Touristic Bias: Why Americans Overrate Europe, and Europeans Underrate America
When Americans visit Europe, they see a lot to like: Charming boulevards, delicious food, and historic cities that feel safe. When Europeans visit the U.S., it’s not so pretty: While major American cities are impressive, their inhabitants can be more than a little scary even after the sharp decline in crime rates. From an American or European tourist’s point of view, Europe seems not just more aesthetic than the U.S., but more hospitable.
My thesis: On both sides of the Atlantic, tourists’ experiences are deeply misleading. The fact that a country is (or isn’t) a nice place to visit often tells you less than zero about whether you would want to live there.
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.
3. If you’re thinking, “That’s great for the middle class, but useless for the poor,” you’re mistaken. The American poor don’t live in McMansions or drive Hummers. But by European standards, they have plenty of living space. More importantly, they own cars, and can afford gas. (For more info, here‘s an updated version of a great chapter from Julian Simon’s edited volume The State of Humanity).
If you’re very wealthy, of course, you can re-create an American living standard in the heart of Europe. In fact, while Europe is a bad place to get rich, it is arguably the best place to be rich. Consider: in exchange for steep taxes and tolls, European motorists get the ability and de facto right to drive 100 miles per hour. If you’re in the top 5% of the American income distribution, that’s a pretty good deal. For Bill Gates, it’s a steal.
I suspect that most Europeans – and many Americans – will dismiss my arguments as typical American jingoism. But look at my anti-nationalist track record – for example here, here, here, and here. I am proud not to be a loyal American. Still, as a social scientist, I have to give credit where credit is due. Europe is a better place for most people to visit. But America is a better place for most people to live.
Aug 24 2009 at 10:10am
“Because the natural habitat of the American – including most affluent Americans – is the suburb.”
If I needed a reminder of why I am moving to London, here it is!
I do not disagree with the general point at all: lugging groceries home by foot sucks, and in general much of the beauty of Europe is only for the rich–and that segment is a much smaller proportion in Europe than in America.
Still, if you are a city-type (I was raised in NYC), the suburbs are just awful!
And in the city, even the poor do get: museums, house parties, the beauty and history of the architecture, parks, a variety of affordable ethnic foods and markets, free music shows, and a host of other major pluses, in addition to the culture and diversity of the city on its own. Plus whatever social services are offered free of charge (some of which are a plus, and some a minus).
The downside of this system (as it exists in Europe) is that the poor STAY poor because growth and mobility are destroyed. The upside is that you get a forever-unchanged feeling in the city (due to zoning laws and stagnation) and maybe you get a commune or something too.
Aug 24 2009 at 10:12am
100 miles per hour are legal in Germany and basically nowhere else. In Switzerland, you’ll be fined according to your income if you go to fast over the speed limit – and this can easily go into the tens of thousands of CHF (which are almost at parity with USD).
Aug 24 2009 at 10:30am
Just wanted to say that this article was highly entertaining 🙂
Aug 24 2009 at 10:34am
“while Europe is a bad place to get rich, it is arguably the best place to be rich”
So true! If I were a millionaire I’d move to Greece a live a wonderfully hedonistic life. But if you need to work the earn money, 700 euro a month (typical salary for a young person) doesn’t buy too many 4 euro coffees.
Aug 24 2009 at 10:39am
You left out one of he most European places in the U.S. — Washington D.C.
Aug 24 2009 at 10:39am
Many Europeans only wish to see America’s great parks like the Grand Canyon. Sure they might see some big cities, but from my experience, it is usually secondary to national parks.
Aug 24 2009 at 10:42am
As a Swede, I’m a bit puzzled about your views. We have about 500 cars per 1000 people and in my opinion, just about everybody who wants a car has a car, and does afford to drive it (our gas bills are about as big as yours). Also, you know, we have suburbs and Big Box stores too – not that many live downtown.
But sure, you do generally have more money. (Or rather, you get more value for your money – nominally, many European countries are ahead of you in GDP per capita.)
Aug 24 2009 at 10:43am
I used to live in the US; now I live in the UK. In terms of lugging groceries home by foot/bike – yes, I used to have to do this and it was really annoying. But then I discovered Tesco home delivery of groceries. I don’t think I could go back to going to a grocery store to get my groceries, even when I eventually do buy a car. And the crowded living conditions in Britain are what make home delivery of groceries economically feasible! (unlike Webvan)
Aug 24 2009 at 11:05am
You may be focusing too much on what a habituated American would find inconvenient about Europe, but not what would be comparably a more happy place to live for someone truly neutral. A biased sample perhaps, but nearly everyone I know, including myself, who has lived on both continents prefers Europe over the United States. And most of these friends, like myself, were graduate students, meaning that we were on stipends or grants, ie. quite poor. Just speaking on an anecdotal level, being a poor graduate student in Europe was a lot easier, and a lot more enjoyable, and a lot more convenient, than being a poor graduate student in the United States. The items you cite you as a comparable inconvenience are actually, to my experience, great benefits: yes, in Europe, I rode a bike to the grocery store, like nearly all my friends, and did not own a car, but it’s hard to find an apartment in a city like Berlin or Rotterdam or Cologne that is more than five blocks from a supermarket. And since they are so close, there is no need to stock up on a weeks supply of food, so one goes often, and with fewer grocries, riding a bike home with groceries is not a problem. And if you’re used to riding a bike, a brief trek through the rain or cold is not such a big deal, and only seems so to an American habituated to driving. Additionally, although no doubt because of inefficient state interference, produce and cheeses and milk are much cheaper (a kilo of tomatoes, if I remember correctly, was .75 eurocents in Berlin in 2005, when a pound was roughly $4 in New York in 2005)–affording fruits and vegetables was always cheaper in Europe. And yes, you have to be rich to live on St. Germain or in a swank area of Charlottenburg, but you overstate the case by implying that the benefits of a European city only accrue to those who do live in such areas. Just a little bit out in most of the major cities you’ll find pretty affordable housing with the same basic environmental amenities, only you’ll be going to local brasserie and not La Rotund–but really, same difference. Finally, I think you’re neglecting the costs of American abundance. The price of our large houses and large cars are longer commute times and longer hours worked. (I’m assuming–is this true? What is the data?). And allow me one final anecdotal observation: the highest price Americans pay for our lifestyle is in friendship. Comparing my friends in the United States who have wed and started families with similar cohorts I associated with in Europe, Americans sacrifice friendship and fun to a much, much larger degree. This puts a lot of strain on couples, because each spouse then has a much greater degree of responsibility for the entertainment and companion-needs of the other, because very often, the spouse ends up being the only friend you really spend time with (not me; i’m not married, i just mean in general). My friends in Europe with children would often meet up at parks, in bars, at each others houses, for drinks or meals or fun, with the kids, and this was in large part because a) they didn’t feel guilty doing that, b) they weren’t running their kids around to a billion afterschool activities, c) they didn’t have to deal with the hassle of strapping kids into carseats, and d) they actually had friends around who wanted to do the same thing. I know American couples who get out with friends maybe three or four times a year, and even then it is like a scheduled activity, not something that’s just part of normal routine. I knew no one like that in Europe.
Aug 24 2009 at 11:10am
“As a Swede, I’m a bit puzzled about your views. We have about 500 cars per 1000 people and in my opinion, just about everybody who wants a car has a car, and does afford to drive it (our gas bills are about as big as yours). Also, you know, we have suburbs and Big Box stores too – not that many live downtown.
But sure, you do generally have more money. (Or rather, you get more value for your money – nominally, many European countries are ahead of you in GDP per capita.)”
You may be right about Sweden but I don’t think you’re right about other places in Europe.
I live in Ireland. Here there are huge taxes on car ownership and on petrol. Most of the middle-class people I know own cars, but the poorer people I know don’t because it’s too expensive. In my experience the same is true of Britain at least in the cities.
There are strict laws against “Big Box” stores. In Ireland a supermarket can’t exceed a certain floorspace area.
You are right about suburbs though, most European cities are suburban just as American ones are.
Aug 24 2009 at 11:16am
I was faced with this choice last summer as my company wanted to move me from suburban Houston to Paris. I was facing a change to (maybe) half the square footage of living space, forget the other amenities like a backyard pool and a single family residence, even with substantial assistance. The wife & kids said they’d be thrilled to visit me there, but no way did anyone want to move. I work for a different company now.
Aug 24 2009 at 11:36am
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.
There is always a grocery store near enough to go by foot. People use public transportation for commuting.
Aug 24 2009 at 11:38am
You can’t compare the situation of being a student to being a normal person.
I was a student in England, where I’m from. I had a very, very low income. But of course that didn’t mean I was deprived in any way.
I could travel to my studies by walking, I went to the supermarket and the pub in the same way. I had very few possessions or costs.
However, this doesn’t relate much to the experience of others who do jobs and have families. To start with many jobs (unlike universities) are not in-town they are in out-of-town industrial estates and commercial malls. If you want to work in those places you often need to own an car. As I said earlier owning a car costs a *lot* of money.
Similarly, I lived in a tiny terraced house with two of my friends. It wouldn’t be big enough to bring up a family. It didn’t have a car parking space. To rent a house with a car parking space would cost much more.
My house was in a bad school catchment area, but what did I care, I had no children. A good catchment area would cost more.
What is more, if you want a reasonable sized house you can only get it for a low rent if you go to a bad area.
In my experience of Britain and Ireland Bryan is quite right – Europe sucks if you’re poor. It’s good of course if your on welfare, much better than the US.
Aug 24 2009 at 12:22pm
Of all places, Italy is the most idealized of places in the US. It’s a place where men are well dressed, food is great, and women are all above average. I lived there for 28 years, just 10 minutes away from the Vatican. I can tell you where to find all the Caravaggios in the city. I outrageously believe that a single stone of any of Borromini’s churches is worth all US’ architecture. Yes, I had a grocery store nearby. Free medical care. And rode a vespa. Incidentally, I lived also for a year in London.
I have been living in the US for 4 years. Suburbs of SFO, NYC, Houston. Is quality of life better in the US than in Italy? Without any doubt, yes.
To those who believe otherwise: do you your homework. Live more than ten years in Europe. Then we can talk. Paul Krugman extols the virtues of the 50s and of Europe. He was too young to remember the former, and never experienced first-hand the latter.
Aug 24 2009 at 12:24pm
I meant to write 14 years, not 4!
Aug 24 2009 at 12:26pm
As far as my European relatives go, both Irish and Austrian, they love to visit, but cannot wait to go home. What they say they miss is the feeling of being a part of soemthing, a local culture and identity. The Irish look forward to a walk to their local to talk with their neighbors over a pint. The Austrians feel the same way about a cafe. They think the houses and cars are nice, but to a tee they all stated that it feels a bit soulless and isolating. And very boring due to the prevalance of the chain restuarant that has destroyed local food customs. Applebees is Applebees in Colorada or Georgia, and neither is very appetizing.
Aug 24 2009 at 12:45pm
Let no one deceive themselves into thinking that American suburbs resulted from capitalism or liberty; they are socialist central planning at its worst. Army’s of European urban planners invaded the US in the late 19th century because we had many new and growing cities on which they practice their dark art. Americans were too gullible and enamored with European civilization to resist. Urban (socialist) planners invented zoning laws that forced housing, retail and industry into dull, homogenous ghettos with acres of grass around every major building. That made driving to grocery stores compulsory because the nearest one was required to be many miles from the housing. Then the state aided and abetted criminal central planners with Eisenhower’s centrally planned and financed highway explosion which destroyed public transportation and travel by rail.
If Europeans think the US is ugly, they have only themselves to blame. They sold us on central planning. Americans find old European cities charming and fun to visit because they are the opposite of our centrally planned disasters; they grew up organically meeting the needs of the citizens without the curse of socialist urban planners. Every major American city today is a doughnut with wealthy suburbs surrounding a black hole of poverty relieved by mocking skyscraper islands. Thanks, Europe!
Aug 24 2009 at 12:54pm
What Michael (on the family in Europe and America) and Joe (on Applebees vs. the local pub/cafe) say is precisely the point, and it is a point that Americans, but much more so, ECONOMISTS, tend to miss:
Efficiency and productivity and growth are VERY important (a point that Europeans and others often miss!) but they are NOT everything. Our narrow definitions of efficiency and productivity contribute to this problem: perhaps it is more efficient to live in a stagnating city, if it makes you HAPPIER! Is that not true welfare maximization?
The suburbs are, for SOME of us, soulless and isolating and sacrifice the fun and the community ties of the European-style city. If, for others, the nuclear-isolated family is your thing, then good for you: but it should not be assumed that this is true for everyone. Hence “comfortable and convenient” with CHAIN restaurants (!) is not a plus for some people.
Having to drive everywhere is a HUGE negative for us, and “having to walk home with groceries” (if you can’t have them delivered) is NOT a negative, if it means that you can actually walk somewhere, and not have to drive: we do not all have the same utility curves, and to assume that “being able to drive” trumps “having to walk” is a major, and often false, assumption.
Similarly, the “convenience” of chain restaurants is a HUGE negative for many of us–chain restaurants cater to the LOWEST common denominator. Having been raised in NY I can tell you that I have only found one or two chains palatable at all, and even they were of low quality. Just seeing the chains knocks off a few points of utility, and seeing non-chains adds utility even if I don’t eat there. Cities, with their great ethnic diversity, also generally have CHEAP non-chain food, of very high quality, from ALL OVER THE WORLD. This is a massive plus, and is so, as I said above, even for the poor.
Aug 24 2009 at 1:01pm
Fundamentalists criticisms of the dark arts of planning are right on the nose. I met a town planner once, he had no idea why he created different zones for different purposes. He had never thought to ask the question why? Or to consider that there may be no reason.
The whole business is ridiculous. I go to the US and building have “minimum car parking regulation”. So a shop must have a certain amount of car parking spaces at a minimum. Then I go home to Europe and there are maximum car parking regulation, a number that must not be exceeded. For example, in Cambridge UK it is illegal to build a house with more than one car parking space or more than one space in a garage.
I don’t understand how leftists can ever claim that both of these sets of nutty regulations can be good.
Fundamentalist: “That made driving to grocery stores compulsory because the nearest one was required to be many miles from the housing.”
Yes. That is a common trick in Europe as well. It’s great, it increases GDP if everyone has to drive further dontyaknow.
We must share a lot of the blame. I fear we will share a lot of the blame for the US healthcare system in years to come too.
Aug 24 2009 at 1:05pm
I’ve only visited, never lived in Ireland or Britain. But things I believe are bit different there. Maybe not. In any case, I think that being poor probably sucks in both places, and having kids will make life harder in both places, but overall, the benefits of a large house and large car are outweighed by the relative costs of poor and middle-class life in America. I do have friends in Europe my age who are not academics. They typically don’t own cars, quite a few do have children, and their lives are just easier than they would be here. Several are dual-citizen couples, one spouse being American, the other Danish/German/French, and in each case they’ve chosen to live in Europe, even when, in one case in particular, it meant a pretty significant wage difference. The reason seemed to be that with less money they could nevertheless live in a pretty nice section of Copenhagen, get top quality pre natal care, know that their children would go to a good school, live near friends, etc…Yea, I know that this is all anecdotal, and I don’t mean to make Europe sound like Shangrila; it’s not. In fact I think that all told, ignoring the margins, life is basically the same. But if we take those margins into account, they almost always favor the European.
Aug 24 2009 at 1:09pm
Europeans trade square footage and cubic inches for leisure time. Americans make the opposite choice.
Unfortunately, it’s not possible to make that choice entirely on an individual basis. The collective decisions we make over decades and centuries essentially coerce us (economically) into making those choices.
Me, I’ll take the leisure time, and will continue to encourage the collective choices that will make that possible for more Americans.
Aug 24 2009 at 1:15pm
A lot of this has to do with personal preferences and how you were brought up.
There is no real answer to wether the US is underated or Europe is overrated. Everyone will have their own opionion.
The closest thing we can look at is imigration flows between Europe and the US. Do more people move to the US or to Europe. Do a higher percentage of the people who study in the US stay or Europe. I am not sure their are data for these questions.
Personally I hate suburbs and I dislike driving. I am a city person. So some aspects of Europe appeal to me. Luckily I have been able to create something approaching that environment in the US by living in a small (relative to my income) house in an inner suburb near to work with shops, cafe, restaurants, movie theatre within walking distance. Heck a city bus even stops near my house.
The nice thing about the US in my opinion is that I was able to make the choice, I did not it forced on me through taxes and regulations. If my fellow americans want to live in suburbs with big box retailers, Applebees and a long comute then god bless them they can do that too! And it appears that that is exactly what they want.
Aug 24 2009 at 1:24pm
Speaking as a resident of Europe I can’t agree.
Firstly you write: “Efficiency and productivity and growth are VERY important (a point that Europeans and others often miss!) but they are NOT everything. Our narrow definitions of efficiency and productivity contribute to this problem: perhaps it is more efficient to live in a stagnating city, if it makes you HAPPIER! Is that not true welfare maximization?”
How many times has this sort of thing been taken apart on economics blogs? What economists mean by “efficiency” is ultimately related to fulfilling human desires. There is no conflict between happiness and “efficiency”.
Liberty: “The suburbs are, for SOME of us, soulless and isolating and sacrifice the fun and the community ties of the European-style city. If, for others, the nuclear-isolated family is your thing, then good for you: but it should not be assumed that this is true for everyone.”
Of course not. But in the US many more people have a choice. They can live in suburbs or in cities. Taxation and planning laws strictly limit that choice in Europe.
Liberty: “Hence ‘comfortable and convenient’ with CHAIN restaurants (!) is not a plus for some people.”
Yes, but they have the choice. Applebees has not been forced on anyone in the US. If American’s wanted it another way that choice is open to them. I agree that there is a dissenting minority that do.
Liberty: “Similarly, the “convenience” of chain restaurants is a HUGE negative for many of us–chain restaurants cater to the LOWEST common denominator. Having been raised in NY I can tell you that I have only found one or two chains palatable at all, and even they were of low quality. Just seeing the chains knocks off a few points of utility, and seeing non-chains adds utility even if I don’t eat there. Cities, with their great ethnic diversity, also generally have CHEAP non-chain food, of very high quality, from ALL OVER THE WORLD. This is a massive plus, and is so, as I said above, even for the poor.”
You may not like the food that chain restaurants serve. But that doesn’t mean that chain restaurants make people in general unhappy.
If American’s wanted other sorts of restaurants they could quite easily have them. It’s not as though there is a lack of ethnic minorities in the US.
By the way, I get added utility whenever I see the chains. One of the things I like most about the US is that people don’t fall for this idea that non-chain products are automatically better. Sadly they do in Europe.
You say all this and you give yourself the tag “liberty”? You are just a snob.
Aug 24 2009 at 1:34pm
eccdogg: “The nice thing about the US in my opinion is that I was able to make the choice, I did not it forced on me through taxes and regulations. If my fellow americans want to live in suburbs with big box retailers, Applebees and a long comute then god bless them they can do that too! And it appears that that is exactly what they want.”
Exactly. It live in the city and I like it. When I lived in Cambridge in England I would have loved to have lived in a suburb, it would have been much cheaper.
But the Cambridge local authority had banned expansion of the city. That caused the prices in the existing suburbs to be very high. So, I had to live further away.
What people like “Liberty” like about Europe is that the law makes people conform to middle-class prejudices about how they should behave.
Aug 24 2009 at 2:03pm
Why might Americans “overrate” Europe? Could it be related to the fact that most Americans don’t have enough vacation time to actually visit Europe? Especially in contrast to the average 300% more paid vacation days of most European countries…
Also, if you think the suburbs are a great place to live, try it without a car as me and as millions of other Americans have been forced to. If your nearest food option were a 5 mile round-trip hike down a six-lane arterial road with no sidewalks, just to get to a horrible chain restaurant, you might have second thoughts about the dire burden of walking two blocks to the fruit stand.
Aug 24 2009 at 2:15pm
zota: “Also, if you think the suburbs are a great place to live, try it without a car as me and as millions of other Americans have been forced to.”
Try living in Europe without a car. It’s almost as unpleasant, and because of the taxes on owning a car in Europe far more people have to endure it.
zota: “Could it be related to the fact that most Americans don’t have enough vacation time to actually visit Europe? Especially in contrast to the average 300% more paid vacation days of most European countries…”
It’s not like American’s have no choice here though. They could negotiate for more time off. There is quite a lot of variation between companies in time off available in Europe.
Aug 24 2009 at 2:16pm
Wife and I have lots of experience living in Europe. Also have many friends who went to school in Europe and moved to the US. They love to visit Paris or Munich or Madrid but they can’t imagine going back to live in those cities, especially with a lower nominal income (given their choice of profession) and with 2-3 kids.
Lots of people praising Europe compare Americans and Europeans with equal incomes. But that is an unfair comparison because Europe has many fewer jobs with the same income for the same skill set. Or they compare jobs that are in no way comparable. [For instance I know professors who try to compare US profs at a minor state university with those in top schools in Paris. Aside from the lower number of full professor jobs in Europe, the top schools in Paris would need to be compared to full profs at Stanford, MIT or Harvard who earn much more than their French counterparts. Ditto when comparing engineers or doctors.]
Aug 24 2009 at 2:46pm
One other thing I would add is that watching “House Hunters International” on HGTV has been a real eye opener for me as to what type of accomodations the average (or actually likely above average) European lives in.
I always knew Europeans lived with less space, but what I didn’t understand was the difference in quality of appliances, furniture, fixtures etc. And they do so at quite a higher price point. I personally would be fine with most of that since I don’t need much. But I think most Americans would view it like a living a generation ago.
Aug 24 2009 at 3:12pm
This post is daft on several levels: first, it assumes that “Europe” is a single place. Living in London is nothing like living in Paris or Athens or Helsinki or Amsterdam. The quality of life in these cities is very different.
Second, is Bryan Caplan really saying that having a big house and big car is a significant part of the “good life”. If so, I think he needs to read some of the literature on positive psychology. These are peripheral factors at best. I would go so far as to propose that living in a 200m2 house (average US size for a detached house) gives you zero added utility compared to a 120m2 house (average size in Finland). If there is even any benefit it is more likley to be a “keeping up with the Jones’ effect”.
Aug 24 2009 at 3:26pm
ajb’s point is very important; a detailed cross-cultural comparison is well-nigh impossible; on issues like this, by the time all the mutatis mutandis changes have been made very little of ceteris paribus clauses remain. But this is also why immigration flows might not be as revealing as one would like. More europeans (I don’t know, but I’m guessing) migrate to the US rather than vice versa, but that’s because, in the end, it’s a lot easier to move to the US. And I would add for those making the libertarian argument–American’s could live like Europeans, but they don’t, so it must not make them happier–I am able to admit that my side (being that, relatively considered, Europeans live better lives) should accept either a or b (or both): a) paternalistically, Americans make bad choices that negatively affect their well-being; b) that zoning and regulatory and tax laws make our cities/suburbs worse than they otherwise would be. (a) is something we can argue about, but (b) can be subjected to a fair amount of empirical verification.
Aug 24 2009 at 3:54pm
I’m reminded of my father’s experience attending a work conference, held one year in Italy and the next in the Orlando, FL area. “Last year, we had the conference in Italy. This year, we had it in Fake Italy. The difference was, everything in Fake Italy worked.”
As someone who grew up in a 200m2 house and now lives in a 120m2 residence, I will assure you the 200m2 house had TREMENDOUS added utility for a family of four.
Aug 24 2009 at 4:06pm
This article has made the common mistake of trying to compare a quality of life to a standard of living.
Case in point: having spent many years in both American suburbs as well living near the centre of one of the European cities you reference, I can say with certainty I’ll never trade picking up food every evening, by bicycle, from my local food market for the chore of driving an SUV to Trader Joes. Enjoy your suburbs, but don’t conclude that way of life is for everyone.
Aug 24 2009 at 4:08pm
Surely you’ve seen me around here before–I know I have seen you.
I am NOT saying that we should pass laws here to force everyone to live in a European style, and you make US libertarians (and Austrian economists) look bad by assuming that I am and calling me a snob!
All I am saying is that it is wrong to ASSUME that EFFICIENCY directly provides higher UTILITY in terms of WELFARE.
Bryan was assuming that the chain stores and cars were a plus and walking a minus – for some of us the opposite is true. And he assumes that people that want to live in cities do–but this is not true either. For some, it is necessary to have a car and to live outside the city, either for affordability or for job-related reasons; and our cities are not the same as European cities.
There are path dependency issues as towns grow, suburbs are created, land is purchased and developed, and suburbs grow–it is wrong to assume that it is ALL due to preference for this in America, especially if we have not tried the opposite. There are trade-offs, but there is not enough free movement between voluntarily created locales for us to assume that what we have is exactly what we’ve chosen.
And what if, instead of coercive government, the people of Europe had entered into voluntary contracts that limited the development of their roads, and kinds of buildings and neighborhoods–then it would not be “taxing and planning laws” but just preference, right?
Well, in reality taxing and planning laws are only part of the reason there–and there are plenty of taxing and planning laws here too–the other reasons include space limitation and the desire to protect old architecture. (Sure, you can say that the protection of the old architecture is done through coercive legislation; but (a) it could have been done privately had the buildings ever been owned privately, but this is another case of path dependency, and (b) it seems fairly legitimate and generally irrelevant to the point at hand.)
Rather than accuse me of being anti-liberty, why not just see that I am being intellectually honest. I want to impose nothing on anyone, but I see flaws in Bryan’s analysis. He is assuming too much about utility and welfare.
Aug 24 2009 at 4:13pm
As I have worked and gone to school (GMU, actually) in both the US and Germany, I naturally find this discussion quite interesting. For the record: I am German and I enjoyed my life in both locations. Both have their pluses and minuses. As, I think, has been evident in the discussion so far.
As has been pointed out by previous posters, I, too, find it quite daring to speak of “Europe” as a single entity here. However, to not suddenly also cause a discussion of Germany vs the US to take place, I will also refer to “Europe” here.
Bryan, I think you underestimate the convenience that city living in Europe offers. Michael and others have pointed some of this out, too. Sure, I miss the big refrigerator I had in the US and other conveniences. However, I now can walk to the following: get my hair cut, work, supermarkets (ok, admittedly, the size of the cereal aisle at a Wegman’s), restaurants, bars, a farmer’s market, diverse stores, etc. I would really miss this should I ever move to the US again, since this would probably mean suburban living.
Ok, now I do have to return to Germany after all. Still hope this doesn’t cause the discussion to branch off into a US vs Germany direction though! I actually believe many Germans underestimate Germany and overestimate the US. This might be particular to us, though. We often view the grass as greener in other countries. I think this also holds for German tourist who have visited the US. So, I am not sure your premise is correct. You seem to think that Europeans underrate the US. I once flew into Dulles Airport and the plane crossed the Dulles Toll Road and a German in the seat behind me commented to his seat neighbor:”See, now these American highways are real roads. I bet they never have traffic jams here.” For those not familiar with Northern Virginia: I have been in many, many traffic jams on that road. I think similar (false) believes exist among Germans about other aspects of the US. In many of these believes, the US is overrated, not underrated.
Aug 24 2009 at 4:19pm
Wow, thanks for the entertaining post. I could feel the bias oozing from every word. As an American who grew up in the Midwest and in the South, has lived in Europe, and lives in New York now, this article is just plain wrong. New York and San Francisco are uglier and more dangerous than European capitals? Seriously?
Aug 24 2009 at 5:24pm
The discussion has become more nuanced and reasonable, with much of this clearly depending on peoples’ preferences. So, if one really values big houses and big cars with cheap gas and the land use patterns going along with those, one will prefer the US. Otherwise, maybe not.
Regarding relative incomes, ajb, yes, high skill jobs tend to pay more in the US in real terms, medicine, law, top business managment, and academia.
Regarding migration flows, the last time I checked they were essentially even between the US and the higher income European countries. The western European areas that send substantially more people to the US than the other way around are either clearly poorer (Greece) or are poorer regions of better off countries (southern Italy).
Regarding “European central planning” and the rise of US suburbs, baloney. The main push for zoning came in the 1920s, with the key moment being the US Supreme Court ruling in 1926 on Ambler vs Euclid. In any case, this was the period when the KKK and anti-immigrant and racist feelings were ascendant, and the suburbs were using zoning to keep out “undesirable” people, which the SC allowed as part of a city’s “police power” (the legal basis for zoning in the US).
OTOH, the interstate highway system certainly was a federally mandated program inspired by Eisenhower’s experiences with the German autobahn, first built by Hitler.
Regarding “efficiency,” well, the much higher gasoline prices in (most of) Europe reflect public policy choices that go along with having much better mass transit systems. The US looks pretty good when the price of oil is low, but when gas hit $4 per gallon in the US, those distant suburbs with their McMansions suddenly looked like crap, and the price of oil may yet soar again in the not-too-distant future, which would make the European model look a lot better than the US one.
No one has mentioned happiness studies (and Bryan thinks they are garbage anyway), but the US is basically middling compared to Europe on those, with it and all of western Europe not being all that far apart. The US beats some countries (including France), but is behind others (including all the Nordic ones, Denmark being #1 in the world). I note that I only take seriously panel studies of happiness for individuals over time, not these cross-country studies, which have many problems, but the point is that there is no obvious advantage to either better-off Europe and the US, if one does take those things at all seriously (and many do).
Oh, and finally there is the barely-mentioned-so-far matter of medical care. Not only is it much more expensive in the US, but there is no insurance for many people here, in contrast to virtually every European nation. Sure, for those with good plans in the US, they may get better health care, but this is not a positive for poorer people in the US, especially the working poor ineligible for medicaid.
Indeed, while many Americans are deluded into thinking we are this great place for entrepreneurs and small businesses, recent reports have shown that the US is ahead of only Luxembourg in the OECD on the percentage of the labor force working in small businesses. We are a very entrepreneurial people, but at a minimum the lack of portability of health insurance (and the high cost of it) is a major disincentive to anyone with a job with such insurance in this country to quit it to go try and start a business, especially if they have kids who rely on their job-connected and non-portable health insurance.
Aug 24 2009 at 5:36pm
To address the libertarian argument again (Current and others give it above):
The argument is something like that if smaller living spaces and shorter commuting times were preferable to more Americans, we’d see more of it. We don’t. Hence, smaller living spaces and shorter commuting times just aren’t preferable to Americans over the European alternative.
But there’s this to consider (I’m sure economists have a name for this, but I don’t know what it is): many positive network effects must be scaled before they result in overall social benefits. For example: I can’t understand why Segways aren’t more popular. City, home and work environments just aren’t suited for them…yet. Getting a segway now would be neat, but still mostly a hassle. But if everyone got one, we’d adjust social goods accordingly, etc., and we’d all be happier. ….You can see how the argument goes from here….
Aug 24 2009 at 5:45pm
I have debated things with you on other forums. In this case I just didn’t recognize it was you. I thought from the argument it must be someone else using the same name.
Liberty: “Bryan was assuming that the chain stores and cars were a plus and walking a minus – for some of us the opposite is true. And he assumes that people that want to live in cities do–but this is not true either. For some, it is necessary to have a car and to live outside the city, either for affordability or for job-related reasons; and our cities are not the same as European cities.”
Consider chain stores first. Don’t people in the US have a choice about whether or not they shop at large chain stores or not? Or at least they had a choice. In the past there were many smaller stores in the US, now though chain stores dominate.
Some places in Europe have had the same choice such as Britain. In Britain the large hypermarkets have won quite decisively. (I think they have in France too). But in some places they haven’t, such are Ireland where there is a cap of 3500 sq metres on the size of supermarkets in Dublin and 3000 sq M elsewhere. Here no-one has been given the choice of bigger stores.
I suppose the lack of chain restaurants in Europe may be due to customer choice. We have most of the fast food ones already.
I think Bryan is correct here. Though it is possible that if given the choice other European countries would reject large stores.
I agree with you about walking I think Bryan is wrong about that. Regarding cars there are many interventions involved. The US have active city planners and Europe has hyperactive planners. Europe also has many taxes to discourage car use and ownership. The point Bryan was making about shopping though is quite correct in my view.
For the most part you can’t go shopping in Britain or Ireland by walking to your local store. If it’s a convience store it will be small, have a small selection and they’ll be expensive. Their purpose really in convience, they’re for things you’ve forgotten to buy earlier. You normally must go to a supermarket. That means walking, getting a lift in a car or owning one. (I’m fortunate since I live quite near a supermarket, but that’s not so common).
Where I think Bryan is wrong is in implying shopping is so important. I only leave my house once a week to shop, I leave it far more often to take walks, go to the gym, visit events or go to the pub.
By the way, if you are moving to London, all I can say is that in my view London is awful. It’s dirty, violent, crime-ridden and overpriced. Like most Englishmen I consider it a cesspit fit only for politicians and bureaucrats. Of course it’s very nice to visit, I’m talking about living there.
Aug 24 2009 at 5:57pm
Something no-one has mentioned so far is class.
In Britain, and moreso in Ireland there is animosity towards the middle classes. I’m not talking about direct animosity here, but an abstract sort.
I have quite a lot of poorer friends. They don’t discriminate against me. But, they tell me that they hold the class I belong to in very low regard. They tell me they treat me as an exception.
I don’t know if the same thing is true of the US, perhaps it is.
Indeed there may be “positive network effects”. But don’t you have to prove that first. There may also be negative network effects.
Choice on the other hand certainly exists.
Aug 24 2009 at 6:01pm
Barkley: “the suburbs were using zoning to keep out “undesirable” people”
That’s ridiculous! How can separating a town into industrial, retail and residential sections keep out minorities? Besides, until the 1963 all towns were already highly segregated already.
Aug 24 2009 at 8:12pm
Minimum lot size zoing does it on the basis of income, which was pretty much good enough in the 1920s for most non-WASP groups.
Zoning for industries vs residences dates back in practice in the US to the 1700s in New England when tanneries were kept apart from residential areas, although it was only in the late 1800s that a more formally organized system appeared, with some input from Europeans, mostly British, who predated the period of central planners. Blaming zoning in the US on European central planners is simply ignorant historical nonsense.
Aug 24 2009 at 9:00pm
I agree with all except a typical american symbol of status and comfort: the suburbs. I have lived in a kind of suburb here in the USA for more than two years, but I had resided in two other countries several years too and, sorry, but the idea of suburbs is really bad. Perhaps, if I was born here I would like it (in fact, that is a necessary condition). I prefer to dwell close to the downtown, enjoying the stimulant excitement, noise and movement which the commerce, restaurants, cinemas, theaters, etc., offer me. Of course, as the schools in the suburbs are better, I live in a suburb, but that is another story. Maybe, when I am older, I change my mind, but for now I adore cities as Sao Paulo (some numbers at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/São_Paulo), where I had lived for more than 10 years.
Aug 25 2009 at 1:15am
it is clear that the fairfax county development model–traffic, applebees, and a service economy built on cheap labor from third world countries–represents the pinnacle of human achievement.
this is why scholars from all over the world come to tysons to learn about how they can replicate its myriad successes, especially in the provision of surface parking and ‘bloomin’ onions
Aug 25 2009 at 1:30am
I think you’re really on to something; here’s 3 examples.
There are some places I’ve wanted to live in the US, but they were places (like Maui, Yosemite) where the limiting factor was lack of career opportunities rather than housing size or cost. It would be feasible for me to sell my Bay Area home and move to one of these place when I retire. I think the Swedes can retire to a resort — can anyone else?
Aug 25 2009 at 1:36am
It’s dangerous to generalize but one must observe clues and patterns to understand the world we live in. I have lived in American/European/Asian cities and they are all different in many ways. In general, I observe that middle class people living in US suburbs usually have the best lifestyle as compared to middle class anywhere else. The most important point being freedom, where open space together with vehicle ownership enables people to really enjoy themselves. Being middle class in Europe is not so bad if you take advantage of the many government subsidies that you enjoy and then save up your money and vacation in the US or Asia, where your money goes further. Middle class in Asia are the worst of all, where you are too well off to be subsidized by the government, but not well off enough to enjoy the finer things on offer in Asia.
I think Australia is the best of both worlds where you have beautiful, livable urban cities yet suburbs are a short commute away and of course there is great outdoors.
I live in HK where suburbs and urban areas are intermingled and we enjoy the best of both worlds. Yet if we could move, I would choose to be based in the US or Australia and travel to Europe and Asia for vacation.
Aug 25 2009 at 7:45am
Aha! This makes so much sense.
Aug 25 2009 at 9:41am
Barkley Rosser writes:
“Indeed, while many Americans are deluded into thinking we are this great place for entrepreneurs and small businesses, recent reports have shown that the US is ahead of only Luxembourg in the OECD on the percentage of the labor force working in small businesses. We are a very entrepreneurial people, but at a minimum the lack of portability of health insurance (and the high cost of it) is a major disincentive to anyone with a job with such insurance in this country to quit it to go try and start a business, especially if they have kids who rely on their job-connected and non-portable health insurance.”
You are conflating a few things here. The number of people working in a small business may be lower in the US, but the percent of people that open a small business is still higher in the US than in ANY European country.
Why? Because we have both more small businesses openings and more BIG businesses in the US. In Europe there are more middling businesses and businesses forced to stay smaller. Ours get bigger, so at any given moment there are perhaps not many more (maybe even fewer) than in Europe, but this is due to MOBILITY: GROWTH. Look up openings, and the percent of people who open a business, and you’ll see what I mean.
As for health insurance, horrific regulation indeed weighs on both small businesses and people who may want to start small businesses, unfortunately Obama would like to make that much worse with employer mandates! Hopefully we can figure out that the right move is in the opposite direction, deregulating insurance and allowing personal private insurance to compete on equal footing as employer-provided insurance. But, this is getting off-topic.
Aug 25 2009 at 10:25am
Barkley: “US looks pretty good when the price of oil is low, but when gas hit $4 per gallon in the US, those distant suburbs with their McMansions suddenly looked like crap,”
No, they still looked pretty nice. You need to realize than most people in the suburbs don’t need to commute downtown to work. They moved out there to be closer to work. $4 gas effects them LESS than the average Joe. Telecommuting is wonderful too, but not common enough -though that is changing.
Barkley: “Oh, and finally there is the barely-mentioned-so-far matter of medical care. Not only is it much more expensive in the US, but there is no insurance for many people here, in contrast to virtually every European nation”
About 10 million people, one out of thirty have access to only emergency services. That is not perfect, but it is not ‘Many’. The other 96-97% have access to the best care in the world. Its hard to beat the US up over that one.
Barkley: “Blaming zoning in the US on European central planners is simply ignorant historical nonsense.”
Agreed, but I thought the comment was tongue-in-cheek.
Aug 25 2009 at 10:40am
The houses are spacious, the cars are huge, cheap Big Box stores and chain restaurants are nearby
Puh-lease! You’re not seriously holding this up as the best of America, are you? Wal-Mart and Applebees – The Acme of American culture?
Aug 25 2009 at 11:01am
“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. ”
What utter, utter nonsense. I may live in America, but nowadays I live in a little corner of Europe: Somerville, Mass. It’s still America: a little piece of America that was not bulldozed for those monstrous suburbs you’re talking about. Where kids walk to school and the park, and where people have a better use for their time than to ride minitractors to mow lawns they don’t need. Where you don’t have to chauffeur your kids until they reach age 16. Where kids hang out in Davis Square: a public square, not a mall.
The rest of the country calls this way of life “European” but it used to be American and it will be again. Nobody’s natural habitat is the suburb. And when gas prices reach $5, nobody’s artificial habitat will be the suburb either.
Aug 25 2009 at 11:01am
This comment is indeed very American. There a few basic misconceptions in it that many Americans share.
The most important one might be summed up as: If someone lives different than us its probably because they are not wealthy enough to afford living like us.
An example? More public transport and somewhat less car traffic at least in urban regions. It seems the author thinks people are using PT even though its a worse choice. No they don’t, they do because its a superior choice in many situations over the car. By far most people could afford taking the car, they simply choose not to. It seems some Americans have problems with believing that, especially those at home in Suburbia.
I personally don’t use PT as primary means of transportation (its only my second choice), I use the bicycle. It outperforms the car on most of my daily travels and is far more convenient in my opinion.
In regards to American suburbia I have to say that there is another misconception. It is the idea that Europeans would be in shock and awe when they would see Americans living in Suburbia including their homes, there malls etc. I have seen it, several suburbian neighbourhoods as well as urban neighbourhoods in the US. While I thought that the latter would be often enough cool places to live in, they are usually nearly unaffordable because they are rather rare, on the other side appeared the ever present suburbia to be like hell on earth. They are the result of terrible or even nonexistant urban planning. I would never want to live in one, places where you have to drive your children everywhere, except maybe to your neighbours, because these neighbourhoods are simply not built for anything else than driving. Thats not how I would like to raise children either. Schoolchildren finding their own way is an important step in the process of growing up.
Aug 25 2009 at 11:05am
Andrew Hammeln, an American teaching at a law school in Düsseldorf, has some good and fair-minded observations on Bryan’s post at German Joys. See
Having grown up in Germany, I’d generally agree with his points. I’d add three things:
1. Sure downtown Stockholm is beautiful (and unaffordable), and Parisian banlieus seem to be truly dreadful (never been there myself, probably thank goodness). But there are many other decent places to live in between, and not only outside the very major cities (where of course most Europeans live and where I grew up). Effective choice is not restricted to downtown capital or banlieu (in fact, real-world choice usually excludes either of these possibilities). As for Stockholm banlieu equivalents – they’re not so bad (I know, I lived in one for 2 months, Fruängen, excluse the probable mis-spelling, it was a while ago.) I lived better there than as a student in Britain (but then housing in Britain is godawful almost across the board – at least if you’re used to continental European standards).
2. Maximising comfort and convenience is just not what it is about to many Europeans. Maximising many other things (sense community, cultural opportunities, friendship opportunities etc.) are, but not ‘comfort and convenience’. See Andrew’s post on this. Of course, comfort and convenience matter and everyone including me would like to have more rather than less thereof, other things equal (and I railed against having to live in Soviet-era conditions in the UK), but other things are rarely equal. C&C often doesn’t weigh in as #1 priority.
3. Agreed that Europe is better than America to Be rich in, and it is easier (assuming you have the necessary skills blablabla) to Get rich in America than in Europe. But, and this is not meant facetiously, why would you want to be rich in the first place? I don’t particularly. Don’t get me wrong – I certainly would not mind having far more money than I do, but I’m not really going to do very much to get it. Which is probably why I’m in graduate school. Don’t get me wrong II: I want a decent living standard, but I’m not really very concerned to get much more than my parents have (comfortably and Securely-off [no recission!] West-German middle-middle class). I care about a lot of other things – getting the job I want in the city I want to be in – for which I will work very hard – but that’s not really about wealth. The only exception I’d make to this is, that wealth of course is not only about ‘Comfort and Convenience’ but also about social status – which (to me) is a far more powerful argument for seeking to acquire wealth (certainly one I’m far more receptive to than C&C). But in Europe social/class status is much less directly linked to wealth than it seems to be in the US, at least as far as I can observe from Cambridge MA. So again, assuming I’m in Europe, why would I be overly concerned to maximise my earnings?
Aug 25 2009 at 11:50am
hacs: “I prefer to dwell close to the downtown, enjoying the stimulant excitement, noise and movement which the commerce, restaurants, cinemas, theaters, etc., offer me.”
Young people like it, too. That’s why cities have a younger population. Families with young children like the burbs because they are safer. But lately, when the kids leave home, a lot of couples are moving closer into the downtown area.
Aug 25 2009 at 12:13pm
Slartibartfas: “An example? More public transport and somewhat less car traffic at least in urban regions. It seems the author thinks people are using PT even though its a worse choice. No they don’t, they do because its a superior choice in many situations over the car. By far most people could afford taking the car, they simply choose not to. It seems some Americans have problems with believing that, especially those at home in Suburbia.”
Public transport is only better if it is substantially cheaper or faster.
The only place I have been in Europe where buses and trains and not dirty is Bavaria. Traveling using them require cohabiting with drunkards, heroin addicts and perverts.
I had a conversation with some of my Irish friends about buses. All of the women in that conversation had been the subject of impolite sexual advances, some several times, some had been groped. Most of the men had been threatened with fights, some had been beaten up.
Slartibartfas: “I personally don’t use PT as primary means of transportation (its only my second choice), I use the bicycle. It outperforms the car on most of my daily travels and is far more convenient in my opinion.”
But, there is a trade off for doing that. You run a high risk of being killed in a traffic accident.
NM, Where did you like in the UK? Most of it’s not really all that different from the rest of Europe.
Aug 25 2009 at 1:17pm
very inciting log and comments. I feel compelled to add a few:
1) America is in essence a newer version of Europe. Americans are in a majority of European origin and we all share a big chunk of culture. We also have exported it, quite succesfully, to much of the rest of the world through British Navy (less so French, Dutch, etc.), commerce, capitalism, pop-culture, more recently American economic and military power, and so on.
For the whole istoric cycle Europe has sent 50-60 million of its people to America and they and their offsprings are the 200 or so million of white Americans. In the process they have taken without permission and several millions of Africans in one of the most shameful episodes of Western Christian civilisation ( not quite as shameful as stalinism and nazism).
I believe at this time there are a lot more people born in Europe in the US than are people born in the US in Europe. I think the number is around 20-25 million of present American residents born in Europe and most are of British, Italian and German origin even though in the last 20 years arrivals from Eastern Europe vastly outnumbered the ones from Western Europe. I am not sure that this would imply the American lifestyle is better but arguably it does mean that economic opportunity and freedom has been better/more attractive in America during the lives of these 25 million of Europeans that they decided to leave their homelands in the pursuit of American dream. which, by the way as a immigrant to the US myself, I hold that it does exist.
2) while urban life is less predominat in America it is still quite prevalent – NYC, Boston, SF, Chicago, Washington DC, Seattle, Atlanta, etc. have large chunks of thriving urban life with apartament living, small shops, pubs, museums. I don’t think Paris, London and Berlin are a lot different in basic amenities and social life.
3) true most of Americans prefer suburbs. and they seemed to have made the option back in the 50’s. Since then vibrant urban areas in Philly, Detroit, LA, etc. have decayed and morphed into crime-ridden, hopeless places for poor and minorities. transition was helped by car companies but mainly the attraction of the suburbs was the one pushing the middle classes out of city cores into the pastures. probably most of the Europeans would have done the same at that time but Europe was a much poorer place at the time and for the most part have remained as the disposable incomes are lower. after the ’70’s there was significant growth of suburbs in Europe (population in the old urban cores has not grown there much either since)but this has been limited and has not been so violent. There are bad neighbourhoods in most of the big European cities but nothing like US cities have had or still have.
4) leaving the city for suburbia has its pluses and his minuses. from where I stand this is and should be a personal choice, however it depends on your income, education/cultural outlook and circumstances. European’s make them more likely to be urbanites, American’s more likely to be suburbanites. both are right and neither is better than the other. they are different people with different lives, education, incomes and aspirations.
P.S. I am a suburbanite and I like it but I would not claim I do not miss the urban spirit even though the one I know is from one of the grim Eastern Europe capitals.
Aug 25 2009 at 1:24pm
Points generally well taken. Probably should have just stayed away from the medical care issue, which is its own can of worms. Yes, we do have a high rate of new businesses starting, but we also have a high rate of them failing, a fact we do not generally inform students about.
Unlike liberty, you are out to lunch. I follow closely the real estate trends in the Washington metro area. When the price of gas went up, housing prices in downtown D.C. rose, and the areas that were hit the hardest with the sharpest price declines and appearance of foreclosures were the most distant outer exurbs. You simply do not know what you are talking about.
And the same goes for your discussion of health care. The latest figure for the number of uninsured in the US is 47 million. You say 10 million use emergency rooms. What are the other 37 million doing, paying for medical services at the going market rate as they use them? Drivel.
I have ridden extensively on trains all over Europe. I cannot remember any that had inordinate numbers of drunkards, heroin addicts, or perverts, although maybe the people in question were doing a good job of hiding their various problems, in which case, who cares?
Your evidence for your hyperbolic claim is what?
Aug 25 2009 at 1:28pm
I think you can’t really say what is best for most people because different people want different things out of where they’re living.
Cars are no rarer in Europe but huge cars are. Not because Europe’s less comfortable but because Europeans don’t want huge cars.
gappy:Can you elaborate on what you find better in America?
Tom:do you have anything to back up the idea that the 96-97% receive the best care in the world?
Aug 25 2009 at 2:02pm
Barkley Rosser writes: “Yes, we do have a high rate of new businesses starting, but we also have a high rate of them failing”
This is very true! However, people do still keep trying, which was really the point I was addressing.
Creative destruction in my opinion is good: consumers benefit when firms have to face market selection, and when budgets are hard.
Glad we are generally in agreement though!
Aug 25 2009 at 3:22pm
You may be focusing too much on what a habituated American would find inconvenient about Europe, but not what would be comparably a more happy place to live for someone truly neutral. A biased sample perhaps, but nearly everyone I know, including myself, who has lived on both continents prefers Europe over the United States. And most of these friends, like myself, were graduate students, meaning that we were on stipends or grants, ie. quite poor.
I would like to point out this is a very narrow and selective sample – a bunch of college graduate students.
I would further like to point out that graduate students are in no way part of the poor or underprivileged classes – being very well educated and traveled and with excellent prospects.
I have no real issue believing graduate students prefer Europe to America (graduate students being the single group most enthusiastic about everything European) but I don’t think we can draw any larger conclusions about how poor people fare based on the experiences and preferences of well educated singles pursuing higher education.
Aug 25 2009 at 3:23pm
Barkley, your post is ridiculous.
Surely DC prices in the last several years (big gov’t buildup) have not correlated well with the rest of the US. I also don’t believe they were effected by the price of gas.
As for the often quoted 47 million uninsured, I’m also sure you’ve seen that once you take out the illegal aliens, those who qualify for existing programs and those who can already afford their own insurance, you are left with about 10 million Americans. To quote the 47 million number is dishonest.
Aug 25 2009 at 3:31pm
I must make a correction. I have grossly supra-estimated the number of European born American residents.
They are only about 5 million as oposed with 15 million Hispanics and 6 million Asians. aprox. 600000 Germans, 677000 British, 450000 Russian/USSR-born, 420000 Italians live in the US.
Could not find any estimate of Americans residing in Europe but it appears that there are about 4-7 million of Americans living outside US but biggest group are those who moved to neighboring countries Canada, Mexico, Caribbean& Central America.
Aug 25 2009 at 3:51pm
I must make a correction I have grossly over-estimated the number of European-born people residing in the US. there are only 5 mil of the total of almost 40 million of foreign born persons in the US.
Aug 25 2009 at 4:10pm
Isn’t it all about relative fit of an individual’s preferred lifestyle and the culturally accepted lifestyle of the area? I have found that in many ways I do not fit into the American model; I am willing to trade monetary rewards for increased leisure time and less stress. In the US this can be a tough tradeoff to make as most everything in the culture is geared towards the other end of the spectrum.
The libertarian answer is “So move already!” but I think this misses a significant point. All other things being equal I might prefer living in Europe (ignoring the often mentioned problem of lumping all of Europe together into one entity). Yet there are barriers to change that do not enter into my preference. I do not speak any language other then English. This in no way changes my feelings about the European lifestyle but it does make moving to Europe problematic. Family ties, particular jobs (possibly including specific credentialing in some jobs), and administrative trivia (right to work in the new country and all that jazz) can also be barriers to acting on one’s preferences.
Even within the US the “vote with your feet” option is much more constrained then some people want to claim. For most people the combination of employment opportunities, desirable housing (mostly thinking in terms of perceived safety and school quality), transit times to work and important other locations, and cost all have to be balanced when choosing a lifestyle. Living in the suburbs might be a locally equilibrium point for a given person yet be very far away from their preferred lifestyle.
Aug 25 2009 at 5:02pm
the number of Europe-born people residing in US is about 5 million. the number of Americans living abroad is about same order of magnitude but most prefered neighboring area – Canada, Mexico, Caribbeans and countries of Central America.
this doesn’t change anything but just for the sake of accuracy.
Aug 25 2009 at 5:32pm
At the end of the day, one can either a) assert that some preferences are just WRONG or b) go with revealed preferences.
By the latter standard, many more Americans can choose to live like Europeans if they wish, but nonetheless do not do so. In contrast most Europeans cannot make the “American” choice very often without coming to America. [And of course, many do — See the many hand-wringing French or German articles about Euro brain drain to the US. There is no substantial equivalent from the US to Europe.]
Many/perhaps most professionals in the suburbs of Northern Virginia or Massachusetts or Silicon Valley could live in DC or Boston or San Francisco if they were willing to make the tradeoffs most Europeans are forced to make (such as give up a big house, have fewer kids, drive older and smaller cars, spend less on consumer goods, etc.). That they do not do so suggests they view the “American” alternative as better. Some choose to live like Europeans.
The interesting question is how many more Europeans would live like Americans if there were a medium sized state on the Continent that were organized on US lines?
Moreover, it is often suggested that we select neutral choosers. I think that Chinese and Korean grad students would be more neutral and I submit that most would prefer to live in the US, especially once married [again one cannot postulate equal incomes because the one thing US society grants is higher skilled income.]
Aug 25 2009 at 6:13pm
Sorry. This is a case where standard economic theory holds. Every textbook in urban economics argues for the downward-sloping rent gradient in metropolitan areas, modified a bit by some multiple nuclei and suburban office complexes (almost never as large as those downtown), with the slope of that gradient depending on the cost of transportation. As the latter rises, the slope increases, and the value of further out housing falls. This was a case of reality conforming precisely with well-established theory.
Differences between Washington and other cities in terms of overall economic performance are irrelevant. This is a matter of internal structure of housing prices, and there is no reason to believe that a somewhat better situation overall in Washington would alter such relations. They may only explain why prices actually went up downtown, which the theory does not predict. Indeed, I have read of a similar phenomenon happening in many other urban areas, but I cited Washington because I have followed it more closely and precisely.
The only way your argument would hold would be if your claim that people far out are closer to work than those closer in were true. Now, there may be an urban area or two where there are more jobs out in the suburbs than downtown, but that is not the general case. Most skylines still have the tallest buildings downtown and the most of them too, with those having more people working in them than anywhere else. The overwhelming majority of urban areas fit the standard story. When the price of gas goes up, far out housing goes down in price. Duh.
The 47 million does not include illegal aliens, indeed aliens at all. Those are US citizens. Please get your facts straight before you make a bigger fool of yourself than you already have.
Aug 25 2009 at 7:01pm
To paraphrase: …almost no one in Europe lives in places as sterile and inconvenient as American suburbs: The houses are wastefully large, the cars are purposelessly huge, cheap Big Box stores peddling disposable crap are nearby and while chain restaurants are nearby, decent restaurants are nowhere to be found, and (to quote South Park) there’s “ample parking day or night” leaving things so spread out that walking or public transportation are not an option.
Aug 26 2009 at 5:01am
what a load of crap!
I have lived in New York, Boston, and Washington D.C. and now live in Amsterdam. It’s many times better here than in any of those cities, and all the “tourist errors” are flat wrong.
I live in one of the nicest, old-center parts of Amsterdam, the kind of place full of lovely old buildings where tourists gawk all day long. My rent is HALF of what is was in the Village in New York, a comparable neighborhood (except by comparison, hideously ugly, loud and annoying).
Public transport here is just as good as in NY, better than D.C. by a long shot and better than Boston.
And yes, bikes are nice for tourists – and ALSO the preferred mode of transport for people who actually live here. I shop for groceries on my bike, as does everyone else. People pick up their kids on bikes, carry furniture home on bikes, etc. If you have regular shlepping needs, you get a bike with a big bucket in front (“bakfiets.”)
Food here is fresher, healthier, and full of variety. We have markets (you know, outdoor markets like in the old days) for food, clothes, and everything else on every day of the week. The air is cleaner, there is hardly any traffic noise (all those bikes), social services work better, you get HEALTH CARE, crime is practically nonexistent, and on and on.
as for the suburbs, I’ve never liked living out in an isolated fake non-neighborhood non-community, dependent on a car. I don’t know why Americans like that kind of idiocy. BUt even if you do, news flash, the suburbs here are LOVELY. Quiet, green, peaceful, surrounded by actual farmland and trees and nature rather than endless highways and garbage dumps and strip malls. And you can get to the city with public transport from them – we have TRAINS here, among other things (trams, busses, etc.). You can live without a car in the suburbs here just fine, and many people do. The middle-class suburbs in Holland would make most Americans who like that sort of life green with envy.
I think Americans really like to convince themselves that their country is the best, their idiotic political system is the best, their heartless, wasteful pro-private-profit-above-everything ideology is the best, and will make up whatever nonsense they can do keep that illusion going
Bill E Pilgrim
Aug 26 2009 at 5:58am
No it’s not jingoistic reactionary nonsense but it’s mostly uninformed and vapid guesswork.
Sorry about that.
For one thing “Europe” is nothing you can stereotype like that. London is hellishly expensive, Paris is not. Living in Paris, even in the center, is so much cheaper for rent, for example, than any comparable American city, or even comparable European capital, for that matter, that your sweeping statements about it are just impossible to justify. Students in Paris struggle to find apartments– but they do. By themselves, often. Cheap ones, something like 500 Euros a month. Imagine anything like that in New York City, or San Francisco.
Also the notion that Europeans would somehow be impressed by visiting suburbs instead of cities in the US– well, yes, they might find that gritty, edgy, slightly dangerous feeling not there for the most part. Perhaps. But they’d probably be wrong, a lot of crime exists in suburbs now and New York City, which you cite, actually has a fairly low crime rate in the scheme of things.
It’s a large, sprawling subject, and this is really reducing it to absurd proportions, into bite-sized and mostly wrong conclusions.
Aug 26 2009 at 7:51am
Bryan’s argument is an argument from personal ignorance. Some of the replies are worse. Does anyone seriously propose that being dirt poor in Texas is better than being dirt poor in Marseilles to pick bad places to being dirt poor.
Aug 26 2009 at 8:01am
I wouldn’t dismiss this as jingoism, just uninformed, fact free opinion that really should have been kept to yourself.
I moved from a midwestern suburb to the fourth largest city in the Netherlands – yes one with all the quaint cafe’s and beautiful buildings from the middle ages you’re talking about – and I live about 5 minutes away from them. I enjoy their very reasonably priced restaurants on a regular basis, and I’m firmly in the middle class.
The street I live in has more public greenspace than any neighborhood I ever lived in in Ohio, places where local families and children gather to socialize and enjoy themselves like you see in movies about 1950’s America. I bike to a train station each morning for my commute, an experience I thoroughly enjoy on the 19 out of 20 times a month that it isn’t raining. I find the train clean, convenient and quicker than the car commute I had in Ohio. I actually get something done besides listen to talk radio.
I have many friends and family who do not live in a metro area like I do, and their living situations are similar except in that, just like in suburbs everywhere, they have to travel a little longer to get to a top quality restaurant or entertainment. The difference with America is that the restaurants and cafe’s that are in the nieghborhood are a cut above your average Applebee’s and Champp’s that blight suburbia and turn living in much of the American heartland into a homogenized, soul-less existence.
As far as Europe being “a better place for most people to visit and America being a better place for most people to live” – I would say this depends completely on what you consider “better”. If you want more TV’s, more channels, more empty space to fill up with stuff and call your own, bigger mega-markets, more chain stores, a car for every member of the family so nobody ever has to walk anywhere again, and a Wal-Mart in every exurban shopping strip, America is definitely your best bet. Europe has other things to offer.
Aug 26 2009 at 8:45am
I think what Cereal’s post demonstrates the diversity of Europe, something that others have touched on.
His description of Amsterdam sounds rather like the place my sister lives in England; York.
I agree mostly with Bryan because Cereal is either making false distinctions or talking about only a very few places.
Fresh food can be bought all across the US and Europe these days. When I visited Texas recently I could buy almost the same variety of fresh food I’ve found in shops in Britain and Ireland.
There are a few nice cities where it’s cheap to live. I don’t think though that these are the rule. In Britain the large cities are either expensive or unpleasant to live in, or both. Only a few are cheap and nice to live in.
Throughout Europe there are few places where you can use bicycles practically, the Netherlands of course is one of them.
Comparing rent in Amsterdam to New York is also not very representative. Most Americans who live in cities don’t live in places as expensive as New York.
Cereal: “I think Americans really like to convince themselves that their country is the best, their idiotic political system is the best, their heartless, wasteful pro-private-profit-above-everything ideology is the best, and will make up whatever nonsense they can do keep that illusion going”
Amsterdam is in no way representative of Europe. Visit the rest of it and you’ll see what I mean.
In the long run the “heartless, wasteful pro-private-profit-above-everything ideology” is the only one feasible. All that you are witnessing is a temporary victory for Socialism. In the long run though Socialism will revert to type, and that is far, far worse than Capitalism.
Barkley Rosser: “I have ridden extensively on trains all over Europe. I cannot remember any that had inordinate numbers of drunkards, heroin addicts, or perverts, although maybe the people in question were doing a good job of hiding their various problems, in which case, who cares?
Your evidence for your hyperbolic claim is what?”
It’s acknowledged to be a big problem in the UK.
I think that the problem here is that you have probably used public transport as a tourist. In tourist places it is considerably better than elsewhere.
By the way, I’m from somewhere even scarier than the suburbs. I’m from the country! If any of you have seen the film “Hot Fuzz” it’s a very good description of villages in the British countryside.
Aug 26 2009 at 11:24am
Got your facts wrong again, eh?
This is just a few bullet points, but you get the idea.
* 9.7 million of these uninsured are not US citizens.
* 14 million of them are eligible for the government programmes Medicaid or SCHIP, but not registered. If they ever presented at an ’emergency room’ they would be signed up.
* 17.6 million of those without insurance earn more than $50,000 per year. 10 million of them earn more than $75,000. That means that around 38 percent of the uninsured probably make enough to afford health insurance, but for some reason choose not to buy it.
* 18.3 million of the uninsured are under 34. Many of those may simply think, mistakenly or otherwise, that they do not need health insurance.
There is, obviously, overlap. 10 million is the most common number sited by the honest.
Also, the cost of gas going from $2.50 to $4 a gallon would cost a commuter with a 20 mile drive one-way $60 a month. This should have been looked into, but then dropped as pretty irrelevant. As most of your points are.
To another poster: The WHO ranked is number one in medical outcomes.
Aug 26 2009 at 11:34am
FWIW, after 25 years of (adult) life in Los Angeles, the Mrs and I moved to a small village in the South of France in early 2005.
We loved LA in the 1970s but the quality of life had become horrible.
We absolutely love our life in the South of France. We wouldn’t leave for all the tea in China.
From a purely economic standpoint, we’re also much better off.
Aug 26 2009 at 11:46am
Sorry, but I have lived for several years in different parts of Europe. Those trains were not just tourist ones. Howevever, you may well be right about the British ones. They are the worst I have seen in western Europe, too much like the Americans they are.
Aug 26 2009 at 1:33pm
Barkley Rosser: “Sorry, but I have lived for several years in different parts of Europe. Those trains were not just tourist ones. Howevever, you may well be right about the British ones. They are the worst I have seen in western Europe, too much like the Americans they are.”
My experience of supposed differences between Britain and Europe is that there is less to them than people say.
You are certainly right that the standard of the trains is worse in Britain. I was talking also about those on them though.
However, I have only a little experience of continental European public transport. So, I can’t really comment on that.
Aug 26 2009 at 2:08pm
In the long run the “heartless, wasteful pro-private-profit-above-everything ideology” is the only one feasible. All that you are witnessing is a temporary victory for Socialism. In the long run though Socialism will revert to type, and that is far, far worse than Capitalism.
Living in a well run socialist system can be very good. You’re right that it is of questionable sustainability but while its working well it can be very nice. Making your money in the freest capitalist society you can find but then living in the comfort of a well run socialist society seems like a good deal.
Aug 26 2009 at 2:48pm
Dave Bonar: “Living in a well run socialist system can be very good. You’re right that it is of questionable sustainability but while its working well it can be very nice. Making your money in the freest capitalist society you can find but then living in the comfort of a well run socialist society seems like a good deal.”
I’m sure a well run socialist system can be very good for a time. But you are at the mercy of the bureaucrats, the state and the masses. When they decide to turn against you, you’re finished.
I think it’s wise to listen to F.A.Hayek and Ludvig Von Mises. Intervention begets more intervention. It creates bureaucracies that in time become accountable to no one.
Aug 26 2009 at 7:17pm
Also, regarding crime. In my view a major reason crime is lower in European countries is because nations bribe potential criminals not to commit crime through generous welfare. Does anyone really think this works in the long run?
Aug 27 2009 at 12:00am
Whenever anyone makes a general statement about any country or any large entity it is easy to sigh and shake your head. The jist of the article is true- Europe is where you go for history, ambiance, social support. America is where you go for professional opportunity and an impossibly large, artery-clogging angus steakburger with a 72oz Coca-Cola. That is the bottom line. Of course there is opportunity and cholesterol in Europe, and there is history and ambiance in America, but come on folks…Two continents espousing different systems. Neither is better, just different. I’m glad there is a place like Europe-somewhere that makes me feel the awe of the past, somewhere that is distantly connected to me, somewhere ultra-civilized and beautifully eccentric. America provides the antithesis- somewhere that hasn’t been trodded on by two dozen empire takeovers, somewhere where advanced civilization and vast, hardly-touched natural wonder abounds!
Yea, that was sappy and totally off topic 😉 Must we bicker? Hahahaha
Aug 27 2009 at 6:19am
I just wanted to say “bingo”, you’re spot on. As an ex-pat in Vienna, what you said about the inner city luxury really struck a chord with me.
Vienna _is_ a great place to live, and I like it here a lot. One reason is that I’m surrounded by the history about which I’m such a nerd, so I’m lucky in the sense that it fits such an interest of mine. But I have to admit, if my wife agreed (she doesn’t!), I’d move back to the States in a heartbeat.
It’s funny to see how derided American suburbia is. Gosh I miss it!
Aug 27 2009 at 2:10pm
Current says “I think it’s wise to listen to F.A.Hayek and Ludvig Von Mises. Intervention begets more intervention. It creates bureaucracies that in time become accountable to no one.”
Is the topic why American is better then Europe or why Americans like Europe?
I’m not going to attempt to argue that the European governmental model is better in the long run. But in the short run, the time frame that I suspect most people are thinking about when they say they like Europe, its reasonable to like Europe since its current situation hasn’t moved too far down the interventionist path for most people.
Aug 28 2009 at 2:10pm
I just got back from Finland and Estonia, and it’s depressing to be back in the US. I found a lot to like about both countries — and speaking to locals didn’t give me any second thoughts.
I come at this from the perspective of a young (late 20s) single male with a lot of disposable income. I live by myself in a 625 sq ft apartment in a highrise in downtown Austin, TX. I fully grant that other people with other backgrounds (especially married with children, or with less money) might have very different preferences.
First of all, I find it just so odd that we’ve had so many comments on this thread and the word “obesity” has not been mentioned once! Obesity is a large negative externality as far as I’m concerned because fat people are ugly. I don’t like to look at them. I would prefer to look at skinny beautiful people. There are a lot more of them where I was visiting.
Also, in addition to being substantially better-looking, the young women were much friendlier and smarter, and have a wonderfully sexy demeanor. American women are often incredibly rude and, often, talking to them makes you want to shoot yourself.
You can drink alcohol openly in the park, on the street, or on the beach without getting arrested. Even out of a glass container. No fascist open container laws, or at least no enforcement of them.
The taxes and cost of living are high in Finland, sure, but not so much in Estonia (I would save a boatload on taxes alone if I lived there). And even then, I’m fairly wealthy. Trading money for a higher quality of life would be a good tradeoff.
If I could give up my car and walk/bike most everywhere, that would be a plus, not a minus. I dislike driving. It’s a pain to drive, and it’s socially isolating. Walking/biking does double duty as exercise. Now don’t get the wrong idea, I recognize the many obnoxious limitations of public transit or of having to walk/bike outside in the heat/cold/rain/snow. But if there was a practical way for me to live carless in the US, I’d sell my car in an instant.
I don’t want a bigger house/apartment. 625 sq ft is plenty of space for everything I need. More space would just mean I was lugging more useless junk along with me. Even now I feel like I have too much stuff.
I would hate to give up my American supermarket. I like having such a great quantity and variety of food available to me to eat and cook with. But that’s one of the few things I feel like I would miss a lot.
And for someone like me, the American suburbs are just AWFUL. You can live very comfortably and conveniently on a tiny amount of money there, but the quality of life is bad. The moment you get out of your car you’re surrounded by obese suburban housewifes dragging their kids and husbands around.
Apparently I’m becoming that rarest of birds: an America-hating conservative.
Sep 5 2009 at 8:47pm
This article is one person’s point of view, and I personally disagree with it strongly. As a European who has been living/studying in the U.S. for the past 10 years (age 16-26), I can tell you that from my experience, very little of what’s written here makes sense. I feel that the ONLY places really worth considering in the U.S. are in fact NYC, Boston, SF…but really, after NYC, the interest factor steeps down deeply. Aside from NYC, and a few other spots, life in the U.S. is so boring, that even if you were’ a multi-millionaire in a Bel Air mansion, there’s nothing to do, certainly the culture isn’t there. You have to go into your car and drive forever to get to anything. I’ve lived in NYC for several years and if I decide to live here in the future, it would absolutely be the only place to be…I would much rather work in Starbucks in NYC, than have a 10mil$ mansion in any boring American suburb. The struggle is certainly worth it, because for me, that’s what life is about; not being comfortable in your suburban home, but being part of life, that energy that makes you alive. No wonder 50% of the US population suffers from some kind of a psychological disorder. It’s hard to have human contact when you’re in your car all day.
Europe on the other hand…where do you begin? My perfect life would be living in both London-NYC, especially being a classical musician, somebody who enjoys top culture, and really the best of everything…and I’m working on making that happen right now.
But really, in the end, people do have a choice to go for whatever they like. It’s just that people who love excitement, energy, culture, and a lifestyle that involves seeing people around you, there are very few places in the U.S. that can satisfy that.
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