Minor Disparity

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The other day I was having coffee with some Croatian friends, and once again, I was defending my decision to move and live here. I was getting the litany of Croatian complaints about the economy, the politics, and the ‘mentality.’ People here act like Croatians patented idiot political leaders… and well… ahem, cough, cough ahem, Trump? Right. Thank you.

After a while, I decided to point out a fact that I guess people here take for granted, but is very obvious for Americans living in Croatia. That is, how little the quality of life is related to income. Now I don’t mean everyone gets a BMW or Mercedes, that’s clearly not true. What I mean is that people who earn three or four times more money than I do, don’t seem to live a life that’s that different than mine.

And before you think I’m rich, let’s remember that I write a blog and lecture at the University. Neither of which is that lucrative. During our conversation I gave my friends the example of the building I live in. In that building there are pensioners, mid-ranking government bureaucrats, pilots, lawyers, managers, students, and me. So a wide range of people with a wide range of income. People who make four times more than me, and some people that I might make four times more than.

Quality of life

And yet, we live and enjoy the benefits of the same neighborhood. We shop at the same stores, we sit at the same cafes, our daughters and sons go to the same public school, just like they had gone to the same preschool, and some of us even go to the same family doctor down the street. This is the point: despite the large disparity in our incomes, I cannot see a noticeable difference in the quality of our lives or living standards.

A great divide

I don’t believe it would be like this in today’s America. I imagine with such a large income disparity we would live in different neighborhoods, some noticeably worse than the others. With a change in neighborhoods, we’d likely have a change in schools, with similar disparities in quality. Who knows, it’s likely their children would go to private school and mine to public. We would certainly have different healthcare plans, and most of all we wouldn’t congregate at the same cafes and public spaces, mostly because there are none.

A recent book by an MIT economics professor argues that the US has regressed to the status of a developing nation for most of its citizens, around 80 percent. While the top 20 percent live in an America of opportunity, the rest live in a US that is failing. Even part of the country’s infrastructure now resembles that of Thailand and Venezuela. The populace is intensely divided by income, education, and race.

The mingling masses

In Croatia we live in a society where people from all income levels still mix and mingle in the same neighborhoods and the same buildings. We use the same public institutions, schools, hospitals, universities and parks. So despite all the problems everyone is always ready to list, Croatia has been able to resist those that are currently tearing America apart. Here, large disparities in income do not result in a equally large disparity in the quality of one’s life. The access to healthcare, education, and a slow cup of coffee in a cafe with friends exist for most everyone. My hope is that this balance endures, and that Croatians can see what we have here, protect it, hold on to it, and preserve it.