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America for the Americans, Europe for the Europeans


Bryan Caplan on what American and European tourists get wrong:

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.

2. Most of the Europeans who are lucky enough to live in the premiere cities can't afford to frequently eat in the nice restaurants that delight foreign visitors.

3.  "Efficient public transportation" and bicycles may seem great to a tourist who eats in restaurants.  They're not so great if you're a local who needs to get groceries home to make dinner.  In bad weather, subways and bikes are downright awful.

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.

2. However, very few Americans live in such cities - even if they can easily afford to.  Why not?  Because the natural habitat of the American - including most affluent Americans - is the suburb.

It's easy to see why tourists don't go to the suburbs, because they're places to live and work, not places to see.  But almost no one in Europe lives in places as comfortable and convenient as American suburbs: The houses are spacious, the cars are huge, cheap Big Box stores and chain restaurants are nearby, and (to quote South Park) there's "ample parking day or night."  Europeans can learn a lot more about the American psyche with a visit to a random CostCo than a visit to the Guggenheim.


Europe is a better place for most people to visit.  But America is a better place for most people to live.

Consider this a riposte to Don Alphonso's dyspeptic mutterings (g). You might be expecting me to take issue with Caplan's points, but my response is mixed. (Caplan, by the way, defends himself against accusations of 'USA #1' jingoism in the post, and I believe him).

My preferences are clear: I've lived in the American suburbs and in European cities, and I prefer the latter. By a mile. But what Caplan is missing is the cultural preferences of Americans and Europeans. American suburbs might well be a better place for Americans to live, but transplant Europeans there, and many of them will be miserable, despite all that comfort and convenience. I am sometimes asked to consult with Europeans who are being relocated to places like Houston, Texas. I can usually tell within about 5 minutes whether that person's likely to adjust successfully to life in the American suburbs. Engineers and computer programmers and the like have no problems; in fact, they'll often beg to be allowed to stay. Nothing like having your own gigantic, cheap house, as many power tools as you want, and your own private pool whose chemicals you can adjust to your heart's content. Plus, Americans are task-oriented, unstuffy workers who are easy to deal with. Sure, there is less of a social safety net in the U.S., but these people don't care too much about that, since they have valuable job skills and will always get good benefits from their employers.

For Europeans of a less practical bent, though, the American suburbs are sterile, dull places. There are no cafes, no street life, no festivals just around the corner, no neighborhood bars, no beautifully-landscaped parks, no arthouse cinemas within walking distance -- in fact, no walking at all worthy of the name. In the vast stretches of America which are located in sub-tropical or desert climates, you will live 7 or 8 months of the year going from one sealed cubicle filled with artificial air to the next. The general cultural level of suburban Americans will strike these Europeans as desperately low. They are unlikely to meet very many people who have been well-traveled, know how to prepare a proper salad, or know the difference between a symphony and a concerto. (I remember an anecdote about Philippe de Montebello, once Director of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, who said one of the things that irritated him about working there was all the museum visitors who put their cigarettes out in what was clearly a piece of modern sculpture right outside the front entrance.) Needless to say, these Europeans will regard the committee-produced gooey, salty offerings of American 'chain restaurants' as unfit for consumption by goats, much less humans. They will not perceive the suburbs as comfortable and convenient because maximizing comfort and convenience has never been a part of their world-view.

The same thing goes for Americans who live in Europe. No doubt most Americans would find much to object to in living in a Plattenbausiedlung (public-housing project) in Rostock or in a Parisian banlieue. But that's not where most of them are going to end up. As to how they see European cities -- once again, a lot depends on temperament. A highly practical American who values "comfort and convenience" above all is going to find those things in short supply in most European cities. You'll find these people bitching and moaning -- usually in English -- at various Irish bars. But then again, many Americans who relocate to Europe do so voluntarily, precisely because it's Europe. They want the safe, lively parks and neighborhoods, the 120-year-old cafes, the Gothic cathedrals, restaurants which reflect the chef's personality and no-one else's, the fine regional orchestras, art-house cinemas and the gleaming, sophisticated museums. To them, not having to own a car is a kind of liberation.

However, cultures being what they are, most Americans are going to be happier in America, since they've absorbed American priorities and attitudes, and the same goes for Europeans. In fact, the very idea of measuring quality of life primarily by 'comfort and convenience' will seem -- to many non-Americans -- hopelessly American. Once you take into account these limitations, it's difficult to make any sort of meaningful cross-cultural comparisons.