Quality of Life, Political Economy, and Ethnocentrism

A CNN article caused an uproar in the Georgiasphere because it listed Tbilisi as an example of one of the world’s worst cities. This list was based on the Mercer “Quality of Living” survey which rates 221 cities based on the quality of life in those cities. Tbilisi comes in at #213 out of 221, just below Kinshasa, DRC.

The article was a piece of travel fluff, that did not offer any real depth on any of the cities it featured. It didn’t talk about what the criteria were for inclusion on the list, other than being at the bottom of the Mercer survey, which is also quite opaque. We don’t know which cities are on the Mercer survey or how the different factors are weighted. It seems like there are probably more than 221 cities in the world, so clearly some cities must have been left out, so maybe the article was talking about cities of a certain size or regional prominence.

Certainly Kutaisi must have been left off the list. Kutaisi is equal to or worse than Tbilisi in every single domain listed under Mercer’s criteria (.pdf); for instance, while Tbilisi has water for an average of at least 21 hours per day, Kutaisi averages about four and a half. Kutaisi is also much smaller than Tbilisi, and not a capital. I’m sure Batumi would also fare poorly on the survey, were it included.

So CNN has somewhat misrepresented Mercer’s list, the bottom of which does not constitute the world’s worst cities, but rather the worst cities among the 221 cities surveyed each of which was selected on some unknown basis. Since Mercer does not allow the list to be published in its entirety it is hard to know which cities Tbilisi is even being compared to. Still, some Georgians have taken umbrage that Tbilisi is ranked below Kinshasa, and I get it. Tbilisi is not one of the worst cities in the world – certainly not the eighth worst – and it probably doesn’t belong amongst cities that are war-torn or exceptionally violent.

But what’s really interesting to me is how people conceive of “quality of life” (or “quality of living”, as Mercer calls it). To wit, does having running water for 21 hours a day really make your “quality of living” worse than that of someone who has running water for 24 hours a day? I feel like I’m happier, on average, in Kutaisi, even with my daily four-five hour shower and laundry window, than I was in Tbilisi, and I was happier in Tbilisi than I was in New York, where I could shower for hours at a time in the world’s most famous and delicious tap water, treating myself to a luxury only a tiny fraction of the population of the world has ever been able to access.

In fact, if you buy the argument that modern conveniences make us less happy – by isolating us from others, wrapping us up in consumerism and keeping-up-with-the-Jonesesism, and eroding our tolerance for annoyance – then you might as well invert that Mercer list. By that standard Tbilisi is the eighth best city in the world, tied with Nouakchott, Mauritania, the idyllic beachfront Burning Man of the Sahara.

In all seriousness, though, the idea of quality of living is problematic in that it sort of implies that some lives are of very high quality and others are of very low quality, which in turn leads to dangerous modes of thought regarding the value of human life – for instance, the idea that American lives are worth much more than foreign lives. This idea is rarely if ever spoken but it underlies American foreign policy across the political spectrum. The current drone controversy and the White House response both take as a given that using drones against Americans on American soil is qualitatively and pragmatically different than using drones against people in Yemen or Pakistan.

And along comes Mercer, with its survey tying the quality of living – and by extension the value of human life – to plumbing. It reflects our attitudes, though, doesn’t it? Don’t we Westerners have a deep and widespread superiority complex, compared to people throughout history or people in the third world? Don’t we view our lifestyle as part of that superiority?

The Mercer survey is brutally accurate and completely ethnocentric. It is a mirror that reflects our values, and the cities in it are the medium. They’re not what we’re looking at; they’re what we’re looking with.

The highest ranked city in the Mercer survey was Vienna. It’s almost certainly not true that, all other things being equal, every single human being on Earth would prefer to live in Vienna. I’m sure Vienna’s quite nice – it’s not the answer that’s absurd, but the question. Strip away everything about a person that individuates them – friends, family, culture, life experiences – and you don’t get a person who wants to live in Vienna. You get a non-person.

This is the exact same problem that renders Rawls’ Original Position dangerous and nonsensical – the idea that we could have a set of preferences absent identity. Our identity defines our preferences and our values, and so the supposed “absence” of identity is an illusion – it’s really just a trick to sneak the default identity back in under the guise of objectivity. “Of course any person, objectively speaking, would choose 24 hours of running water over 21 hours.” You’re begging the question.

Modern conveniences have a cost, and it’s not for free that the most livable cities in the world provide uninterrupted utilities and first-class public goods and services to their residents. Their wealth is often predicated on someone else’s poverty. If Austrians got paid for an hour of work what Georgians get paid for an hour of work, everyone in Vienna would be homeless. This is not to say that the Viennese are responsible for the inconveniences faced in Tbilisi, but rather that the world economy is arranged a certain way and the imbalances in that economy did not get there by accident and the relationship between those imbalances and the Mercer criteria is telling.

The cost of living in a “liveable” city is participation in the political economy that creates the Kinshasas, the Baghdads, the Kabuls of the world. The cost is making allowances in your culture for capitalism, for the Western values that come in along with Western medicine and Western preferences for animals to be kept out of the streets and Western thirst for a wide variety of consumer products. Does everyone in the world want to pay those costs? Should they?

This construction of the Western view as the default view – along with the attendant ignorance of the real costs of living in a city with the Eurocentric stamp of approval – is often fairly offensive to non-Westerners. On the other hand, inasmuch as the Mercer survey is intended to inform Europeans how European a place is, it does its job reasonably well. Like I said: brutally accurate, and completely ethnocentric.

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5 Responses to Quality of Life, Political Economy, and Ethnocentrism

  1. tcjogden69 says:

    My problem with things like this isn’t often the things they’re saying – it’s usually the way in which they’re said. I’m not sure if the United States is as ridiculously politically correct as Britain these days (Republicans say it is, but I’ll believe them when Hell goes cold) but it’s quite common in our country right now to portray a negative stereotype of Eastern Europe while glorifying Middle Eastern and Asian countries. If you’re not British you’re typically not attuned to this at all, so you’ll just have to take my word for it, but it’s perfectly common within organisations like the BBC to deride Russia and former Soviet states while managing to say nothing good about them, and at the same time glorifying say, Pakistan, and failing to mention the extensive issues that country has. It’s very upsetting when I see ignorant British people (who constitute a worryingly high percentage of our population in my experience) making offensive comments about Eastern Europe and Georgia, and they get all the wrong ideas from things like this CNN nonsense. Ne’ermind, it is what it is, and perceptions aren’t likely to change in the near future, but there we go. Hit me up when you’re back in Tbilisi next.

  2. PhilT says:

    It has been our experience in visiting Tbilisi a few times that some form of gastro-intestinal difficulties are inevitable. “having running water for 21 hours a day” is almost certainly part of that problem with stagnation, backflow and inward leakage.

  3. Pingback: Dollars and Laris | Georgia On My Mind

  4. Irek says:

    Just by the way, did you know the font’s name you’re writing with is “georgia”? (according to Microsoft Word) πŸ˜€
    I used some excerpts from your blog to prepare my speach for the Cultural Studies classes, hope you don’t mind πŸ˜›
    PS Just about two weeks ago I bought tickets to Kutaisi, it’ll be my first time in Georgia, can’t wait till May πŸ™‚

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