Transatlantic Thoughts: Money talks in America, where everything has a price

Credit: Paola Mathus/ Credit: Paola Mathus/ Credit: Bernice  Yu/ Credit: Bernice Yu/
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Editor’s note: Transatlantic Thoughts is a weekly column that examines Carnegie Mellon’s student life from a foreigner’s perspective. Find previous installments

We promised two weeks ago that this column would soon broaden its scope and tackle topics related to America, and not simply Carnegie Mellon. Today’s topic will fulfill that promise, as I will develop a reflection about money, how people in the U.S. see it, and what the consequences of this relation are in the American society. The point is less to state a moral judgment than to give some general sense and coherence to several interesting phenomena. In this process, I will touch on several important issues that could each merit a full article — but we won’t try to treat them exhaustively.

It is indeed a well-known cliché that in America money occupies a very specific place — bigger than it is in Europe, for example. Here “money talks,” as they say. Although we will try to go further in the next paragraphs, this platitude is a good starting point, as my personal experience over the last few months tends to confirm. To put it in a nutshell, here in America, everything has a price.

I can think of three types of situations where this principle becomes particularly obvious. First, there are extremely expensive services here that are free, more affordable, or substantially government-funded in many other countries. The example that comes immediately to mind is healthcare, which in the U.S. requires people to pay thousands of dollars a year in health insurance. Equivalent services in most developed countries would cost several times less — when they are not free or reimbursed. This does not mean that everybody agrees with this situation, of course — but the mere fact that it exists states something about the American society. Another example, familiar to the student community, is education: tuition fees in the U.S. are probably the highest in the world. Of course, it comes with the best campuses and researchers, and scholarships exist to help those who cannot afford an education on their own. Still, education’s price in the U.S. is dictated by the law of the market, like any other commodity — despite the pressure it puts on students, as described in this column last week.

Let’s move to a second type of situation. Like services are costly, even the most vital ones, jobs can be paid no matter how minute they might seem. I took notice of this on a recent trip to New York, when a homeless person entered the bar I was in to collect empty cans and bottles. Actually, I didn’t understand what was happening at the moment; only later a friend explained to me that redeeming recyclables was a way to make a living for the poorest people. I understand well how it can be justified: bringing back recyclables to centers is a useful action that can be paid, and if giving this task to people in need can help them survive, so much the better. And yet, knowing that this practice has turned into a nation-wide service of people wandering streets all night to collect cans and earn five dollars is somehow a bit shocking in my opinion. It sort of evokes a South Park episode (like this recent one where unemployed rednecks get paid for doing Amazon Echo’s job in houses) or, if you’re pessimistic, a Black Mirror pitch.

The third kind of situation I am thinking about is a social relation. In America more than anywhere, I get the feeling that being nice to people is part of a job and deserves a payment — the tip of the iceberg being, well, tips. I have always been used to service included in almost every context, and having in every bar, every restaurant, to choose an amount — to judge with cash how friendly and helpful someone has been — is quite a change. In my opinion, you pay for a service, and being nice isn’t part of the service, it’s just how you’re supposed to act in social relations. And symmetrically I know there are Americans back from Europe who were just as surprised as I was, saying in shock “back there service is included, so nothing forced the waiter to be nice to me, I had to engage a conversation.” This is definitely a strong cultural gap, which I think is related to that same general American principle that everything comes with a price.

Before concluding this article there is a small paradox I would like to describe. Despite the importance that money can have in the U.S., I have been amazed by the lack of caution that is given to means of payments here. For example, to pay my rent, I basically just entered my account’s coordinates on the estate agent’s website, when I would have expected to confirm to my bank at least once that I authorize the payment. How could you prevent fraud with such a system? Another example is the fact that in restaurants, you often specify the tipping amount after having given and taken back your card — so they will edit the debited amount after you are gone. The insecurity related to money seems disproportionate to its importance, which I am unable to explain for now.

In some future articles, I will try to push further this analysis. I believe that the current topic, although central in any analysis of American society, could be linked to equally fundamental topics, in particular, those of individual responsibility and contractual relations. But this is for another week.