Our Knowledge of the World and the World’s Knowledge of Us

By Harry Sit

I chatted with a visitor from France last week. We were talking about the fuel efficiency of our cars. Here in the United States the fuel efficiency is measured in miles per gallon (mpg). The higher the mpg, the more fuel efficient a car is. In Europe, it’s measured in liters per 100 kilometers (L/100 km). The lower the number, the more fuel efficient a car is. He told me a good car in Europe consumes 6.5 – 7 liters per 100 km. How does that translate into miles per gallon? It turns out the relationship between the two measures is

miles per gallon * liters per 100 kilometers = 235

So 6.5 liters per 100 kilometers is 235 / 6.5 = 36 mpg. 7 liters per 100 kilometers is 235 / 7 = 34 mpg. That’s pretty good. My car gets 25 miles per gallon. That’s 235 / 25 = 9.4 liters per 100 kilometers. It uses almost 50% more gas than a good car in Europe.

On a side note, this French guy knows a lot more about the U.S. than I know about France. First off he speaks English with a French accent, but I don’t speak French at all, although I’ve been to France just like he’s here in the U.S. He knows about McCain and Obama, and even who their running mates are. He knows about Wal-Mart, the IRS, and America’s subprime problem. He even knows about Michael Moore.

I don’t know what to make of this. Is this French guy just special or do people in the world in general know more about the United States than Americans know about the world? I think it’s the latter. Why is that? Do Americans do a better job marketing “the American way” to the rest of the world or are Americans simply more internally focused?

Some quiz questions for you, dear readers. See how many questions you can answer without Googling.

1. Nicolas Sarkozy, Gordon Brown and Angela Merkel are the heads of state in Europe. Who are their right hand men/women?

2. What’s the name of a major chain store in France, UK or Germany like Wal-Mart in the U.S.?

3. What’s the name of the taxing authority in those countries?

4. Is there an equivalent to Michael Moore in Europe?

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7 Comments on Our Knowledge of the World and the World’s Knowledge of Us

1. MSJW on September 15, 2008

Couple of things…

First, there is very good logic for reporting fuel efficiency as volume of fuel/distance as opposed distance/volume of fuel. For an explication of these reasons see http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/06/080619142118.htm which discusses the Duke Business School Study.

Second, clearly you didn’t get the memo that despite being involved in everyones business Americans don’t really care about other peoples lives. All we know is that it is different, and different is bad. Being a true American (something that is not always laudable), I have no idea what the answers to your questions are. But here is a question in return, “What would be different if the average American did know the answers to your questions?”

2. Naz on September 16, 2008

I’m from Australia and know the answers to some of your questions – I also know all of those things about America that you mention. I experience this phenomenon quite a bit because we get quite a few American’s moving to Australia to at my workplace. To answer the previous comment, American’s knowing more about other places may make them question the way things are done, and see that some things they may not thing are practical actually are. For instance, some examples from Australia:
- voting is compulsory (you can postal vote, or you get fined, or have to go to some effort to prove you couldn’t vote otherwise)
- most university (sorry college) courses are ‘free’ i.e. you get an interest free loan automatically from the government, and in return, when you are earning money (approx > \$30000 p.a.), the government takes extra money when they take tax until the loan is repaid
- i can go to the doctor whenever i want for free – no employment/insurance necessary
etc.

3. simplesimon on September 16, 2008

I was born and raised in the USA and don’t know the answers to any of your questions. I agree with MSJW that I don’t think most Americans really care to know what happens outside our borders. But I also think that American news is a lot more prevalent in other countries than their news is for us. I know in Taiwan you can get CNN pretty cheaply in a basic television package and their newspapers have much larger international sections relative to American newspapers. @Naz, is this the same case for Australia? I’m going to China in a couple weeks, so I’ll see what it’s like there, but I have a feeling I won’t see much stuff about the USA.

4. Ted on September 16, 2008

1. Don’t know what country those people are from.
2. IKEA?
3. La Cosa Nostra?
4. Thankfully, this world is big enough for only one Michael Moore.

I think the Frenchman is the exception and not the rule.

I would guess 80% of Americans couldn’t name both of their Senators and their House Rep. They probably couldn’t name more than 2 cabinet members either. The same group could probably tell you the past 3 winners of American Idol, however.

5. James on September 18, 2008

I don’t think that Frenchman was an exception case. When I was living in Canada, I know a lot more about world affairs, just by listened to the news and followed the newspapers. Now that I am in the US long enough, I have no clue to the answers of your questions. Should we know/care about the answers to those questions? Probably not those exact questions. But I assume that when TFB asked them, he/she tried to exposed a much broader issue. And I agreed that in the US, Americans are a lot more internally focus. The news cables carried news that are sensational/pop/US centric. Others don’t sell well. How many people actually read Econonomist for fun? Who can name the judges on the Supreme court?

6. Oops on September 19, 2008

Sarkozy does not seem to have a “right-hand man”. There are a few names which sometimes come up alongside his, such as Francois Fillon, the Prime Minister, and Rachida Dati (the Minister of Justice, and perhaps a “right-hand woman”).

The closest thing to Wal-Mart that I’ve seen in France is Auchan: http://www.auchan.fr/index.jsp

7. Christian Murphy on September 28, 2008

1. Apples and oranges. In the US the vice president is an official running mate and appears on the ballot as part of the package. You don’t typically get package deals in parliamentary systems. And there’s certainly no designated successor in the way that a VP is in the US. I could name some cabinet ministers, such as Alistair Darling in Britain or Franz-Walter Steinmeier in Germany (actually, I’m not even sure if he’s still i the cabinet), but they’re in no way comparable to a VP — much more equivalent to a Hank Paulson.

2. This one’s easy. Carrefour, Tesco and Aldi or Lidl.

3. I only know two of the taxing authorities: the Inland Revenue in the U.K. and the Finanzamt in Germany.

4. I don’t think there is currently an equivalent of Michael Moore. Certainly there were enfants terribles in the 60s and the 70s. Some of them are film makers and playwrights who had Marxist sympathies who would probably be far too left wing for Michael Moore’s taste. I’d agree that his brand of troublemaking is his own.

I have an unfair advantage in this quiz because I’m from Europe. I couldn’t name Shinzo Abe’s successor or the leader of the biggest opposition party in Japan. I can’t spell the names of bigwigs in the Chinese Communist Party nor do I know the name of any ministers in Manmohan Singh’s cabinet in India.

I think part of the deal is that none of these countries is as big economically. The US is an important importer from all of them. It’s natural to take an interest in your big customers and to think of their ability to keep buying.