By Victor Adams
I get asked, a lot, why I decided to pull up stakes and leave the States. Most people assume the decision was political. Nothing could be further from the truth. Initially, I responded that the reason was economic; the U.S. is a terrible value. Though I still consider that valid, I’ve come to realize that wasn’t the whole story.
Here is a quick aside unrelated to the Colombia vs. USA debate. After 10pm, you can run an empty red light in Nicaragua. Doesn’t that just make sense? Why can’t the U.S. do things like that? It’s small, but it makes you feel free. Life isn’t an algorithm. People can make decisions. Well, some people can, I guess. Anyway, back on point.
First off, understand that I’m not political. If you read my first novel, I managed to navigate the partisan divide and deliver a politically neutral satire of the US. I haven’t voted in an election for over a decade. I don’t even think you guys are living in a democracy — but that’s another topic for a forthcoming article. Instead, I’d like to answer the question of whether I traded in 1st world comfort for a “3rd” world discount-life.
I should also point out that I don’t like the phrase “3rd World”, but I like the concept of changing language and tradition even less. The people here in Colombia refer to Latin America as 3rd world, so I’m going to do the same. If we come up with a better descriptor in the future, I’ll switch to that. But for the same reason I buy used cars and not the preposterously named pre-owned ones, 3rd world it is. For now.
Many years ago, I worked in finance as an analyst, and that method of evaluation stuck with me. In investment parlance, I view the U.S. as a bad value for the money. The primary driving force behind my exit was economic, but what I’ve found is that I didn’t make a quality of life trade at all. If anything, I traded up…and at a substantial discount.
So, let’s buzz through the basics. Keep in mind, Miami is a 2-hour, $100 flight on Spirit Airlines. So virtually anywhere the US outscores Colombia, a quick flight closes the gap.
There isn’t a single car owner in the USA who hasn’t said “the roads suck”. What do we hear every four years? We need to rebuild roads and bridges! Well, if we need to keep doing that, we obviously aren’t making any progress. We have bad roads in Colombia, too. Our insurance rates are a fraction of yours, and better still, if I nudge the driver in front of me, I’m not looking at a Youtube caliber “incident”, an insurance rate hike, and a lawsuit. I give the guy a couple twenties. It isn’t a life event. Colombia 1, USA 0.
In terms of goods and services, I’m sorry to say, we have FexEx, Costco knock-offs, and coffee shops, too. And yes, I can get nearly anything delivered (bless Rappi). That I can get pharmacy prescriptions and beer runs done via my Rappi app? Colombia 2, USA 0.
There isn’t a single parent, politician, or citizen who doesn’t say “the schools suck”. Well, we’ve got bad schools, too. And yes, we also have good private ones. Wanna guess who pays higher tuition? A current complaint in the states is that charging any amount for the “type” of education the kids are getting is highway robbery. A 2nd problem is that the crushing cost of a U.S. education is self-defeating. You could still send your child to a US institution if you lived in Colombia because you wouldn’t be spending ½ your income on your mortgage and ¼ on various insurances. Colombia 3, USA 0.
In healthcare terms, U.S. democrats argue that universal free healthcare is THE answer. Well, we have that. For the people who prefer private hospitals, we have those, too. The real question on healthcare is how much money you have, and since that answer vary by person and priority, let me sum it up this way. I’m sure the US has better healthcare if you can afford the insurance. If affording that insurance reduces your quality of life substantially, is that a win? I guess under the “at least you still have your health rule”, USA 1, Colombia 3.
Although I eviscerated the concept that the U.S. legal system is “the greatest in the world” in the The Last One Out, I should note that the U.S. didn’t invent legal systems. We have one, too. In fact, a whole bunch of Colombian police officers just got convicted by a Bogotá court. Why would I prefer to be tried by this legal system? Because I could actually afford to get to trial and not bankrupted into accepting a plea. Shocking as this may sound, Colombians are pretty logical and rational people. The odds of owning a business in Colombia and being sued are astronomically low. I don’t know a single business owner here who has been caught up in litigation. In the US? It’s about half the business owners I know. Honestly, I want to dock the US a point because the legal system is so despicable, but let’s be fairer than your legal system. Colombia 4, USA 1.
One of the challenges to the concept of leaving is that other countries have unstable governments. So…not to sound smug, but look around. How well are local and national governments doing in the States? Sort of seems like they can’t accomplish much, doesn’t it. So I ask you, is standing on the shoulders of giants, or whatever you wanna call it, really “stable, solid, and effective” government? If the first stress test to the system broke it, how solid is it? And again, you’re paying a fortune for it. Colombia 5, USA 1.
As for COVID-19, both governments failed in the same way. I leave it to the reader to determine what that way is. While that’s technically a tie, I score it as a win for Colombia because, once again, you’re paying the world’s highest prices. Colombia 6, USA 1.
While much is made of, rightly, the machista culture here, there are obvious signs that is cracking. Bogotá has not only a female mayor, but a gay female mayor. That’s measurable progress on the equal rights front. But it is true that the USA is farther along in equality terms, despite my jokes. USA 2, Colombia 6.
So finally, we come to violence. People in the USA either get their perception of Colombia from Romancing the Stone (if you’re over 40), or Narcos (if you’re under it). Those depictions are so far off it is laughable. Cartagena has more in common with Miami. I often describe it as a clean New Orleans with beaches and less murder (the Cartagena homicide rate is 23/100,000 vs NOLA’s 37.1/100,000). Crime rates are tricky business. Since people live in cities of a country rather than the country as a whole, I put a more detailed comparison of homicide rates at the end of this article. There is one statistic that I find vitally important. I view the crime of rape as particularly indicative of cultural sickness. Currently, cases of rape per million are four times higher in the USA: 67.8 vs 274. There could be a lot of reasons for the disparity, but generally, a society with 4-times fewer rape cases, while still struggling with machista leanings, is going to have fewer sub-human psychopaths walking around. Colombia 7, USA 2.
If you’re keeping score, there isn’t a single thing listed here where Colombia is so far behind the US that it’s worth the 10x price tag.
The bottom line of this comparison is that I’ve learned one thing. There really isn’t a statistical reason to prefer one over the other. To me, the difference boiled down to one thing. As Americans, we traded in the concept of manifest destiny, in all its forms, for absurd convenience. I don’t need a bobble-head Mike Trout doll delivered same day.
What we’re doing now is going from 60mph to 80mph…not 0–60. We don’t make anything life altering, we nibble at the edges of what’s already there. Without some form of manifest destiny to drive people, the country is being forced to look inward, and the jury is out on whether people like what they’re seeing.
I don’t want to spend my time looking in a mirror. I’m funny looking and I know it. I want to do things that are hard, just so I know whether I can. I hike up a mountain to see if I can, not so I can take a picture of myself on top of it.
I don’t want a $900 robot vacuum. Either I’ll mop my own floors or I’ll pay a human to come in and do it twice a week for half that. Not only do I get to interact with someone (I know, talking to other humans is a weird part of Latin culture), but my money is actually helping another human take care of their child, not being diffused through a tech corporation…which will ultimately lecture me on how I should live my life according to their algorithm.
Life can’t be reduced to an algorithm, and the people who think it can are going to create an unemployed, deeply unhappy society. Take a look at your Netflix suggestions. I can’t speak for you, but I’ve never watched a single one of mine.
All this is to say that leaving the U.S., for me, was an easy decision. Doing it is hard, but years of small business ownership taught me to trust my instincts. I try never to say never, but would I return to the U.S. permanently? Why pay nearly ten-times more, just so I can’t run red lights.
Victor Adams, author of the novel, The Last One Out, is a former top-10 franchisee and independent business owner. He sold his US businesses and retired to Cartagena, Colombia in 2017 in his early 40s.
Addendum on Crime Rates:
USA Crime Rates:
St Louis leads the pack at 60.9 per 100,000, with Baltimore checking in at #3 with 51 per 100,000. Washington D.C. ranks #10 with 22.8 per 100,000. Little Rock Arkansas comes in at #17 with 20.1 per 100,000.
USA takes 17 cities to get below a 20/100,000 rate. So, there are 17 cities in the USA that show homicide rates above 20 per 100,000.
Colombia, by contrast shows these statistics: Cali: 51/100,000, Bogotá 14/100,000, Cartagena and Medellin 23/100,000, Barranquilla 20.2/100,000.
According to USA Today in 2019, US had 5 of the 50 deadliest cities. Colombia had 2.