Did I choose the wrong country?

Globe (Photo credit: stevecadman)

How interesting to see that Canada — where I was born, raised and lived until 1988 — now has a higher per-capita wealth than the United States; $363,202 in assets to the average American’s total of $319,970.

From the website Daily Finance:

Indeed, the crash in U.S. home prices means that Canadians own real estate that is on average worth $140,000 more than that held by Americans. They also own twice as much property and have nearly four times as much equity in it after mortgages are taken into account.

One small bright spot for residents of the beleaguered U.S.: Americans still have greater liquid assets than Canadians. But even this statistic serves mainly to underscore the magnitude of the housing market catastrophe.

Public policy may be in part to blame: As The Globe and Mail points out, “Canadian leaders rejected mortgage interest deductibility,” making it somewhat harder for citizens to get so deep into mortgage debt. Moreover, subprime mortgages — those ignes fatui of the American economy — did not catch on in Canada the way they did here.

All of which leaves our “thrifty, socialist neighbors to the north” — who have long eschewed both the dynamism and the risk of the American system in favor of higher taxes, greater regulation and a sturdier social safety net — looking pretty clever right now.

Having survived three (so far) recessions in the U.S. since moving here, I’ve often questioned my decision. But I’ve also met some of my professional goals here, and more easily in a nation whose population is 10 times larger, than would have been possible at home, where about ten people in my industry got the best jobs and clung to them for decades.

I’ve married two Americans, one wretched, one not. I’ve survived being a crime victim here twice and the subject of a $1 million lawsuit from a minor car accident. Instructive!

Canadians are generally much more risk-averse, which I find boring and annoying (if, yes, more fiscally prudent.) Americans, for better or worse, are generally excited to try new things and less freaked out by failure. I like this a lot, and it’s one reason I came and stuck around. But it also assumes — which isn’t true for so many people here now — you can actually afford to fail.

Without a toxic mortgage I kept my home and built equity; the U.S. mortgage interest tax deduction (thank heaven) was a real help to me as a single freelancer.

The “American dream” of home ownership is typical of a major difference between the two nations — because it has long been such a powerful part of how Americans view their lives, no politician (even if it would have been wise to do so) dared mess with it.

And so bankers made out, literally, like bandits, selling the most appallingly toxic mortgages to people with no clue what they were getting into.

Canadians don’t have a “Canadian dream”, at least none I’ve ever heard as part of the standard cultural conversation.

The CDO crisis, fueled by greed on both sides and fed by the oxygen of enormous profits on one side and the illicit thrill of actually buying a house with 0% down, almost left the financial system here DOA. If you want to watch a real thriller, which really explains it, rent the terrific films Too Big to Fail and Inside Job.

While Americans, once more, are this week mourning the latest massacre of civilians attending a film near Denver by a deranged shooter armed with four guns, urban Canadians in Toronto are also confronting a shocking level of gun violence; ironically, Jessica Ghawi, a young sports reporter, had just escaped a shooting in June at Toronto’s Eaton Centre, a huge downtown mall, when she was killed in Aurora.

I wrote my first book about American women and guns, which one critic called “groundbreaking and invaluable”, my goal to understand, and explain, why Americans are so deeply attached to private firearms ownership.

But another recent shooting in Toronto claimed the lives of two people and when I went to check that story, yet another shooting had occurred since then.

So — which country is the better choice?

It’s an ongoing question for ex-patriates like myself, some of whom have husbands or wives or partners and children and jobs they value in the United States (or vice versa.) After the horror of 9/11, many of my Canadian friends urged me to “come home”, even though I’d already lived in the U.S. since January 1988.

While he loves Canada and would be happy to live there, my husband has a great job in New York City, which offers a pension we will both need. As an author and freelance writer, I can, theoretically, work from anywhere.

Both my countries have strengths and weaknesses.

The reasons we each choose to move, or stay, are multi-factorial: friends, work, climate, proximity to (or blessed distance from) family, excellent medical care and insurance, history, geography, a spiritual community, a landscape we love, a sense of history or shared culture…

Here’s a recent radio interview with Paul Martin, former Canadian Prime Minister, with Brian Lehrer, one of my favorite interviewers, on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show. He does a great job explaining the differences in public policy-making between the two countries.

If you’ve left your native country to try another, how’s it working out for you?

If you’ve moved to the U.S., do you (ever) regret it?

Do you plan to move elsewhere?


16 thoughts on “Did I choose the wrong country?

    1. Sergey

      Valhala is equivalent of heaven for ancient Nordic civilization. Over the years Nordics spread it’s culture and influenced over entire Northern and Eastern Europe. Resulting in semi celtic/nordic, old Slavic/nordic and countless of Germany believe systems.
      A Viking is a warrior much like a templar Knight( except better). There for saying you won’t make it to Valhala unless your Viking is as silly as adding only Christian Knights make it to heaven. πŸ™‚
      Now that I added a totally relevant piece of information to this article. ….. Enjoy!

  1. Julia

    Are you researching a real estate story? It seems like you might be. Canadians don’t have mortgage deductibility, but we have no capital gains tax on the sale of a home. Mortgage rates have been very low for a few years, making real estate very attractive. Our Federal Finance Minister (we have a Conservative majority government) recently tightened the eligibility for mortgages (e.g. larger down payments, higher equity ratios for mortgages) and restricted federally-backed mortgage insurance to, according to his press release, cool down an overheated real estate market (e.g. the Toronto condo building boom). No one said boo. We expect public policy. And Canadian bankers are, by and large, conservative.

    You bring up so many points, I’ll just start with that.

    1. Funny you should ask as I just wrote about this issue for a paid blog I write at Canada.creditcards.ca. So it’s something I’ve been thinking about this week anyway.

      But the issue of gun violence is a major one for me now. I arrived in Toronto the day after the June Eaton Centre shooting and it shook me up. Toronto has changed and not for the better in this respect.

  2. Julia

    Since you are making the comparison, I will make the observation that the American response to the shootings in Colorado seems to be an uptick in gun sales for personal protection, and the Canadian response is to ask the federal government for more laws and policing to protect the public from criminal gangs and their illegally obtained guns.

  3. You should also consider the cost of higher education in Canada. The tuition costs here in the states are outrageous. Too many people graduate in debt equal to the cost of a mortgage. That’s why we completed the paperwork for Canadian citizenship for our kids who were born in the states. They need the option to study in Canada if necessary.
    I’m thrilled that the economy in Canada is so strong. I wouldn’t mind moving back someday.

  4. It’s not surprising that Canadian homes are holding a better value than here in the U.S. in 1980’s Ronald Reagan deregulated the mortgage industry. That act is the beginning of what caused the industry collapse here a couple of years ago. the deregulation caused American homes to take a large leaps in values because the industry went from only being able to make a loan that could not in excess of 28% of a households yearly income to being able to loan up to 100% of a households income. The end result is that home values outstripped Americans ability to afford a house that was suited to their needs. Personally I find the term toxic mortgage offensive and inaccurate I think a better term would be CEO’s preferred mortgage because if we’re to believe that these guys are the experts their industry, they had too or should have known exactly what was going to be the end result.

    Americans and gun ownership isn’t going to go away anytime soon. In fact more and more people seem to be swinging over to the idea of conceal and carry laws. Personally I carry a gun when I work and I grew up with them in my home. I’ve been in law enforcement for ten years now and although gun violence is on the rise, I’m not completely convinced that banning them would solve the problem. I think that until the underlying issues that cause people to use guns in a violent act are being addressed a lot of cases the person looking to harm others would switch to some other method to seriously injure or kill another person. Holding or having a gun does not give one an uncontrollable urge to use it against another person. I do believe that it is the devaluation of human life that causes the rise in violence not availability of weapons.

    Sorry if my response went a bit long, you touched on a issues I think are important, Thank you for another great post!

    1. Thanks for weighing in…the gun issue (which you know intimately through your work) is complicated. I think the single greatest problem is that there are too many people who have access to firearms who are mentally ill. I see no quick or easy fix for that. While I agree with your point that someone intent on mayhem will do whatever they want to, somehow, it’s a lot easier to order a bunch of ammo and gear, buy guns and head to the nearest public place to commit a massacre…versus other methods of mass killing like (?) bombs or chemicals. I did a lot of shooting while writing my first book about women and guns, and know that once you have a gun and know how to use it, all that stops you from murder is common sense and sanity. When 25 percent of us suffer mental illness and 45 percent of us have a gun in the home, I do not like those odds!

      I do NOT think owning a gun makes anyone, de facto, a killer. But too-easy access to them is aiding the insane…

  5. Thanks for this blog. It reminds me of my application to Canada as a permanent resident however due to the recent changed on its immigration policy, might be in danger of returning it to me. For me, it’s a “Canadian dream” or am I just dreaming to be in Canada after a depressing more than 5 years of waiting.

    Well my country where I am now is not in the US like you. A dream of a greener pasture. But after reading your past it seems violence is everywhere, I thought Canada has lesser crime rate, but yea I do agree compare to where I am now πŸ™‚ But it seems it is horrible.

    I haven’t moved yet to another country but without the factors that you mentioned like family, friends and the likes seems to be an odd option for staying out from where you have started. But of course, we really cant say what lays ahead and the opportunity that is waiting for us to move out from our comfort zone.

    Again, thanks for your post. Olympics just started πŸ™‚

    1. One of the things I suspect every would-be immigrant has to face is the reality (versus the dream/ideal) of their new country. I certainly came to the U.S. assuming things would likely go as well for me, socially and professionally, as they did in Canada.

      But I faced a lot of (unpleasant) surprises I simply did not foresee: 1) a very clique-y environment where social ties in my industry mattered far more than I’d expected; 2) the need for an advanced degree (unnecessary in Canada) to make clear I had brains; 3) 3 recessions !; 4) how quickly and frequently Americans — with almost no labor laws — fire staff. When you have left behind your social and professional networks, you are extra vulnerable to these stresses.

      Wherever you decide to move, bring optimism, education, good health — and savings.

  6. I doubt I’m qualified to comment…but I’ll have a go anyway. I’ve only visited Canada and the US once. I loved both countries: very welcoming and polite. But I completely adored Quebec, especially Quebec City – perhaps it’s the fiercely independent spirit that attracted me as an Australian. I doubt I’ll ever live overseas as an actual ‘resident’, but if I did it would be in Quebec. From a faraway outsider’s perspective, three things worry me about the US: the unflinching patrotisim, the religiosity, and the guns. But, as I said upfront, what would I know.

  7. The three things that troubled you about the US deeply trouble me as well!

    Q. City is gorgeous. I lived in Montreal 1986-88 and went with all sorts of high hopes, but found many things really annoying: super high taxes; terrible municipal services (hospitals, libraries, road conditions); high crime rate and long miserable winters.You can still find great charm/food/style and amazing apartments for crazy low rents.

    I love VISITING Montreal and Q. City but I would never choose to live there.

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