Bryan Caplan has a thought-provoking post that the reason Americans and Europeans misunderstand each other stems from the difference between experiencing another country as a tourist and as a resident.
Where American tourists go wrong:
1. In European countries, historic downtowns of the premiere cities like Paris or Stockholm are by far the best places to live. Most people in Europe don’t live in these areas, and can’t afford to…
Where European tourists go wrong:
1. They usually visit the most European places in the U.S. – especially New York City and San Francisco. Since NYC and SF are basically uglier, scarier versions of the premiere European cities, it’s natural for tourists to go home with a negative impression.
It’s a nice way to look at the world, and a good reminder to assess assumptions. I’m just not sure it’s terribly accurate.
Let’s start with the stuff that is clearly true. Europe’s flagship cities have more to enchant the tourist than do America’s. We do not have a single city that is comparable in aesthetic beauty to central Paris or Rome; it takes a long time to build great cities, and in general we are too young, too enamored of private property rights, and too focused on private returns to build to last. And some of it is probably luck; Haussmann just had better taste than Robert Moses. We have also never had a true center of mass; we have a variety of capitals – Boston/education, NY/finance and print media, DC/politics, Chicago/food, packaged goods, manufacturing, Houston/energy, LA/film, SF/tech – which is moderately similar to Germany but quite different from most other northern European countries.
However, there is something a bit inconsistent with pointing out that a tiny minority of Europeans live in central Paris or Rome while asserting that European visitors to NY or SF must be making a comparison to the grand cities of Europe. If you are coming from Copenhagen or Geneva or London, you should find NY quite compelling. Indeed, if London is a benchmark, NY is safer. I assume most tourists have a general idea what they are getting into; frustration and disappointment come when something they take for granted is not there. I have never heard a foreigner complain about the noise of NY or the cold of Chicago or the mosquitoes of Miami – frequent complains of residents – but I have often heard about America’s poor cell phone reception and Byzantine alcohol laws.
In a larger sense, though, the question is: so what? I agree with Bryan’s assertion that Americans are a suburban people, and that our lifestyle choices are different from those of many Europeans who travel here. Perhaps American cities just aren’t fun places to visit; like China and Japan (courtesy of Mao and Curtis LeMay, respectively), there may not be enough to see. The typical American suburb – tracts of quarter-acre lots on subdivided cul-de-sacs geographically separated from a commercial four-lane road with strip malls on each side emblazoned with nationally advertised chain retailers – is different from its European equivalent – concentric rings of dense retail, medium-density housing, small farms, and somewhere by the freeway a hard-discounter that makes Sam’s Club look like a Madison Avenue boutique.
Few people are suggesting we live like Europeans. I would hope that more people, however, would ask what good ideas the Europeans have that we are missing, and see if it is possible to incorporate those ideas into our way of life. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to drive a Smart car in Phoenix, where every retailer has plenty of space for both SUVs and the fat asses of their drivers; for that matter, driving a Vespa in a land where driver’s licenses are government-issued Sweet Sixteen party favors is a pretty good way to get killed. We have hundreds of channels of television while Italian prime time consists of three channels of the same variety show with an well-dressed ancient man impersonating a prune and a few giggling girls. Dozens of our stadiums are better than anything Europe has to offer, and outside Philadelphia and Oakland the odds of fan-on-fan violence are vanishingly small. Our colleges are in beautiful park-like settings far from the homes of most of their students, with dorms and fight songs and fraternities; no point looking to commuter-dominated Europe. Most European airports offer a dedicated fast train to the center of town; it would be wasted on LAX and is long overdue for Kennedy and Newark.
The health care debate has highlighted the extent to which the view that “America is number one” has been taken as a literal statement that we must be the best at everything we do. Given that a huge percentage of the population honestly does not believe in evolution, perhaps that is to be expected, but it was not always this way. In the middle of the twentieth century we were willing to admit to ourselves that Germany had better physicists and rocket scientists; it was the necessary first step in deciding to steal theirs. We did not invent the automobile or the telephone, or for that matter old age pensions, but we adopted them into our lives.
Let’s celebrate the things we like about our country: the social acceptance of leaving your family’s hometown in rural Maine and heading for LA, the relative ease of business formation, the fact that there’s just so damn much land. And let’s bring in the good ideas of Europe – intervention in poorly-formed markets such as health care, Mediterranean food, Scandinavian-level ethics. Indeed, shop the entire world – Japanese quality, Indian and Jewish diaspora entrepreneurship, Australian camraderie. Conservatives lament the replacement of the melting pot with the salad bowl. Fine – but let’s make it the best alloy we can.