It is Sunday evening , and I have been washing. Actually my girlfriend was supposed to wash this week, but she is studying for an exam, so I ended up in front of the washing machine. It is located in the basement, where we share it with all the other flats in the building. I can still remember how surprised my Bulgarian fiancée was about this collectivist system, and how awkward it was for her in the beginning to share washing machines with people she didn't know. But once you get used to it, the system has almost only good sides. You get to use two king size washing machines and can wash and dry your clothes without ever spending a cent, not even on the elecricity bill. The best part is that when the washing machine eventually breaks down, a janitor comes over to fix it.
I haven't only been doing houshold work this weekend, though. Yesterday I got my hands on the 2008 edition of the Economist's Pocket World in Figures on a flea market. It is a handy little book that shows a snapshot of how the world looked 2 years ago. Did you for example know that Sweden is on the world's 15th biggest wine consumer if you count litres per head. We consume two litres more every year year than Spaniards do. Or did you know that Bulgarians drink about five litres more beer per year than us nordic vikings? That's trivia, of course, but it does question your prejudices about the world.
Or is it the Bulgarians who withhold wine consumption from the Economist's eye? What about the rivers of homemade wine and rakija that flows on the countryside? As far as statistics of consumption go, what isn't sold doesn't exist. I suspect that also in Spain a litre or two evades the GDP statistics, and maybe Swede's ranking is exaggerated - the one thing we lack up here is homemade wine.
Statistics is just a civilized way of lying, but I trust the Economist as much as anyone. Hopefully these numbers say at least something about human life, and even if the book is two years old, the most fundamental trend in today's world should be visible.
What strikes me as I browse through the pages, is the difference between Europe and the rest of the world. My blogging has always focused on the gap between the western and eastern part of our continent, but when it really gets down to it, we sit in the same boat.
Demografically, Europe stands out. Not one European country is among the top 47 fastest growing populations. These 47 are all found in the developing world, and most of them are also found on the list of lowest purchasing power.
On the contrary, all top 15 countries with the slowest growing populations are European. Among the top 46, there are 10 non-european countries. Most of these are very small ( like Barbados, Virgin Islands, Aruba etc...), but we aslo find Japan and ironically South Corea right ahead of North Corea. Given than Cuba is also on this list, socialism seems to be bad for the birth rates. I guess some would argue that Euope is also relatively socialist, with an enormous public sector compared to the rest of the world.
European populations hardly grow, and we live with space between each other - European countries have the smallest hoseholds and we are neither very urbanized , nor very rural. Belgium is the world 10th most urbanized country, but more people live in cities in Venezuela and in Argentina than in the UK. Young people in Sweden often complain about how hard it is to find a flat - just imagine what it is like in a city like Valencia, Venezuela where the population was projected to increase with 4.64 % between 2005 and 2010?
And we are rich. We have huge incomes, and the cost of living are high in Europe, also compared with rich non-european states. Living in Russia is slightly more expensive than living in the USA, and twice as expensive as living in Argentina.
The comparison with other rich countries is a acutally quite favourable for Europe. We score reasonably well on innovation, live long, put less people in jail, commit fewer murders and take better care of our children than comparable states. The US GDP per head is more than three times bigger than the Czech Republic's, but in spite of this an American child is more likely to grow up in poverty than a Czech.
But wealth and poverty are elusive concepts. A number of indexes try to give a more nuanced picture than the GDP numbers that we all love to hate. The Economist measures the numbers of TVs, computers, CD players and mobile telephone subscribtions per household. The more the better.
This is were I start to think about today's washing, and the home made Bulgarian wine. If somene ventured to make an idex of washing machines per household, which doesn't seem any less reasonable than CD players per households, Sweden would probably rank surprisingly low. I don't know any Bulgarian or Moldovan who lives without a private washing machine, even though I know that some people do. Personally I have never owned one. Why should I, when I can use on for free?
And what about the computer I am writing this on? A friend of mine gave it to me, practically for free. That is not a very uncommon way to get hold of a computer, but all such transactions go uncounted. As will the book I bought on a flea market...
Unlike washing machine owners, I have never had to repair mine. I do pay my taxes, but no VAT was paied whn I bough my computer. Many of the best books I own come from flea markets and second hand shops. Sometimes less is more, but in the Economist's world of figures, less consumption inevitably looks like poverty.
Nontheless, trivia is ever fascinating. Can anyone tell me why norwegians spend almost twice as much money on music as swedes do?
Sources: All data in this post are taken either from personal experience, or the Economist World in Figures 2008