What Armenians should know about life in America

For most Armenian immigrants to the US, it is quite likely that American life offers a higher material standard of living and more access to vastly greater opportunities. If that weren’t broadly true, people wouldn’t emigrate there. It is no less true that the relative poverty and ongoing demographic implosion of Armenia can be crushing, and that daily life there for a great many people is closer to the problems of basic survival than the life of most Americans. That’s fairly self-evident.

Still, from the year and a half that I’ve spent in Armenia, if I had a 10 dram coin for every time I’ve heard from native Armenians that America is the promised land of high dollars and low worries, or that I’ve heard righteously indignant gripes about stingy relatives in the US who “only” send a few hundred dollars in monthly remittance, or “you’re American, what’s a hundred dollars to you?”, or (my favourite) “isn’t everything cheaper in America?”, I’d be a billionaire (in dollars). I could get my own faux Sphinx, or Egyptian pyramid, or something on a highway on the outskirts of Yerevan.

As a first-generation immigrant to the US, and an experienced traveler to the so-called “developing world”, I’d like to address some of the myths held by Armenians, be it that life in the US is convenient and comfortable, or that their US-side relatives, with the pocket change they send back to tatik, have crossed to the dark side of unconscienable avarice and forgotten the meaning of family.

I’m not passing judgement on whether anyone should emigrate. However, if you’re going to try to emigrate, it’s better to do it with some realism about what to expect, and some appreciation for the complexity encountered in trying to make meaningful comparisons between life there and life back home. Like many people, Armenians have a tendency to compare the worst aspects of life in Armenia with the best aspects of life in America, or elsewhere abroad. Yes, being young, healthy and rich in America is better than being poor, sick and aging in Armenia, no doubt. But it’s not an accurate or reasonable comparison.

Mind you, this is not some myopic apologia full of First World Problems, to tell native Armenians how hard life is for us in one of the world’s richest countries. I’m not here to share the horror of a broken espresso machine or Banana Republic being out of khakis (with apologies to George Carlin). You can put the world’s tiniest violin away.

The US has always done an excellent job of marketing itself as the promised land, and the global reach of its mass-cultural and media exports to support that narrative is unrivaled. So, I don’t really need to tell you what is potentially good about it. Instead, I’ll speak to the more ambiguous notes.

Jobs and immigration

If you’re not earning well in Armenia because you don’t have any specialised skills or education, you’re going to face the same problem anywhere else; wages for unskilled labour are low everywhere.

As hundreds of thousands of Armenian migrant workers in Russia know, a blue-collar labourers can still fetch superior (relative to Armenia) wages during boom times, particularly in construction and industrial labour. However, this is not a realistic vehicle for emigration to the US for two reasons:

  • The criteria for immigration: the US has plenty of unskilled manual labourers, both domestic and immigrant (legal and illegal). It has absolutely no incentive to let any more of them in, and US employers can’t sponsor a pair of hands and a strong back for a visa.
  • The sheer expense of life in the US, where a great deal of costs, such as healthcare, are borne directly by the consumer. Some of these are covered at least rudimentarily by state infrastructure or held down by free-market pricing elsewhere. In other words, I would contend that earning little in the US by US standards can be riskier and more problematic than earning little by Russian or Armenian standards in Russia or Armenia. We’ll return to that topic later.

Russia has a (somewhat) common market with Armenia and is politically motivated to offer an inclusive attitude to CIS guest workers. This is not so for the US.

Some Armenians I’ve met seem to be under the impression that if they just had an axperes in California that could hook them up with a job at his auto shop, the visa and immigration issues will solve themselves. This is completely false. While knowing people and having connections is useful anywhere, overall the US economy, along with its immigration system, are fairly transparent and follow the law strictly. Moreover, it is important to remember that the US is very large, very diverse, and not run by Armenians–who represent a tiny and insignificant minority. Nobody there can just “arrange” it all for you unless you meet official immigration criteria. It doesn’t work like that.

If you’re a highly skilled, educated professional, presumably you have or will attempt to solve this problem in advance of emigrating, and you might be successful. Even so, there are a few things to keep in mind. Armenians specialise highly in urbane intellectualism and their diaspora has a high proportion of academics. This should not be confused with a high availability of academic jobs, especially in the liberal arts and humanities. Funding for that sort of thing is quite slim by developed-world standards. While professors are generally compensated well in the US, the number of available tenure-track positions, or even full-time instructorships, is small and shrinking.

The cost-saving approach of American universities is not so much to pay professors little as it is to eliminate their positions and replace them with part-time graduate teaching assistants and part-time instructors–expendable armies of people who are paid measly wages (effectively below minimum wage) a la carte (by the course), with no job security or benefits.

Competition, and the harsh office politics that come with it, is formidable, because even in this sweatshop atmosphere, graduate students need teaching hours. Your formal credentials may not carry over to the American system, which means you’ll be disadvantaged in competing with 26-year old second-year graduate students for the opportunity to provide essentially free labour to this system.

In the large public university that I attended, easily 80% of my courses were taught by graduate students not much older than I was. Needless to say, teaching quality is not a major preoccupation of the American university system.

That’s all to say that I wouldn’t count on an academic route in. It’s not impossible; in fact, it’s the one my parents took. But they had to step down from top-tier Moscow professorships to repeat graduate school for six years, then beat very low job market and employer sponsorship odds to stay. I wouldn’t have bet on us. We just got lucky. A lot of it probably owes itself to the unique boom times of the nineties.

Objectively speaking, the people in the best position to emigrate to the US, with employer sponsorship, are probably highly-skilled professionals in the private sector. Even so, the quotas on H1B visas are highly restrictive. In the tech sector, at least, there is widespread agreement that the part of the US immigration system that deals with legal immigration of high-skill professionals is in badly in need of reform.

The costs of life

It’s fairly obvious that the absolute cost of living in the US, and in Western countries in general, is higher than in Armenia. Native Armenians recognise this in abstract, but many seem to lack the perspective to apply that knowledge concretely to any given situation.

Let’s say an Armenian family of three or four gets by in Yerevan, somehow, on roughly US$900/mo. They hear that their cousin and his wife in Fresno pull in a household income of US$95,000 (roughly US$7900/mo). So, they figure, “How much more expensive could it be? Twice? Three times? How stingy do you have to be to only send back $300 every month while we’re working twelve hours a day, six days per week, to make ends meet with $900?” It seems to be human nature to figure: “If I had that kind of money, I’d find a way. How expensive could it be?”

That’s because, at some level, most people think that if they can get by on $900, then anything over that–or at least half of anything over that–is, in some shape or form, “extra” or “disposable”, even taking into account the theoretical recognition of higher living costs. The higher costs don’t concretely register, mostly because people don’t know what they are.

Cost of living differential is a fluid concept that presents in many different forms. First, there are the exact same or substantially similar things, but which simply cost more in, say, Fresno–maybe a little more, maybe a lot more. Then, there are the things that are of the same category but are qualitatively incommensurable in some way, so it’s difficult to meaningfully compare their price. There are also things that are free or close to free in Armenia but cost money in the States. As well, there are substantial differences in anticipated risk and statistical incidence of certain expenses.

The point is, one cannot simply compare prices straight across. It is important to holistically understand the overall differences in the available lifestyle options, as well as the categories of expenditures that are structurally, legally or culturally particular to the respective locales. In many cases, they are very specific to the exact socioeconomic terms of a given place. In other words, you’re not going to buy the same things in the US that you do in Yerevan; they’ll neither be the same products or services, nor identical categories of outlays. It’s not intelligible to conceptualise a monthly budget in Fresno in everyday Yerevan terms, though that doesn’t stop many people from doing exactly that.

Taxes

I don’t know who seeded this meme that Americans pay low taxes. I’ve heard it repeated a number of times in casual conversations with Armenians.

Average American salary and wage employees pay a tax rate that is typical of the developed world, and is fairly comparable, in the aggregate, to the 35-45% that most Western Europeans pay, though, of course, that varies by country. A rigourous comparative analysis of international taxation could easily consume a whole dissertation in itself, and I don’t have data handy. In some respects, US taxes are indeed lower than European ones: marginal tax rates are unquestionably much lower. On the other hand, marginal US corporate income tax rates are some of the highest in the developed world.

The main difference is that the US is, by “First World” standards, very jurisdictionally fragmented, owing to its unique fixation with federalism. The aggregate individual tax burden in the US doesn’t come from one national-level tax authority. There are several different kinds of federal taxes, all assessed at different rates, limits and progressive brackets. There are state-level income taxes. Some counties (administrative divisions of states) have special income taxes. Some cities, such as New York City, have municipal income taxes. In addition to that, there are sales taxes (varying by county and state), property taxes (a very substantial source of local government funding), excise taxes, and gasoline taxes, and for business owners and self-employed individuals, a variety of other kinds of taxes. Most of these are assessed in a complex cascade by a zoo of separate agencies at the state, federal and municipal level, all with their own rules, forms, courts, collection practices, and so on. It’s all quite Byzantine.

This fragmentation makes it difficult to add up one’s aggregate tax burden, but if one does, one will find that it’s not substantially out of line with Western Europe. The difference is that the Western European taxpayer receives an abundance of social benefits and subsidies for it. In the US, there is no free healthcare, free university education, or free housing. From that point of view, the US is one of the most expensive jurisdictions in the “First World”; you have to pay both sides!

It’s virtually impossible to compute exactly how much our hypothetical Fresno family earning $95,000 will pay in taxes, because nobody pays the same amount in taxes. It greatly depends on whether they file jointly or separately, whether they have children, and if so, how many, and many other factors. California state income tax is deductible from the federal taxable income, and so on, but not from the 7.5% that they contribute toward federal payroll taxes (Medicare & Social Security). Without running all those numbers, together with the particulars of their withholding allowances, it’s not easy to arrive at a figure. Nevertheless, a very rough estimation for a single individual making $95,000 and filing as single in California puts total tax at around $33,000, or roughly 35%. This, of course, is just state and federal taxes, and does not include local sales tax (which, in California, varies from 7.5% to 10%), nor any possible property taxes, vehicle registration taxes, and a variety of other taxes that, when added up, will certainly push the tax burden past 40%.

But even with our 35% figure, you can expect take-home income off $95,000 to drop to $62,000 or so, which is not so much $7900/mo as $5100/mo. Not a small difference! It is certainly not outside the realm of possibility for one to pay close to half one’s income in taxes. For a variety of reasons related to the intricacies of tax codes at a variety of levels, most Americans don’t end up paying quite that much, but a lot of the professional middle class comes close. The point is: don’t jump to conclusions from sensational, eye-popping gross figures.

Housing, real estate and rents

According to the US Census Bureau, 2013 Median Gross Rent in 2013 was US $905. That may not seem like so much, but that’s a median across the country as a whole.

However, the US is a very large and decentralised country, and there are plenty of inexpensive rural areas, as well as blighted post-industrial places, where housing is cheap. That doesn’t mean you want to live there. The jobs are fewer and the incomes are lower, too.

All in all, I think a little Googling will persuade one that housing in the kinds of places where most Armenians would want to live and seem to agglomerate, e.g. southern California, is a matter of at least $1200/mo, and very possibly closer to $2000/mo or beyond.

Armenians, like other ex-Soviet people, are in a globally unique position of benefiting from the privatisation of real estate after the collapse of the USSR. Simply, if you had an apartment at the time the USSR dissolved, you got to keep it; it was gifted to you as private property. It became a source of wealth on which many people rely. It is common for Armenians to own the home in which they live, even if they are likely to be living there with extended family. The fact that most of them don’t have a mortgage or rent to pay explains how they can get by on such low wages.

The fact is, if you have an apartment in Yerevan, you’ve got a roof. It may not be a good roof, but it’s a roof. You can rent it out to other people, as many do to supplement their monthly income. It may not be much, but it’s something. Other Soviet people benefited from privatisation much more; people fortunate enough to own Moscow apartments genuinely came to sit on some wealth, both from rental and liquidation.

Armenians are sometimes under the impression that lots of Americans own houses, too. This is a misapprehension; Very few Americans own homes free and clear. Lots of Americans have purchased financed houses, usually on 15 or 30-year mortgage loan terms. While the interest rates are low by present-day Armenian standards, the post-recessionary credit environment has contracted and it has become harder to get a mortgage.

The point is that almost all Americans pay rent or a mortgage in order to have a roof. It’s usually their biggest expense, and frequently a large proportion of their income. The processes of civil law operate quite expediently; if you don’t pay, you will be evicted, or your home will be repossessed by the bank and auctioned off. This is something that many Armenians are unaccustomed to considering, since a good many of them live in apartments inherited through post-Soviet privatisation and/or through family.

Credit and debt is a way of life in America, especially for big-ticket items. Few homes or cars are bought in cash. That may seem like a good thing–it makes things more affordable and at more realistic rates than in Armenia. However, as with any leverage, prices rose to reflect the widespread availability of credit (a consequence that monetary stimulus policy relies upon), which means most people need credit to buy things that they could not conceivably afford in cash. For quite some time now, credit has not been merely a tool to make it easier to afford some things, but rather the only means of obtaining them at all for average-earning people. That means that unless you become wealthy by American standards, you might be able to buy a house, and if you do, you’ll be in enormous debt for what is, by most people’s standards, a close-enough approximation of forever. You can sell a house to get out of that obligation, but clearing what you owe the bank is your problem and your risk. The recent housing recession should serve to remind that housing is not such a dependable store of wealth.

Many would say that against the background of the state of the Armenian economy, it is an enviable luxury to even be in a position to contemplate optimal stores of wealth or weigh the downsides of credit, as a member of a sizable middle class. I don’t disagree. The point of this article is not to convince you that, from a material point of view, life in the US is as bad or worse than life in Armenia. Instead, I want to put emphasis on things that are typically underemphasised by starry-eyed aspiring emigrants who imagine life abroad to be a panacea. Life in wealthier countries brings problems and stresses of its own.

Healthcare

Among Armenians’ chief complaints is the high cost of healthcare relative to local incomes, and understandably so–it’s high. Nevertheless, Armenia has a largely free market in healthcare; payments are direct from patient to medical provider, and so prices are constrained by what the market will directly bear. Healthcare is a price-inelastic service, and so the prices the market will bear–grudgingly–are quite high. Nevertheless, there is a quantitative limit to the madness.

I don’t think any immigrant to the US can be fully prepared for the disaster that is the healthcare system. Simply put, it has neither the virtues of prices held down by supply and demand, nor the virtues of a state-operated or single-payer socialised healthcare model that predominates in Western Europe and elsewhere in the developed world. Instead, the US has managed to achieve the worst of all worlds: all downsides, no upside. Astounding inflation in the market is caused by the distortions of an intermediate bureaucracy of private insurers, rendering it ipso facto unaffordable without insurance. At the same time, the system is highly inefficient, having the highest proportion of medical expenditures going to nonmedical purposes (e.g. administration, marketing, legal costs) in the developed world.

Most nontrivial medical procedures and hospitalisations cost tens of thousands of dollars. A serious illness will incur hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical billing, and very serious illnesses likely well into the millions. If you’re fortunate enough to have a health insurance policy through your employer, which is the normal mechanism for obtaining health insurance in the US, these fees are billed to your insurer, who will do anything they can to get out of paying the claim. The Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) reforms have seemingly put an end to the most audaciously hostile aspects of this (huge departments in every insurance company dedicated to finding “preexisting conditions” on the basis of which to reject your claim, leaving you responsible for the fees), but it remains to be seen whether these reforms will survive future legal challenges by conservative (i.e. pro-big business) political forces.

Plenty of other caveats that can lead to your insurance claim being rejected remain, the main one at this point being that insurers typically will cover what they consider to be medically necessary, which is often the bare minimum of indicated treatment. Anything beyond that is “elective” (a.k.a. superfluous and unnecessary) and they are not obligated to cover it. It’s true that any system with cost controls imposed by a third party, such as state-operated socialised healthcare systems in Europe, must limit what medical providers will do for a patient in a given scenario. However, I think you’ll find that in the US, the resulting mixture is especially perverse; very often, unnecessary procedures and tests (which pad doctors’ pockets) are easily approved, while procedures that would be deemed medically essential elsewhere are treated as elective and denied.

Regardless of whether you have insurance, you will share in these inflated costs. The sharing doesn’t end with high premiums (which have gotten significantly higher since the ACA came about), but also a maze of other mechanisms insurers use to defray some of their financial risk directly onto you (but on the cost basis of the severe inflation they themselves helped create): deductibles, copays and coinsurance ratios, which vary considerably with type of medical service or procedure.

Simply having insurance by itself means little; it all depends on what kind of insurance. The vast majority of Americans do have private health insurance of some sort, yet 60% is a well-accepted figure for the percentage of personal bankruptcies attributable to medical bills. 

Analysis of the myriad of pathologies of the American healthcare system would take a lengthy book. Once upon a time, insurance was–as most insurance is in any other sphere–for low-probability, high-magnitude catastrophic events only. Over time, it seems to have evolved into a payment gateway for all medical procedures, period, including the most routine care. Along with a panoply of other factors, such as the absence of heavyhanded government price controls or regulation of the business side of healthcare, this enabled enormous inflation, since insurance spreads the cost around.

The economic aspect important for the potential immigrant to realise is that the only people in the US that have access to good healthcare they can afford are:

  • Affluent white-collar professionals working for large private companies that provide generous nonsalary benefits;
  • Employees in the government sector (state or federal);
  • Those fortunate enough to work in unionised professions (far less common in the US than in many other developed countries, and varies highly by region) who happen to have negotiated good benefits;
  • People over 65 years of age, who receive Medicare (ironically, very functional socialised healthcare);
  • Very low-income people who meet stringent criteria for Medicaid;
  • Military veterans;
  • Miscellaneous wealthy or semi-wealthy individuals.

Most of the American public does not fit into these categories, and this includes many people you would be moved to otherwise describe as middle class. Statistically speaking, medical bills will probably be a problem for you, too.

Yes, I know that the comparatively “inexpensive” medicine in Armenia is equally unaffordable to a population whose median monthly wage is just under US$300. Nevertheless, I would contend that there’s something to be said for owing hundreds or thousands of dollars rather than a quarter million–a very real concern in a place where a short ambulance ride can cost nearly US $2000. American healthcare bills are not in sums you can somehow borrow from family or friends. I suspect one reason why the TV series Breaking Bad had such uptake is that it resonated with a lot of people. It’s not such a stretch for most Americans to imagine that running a methamphetamine drug empire would be the only way for an ordinary schoolteacher to afford treatment of his lung cancer and ensure his family’s financial security.

Suburbia, layout, and transportation

The US economy is highly decentralised and has an excellent roadway network for distribution. Outside of a few older cities such as New York, it is mostly laid out in a monotonous, low-density, suburban architectural pattern. The vast majority of the American population lives in a landscape consisting of freestanding houses, roadways, and utilitarian shopping areas with large parking lots. Because the density is low, the driving distances are quite typically rather high. Americans spend more time commuting to work than almost anyone on Earth. In many places, there are no foot paths, and in many other places where they do exist, they are a strict formality, with nary a pedestrian in sight. One could not be blamed for coming away with the impression that cars are first-class objects on the American terra firma, while pedestrians are distinctly second.

You might think I’m describing the countryside and rural areas, but no. In fact, this is all true even in places that nominally market themselves as “cities”. All of the major growing “cities” of the Sun Belt, such as Dallas, Phoenix, Houston, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Miami, which developed in the postwar automobile boom, are in fact little more than vast agglomerations of bland suburban tract, separated by vast lengths of highway. Sometimes they’re wrapped around a small, central urban core, but in most cases that’s just a small financial district, or a depressed post-industrial nexus of economic decay. Either way, most of the population doesn’t live there, and these cores are neither a central feature of American aspirations nor of life in this country.

This has certain upsides. It theory, it allows one to feel as if one lives in the peaceful retreat of the countryside while having the amenities of a nearby conurbation. This might seem like a refreshing prospect to someone who has lived amidst the constant din and crowds of Yerevan their entire life.

The decentralised infrastructure and penetrating roadway network required to support this also gives rise to equalisation and homogeneity. The material level of life in Evergreen, Alabama isn’t really that different from life in New York City. Sure, it’s definitely different, but the differences are mostly a matter of small nuances. Broadly, you have access to essentially the same supply chains of commoditised groceries, fuel, medicine and services in the countryside as you do in a megapolis. This is rather different from most of the rest of the world, including Armenia, where everyone knows there’s Yerevan, and there’s not-Yerevan, and the developmental chasm between them can sometimes seem to be almost be measurable in centuries, depending on where exactly you go. Much of the US is very homogenous in both practical and aesthetic terms. You’ll have to come to New York for world-class neurosurgery, but you can drive on good roads, go bowling, and go to the same supermarket and buy the same Cheetos pretty much anywhere, even in the tiniest hamlet.

So, people are always surprised when I lean on this aspect of the US critically, as a primary reason for low quality of life. It’s a topic that receives so little attention it may as well be categorised as “a problem that has no name”. The reality, however, is that the impact of this way of designing the world goes far beyond mere aesthestics–which, by the way, are terrible; the suburban landscape is unrivaled in its monotony and depressing blandness. The problem is more insidious, though; the way that we build our settlements has deep implications for our civic life, our communities, our patterns of interaction, the relationships we form, the company we keep, and ultimately, the purpose and meaning we find in our lives.

Much of the rest of the world takes for granted architectural principles of how to build life-affirming human settlements. These principles evolved over thousands of years, and it’s no accident that so many cultures reached the same conclusions. Urban Europeans, and indeed Armenians, are accustomed to vertical growth, mixed-use development (shops on first floor, apartments above), sidewalks, plazas, public squares and street cafes. These are the fixtures amidst which your halcyon childhood days played out, where you walked hand in hand with your first love, where you met friends for coffee, and hopped the train to work. It’s the corner with the pastry shop, it’s the supermarket down the street, and the bench in between.

Few people can prepare themselves for the degree to which Americans have, in the last half-century or so, taken this entire corpus of human experience and thrown it completely into the trash, with the exception of a few older cities–not the places where the majority of Americans live. What has replaced it is a surreal moonscape. For those accustomed to the traditional urban civilisation, the primary question in America is: where do I go? What do I do? Looking around leads to an intangible but intense realisation of emptiness. Suburbia is both a cause and an effect of the destruction of civic and community life in America: there’s increasingly little to come home to, and vanishingly little to go out to. This has real effects. Your children will have nowhere to play, as there is no courtyard full of friends; they will depend on your willingness to drive them (sometimes quite far) for prearranged “play dates”. You will not take leisurely strolls to admire the scenery, for there is neither admirable scenery nor anywhere to stroll. It’s likely that you won’t even know your neighbours. You certainly can’t venture downstairs for lettuce or milk; strict zoning codes have ensured that only residential structures can be built where you live, and you’ll have to drive a few miles to reach the commercial zone, where the grocery stores are.

The architect James Howard Kunstler does a good job of anatomising the essential problems of suburbia in this TED talk. I don’t necessarily share all of his ideological accents, but I think he’s summed up the general problem very nicely. The thing you have to realise when watching that video is that he’s not talking about a particular kind of neighbourhood; he’s talking about the overwhelming majority of the US, including places others are accustomed to thinking of as cities. Dallas, for instance, is not a city by the global standards. Much of it should probably be reclassified as a rural area.

In this atmosphere, the almighty car–still a matter of social status, prestige and perceived convenience in Armenia–falls from grace. It’s no longer a luxurious way to thumb your nose at the teeming masses. You are one of the teeming masses. A lot of your energy and money and will go toward the purchase and upkeep of a rapidly depreciating hunk of metal in which you will spend a significant fraction of your life, all alone. It’s only cool when most people don’t have one; when four wheels have replaced two feet, it’s just a needlessly expensive way to traverse pointlessly large distances of identical-looking road for unclear reasons.

It should go without saying that public transportation doesn’t exist in the US–at least, not by European standards. Unless you live in New York City, or well within the centres of Chicago or one or two other cities, you’ll need a car, and you’ll be spending a lot of time in it. Guaranteed.

For a culture as warm and sociable as that of Armenians, this is all anathema. Truly committed people can maintain friendships and connections across the most hostile landscapes, but so much of how we meet and relate to others is inextricably bound up in the convenience and opportunity in how we are situated. Physical layout cannot, by itself, either make one friends or hinder those who are determined to have them anyway. But it does matter. A lot.

Therefore, I’m moved to say that one of the most important things about the US is that it’s lonely. They built it that way.

Legal system

No list of American peculiarities can be complete without due mention of its legal system.

The US is not the only country to have a Byzantine legal code or statutes both complex and numerous, although both of those things are certainly true. Compared to the rest of the developed world, the US criminal justice system is harsh and metes out severe sentences. It often seems to have more punitive than rehabilitative aims, and this is, in general, politically rewarded, fed by intense “get tough on crime” populism. It’s aggravated by what might be described as a “prison-industrial complex” of legislative machinery and lobbying–one that extends to and encapsulates vested law enforcement institutions. It is a major contributor to the result that the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Not the developed world. The whole world.

In addition, there are some eccentricities of Anglo-American common law that people coming from a CIS legal system are sure to find bewildering. One is the enormous amount of personal discretion that is afforded to prosecutors and other individual actors in a criminal case. In many other countries, there are statutes that clearly outline the process a state prosecutor must follow. In the US, a lot more depends on the whims of the concrete personalities involved.

For instance, over 90% of American criminal cases are settled by “plea bargaining”, a technique where the accused and the prosecutor make a deal to exchange the accused’s guilty plea for reduced charges. That is to say, the prosecution is allowed to literally change the accusation being made from the same body of evidence: “Instead of felony armed robbery, we are going to charge you with a misdemeanour of ‘disturbing the peace’.”  The official argument for this practice is that it saves public resources by avoiding the expense and complexity of a trial.

Naturally, this flexibility leads to inflated charges that the prosecution cannot support in a real trial. The prosecution gambles that the defendant will be intimidated by the worst-case possibility of conviction for grandiose charges, and will settle for the certainty of conviction on lesser charges over the uncertainty of conviction on bigger ones. The prosecution gets a higher conviction rate, which is politically beneficial. The effect is class-discriminatory: well-heeled defendants who can afford good legal representation, post a bail-bond and have time on their hands will fight the prosecution, while poorer defendants will fold and settle.

By American lights, this passes for justice, which leads to a larger and more important point: the US criminal justice system is overwhelmingly preoccupied with procedure and process, often at the expense of justice. This myopia is the product of a technocratic bureaucracy. It’s summed up nicely in a New Yorker article called “The Caging of America”:

William J. Stuntz, a professor at Harvard Law School who died shortly before his masterwork, “The Collapse of American Criminal Justice,” was published, last fall, is the most forceful advocate for the view that the scandal of our prisons derives from the Enlightenment-era, “procedural” nature of American justice. He runs through the immediate causes of the incarceration epidemic: the growth of post-Rockefeller drug laws, which punished minor drug offenses with major prison time; “zero tolerance” policing, which added to the group; mandatory-sentencing laws, which prevented judges from exercising judgment. But his search for the ultimate cause leads deeper, all the way to the Bill of Rights. In a society where Constitution worship is still a requisite on right and left alike, Stuntz startlingly suggests that the Bill of Rights is a terrible document with which to start a justice system—much inferior to the exactly contemporary French Declaration of the Rights of Man, which Jefferson, he points out, may have helped shape while his protégé Madison was writing ours.

The trouble with the Bill of Rights, he argues, is that it emphasizes process and procedure rather than principles. The Declaration of the Rights of Man says, Be just! The Bill of Rights says, Be fair! Instead of announcing general principles—no one should be accused of something that wasn’t a crime when he did it; cruel punishments are always wrong; the goal of justice is, above all, that justice be done—it talks procedurally. You can’t search someone without a reason; you can’t accuse him without allowing him to see the evidence; and so on. This emphasis, Stuntz thinks, has led to the current mess, where accused criminals get laboriously articulated protection against procedural errors and no protection at all against outrageous and obvious violations of simple justice. You can get off if the cops looked in the wrong car with the wrong warrant when they found your joint, but you have no recourse if owning the joint gets you locked up for life. You may be spared the death penalty if you can show a problem with your appointed defender, but it is much harder if there is merely enormous accumulated evidence that you weren’t guilty in the first place and the jury got it wrong. 

Plenty of immigrants inadvertently get into legal trouble in the US because they fail to realise how much the system is focused on the correctness of process rather than the holistic propriety–and indeed, the humanity–of the outcome. Such concerns are far too “interpretive” to enter into anyone’s mind. The contemporary incarnation of the peculiar mindset of Anglo-American jurisprudence leads to the question, “Were the rights of all parties, as enumerated by the law, protected?”, eclipsing the much larger issue: “Is this outcome compatible with justice?”

For instance, I have known Soviet immigrants who got into serious legal problems because of family and child custody-related problems. In one case, a mother was prosecuted with felony kidnapping for taking her child from a husband who himself had fled with the child, and who obviously had malevolent motives and committed extensive fraud. Common sense should say that she had understandable reasons for doing that. The American system says she interfered with a custody order (that he had supposedly obtained somewhere) and thus committed kidnapping.

In the graduate family housing community where I grew up, I seemed to have been one of few ex-Soviet children whose parents somehow avoided charges of child neglect. All of our parents were busy graduate students who worked all day and all night, and none of them knew that in the State of Indiana, it is illegal to leave a child under 12 years old home alone. In our home countries, schoolchildren of single-digit age routinely commuted to and from school alone. We were in a safe, enclosed community with an abundance of constant adult supervision from stay-at-home mothers; common sense should say that this is not child neglect, in that the parents’ intentions were not negligent, and us latchkey kids were not, in fact, being neglected. The authorities were not concerned with that; leaving a child under 12 home alone meets the statutory definition of child neglect, therefore it’s child neglect–end of story. There was no allowance for mitigating factors.

I don’t think this rigidity should be confused with effectiveness or precision. It’s not the same as a Germanic fastidiousness for law and order or attention to detail. German courts still consider the issue of whether a verdict and a sentence is consistent with the spirit or intent of the law. One of the key functions of a judge is to interpret that in a given scenario. American authorities are zealously preoccupied with much more narrow concerns of definition, execution and enforcement.

This shows up in civil law as well. The US is probably the most litigious society on the planet, leading to rather mechanistic approaches to the assignment of liability and risk. You’ll find yourself signing a lot of disclaimers, releases and waivers of liability for things that offend all sentient reason, and you’ll find yourself needing to take peculiar and cumbersome steps to ensure that you yourself are held harmless and indemnified in a variety of scenarios you would not have customarily assumed yourself to carry liability for. McDonald’s Corporation really can be held liable if you spill hot coffee on yourself, and maybe that’s good, but if you employ a mechanic and he spills hot coffee on himself while on the job, you might be held liable. Is that as strange as it sounds?

Social safety net and state services (or lack thereof)

For paying essentially similar tax rates to Western Europeans, Americans do not receive many state benefits, nor are able to rely on a substantial social safety net.

On the whole, the American body politic is chlorerically opposed to perceived “socialism”. This means that extensive taxpayer-funded social benefits are an impossible political sell in one of the richest countries on the globe.

This means that in many cases, you pay (at least) double; you both pay relatively high taxes, and pay out of your own pocket for things you wouldn’t have to pay for in Western Europe and many other developed countries. Healthcare is the most obvious and dire example, as I discussed above, but the same is largely true of child care, housing, university education, and, despite the existence of Social Security, pension.

There do exist unemployment benefits, disability benefits and government income assistance schemes to the very poor. The problem is rather that these programs provide very little compared to most developed-world countries, and are very limited in scope.

For instance, Armenians sometimes scoff at Americans for delaying having children until their thirties. Notwithstanding cultural causes, it’s worth noting that the expense of child care is expected to be shouldered by working parents themselves. The government does not provide, at a large scale, any sort of preschool or daycare, as is the case in many other developed countries. These services are available in private form, but are quite expensive, often so expensive as to substantially offset the income realised from liberating a parent to work. Quality cannot be counted upon; many of the cheaper daycare centres are little more than holding pens or warehouses for children, performing little to no useful pedagogical function.

Private university can cost tens of thousands of dollars annually in tuition. Public universities can be considerably cheaper, but the price is still well into the five figures once total cost of attendance, including boarding and meals, is considered. Some scholarships and financial aid from the universities is available, but not enough to realistically provide most students a way to afford attendance. The actual way most American university students afford university is by going into enormous debt, in the form of semi-government-sponsored student loans. It’s not uncommon to pay these loans back for the rest of one’s life, and they are not dischargeable in bankruptcy. All in all, American students owe $1.2 trillion dollars in student loans, and the average debt is $26000.

My home state of Georgia is rare in that it offers a rather novel form of state scholarship for state residents to attend public university in Georgia. The HOPE scholarship waives tuition if one qualifies on the basis of high school marks. How is it funded? Through state lottery ticket sales. It’s an upward income redistribution scheme; most buyers of lottery tickets are relatively poor and uneducated, and most recipients of the HOPE scholarship are middle-class kids from relatively affluent households. Because HOPE is awarded on the basis of academic performance, income is not a factor. This is a barometer of what is politically possible in America: upward income redistribution is okay, but to even imagine that the state itself could fund tuition directly? That would be socialism!

Federal housing aid for the very poor does exist, in the form of so-called Section 8 housing. But Section 8 housing is not somewhere you’d want to live unless you like gunshots and heroin needles.

Social Security was created in the 1930s to provide income security in old age. It is a mandatory government pension scheme. However, one would be crazy to rely on Social Security income alone in retirement; the payouts are quite low relative to contributions, which means that for most people, it’s not enough to live on. It should not be confused for an actual pension. Moreover, there are some unsettling questions about the long-term solvency of the fund.

Mandatory paid holiday in the US, where it exists, is limited to two weeks per year, and applies only to full-time, salaried employees. A great deal of employment in the US is in the form of part-time work, where the employer is not required to provide this or most other benefits. It is increasingly combined with paid illness time.

Bottom line: for their ~40%, the Europeans get more. A lot more.

Individualism

The Anglo-American cultural heritage is uniquely individualistic.

This may be a welcome respite to Armenian denizens who are weary from a lifetime of collective social responsibilities and living for the concerns of others, and who may be eager for some privacy and freedom from gossip and judgement.

My experience has been that the other side of this can lead to a lot of culture shock. With due recognition to the fact that the US is diverse and has many subcultures, including very close-knit ones, it’s fair to say that the American ethos is decidedly more self-centred. The prevailing cultural expectation is that most people will take care of themselves and keep to themselves, and avoid being a burden to others in any way.

As I said above, there’s a lot to appreciate about this. But it also means that the concern you are accustomed to feeling from others for your well-being will fall off sharply. You can’t just take for granted that you can go ask your neighbour for a favour without a second thought; if you don’t know them well, it would be unseemly. In my personal experience, some Americans have even been known to respond in a hostile fashion to strangers knocking on their door. “Trespassing” and “privacy” are terms that get thrown around often.

I’m not saying that Americans are uncaring or unaffectionate people, by the way. It’s hard to make that generalisation about over 300 million people. Some of them are very caring. I’m just saying that if you are found to have signs of a meningioma and go in for an MRI scan, you might expect eight to ten friends and relatives to take time off work to show up with you and weep in anticipation in the waiting room. You will not find that here, and you’ll feel a sharp crash and withdrawal.

By and large, you are expected to take care of your own personal business in America and to “manage” your emotions and not allow them to interfere with your work. The inability of many human beings to actually meet this standard might explain why approximately half the American population is on some sort of psychotropic medication, e.g. antidepressants. If you need the Yerevan standard of personal involvement from others, the Anglo-American culture is about the worst for that.

Speaking of drugs–and I feel this is quite germane to the issue of “individualism” and social psychology, which is why I put it in this section: drugs they are a huge and extremely pervasive social problem, and you’re bound to collide with that reality sooner or later, directly or indirectly. A substantial proportion of the GDP depends in some way either on the production, distribution and consumption of drugs, or on enforcing draconian laws against it. There’s quite a lot of what one might call industrial-scale militarisation on both sides. Like any war, it’s damaging even to the victors, there is enormous collateral damage to civilian bystanders, and it’s hard to tell who the real villains are. By Armenian standards, the US can be criminal, gritty and dangerous in unexpected ways.

More interestingly, perhaps, the world of legal drugs bleeds easily into the illegal, as evidenced by widespread illegal abuse of prescription painkillers and the entirely legal overprescription of psychoactive medications such as amphetamines. Americans are probably the most psychoactively medicated people on the planet. The whole legal-illegal distinction is a nebulous, foggy continuum in a place with so much regulatory capture and other corruption driven by mega-pharmaceutical shysterism.

Conclusion

As I tell every Yerevan taxi driver who lyricises America, “like everything else, it’s got its pluses and minuses”.

The US is a good place for the incorrigibly entrepreneurial and the well-paid, and in either case, the young. It’s a good place to be if you’re in a well-remunerated profession that is complementary to machine intelligence and other emergent trends indicative of the future of employment in “post-industrial” economies. It still offers a dynamic business climate–something that is as much a function of culture as of regulation and economics. It’s an intriguingly diverse multicultural “melting pot” where just about anyone can find a social group of likeminded people, which owes much to both its size and its history as a nation of immigrants. If the more collectivist psychology of the East is your vexation, the strong current of individualism and independence in American culture would probably an ideal antidote. For certain kinds of people, the US has much to recommend it.

However, I hope I have tempered that with some sober realities about the challenges of everyday life. The US lacks many of the socially stabilising factors and policy objectives of Western European countries. If you’re looking for a calm, moderate life and are allergic to extremes, I suggest you set your sights upon another OECD country to romanticise. Either way, I would pause and take a minute before reflexively deeming a visiting American to be enviably rich and happy.

There’s no paradise anywhere.


3 Comments on “What Armenians should know about life in America”

  1. Brett Frazier says:

    Alex, based on my short time working in Yerevan and becoming intimately involved with the people and the culture, I agree that there will be considerable cultural shock for the average Armenian immigrating to the US but lots of preplanning could alleviate some if not all. Looking for lower cost of living areas, like the South, learning to drive and getting a license before leaving, pre-determining big city vs rural living, etc are some ways that can prepare the Armenian immigrant for a successful move.

    I have had similar conversations with a common friend that is interested in moving here. I have told them what they would need to do and differences in life style depending on region of country to which they move, i.e. learning to drive.

    Many of the negatives that you discuss are from politically motivated enacted laws, in my opinion, but not going to discuss here.

    Like

    • abalashov says:

      Brett,

      So, your premise is basically that America is a great place to live for most Armenians as long as one does some research and evolves certain skill sets beforehand?

      I’ve been here since I was six. I’m just not sure I agree.

      Like

  2. Jack says:

    What a great article, this need to be translated into all language immigrants from all over the world who aspire to come over.

    Like


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