Following the implosion of my employer during the Global Financial Crisis (apparently people are capitalizing this title these days), I decided to take a sabbatical. I figured that it made sense to use the time off to pursue an adventure that I’d always had in mind – to live in Barcelona. Barcelona had captured my imagination even before I saw the movie “Vicky Christina Barcelona.” When I lived in Buenos Aires as a college student, my roommate was from Barcelona. During that time, I found myself hanging around with a group of students from Barcelona who were, like me, spending the year in Argentine. I visited these friends twice in the late 1990’s but hadn’t stepped foot in Spain since 1999. I had lost touch with these friends but ended up reconnecting with them through Facebook.
A few months ago, during a dinner in New York with a business school classmate from Barcelona, I learned that one of her friends from high school wanted to spend the month of August in New York. Within days, I had arranged an apartment swap and my plans were set
My first impression upon landing in Spain was unmistakable: Spaniards don’t mess around when it comes to vacation. For the entire month of August, Barcelona is a ghost town. You can’t even buy a newspaper without searching far and wide for an open newspaper stand. I realized this early on when I ventured to the neighborhood stand and saw a sign informing that it would be closed for the entire month of August for vacation.
I soon learned that the newspaper seller had a lot of company during his vacation by the seashore. Want to get a key copied? Please wait until the first of September. Need a passport photo? You get the drift. Without exaggeration, I would estimate that a good 50% of businesses in the city of Barcelona are closed for most of the month of August. Thankfully, however, all of the ice cream parlors are open.
My time in Barcelona taught me to better understand what it means to live in a “socialist” society. While Spain’s economy is not socialist per se, many of its social programs struck me as such. These days, in the United States, it’s not uncommon to hear political figures warn that we’re turning into a socialist country. Au contraire. If we’re going to become a socialist country, we have way too few vacation days.
Apart from trivialities such as vacation days, life in Spain is quite different from what we’re used to in the United States. The government provides national health care (it seems we’re going that way), although most people still maintain private health insurance. The insurance provided by the state is most useful for serious illnesses. Most universities cost a few hundred dollars per semester. Unions remain an important factor in business and the state requires unionized employers to provide incredible benefits when jobs are lost. My friend Ivan is about to lose his job as a financial director at a newspaper. For his eight years of service, the company is legally required to provide a payment equaling roughly 18 months of his salary. Even if he gets a new job the day after his employment ends, he keeps the severance package.
What is the downside of all of these policies? Spain is currently suffering from 20% unemployment and a serious perception that it could be the next Greece. In a fundamental sense, Spain may not be able to pay for all of the benefits that its laws grant to its citizens. Moreover, I’ve noticed something very interesting when comparing Spain to the United States. In my opinion, one of the fundamental strengths of the United States is the collective belief that anyone can “make it.” Whether you buy into this notion or consider it a myth, our system is grounded in a belief that anyone can rise from obscurity to become a tycoon. In Spain, society feels more equal but there is less opportunity to make it big. The Spanish government assures that the basic needs of its citizens are met, but the country lacks the social mobility that is so central to the American narrative.
In sum, I think I can pretty much attest to the fact that the United States is not, in fact, “socialist.” We pay a lot for our healthcare, we pay a lot for our universities, and the guy who sells newspapers on the corner does not get a four-week vacation during the month of August. On the other hand, Spaniards don’t enjoy the range of opportunities for advancement that exist in the United States and they have become accustomed to a series of benefits that their country can no longer afford to provide.
It’s worth thinking about the kinds of programs that we value in our society and comparing these ideas with what has or hasn’t worked in countries such as Spain. At the same time, we should be careful to make sure that we don’t make the mistake of using word such as “socialist” too lightly. If we’re ready to describe the United States as Socialist, we’d better prepare ourselves for a lot more vacation days.