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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.


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Sharon J.

I think there are some over-generalizations going on here about Americans, but as an American, I have to admit that some of your contentions are true, unfortunately.


I see I'm a few years late to this thread but the topic is evergreen..
I'd love to live in a European downtown, at least for a few years. But I live in suburban America. Why? Because I've tried to raise my kids in urban America and it didn't work out. I give anyone who tries to raise kids in a European downtown credit; it must take a lot of work.

I enjoyed mawu's comment. I would add only that a.) western Europeans might try reading fewer newspapers and get outside more, and b.) say what you want about Mist, but it makes great fertilizer.


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.

We used to have that in America (minus the cathedrals) before the blight that swept around the country in the 1950s. We still have that in a few corners here and there.

And we will have that again.


Here's a link to Caplan's original article and some interesting comments:


Obviously, what's "comfortable and convenient" depends on the respective POV as well! What's comfortable about having no public transport at all and no baker with edible goods around the corner? Apart form lack of parking I don't really see where an average Mittelschicht European lacks conveniences. But then the criterion becomes rather uninformative, doesn't it?
Also, the persons who are in the position to compare the countries even as tourists are a probably non-representative subset of the populace.
My impression (as exchange student in my twenties (1995/96, Seattle) and a tourist then and later) was mostly of the coasts and bigger cities and doesn't square well with Caplan's characterization of the impressions of European tourists. IMO these tourists usually get a rather favorable impression of the US (and so did I, mostly), because they do not visit the suburbs or the "hoods" and go to rural places only if there's a national park around the corner. Of course this is true vice versa. But in rural Germany you are rarely really far away from a medium-sized city which will offer moderate, but decent cultural options.
(and of course health insurance...)



Excellent points.
Thanks for taking the time.

Andrew, I appreciate your view about us Europeans. But unfortunately I think the reason is that you are an academic and apparently are surrounded by a lot of very sophisticated friends and colleagues.

A lot of Americans live in the suburbs but I fear the percentage of Europeans who appreciate fine regional orchestras and visit art-house cinemas or sophisticated museums on a regular basis is not very high - probably not much higher then the percentage of Americans who have such a rich cultural live.


Here's the best response I've found so far over at the F.A.Z. blog, from commenter "mawu":

mawu 22. August 2009, 12:09

Don Alphonso, so ganz verstehe ich Sie und andere Teilnehmer dieses Blogs nicht. Auch ich fühle mich durch und durch als Europäer und auch irgendwie kulturell überlegen. Das hindert mich aber absolut nicht daran, die USA. zu respektieren. In Europa, vielleicht auch speziell in Deutschland, hatten wir immer ein sehr einseitiges Bild der Amerikaner: entweder ist dort alles "besser", wie es bis in die 80er Jahre empfunden wurde - oder alles ist "Mist", wie es derzeit empfunden wird. Vermutlich ist das die Korrektur zur ersten Phase und das Ergebnis unserer eigenen Emanzipation gegenüber den USA.

Natürlich hat jede Nation ihre Vor- und Nachteile, und ich bin gegenüber den USA absolut nicht kritiklos, ganz im Gegenteil. Trotzdem mag ich die Amerikaner und sie mögen uns auch: wohin man auch kommt sind die Leute freundlich, aufgeschlossen, begeistert davon, daß man aus Europa oder Deutschland zu ihnen kommt und voll des Lobes, sollten sie mal bei uns zu Besuch gewesen sein. Warum also immer so böse? Man kann doch auch sachlich spezifische Punkte kritisieren, davon gäbe es bei uns auch genügend.

I've been listening to these types of debates among Germans about America for twenty-five years now, even since I first lived there in 1985. Mawu nicely captures the "besser/Mist" duality that will never be completely eradicated from German discourse on the USA. Part of it reflects a long and deep-seated tradition of German complaining and another part reflects German insecurity when confronted with America and Americans. Either way, it's not pretty.

Cultures that are more confident do not do this. You won't find Chinese, for example, ragging on about Americans the same way, nor the Japanese. And Americans themselves don't even really think about the Germans. If the average American knew how much time Germans spent dissecting and sneering at their reductive Hamburger-Hollywood version of America, they would just shake their head and laugh. The most common response would be, "Jesus, Germans, get a fricking life already. We live in different countries that have different cultures, different values, and different traditions. So what?"



Very true statements! I agree with you.
You forgot to mention another aspect. Whereas most Americans will use their free time for activities like hunting,fishing, water skiing, plane flying, parachuting, and many more, the European will mostly be dining, walking or gardening, when not reading/hearing news. Therefore he feels politically (over-)informed,causing bitching and moaning in a hardly really lived state of happiness. Americans live to play and Europeans live to contemplate on problems they should not have.

Karl Ostendorf

"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."

I love it! Thank you.

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