I just spent a couple weeks in an advanced nation -- France. In Paris, the thousands (if not tens of thousands) of small businesses were thriving. Every night, it seemed that every cafe was packed, despite the $6 coffees and $13 beers. The little gift stores, the specialty stores (including one that sold only one brand of perfume), the local cheese stores, the bakeries, all seemed to be full of customers. In the department stores, expensive clothes were not on sale but were certainly being bought. In the pharmacies, you saw American brands side by side with French brands, and often the American brands were cheaper. Starbucks and MacDonalds were there too, and seemed to be doing well. In the outskirts of Paris, where things are somewhat cheaper, you could find American goods for sale just as her you can find Chinese goods for sale here. The good French kitchen tools are far more expensive than the less durable American and Chinese ones. At least the subway (which is terrific) is cheaper--$1.70 a ticket. A cheap lunch cost around $25/head and dinner typically cost (for 3 of us) around $150, though at a better (not gourmet) restaurant it was easy to spend $300, and none of us had more than a beer. Since we were traveling with a friend, we rented an apartment in a very nice area of Paris for $400 night. Based on real estate ads we saw, the apartment would sell for about $1.2 million here. It had 2 bedrooms and was 540 sq. feet in a building without an elevator. Clearly, despite France's socialism, there are many very wealthy people. But, Paris, specifically, also does something right. Since at least the 16th century, the French have taken pride in this city, so it has a long history of cultural pride. Museums like the Louvre and D'Orsay house paintings familiar to us all, and the city abounds with incredible architecture and parks. The conservative Chirac built an amazing museum (the Branly) that does justice to the art of native Africa, Oceania, South America, North America, etc.. The museum is a masterpiece in every way, and would probably even make museum-going a good experience for the narrow minded. The fact is that these museums are all packed, and one could easily wait on a line for an hour for the major museums. Given that entrance fees to most of the museums are between $10 and $24 makes the crowds even more impressive. Throughout Paris, every morning thousands of workmen in their bright green uniforms scrub down the streets and every day thousands more of these government workers carefully prune and plant in public gardens, where the flower beds are enormous and perfect. Of course, all this effort in their culture not only makes Paris perhaps the most beautiful city in the world, it brings in 20 million visitors, which must equate to at least $20 billion of revenue (and probably much more), so the French understand the economic value of showing their patriotism by celebrating their culture even with tax dollars. But, Parisian culture is also about pride in one's work. The waitstaff is seldom friendly, but they are professional, and do not appreciate it if you hand them your dish. They would rather reach for it. They are not even motivated by tips, which are included in the price (though it's polite to leave an extra dollar or two for good service). It's also striking how France continues to celebrate the intellectual. Throughout Paris there are monuments to famous thinkers, while those of war heroes tend to be obscured by brush or certainly off the beaten path. Artists too get top billing, while politicians, unlike here in the US, are rarely honored. And if naked sculpture is a turn on, Paris is the place to be where on so many buildings and in so many parks Greek and Roman symbols of water, fire, learning, justice, figure prominently. All this in a country where people retire at age 60, get 5 weeks of vacation, get national health care, and has very few labor unions (French unions tend to be more associated with conservatives, such as farmers, who periodically block major highways by dumping manure on them). Sure, Paris has its extremes. Like the US it has some real poverty and some bad neighborhoods and social problems, but they are more aggressive than us. For instance, Paris is consistent in its separation between church and state (in the 17th century, when Louis IV entered the Versailles church, the nobles would bow down to him with their back to Jesus, while he would bow down to Jesus), and recently passed a law making public prayer illegal (after Muslims would take to blocking streets with group prayer sessions). I don't know if Paris is anymore successful than we are with its social problems, but it still has far less crime than most American cities (though watch out for pickpockets). That said, lack of government regulation has resulted in Paris being very polluted. By the tenth day, my throat hurt from all the smog, and despite a great subway system, public bicycle paths, and the fact that Paris is a great walking city, it is crammed with traffic, often older cars polluting the air. If I ever decide to retire, I'll retire to Paris, and keep a second home in Boston. By the time I retire, I imagine that there's a good chance that libertarian racism will be legalized so that we are more segregated, the minimum wage will be gone so the poor are more desperate, tax cuts will make our schools even worse so that people are not learning English or the American way of life, and the middle class will be increasingly worried about crime, until they reach old age when they enter the ranks of the poor. (Speaking of the military, it was interesting to see around 9/11 that at some high profile sites, including the airport, there were French troops in uniform patrolling with what looked like machine guns.) That said, France, like the US and other countries, faces serious economic problems, so it remains to be seen how this plays out. Will France continue to be able to offer its citizens first world benefits? Or will it become more of a third world nation like the US, with a shrinking middle class, fewer government services, and an increasingly dramatic divide between the poor and rich?