October 26, 1997
When thinking of our insular Swiss friends, what comes to mind are beautiful mountains, sweet chocolate, expensive watches, famed--though windy--neutrality, gold from illegitimate and dubious provenance, and banking institutions rooted in a cloud of secrecy that have fostered generations of tax evaders and money launderers. But times are changing and the Swiss banks, in an attempt to reclaim a long-lost Calvinist moral virginity, have entered the business of consulting and economics trend-setting that is so in vogue in our Washington think-tanks and New York investment banks.
One institution, the Union Bank of Switzerland (UBS), embarked on a far-reaching statistical study in fifty-six cities around the world where they polled twenty thousand individuals to find out how much work time it takes to afford a hamburger. Swans did not know at the time of publication whether the study had been commissioned by McDonald's or by the Association of Beef Producers. Nevertheless, the results are telling. Here are a few examples:
It takes 9 minutes of work to buy a hamburger in Chicago and Houston. Thirty-three percent more time in New York and Toronto, that is, 12 minutes. In Paris, France, and Brussels, Belgium, 21 minutes. Twenty-four minutes in Singapore; 38 in Buenos Aires, Argentina; 53 in Warsaw, Poland; 59 in Bogota, Bolivia; 1 hour and 41 minutes in Moscow, Russia; 1 hour and 43 minutes in Jakarta, Indonesia; 1 hour and 57 minutes in Caracas, Venezuela and 3 hours in Nairobi, Kenya.
According to UBS, the price of a hamburger was chosen to compare the cost of living around the world because it is a food product that is almost identical in quality and contents everywhere. Depending on where you live, a hamburger's worth is between nine and 180 minutes. But what about its value? The French publicly pooh-pooh hamburgers and would rather spend their twenty-one minutes on a glass of cabernet (no doubt it is the tourists who are keeping McDonald's in business). Most Kenyans probably have to travel three hours just to find a hamburger, and by then their work day is shot. But in the U.S., nine minutes is nothing. Most Americans waste more than that every day, and would gladly work all day for the sake of a hamburger. However, with the change to Standard Time, New Yorkers will lose 5 hamburgers today, no matter how hard they work.
So, now you know -- and don't forget to reset your Swiss watch!