The American Way

If you’ve ever been to America and driven on the highways, it soon strikes you that there seems to be no lane discipline anywhere in evidence. There’s no fast lane, no slow lane. Everyone seems to do as they please, overtaking and undertaking and varying their speed accordingly. It feels like a rubbish and dangerous way to drive, and I used to tell myself that it was a reflection of the sloppy, carefree attitude to life that many American’s lazily adhere to.

I recently read of an alternate view that appealed to me though. Have you ever noticed on our motorways that the fast lane tends to be hogged by the Beamers, Mercs, Jags and Audi’s? The flash motors that tell you to know your place? Get out of the way and let the important people past. Working men, symbolised by trucks and white vans, are allowed in two lanes only, causing the vans to permanently sit on your arse in the middle lane at 80mph. Pensioners, as useless and annoying as children, and with the poorest level of status, toddle along in the slow lane and shouldn’t even be allowed on.

Our motorways reflect our obsession with hierarchy and status, devolving from our old class system where you play the game to the rules. Know your place and stay in it.  

On American roads, on the other hand, everyone is equal. Everyone has the chance of going as fast or slow as they choose. Everyone gets a bite at the apple, big or small, fast or slow. You’re in it together on the highway, and you have the same chance as everyone else of getting ahead. This reflects the ideals of the American Way.

It’s an interesting idea, isn’t it? I sometimes ask myself why the FIRE blogs we tend to refer to and enjoy sprang up in America? I’m thinking of course of Early Retirement Extreme and Mr Money Moustache. Initially, they seem to be a rejection of the American Dream, don’t they? These guys have dropped out, albeit in a seemingly constructive way. They don’t want to strive for monetary success, they don’t measure themselves by bling and material gain, they reject the consumer society that America, more than any other country, has built.

True enough. But they’re very much still infused with the “anyone can do it” mentality. ERE and MMM often focus on how the little guy can make it to early retirement too. It’s not the sole preserve and right of the rich and richer still. In fact, they’re almost evangelical about this: you, yes you, lowly engineering cubicle guy working for The Man, you can get out of this rut in ten years if you apply yourself. Here’s how.

We (in the UK FIRE community) seem to like this refreshing, positive approach that stresses that you can do it too. Although we’re pretty interested in saving and investing, it often seems to be for its own sake – no doubt many of us have enough in the bank to go out and put the deposit on a new Porsche, but we’re not that type of people are we? We have a different goal in mind, which is more about having financial control over our lives. Buying a Porsche would just symbolise the complete reverse of that ethic.

In Britain though, I often feel that when it comes to things like savings, investments and pensions, taking control of our own lives is way down the agenda for most people. When it comes to pensions, I bet the majority of people are focused on one main element: what is the State going to provide? In a way, I feel we’re more conditioned to think this way for a variety of reasons, including the “knowing our place” one that means that places and concepts like The City, stockbroking and merchant banking are just not environments for “people like us”.

I’d love to turn all this on its head and see everyone in Britain help tip the old establishment model into the bin. I invested money in Zopa in the hope that it might upset the (financial) status quo in the long run more than any other reason. I suspect that many members of the FIRE community do likewise, but I’m afraid we’re just not “normal”, are we? Not in the financial sense anyway. How many of your friends take an interest in finance? One in ten? One in twenty? Are you frightened to ask? After all, it’s really not polite to discuss our financial circumstances in public, is it? We can leave that to those vulgar Americans, Chinese, Indians and the rest of the rabble.

Mind you, if that’s the case, how come London is classed with Wall Street as the financial centre of the Universe? When I think about it, I begin to suspect that we British are, in reality, obsessed with money more than any other nation, possibly because it’s tied in with our idea about class and social standing. But we can’t talk publicly about these subjects because to do so just wouldn’t be British, would it?

And you can say the same thing about Sex.

And Death.

Damn, I knew I didn’t have the title of my blog nailed down. It’s just struck me – “Sex, Class, Money, Death – the Four Unmentionables of the British Middle Class Apocalypse.” That’s what it should have been.

10 thoughts on “The American Way

  1. > If you’ve ever been to America and driven on the highways, it soon strikes you that there seems to be no lane discipline anywhere in evidence.

    Eh? I felt the US lane discipline was much better than ours – they change lanes less frequently and more deliberately, both on the East coast and the west. Only in New York did this start to break down and you had to make like a Londoner. Although perhaps this is a result of cruise control, a predilection for automatic transmission and your observation of there being no clear speed differential across the lanes. They also have highways with many mroe lanes than ours at times.

    What i did struggle with was their fondness for feeding you onto an off-ramp on the side of what we would think of as the fast lane, but that was my failure to think like an American 😉

    A suspect the prevalence of FIRE blogs is largely down to the larger population and a shared language. People in the UK find it much easier talking about money now than they used to, I’d say particularly the < 40 crowd. Which is all A Good Thing IMO.

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  2. I know your post is not really about driving styles but, as I just spent the weekend in Los Angeles, I had to chime in about that… We drove extensively throughout the area, in the dangerous (Watts), the rich (Beverly Hills), the working (downtown LA) and the suburbs. I commented repeatedly to my wife and kid about how crazy the driving was: lane swerving, texting, speeding, tailgating, etc. Much worse than anything I;ve complained about in France or Italy!

    Two things stood out, compared to the quieter, more homogeneous, better behaved area where I live: LA is more diverse and far more populated. Straight out of the airport rental lot, you have Spainards trying to cut into the exit queue. On the roads, you have the stereotypical slow Asian drivers and the dontfuckwithme Hispanics. In Beverly Hills, the Maseratis would aggressively tail our lowly Jeep as if they wanted intercourse (using the wiper wash usually sprays them back). In Watts, you also get to dodge potholes and the occasional sofa. — Add to all this, the fact that LA is a big city with too many cars,,,,well, good luck to you rule-followers!

    At least it’s not as bad as Miami.

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    • I hated driving in LA, mostly on the freeways. When they were moving, which wasn’t often, it was high speed chaos from one traffic jam to the next. No wonder there were so many SUV’s, I didn’t feel very safe in my tinny little hire car.

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  3. I’ve often wondered whether both MMM and ERE being immigrants to the US in their 20s had any impact on their rejection of American consumerism.

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  4. I wondered if the US tax rates might have some influence that a lot of ERE blogs started there. With a ~30% tax on income and a 150000$ house it might be easier to save than with ~50% income tax and +300000euro houses here in the Netherlands probably the UK has similar figures. (The numbers on Mmm never added up for my situation)

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