through the 1990s, there was a lot of discrimination and members of my wife's family kind of kept their part-Finnish background a secret. This seems absurd today because Finland and Sweden are the best of friends, but Sweden was a colonizer of Finland for four centuries and it was only after the 1960s that Finland became a highly-developed, wealthy peer among the Nordic countries.

And there's also long been discrimination against the indigenous Sami people up in Arctic Norrland, with state recognition and protections of indigenous culture very hard won and recent. The relationship of white Swedes to their indigenous people historically was about as dark as you saw in North America around the same time, with pretty brutal cultural genocide, the taking of kids away from their parents to enroll in boarding schools to become Swedish, suppression of language, and theft of lands for industrial interests.

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Your comment on Finns rang a bell with me. My late father in law was a Finn born in America to Finnish immigrants who homesteaded Pugit Island. They had a Swedish family name - Lindwall. My readings said Finns were the "Ngers" of the North.

The Finns were made fun of here in America too. I remember seeing a cartoon showing a Finn riding a Cowasocky. A cow with socks.

My late wife was the smartest person I ever met. Her brother too.

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founding

I have talked to couple of friends who tell me that it is easy to retire in another country, just hard to get permission to work in them. I know someone who has spent a few years in France. He says that he has to leave and come back occasionally. I was wondering if you had any experience with this.

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There are several countries (like France) where you can retire with proof of independent income. But far from all European countries. No such thing exists in any Scandinavian country, for example.

And, yes, retirement visas don't grant you the right to work. And often give no path to citizenship or permanent residency, so your status is always contingent and vulnerable. What happens if the host nation decides to change the requirements? Or something like Brexit changes the terms of your residency in Spain, like so many Brits abroad suddenly found? You can't easily "pivot" in old age, especially if your assets are all sunk into illiquid property!

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It's incredibly easy for an American to live in Mexico. Argentina is also very easy to live in.

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Mexico is the exception that proves the rule. But even there, it's not "incredibly easy." You need to show sufficient independent income, for example. And not many Americans do it: only 62,000 collected Social Security there in 2023. You need to either show $181K in liquid assets. Or you need to show that you have a monthly income of $4,550 (NET of tax). That doesn't seem like much to you, perhaps, but it is WAY more than the super-majority of Americans have, especially in retirement.

Things get far more difficult if you are younger and need to earn an income locally.

Argentina is much easier. You only need about $1,000 in income/month to get either a Pensioner or Financier Visa. There's also the comically cheap Investment Visa, which requires less than $2K investment (but there are major limitations to your legal status thereafter). Again, things are much harder if you need to earn a local income in the first years before you can establish permanent residency or citizenship.

Argentina is a best-case scenario for Americans. And even Mexico's higher bar is far more lenient that that in the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean. There are a few other good options in Latin America: Ecuador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Panama. But, in general, it's really tough to for Americans to live even in the rest of their own hemisphere. And I can count on one hand the number of European or Asian countries where Americans can live indefinitely (without millions of dollars).

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Your information is very wrong. You only need 73.2k in liquid assets to get a temporary resident visa. You are also confused about Mexico's immigration enforcement. Any American can come and get a 6 month visa which they can 1-visa jump every 6 months without a problem. 2-overstay and visa jump by flying to a Mexican border town and crossing by foot. Like most Americans, you don't research your options very well.

Argentina has essentially 0 penalty for visa overstaying and there's thousands of foreigners overstaying in Argentina who will never face any consequence beyond a $50 fee when they leave.

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Funny thing about that, Americans think that when you go to another country, you better follow the rules. I’m not interested in retiring to a place and then flouting the rules.

One thing that gets lost in the debate about immigration and/or asylum in the United States is that we are welcome to visit most places but not welcome to stay. Look how quickly Portugal made it harder to move there permanently; most of the complaints were about “rich Americans” driving up the cost of everything.

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The big problem here is equating a country and its government, particularly in relation to foreign policy. Most of the time, foreign policy is determined by processes within the political class, and ordinary people neither know nor care. Even if you live in a country, you don't find out much until it's too late to change things.

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Jun 3Liked by Noah Smith

It's really underrated how much foreign policy is determined via arguments *within* the elite class of a country, and largely out of earshot, much less consultation, with the regular people. This fact is well-understood and bemoaned among Americans, used as we are to our government going on overseas adventures that are or quickly become domestically unpopular. But do we understand the degree to which it's true in other countries? Maybe we understand that regular Egyptians aren't super-happy about the military authoritarians in charge there doing the bidding of neighboring Israelis in this latest conflict. Well, military authoritarians do what they want, right?

But it's the same even in democratic countries: The current right-wing government here in Sweden is really tying itself in knots trying to keep the US and major European allies happy by towing the party line on early geopolitical support for the Israel War in Gaza. This is the same Sweden that took the Americans head-on by criticizing Vietnam (and some still say Prime Minister Olaf Palme met the assassin's bullet for it). Sweden had, for decades, been extremely critical of Israel's approach to the Palestinian conflict. But, since last year, it was incongruously singing the same tune as the Americans.

And being unquestioningly supportive of Netanyahu early in the Gaza War was a pretty unpopular foreign policy stance to take for Swedes. Once you understand the domestic political coalition in charge here, though, it makes perfect sense: You have the Moderates (akin to rich-guy business Republicans in the US) ruling with the Christian Democrats (Christian Right Republicans) and "Swedish Democrats" (xenophobic, White Supremacist, far-right populist MAGA Republicans). The Moderates, like any good business elite, want to keep the Americans happy, regulations light, and trade flowing. The Christian Democrats and Swedish Democrats aren't too fond of Arabs or Muslims, generally (being Islamophobic was a feature not a bug of their electoral strategy), so they're not disposed to have tremendous sympathy for Palestinian suffering.

Now this coalition isn't popular. It just *barely* claims a political majority, took months for form a government, and squeaked a victory largely on domestic issues (crime and immigration). Foreign policy questions were almost absent from the last election (even thought weighty shifts like joining NATO were in the air!). And, if there's a foreign policy issue that is more pressing for Swedes, it's the question of Russia and Ukraine, which is far more existential to them. So, the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and Swedish policy toward it just doesn't have much domestic political salience.

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Truly existential problem for Swedes started in 2015 and made Stockholm look like Frankfurt airport at busy times and make Malmo unlivable. But since you characterized SD as xenophobic MAGA-like, it’s obvious when your preferences lie. Russia-Ukraine hostilities are not existential threat to Sweden, it’s just a phantom pain from Northern wars which make them look for herring farts in coastal waters.

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This is the dumbest talking point ive read in a while. Sweden has already put a hard cap on refugee migrants, and the total arab population is only 5-8%. Its not becoming a islamic state ever. Meanwhile Russia is still actively fighting in Ukraine. The real immigration cap should be put on the russian soldiers instead.

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The dumbest thing is not to learn math and realize that demography is destiny. It went from 0 to 8% in 15 years just through direct immigration, then you couple it with difference in birth rates and give it two generations. The dumbest thing is to say “it’s only 5-8%”.

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Yea but you are not very good at math either. There is already a cap on refugee migration. Immigrant birth rate also drops over time. Sweden also takes immigrants from Poland, India, and Germany. The dumbest thing is to call it an 'existential crisis' just because there is a minority arab population that is difficult to integrate.

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If Russia succeds in conquering Ukraine, who's next? Conquerers generally don't stop until they're forced to. (See: Julius Ceasar, Alexander of Macedon, Hitler, Ghengis Khan, Napoleon, etc.)

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Oh wow domino effect, it’s so obvious, right. It made sense last time, so it should be applied again with the similar effect.

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Yes, Putin is a warmonger authoritarian tyrant. It is right to be worried

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I don't think "existential" means what you think it means.

Immigration has been challenging for Sweden to deal with. For better or for worse, the "problem" was squashed almost immediately after 2015. Every year since then Sweden has had historically low immigration, even compared to decades past. We're literally talking about ~20,000 people moving into the country per year now, including neighboring Norwegians and Finns.

Now, for anyone who thinks it should be "Sweden for the Swedes," ANY immigration is too much immigration. And even the existence of native-born Swedes who have foreign background is worrisome. So, yeah, they're pretty mad about how diverse the country now is. We could have zero immigration until I'm dead and Sweden will still be unacceptably diverse, in their eyes. And a lot of them vote for SD, the party that is explicitly xenophobic, Islamophobic, and MAGA-like. Which is no secret! That's their whole entire thing!

I'm gathering that you're one of these people, who worry about "The Great Replacement," then? Well, I have some "good" news for you! All these "undesirable" immigrants do a funny thing when they move here. They become more Swedish. And in doing so, they adopt another national pastime: not having enough children. Immediately after arriving, their birthrates plummet towards the below-replacement-rate Swedish norm. That's well-documented in demographic statistics here. They also become less religious and more secular, too.

So, no, Sweden isn't going to become part of the Caliphate. Don't worry.

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Actually, let’s expand this a little bit. Sweden was always a mono-culture and it imported a sizable minority which you think will successfully assimilate and integrate into a wider Sweden society. Would you care to apply the same hope to the American blacks - they make up about 12% of the total US population, it’s well known and documented that they commit violent crime at 1:7 ration to American whites. Civil rights happened more than TWO generations ago with billions dollars poured into educational and integration efforts. So how is this project faring? Are they doing the “funny thing” as you put it and become law-abiding Episcopalians and if not, why not - would you care to explain?

Now compare American blacks and immigrants to Sweden from North Africa and Middle East, are there any glaring differences? Family sizes and kin preferences? Religion? Anything that would help conclude what success the integration efforts will have in tow generations - say by 2080?

Folks like you like to sugar coating platitudes but really are responsible for every knife attack, rape, girl grooming that’s happening across the Europe by the newcomers, now and in the future. You’re just cheering on to make it look more “American”.

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I think African-Americans are a bit of a special case if you define them specifically as the descendants of slaves. More recent immigrants from Africa do quite well - on average, the immigrants to the US with the highest level of education attained come from Nigeria.

It is no accident that our only black president’s father was a highly educated Kenyan who came to the US well after slavery ended.

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Yes, I work with few Nigerians who have PhDs in EE or Physics - as impressive as Chinese or Egyptians or <put in any other ethnicity>. But they were screened specifically for being able to succeed in Western educational environment and then - by extension - corporate world. Neither descendants of African slaves nor recent arrivals to Sweden had any selection process applied to them - they are just a fair snapshot of their corresponding demographics. So I do not see the basis for Geoffrey’s saccharine notion that things will just work out. Sweden is a magic black box - you put in Somalis and out there come Swedes-lite.

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I don’t think existential means what you think it means. It’s obvious you’re from “diversity is our strength” camp, which is doubly despicable for an American to cherish slow but sure destruction of traditional European societies just to feel virtuous. You can tell soothing stories about how newcomers are becoming Swedes in second generation. Paris’s banlieues beg to differ.

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Talk to me in 20 years.

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Do the math then math genius. With the current rate of growth when will Sweden become an islamic theocracy?

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And where exactly did I say anything about Islamic theocracy? Just scroll up and point, buddy. You’re arguing your own straw man.

Existential threat Ron Sweden is when it stops being Swedish, not when it becomes another boogeyman from American wet dreams.

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When you said "Truly existential problem for Swedes started in 2015" which was when the refugee crisis began. Stop trying to redefine 'Existential threat ' when you clearly said it. People from different culture who want a secular liberal democracy can exist together, which is not a threat in anyway. It only becomes a threat when some people want an exclusionary religious state. Fortunately those are very much a minority

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Yep.

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Case in point: Iran

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Jun 3Liked by Noah Smith

Viewing other cultures through the lens of preconceptions is not confined to those of us who live in the "West." A lot of what we thought we knew about Southeast Asian history, for example, was based on observations in Chinese records one to two millenia in age that have since been disproven by subsequent archeological research.

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That's really interesting! I'd like to learn more about that.

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Jun 3Liked by Noah Smith

For an example, there's an excellent and well-sourced article about "Funan" in Wikipedia. I just googled it and was impressed. It cites a lot of the sources I consulted during my graduate studies over 40 years ago and adds a lot more I didn't know about (largely because I departed the graves of academe for a Federal career).

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Don't know if the "graves" of academe is a Freudian slip, a typo, intentional, or if I'm wrong for thinking it's usually "groves" of academe. Although I'm not in the graves or groves of academe, I'm using "graves" from now on.

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Jun 3·edited Jun 3

The comment about going to Europe and appreciating American living standards is interesting to me, as someone who had the exact reverse experience. I am from the UK and fairly well-travelled across Europe and elsewhere, and it was shocking to me how the US, supposedly so much richer (and demonstrably richer in a number of ways) gave every impression of being rather a poor place by European standards.

It really made me appreciate the amenities and infrastructure of Europe to see how visible the poverty was in America, how run-down everything seemed, and how limited the services, transport etc. were even in supposedly affluent areas.

Perhaps both are true, and perhaps this reinforces exactly your point; both Europeans and Americans can go to the other, and by their glaring absence appreciate what is better about their own country. I can't say I noticed much, across various US states, that suggested a superior or even equivalent standard of living, but I suppose that could be my having been conditioned to assess quality of life in terms of European amenities and preferences.

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That's interesting. America does have much worse transit, but our houses look so much nicer there's no comparison.

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Jun 4·edited Jun 4

Maybe this generalization is a bit too general? Houses where exactly? I have spent 7 months in the US and I live in the Czech Republic. When I think about whether houses I saw in the US look nicer than houses in Prague... well, maybe if you select the right houses. But generally... no.

BTW, I am not the OP but some of my Czech friends who traveled through the middle of the US said that they were shocked how poor it looked. I only saw the East coast - NYC and Washington DC certainly did not look poor to me in general, but some areas looked worse than the worst neighborhoods here, to the point that I felt unsafe.

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American exteriors look worse but the interiors are more spacious and modern.

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What do you mean by American exteriors looking worse? Are you thinking of the greater use of wooden construction in America (perhaps because timber was historically more abundant in a recently-settled continent), or are you thinking of the extreme car-orientation of much US suburban design (for example the infamous "snout house")?

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It’s things like the snout house - outdoor spaces are often set up as service spaces that people only go to for a specific purpose, rather than as pleasant spaces to spend time in.

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Jul 15·edited Jul 15

Yeah it strikes me as a bit strange to declare the houses of an entire continent to "look nicer" than the houses of another continent. What is even the precise claim being made here, if we were to try to formulate it into a falsifiable and therefore meaningful one? Because I can't think of one that could be remotely knowable just from incidental observation.

My own perception is probably shaped by the fact that I'm from highly developed Western Europe (in a city with quite significant deprivation, but only relative to very high Western European standards), but I agree with you; it's not so much that the US looks or feels poverty-stricken in general, but the extremes of poverty where you do find it are so much more extreme, and more visible.

I do wonder, though, if there's some sort of cultural unfamiliarity effect happening here, where both sides of this very anecdotal debate see the other region as looking poorer because deprivation shows up in different ways in each. For example, the US has a lot of visible homelessness, and I'm not used to that, so it's really striking and disproportionately influences the "feel" of the place for me. But the parts of Western Europe I'm most familiar with might have some striking manifestations of poverty that that I don't notice because they're so normal to me, that would really stand out to an American.

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founding

You should read this entire post by Noah, which I think does a good job of comparing Europe to the United States.

TL;DR The US has bigger homes and cars and Europe is poorer but safer with better public amenities. It is better to be poor in Europe and better to be middle class in the US.

You can't really compare the wealth of the the center of European cities like Paris with downtown LA. The wealthy in LA live in Beverly Hills and Santa Monica. Go spend some time in the banlieues or small cities in France if you want a more balanced perspective. I personally think the quality of life is generally better in Europe, but I am a city person.

https://www.noahpinion.blog/p/americans-are-generally-richer-than

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The last time I was in continental Europe was Stockholm, but I thought it was nicer at home and that we have better food.

(Of course it was New Years so it got dark at like 1pm.)

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Every time I travel outside the US, I enjoy the local food for a couple days and then get tired of the monotony. We have every kind of food here because we have every kind of people, and one of the most expedient ways for an immigrant to make a living is serving whatever is “homestyle food” to other immigrants from the same place, and then fine-tuning it based on available ingredients, and then tweaking it to suit the tastes of Americans. I live in Orange County, CA, so I have it better than most, but even growing up in rural Pennsylvania in the 80s and 90s, we had Chinese, Indian, Thai, and Mexican food reasonably close.

These days, I’m 5 miles from a Uyghur restaurant, whose food is delicious. I wonder how easy is it to get Uyghur food in Sweden? Or even Beijing, for that matter. *Farts in the elevator and gets off in the next floor*

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I was actually thinking about the imported foods. I had some very mediocre Vietnamese food in Sweden, and everyone says the local attempts at Mexican food anywhere in Europe are terrible.

(It's not all bad though. They like their cafes and are good at them, and everything I had in Finland right next door was great, if you like salmon anyway.)

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Jul 15·edited Jul 15

> Every time I travel outside the US

Which on the evidence of this comment is not very often!

> I enjoy the local food for a couple days and then get tired of the monotony.

Where did you find culinary monotony in Europe? It's nowhere I've ever been.

> I wonder how easy is it to get Uyghur food in Sweden?

Very easily indeed! There are more Uyghur restaurants in Stockholm than in comparably sized US cities (including San Jose, which is a very generous comparison given that it's on the US West Coast where migration from Eastern Asia is especially common).

https://www.google.com/maps/search/uyghur+restaurant+stockholm/@59.365664,17.868036,10.63z?entry=ttu

https://www.google.com/maps/search/uyghur+restaurant/@37.351622,-121.94219,10.01z?entry=ttu

It's always astonishing to me how dramatically Americans overestimate amenities, living standards and basically everything else about America relative to the rest of the world. Scandinavia is home to arguably the greatest restaurants in the world, with Copenhagen in particular often ranked the #1 fine dining city. The variety and standard of cuisine is arguably unmatched. You genuinely seem to think it's a homogenous backwater!

Most of Western Europe has approximately the same variety of food as the US (from my anecdotal experience), and in some cases much more than almost all of the US. Much of Europe has more migrants per capita than the US, and almost all has at least a comparable number, which I think you're correct to identify as the primary reason for culinary variety.

> *Farts in the elevator and gets off in the next floor*

I've now realised, after typing most of the above, that this may indicate that this was some sort of bait. Which is sort of a relief.

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Lots of places in America look run down because they had their peak prosperity just after WWII, before Europe and Japan were really rebuilt. This isn’t true in the wealthiest areas today, but the Rust Belt has its name for a reason.

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Jun 15·edited Jun 15

Many wealthy parts of the US look very run down because NIMBYs have made it both illegal to build any new buildings and to remove any old ones, and historical commissions will sue you if you try to replace anything.

That's less true in red states but I suspect building owners there instead can't afford improvements because they have to spend it on parking lots and lawn care.

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Where in the UK are you from incidentally?

I imagine the UK has lots of badly run-down areas too, such as former coal-mining regions which have now lost their economic raison d’être.

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I'm from one of the classic examples of those former industrial cities left to rot, actually. And yes, in some ways and in some areas it's pretty bleak. But it still, for example, has way less visible homelessness and disrepair than even relatively affluent American cities.

Visiting the US, even just for a few weeks, brought me into contact with visible deprivation in ways that were more reminiscent (in kind if not in degree) of developing countries I've visited than anywhere in the UK. It was genuinely shocking at times. I always assumed it is because of the greater inequality and comparatively stingy welfare state.

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I went to China as a part of cultural exchange program within "One belt one road" initiative. With 15 students from their top university and 15 from ours. It was the best way to understand their government: you learn what they want you to see (national food, imperial culture), what offends their students, curators and lecturers, what questions cause problem during visits to government agencies (they had us prepare questions the day before and censor what they didn't like). Students were very nice to us though and the food was awesome. But we didn't enjoy mandatory geopolitcs lectures that only cofirm the level of their ambitions you're concerned about.

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Jun 3Liked by Noah Smith

This is a great article putting into words something that I’ve had in the back of my mind for a long time, thanks for that.

I do think that you almost don’t go far enough, by just focusing on the question “if you’re a foreigner, how much can you really know about a country?”

The question might as well be “How much can you really know about a country, foreigner or not?”

I mean, how qualified is any American to talk about whether the US will go to war with, say, Iran, in the next fifteen years?

In other words, your friends’ confidence in the pronouncements about China would strike me as way overconfident even if they were makings such pronouncements about their own countries (“You really have to have grown up in the US to understand the profound impact that Iraq and Afghanistan had on our national psyche. A war with Iran is therefore completely out of the question.”)

I have had so many moments where someone told me something along the lines of “I actually spoke to someone from country X and they said candidate Y has no chance to win the election.” as if people didn’t say uninformed things about their own country all the time.

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That's a good point.

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Based on my experience in the United States, I can confidently say that Trump would never win any election. Even in Texas, only a very small minority of people I know would ever consider voting for him - conservatives generally debate voting third party or abstaining. And since my experience is perfectly representative of the United States, we know this must be what happens in elections.

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Jun 6·edited Jun 6

Trump won the first time because…..Hilary Clinton.

Joe Biden won because………………….Donald Trump.

Trump may win again because………..Joe Biden.

Funny how that works, isn’t it? Your opponent can simply out suck you.

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Jun 3·edited Jun 3Liked by Noah Smith

As a "just visit" bro, I've mostly wanted you to visit so I can selfishly read the article that comes after (and frankly because I think you'd enjoy it). Yet I agree that you aren't going to learn a country's geopolitical posture by visiting. And if you do visit with the goal of trying to learn about a place, you need to visit the right way to avoid the pitfalls that you mentioned. Eg, you need to spend a lot of time with locals and go where the locals go. You need to get outside of big glossy cities (and within those cities, go to the edges and the places the locals take you). Make true friendships with locals that extend after the trip... make lifelong trusted friends who you can talk about politics or whatever and who can gut check conclusions you make when you read about outsider takes on their domestic situation. And beware if you visit somewhere, and as you say, just spend the time confirming your pre-trip stereotypes you have about a place.

Past trips to China (including the mainland and HK) for me have been essential to my understanding of the country precisely because I learned to avoid the pitfalls you mention here. First, among the "just visit" bros, I never argued that you can assess China's war posture by visiting (silly that anyone would make that claim, frankly). But, as I wrote about after my most recent trip to China, I did meet tons of locals who have zero interest in war and frankly have a critical disposition towards such an aggressive posture. I wouldn't have realized this had I just hung out on Twitter with the wolf warriors and 小粉红。But of course, the people keen to talk to a foreigner like myself in China are going to be the ones most aligned with the West. Cognizant of this selection bias, I asked about their parents and the friends they disagreed with and heard lots of stories about elders who believe government approved conspiracies about Covid originating in America or fervently nationalistic friends (who just happen to benefit from that system one way or another).

China also is a place where you have to make deeper than surface-level friendships to win the trust to talk about sensitive things. Eg, when visiting friends at a prominent university, hearing oblique references to "oh, we used to have a 'free speech' bulletin board here but now it is a parking lot," or hearing about the hushed conversations they had with their parents when they revealed they were involved in the 1989 student movement, or hearing about their own plans to get residency overseas or in Hong Kong. If you are in China on the Great Wall Tour Bus, you aren't going to learn these things. So how you conduct your trip matters.

Over years I've also been able to pick up some basic Mandarin, so that in my visits (and with the help of local friends) I've been able to read the 大字报 (propaganda signs), or train station displays detailing "The War to Resist America and Aid Korea" (the Chinese name for the Korean war), or signs outside temples that warn about cults and Falun Gong, or signs in hot pot restaurants that advise to "be civilized, don't eat wild animals."

Most importantly, I emerged from the trips with a much different impression of China than I had prior to visiting, rather than just confirming my pre-trip notions like you warn about here. The impetus for this was that I was constantly confronted with things that pushed back against my pre-trip conclusions about sensitive topics. The most obvious one was that I saw beautiful and well run cities, even outside top tier cities. So it forces you to contend with the question: "How does a system I've been so critical of produce such good cities?" Or, when coming across sensitive minority groups in China who seem to be doing well, learning how people in these groups navigate perilous politics to persevere or even thrive. Or, when wandering into a forbidden wing of a government hotel to be advised by a locals that it is unofficially the "court" of local government officials. Or, actually having to troubleshoot VPNs and navigate guanxi (关系) alongside local friends. I could give countless examples like these. Visiting and being forced to contend with thorny issues didn't change my mind on them so much as make my conclusions much more complex and (I think) closer to the actual truth in unexpected ways.

All this to say, that visiting (the right way) is essential to understanding a place, and especially the people in that place... but that it is always a work in progress.

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“Sensitive minority groups,” yeah, you got that impression in part because China has turned Xinjiang into the world’s largest concentration camp to enslave and eventually force-assimilate the Uyghurs.

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Jun 3·edited Jun 3Liked by Noah Smith

Good note.... If one is open to learning, I think one can learn quite a bit about another country while visiting, but agree that one only gets a snippet. Rather, one tends to learn even more about your own country and perhaps yourself. Reminds me of that TS Eliot quote:

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

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Jun 3Liked by Noah Smith

Yeah. Many would blame the problem of American NIMBYism as an outcome of individualism and freedom somehow even though it's clearly an outcome of communitarian thinking. In short, preconceived stereotypes are a powerful thing.

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Why does it need to be "explained" by one abstraction or another? This is a limiting belief we have, too, that Americans are individualist or else communitarian. Maybe we're a bit of both, depending on the context? And maybe NIMBYism is caused by another (or other) explanations, entirely? For example, it could be explained as the rational optimizing strategy of a homeowner-investor. Or a cartel thereof! A whole neighborhood full of owners of valuable and inherently limited assets who collude to increase property values. Is that individualist or communitarian?

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When I was in Baltimore the primary drive of NIMBY-ism was that cheap housing attracted poor blacks. Once you hit a 20% threshold it tended to quickly turn over to 80%.

In my current white small town that isn’t a concern at all. Instead everyone is well off and the town has grown like 2,000% in 20 years. Here NIMBY-ism is driven by the fact that school and transportation construction hasn’t kept up with population growth and so to make up for the failures of government to keep up with housing growth people want to limit housing growth (being told your local public school is “full” will do that).

All real estate is local, and all NIMBYs have their own local reasons.

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It’s both, and as American as Standard Oil. I will freely admit I’m one of them; I want more transit but I don’t want multiple unit properties in my neighborhood of single-family homes.

The 30-year fixed rate mortgage system in the US, which I understand is extremely unique in the world - has made buying a single-family home the default first investment people make. Sure, the S&P 500 makes better annualized returns, but for half my life you could borrow 80% (or more) to leverage your capital, and pay less than 5% interest for the privilege. Houses may need maintenance, but you can’t live in your E-Trade account, either.

I got in comparatively late, in 2017 in California, and my home value has gone up 60% in that time, and as of January 2021, my mortgage is 2.75%. You’re damn right I’ll NIMBY the hell out of anything that threatens that investment. The great thing is, if no one on the city council represents those interests, I could run myself, appealing to homeowners like myself, and win in a landslide. Supporting multiple units and rental properties is voting against my interests.

To be clear, I’m no Trumper - I’m what used to be the core of the Republican Party, forced to vote for Democrats, because at least with them, I’m pretty sure I’ll get another choice in 4 years. There are a lot of us out there that only will vote Democratic until we get a sane center-right party back.

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It's not primarily economic interest. This economic interest exists everywhere else, but outside the Anglophone world suburbia is less of a thing. Also suburbia is strongly supported by people who aren't home owners. Rent control also seems to be supported by home owners. So a cultural explanation seems more important.

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Well, that's a complex interplay between history, culture, and economics. In Anglo-American culture, land is primarily an economic asset, and that's a key to NIMBYism. This wasn't always the case, even within the Anglosphere: Medieval England's "Commons" gave way to enclosure and the more rent-seeking model of property ownership that we see today. But what if they hadn't or the history of the Renaissance and Early Modern Period cut another way on the British Isles? What if property wasn't considered by us to be "The Foundation of All Rights?" What if it hadn't been a precondition even for the new Republican citizen to exercize any liberty or rights (to vote, even)? Maybe we'd have a conception of property more like in German-speaking Europe, where renting is more of a default-norm, "a man's house is [not] his castle," and there are still (at least in Vienna, especially) YIMBY trends that keep property prices lower.

This unique historical and cultural tendency of property-as-precursor-to-liberty was enshrined in the history of Anglo-American Liberalism, too, with property rights given pride of place in the US Constitution via Amendments. Even above other potential rights that haven't been as salient. For example: "Life" or "Happiness." So, all of us, even non-property-owners, buy into this framing of land and property. Why? Because "someday we'll have our own piece of land, too." We'll "get in the property ladder." So, that's a possible explanation for why the non-propertied class can opt for default policies that even hamper their ability to secure it for themselves or to otherwise have access to housing.

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To what extent is Vienna's affordability simply down to the fact that the city was sized to be the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (which included all of today's Austria, Hungary, Czechia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia, along with bits of Italy, Poland, Ukraine, Romania and Serbia) and is thus much larger than would be appropriate for today's Austrian republic?

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That's part of it, but you could say the same thing about many capital cities. For example, Copenhagen! A very expensive city to live in today. It used to be the capital of all of Scandinavia, basically. And for centuries. And now it's just the capital of tiny Denmark (plus Greenland and the Faroes).

Also, though cities like Vienna were relatively large in the context of the time of empires, all cities have grown enormously since then. Not necessarily in pure population, but definitely in built environment. Austria-Hungary ceased to exist in 1918, more than a century ago.

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It's mostly good policy, but it's also because everyone died in WW1, then they seized all the Jewish landowners' assets, then everyone died again in WW2.

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Yeah. But you do realise that the whole notion of housing regulations and neighbourhood character is a deterioration of individual property rights. That's it was pushed by early 20th century progressives.

My theory is that the Anglophone world was the first to industrialise and hence had the worst experience of it. Especially before the propagation of vaccination, antibiotics and modern sewage. That's why they seceded some much authority to government institutions to create a "orderly" society.

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Good point. And this is the thing that I often bring up when it comes to Americans' sense of "freedom," we don't seem to realize how much our freedom is curtailed by various authorities, especially our own employer who acts like a private (unelected) government! What kind of Live Free or Die Patriot allows their boss to tell them when they can go to the bathroom, whether they're allowed to seek medical treatment, or whether they can take leave to attend a funeral!? But accepting all this is normal.

And, yes, with the increasing pervasiveness of HOAs, there are private governments which undermine your sovereignty as a property owner quite dramatically, to the point that you are prevented from planting a tree or painting a wall. That, plus local zoning regulations that mostly serve to protect the incumbent interests of property owners, but also prevent them from having agency in how to use that property.

It's a paradox! How to reconcile it?

My counter-theory is that American democracy is Democracy 1.0 (with all sorts of Early Modern, aristocratic regressiveness baked in) and that, combined with the early industrialization of the Anglosphere, closed off the state as a tool for leveling class-interests and even insuring increased individual freedom when the default is a lack thereof (because when property and wealth are what buys you "liberty," then most people don't have it).

For example, take the Social Democratic Model of a Sweden. Swedes are very individualistic. They like owning property, too. And, like Americans (in practice), they also bend the knee to external authority. But in their case, that external authority should be the state which is controlled by a democratic feedback loop. So even the administrative state is kept on a leash that should ultimately ensure the greater freedom and wellbeing of the individual. You saw this in the way the Swedes handled COVID and lockdowns (or the lack thereof). Right or wrong, Swedes kind of decided that they would deal with more risk from death instead of curtailing their freedom of movement. But, on the other hand, you have the state being far more aggressive in curtailing freedom: Swedes aren't able to buy liquor except in the government monopoly shops. And this is broadly popular, actually! And Swedes don't have HOAs, but they do have "private governments." Most Swedes who live in a city are subject to the rulings of their co-op style Housing Associations (Brf), for example. But these Brfs are far more participatory and democratic than American HOAs. So when they tell you that you can't smoke on the balcony, that's something that's been discussed and decided upon in the boring forum of the Brf meeting.

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Doesn't car-oriented suburbia drive (hah!) NIMBYism simply because private cars are a very spatially-inefficient mode of transport, and more development results in traffic jams and difficulty in finding a place to park?

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Jun 3Liked by Noah Smith

I do remember talking to a cab driver in Beijing a bit after our 2008 real estate bust and he was telling me how he was saving to buy an investment condo. I asked, “What if real estate prices go down?” And he said, “Real estate prices never go down.” —I learned something from that.

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When the price of something never goes down, it will keep rising until it's high enough that it *can* go down.

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I think its particularly pernicious in the case of China because the famous areas of the cities are deliberately crafted to hide the poverty (both from tourists and from the urban elite). The reason you don't see any beggars in central Shanghai is the bao'an and local police go around rounding them up and discourage them with casual violence. The vast shantytowns of migrant workers are kept out of sight out of mind. Similarly they employ lots of people to keep streets and public transport visibly clean and tidy.

Its remarkable to me how easy people are to convince by a few very minor aesthetic things.

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Jun 3Liked by Noah Smith

Somewhat to your point—Benedict didn’t travel to Japan to write The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, instead basing her work on interviews of people who’d been interned at places like Manzanar. That kind of study from a distance still has its uses, but yeah, details are lost in the process. It’s also interesting to think about what might be “accurate” and “inaccurate” to gather insights about a country from its diaspora. Culture changes and diaspora just miss out (and vice versa!).

https://www.nytimes.com/2003/07/19/arts/experts-can-help-rebuild-a-country.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share&referringSource=articleShare

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Yep.

Really this post was an excuse to bash Benedict.

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I've had a lifelong hatred of anthropologists thanks to the The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.

There's a book titled "The Chrystanthemum and the Bat" that's a lot better.

My favorite anthropologist joke: Anthropologist: Hey! I've found a culture that uses the same word for everything! Sensible person: Hey! Have you figured out the word for "finger" yet???

Speaking of Japanese Anthropology, as a fan of prose fiction, I'm amused that Japan has an insanely hyperactive literary world. My best guess is that Japan's prose fiction output volume (in Japanese, of course) is competitive with the whole Anglosphere's English prose fiction output volume. The Angloshpere probably wins, but not by much. (I'm lumping together popular and literary fiction together here.) The Japanese really really really love reading and writing Japanese, which is seriously nuts since it's such a pain in the nether portions language. Go figure.

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Japan has an integrated hobbyist, independent, and corporate entertainment industry.

How many major US movies and TV shows are based on works that started out being self published content? Or even by authors who proudly advertise and draw from their self published start?

Fate, one of the biggest entertainment IPs in Japan, started out as an adult "visual novel" style game, published by an independent small company, that itself started out as a doujin group (hobbyist art group). Sword Art Online, another massive entertainment IP, started out as a collection of short stories published for free, online.

Large corporate entertainment IPs not only tolerate fan works, even those sold for hobbyist tier money, but often celebrate them.

While the Japanese entertainment industry has tons of issues, I think its ability to unpretentiously celebrate art and artists, and ability to direct corporate entertainment money towards normal everyday people, is truly beautiful.

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50 Shades of Grey started as Twilight fanfic but had the names changed for publishing. Many romance novels are similar, but don't get TV adaptions.

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Reading this reminded me of the decade that I worked for Yamaha MotorCorp., USA in Southern California from around 2008 to 2017 when I retired. It was very different from an American company that I experienced in my career. All the senior executives were Japanese nationals. They typically served 3-5 years after which they would be sent to another foreign (e.g. not Japan) market. The executives were very soft spoken, In my time there I never heard anyone raise their voice., On one occasion I hear one of the Japanese executives make some cutting remarks about the quality of employees in France, comparing them to the "superior" employees in the USA. It did make me wonder if they made similar comments among themselves about Americans. One one occasion the Executive VP gave me instructions that he worded in a way that to untrained ears sounded as if he was asking for a personal favor. But that was not the case. It was just his way of communicating

One of the curious things about corporate structure is the role described as liaison. These were positions that on paper had no authority. They would typically stay late in the office and discuss issues with their counterparts in Japan. It might work like this. You make a proposal in a meeting. Everyone is very positive. The next day you are told that there are unresolved issues that need to be resolved, I always saw their role as sort of political officers that once functioned in the USSR's military.

When the American motor cycle market dropped 40% in the market crash of 2008 the President or the American subsidiary sent an email to all employees apologizing for his failure. Each year before Christmas the company held a pancake breakfast for the employees. The senior Japanese managers worked making the pancakes to reinforce the message we are here to serve you. At the beginning of each year management put on a presentation on the company's multi year plan and provided employees an opportunity to ask questions.

Every year that I worked at Yamaha I received a birthday card signed by the President of the US subsidiary. If someone got married or had a child the company would send them a small check around $100 to say congrads. In many ways the company was very employee friendly while still having their own way to push pretty hard. As I said -- very different than working for an American company.

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I worked for Tokyo Seat in the US. Every thing was almost identical.

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I agree wholeheartedly that the political elite create policy with little concern for the common man. However, China seems to have a major compact with its people in so far as the agreement is "we will keep you safe and allow you to prosper, you keep out of politics" and so on a basic level they have to take into consideration what the people think is going on. Hence, the massive and continuous internal propaganda and rigid control of access to the Internet. I visit China regularly for business and have done for over 20 years, I have an office there with local staff. Here are a couple of takes based on recent visits; caveated by the same comments as you made about how much you really get to know but focused more on changes pre- and post-covid.

1. It's not as shiny and impressive as it was 10 years ago, the marble is cracking, the buildings are rusting, and it's obvious that the economy is not doing as well as they all hoped. Franchise LuLu Lemon and Starbucks everywhere is fine, but go to the restrooms and see how many have broken faucets, tiled floors cracked and unrepaired.

2. Tourism is not encouraged or supported, both for visitors and residents. Visas for Chinese to exit are tougher to get, and there is one scare story after another in local media about xenophobic attacks on Chinese tourists or nuclear-poisoned fish in Japan. 'Western' hotels that previous to Covid had access to external internet and social media now offer only the local Bing and are catering mainly for domestic tourists.

3. Most of the successful entrepreneurs who have built growing export oriented businesses or who work primarily with overseas companies that I deal with have quietly voted with their feet and have moved their immediate family to Singapore, Australia or Canada. All fear that too much success will bring state 'help' or more integration from the local 'Party'. Hong Kong was a useful safety valve and the previously visa-free travel from Guangdong province to Hong Kong as a property owner in the province and immediate flights out has now been shut off.

I am sad for how it could have been.

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author

Well, the compact now seems to have broken down, with the end of rapid growth...

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Jun 3·edited Jun 3Liked by Noah Smith

> Germany was less urbanized

Curious. I've never been to Germany, but my internal stereotype of it is something along the lines of rural Bavaria; I *think* of Germany as rural for some reason. "France" by contrast makes me think of Paris (weirdly I *have* been to rural France).

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It historically hasn’t been and still isn’t a centralized country (or a “country” at all depending on your definition of the term) the way that France has been. So power and population are more evenly distributed across the country.

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Indeed: Adolf Hitler's 12-year Reich was pretty much the only time when Germany was a unitary state.

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Yeah Germany in my memory is fairly rural too. But rural hamlets with regular, efficient passenger train service

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Jun 3Liked by Noah Smith

“Travel is fatal to prejudice.”

-- Mark Twain

Innocents Abroad

Ken Burns referenced this in his commencement address at Brandeis.

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author

It's very far from fatal, but it does help a little bit.

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