A parable of America today – subways here and around the world

One of the great oddities of 21st century America:  our inability to learn from other nations.  Our health care system stands as the definitive proof of this.  Our system costs twice that of other nations, yet returns equivalent results in aggregate (and vastly inferior results for those without coverage).  It’s a simple test — copying proven methods from other nations — which we’re unable to pass.

Nathan Lewis provides another example, looking at our transportation system.  It’s great, and worth a look.

Truly 21st America is exceptional.  Our 2010 New Year’s resolution could be to be exceptional in a good sense, as we have been in the past.

22 thoughts on “A parable of America today – subways here and around the world

  1. Modern urban design makes me want to drink. If I’m already drunk, modern urban design makes me want to drink more.

    I lived (was stationed in) southern Germany for two years. My girlfriend lived in a town of 8,000 people with a city hall that looked like this. And the legacy of democracy that we Americans are leaving to our children — The launch pad of political grandeur.

    Near my hometown, with a population of more than 50,000: this.

    From my hometown — {picture}. 100 year-old homes were demolished to make way for an Albertsons that went out of business after less than a year. The city bought the facility and moved the library from a beautiful, cozy building near the center of town into the cadaver of a grocery store.

    Future Americans, behold your pissant legacy!

  2. Well, Maximus arrives again with some real meat. Wonderful link and article.

    Having had the good and fortuitous opportunity to travel and stay in many parts of Europe (mainly outside the large urban areas….only disembarking from plane and staying a few days coming and going) over the last 7 years—maybe 15 trips of 2 weeks or more, I was want to remark to other Euro Travelers—-“Americans would be shocked and so jealous/envious of the quality of life in all regards in Europe if they only knew….!”

    THEN. It finally occured to me that I was simply wrong! Americans would NOT like the life (well documented in part by this Link) in Europe. Nope. They are temperamentally unprepared to see what is there. They really do like this madness of incessant shopping, cheap accessible food that requires no effort to eat or prepare, quick this and that, the semi isolation of a suburban abode, Tekevision, cheap movies for diversion and the ability to enter an auto at will and wander alone to wherever and whenever.

    It is not only the urban and small city culture of Europe that is so very different from America but the Rural life is shockingly divergent also. Rural America is dead and deader — captured by monoculture agriculture,it can not feed itself anymore, finally wasted by the Walmarts that have destroyed what was left of rural shopkeepers and also the social life and culture of a town.

    Whereas all through France and Italy and Spain and Denmark the decentralization made available by high speed (and not so high speed) trains and deliberate support for rural farming culture by Governments has allowed these areas to not only maintain but thrive and support the overall historical culture.

    A story and a few photos cannot begin to tell the nature of the divergence. I could write for pages about the differences but this gent does highlight many of them. But it is changing and you can thank McDonalds et al! Woe anyone who emulates American Culture or the lack thereof.

  3. Greg, you wrote “It is not only the urban and small city culture of Europe that is so very different from America but the Rural life is shockingly divergent also. Rural America is dead and deader — captured by monoculture agriculture,it can not feed itself anymore, finally wasted by the Walmarts that have destroyed what was left of rural shopkeepers and also the social life and culture of a town.”

    This is truer in some small towns than others, IMO. I travel through rural America frequently, and if my experiences are an indication, rural America may be one of the only places left that can feed itself. Few city dwellers know how to grow their food, or rear livestock, or perform any of the many complex tasks associated with feeding a family, community, or for that matter, a nation. I taught high school science for a time, and in my experience, a lot of urban kids never stop to think where their food comes from. That is partly a failure of education, but also one of simply taking for granted what “appears” in the store.

    As far as Walmart goes, it is a creature of the market; the Walton family began the chain in rural America, and people in these communities made the choice to pick low cost over supporting their small business infrastructure. When they prove willing to spend more money (in some cases) at local small businesses, instead of in a big-box store or on the internet, the small businesses will thrive again. My wife’s family are from a small town, and they are anong the finest people I have ever met anywhere, bar none, as are their neighbors and townsmen. They are tough folks out on the prairie, and know how to survive hard times. They fix things, they live frugally, they are resourceful, etc. or they simply do without the material things city folks “need.”

    RE: the quality of life in Europe. My mother is Danish, and I have been to that nation. If my relatives are typical, their lifestyle is very nice indeed! My mother says she hated so little sunlight, especially during the winter months, so that’s why she lives in Arizona. I am most jealous of the generous vacation schedule Danes get – a month or more annually.
    .
    .
    FM reply: I find it astonishing that so many people talk seriously about scenarios for American in which a community’s ability to feed itself becomes significant. Just a guess, but I suspect its the love of the coming apocalypse that — snapped from the dying foundations of Christianity — still circulates in our minds. Much as the Purtainism virus still circulates, cut-off from its original foundation — driving anti-drug, anti-smoking, anti-porn, anti-fat, anti-drinking (e.g., MADD) crusades.

  4. RE: high-speed rail and Europe. Bill Lind has advocated this for years, at least inter-urban rail. Why we haven’t the 200 mph RR for between city passenger service as the French have, for example, is beyond me. If the TSA gets much more ridiculous, air travel much more unpleasant, perhaps high-speed rail and RRs generally will make a comeback. I for one would welcome it.

    A good friend of mine is Italian and generally likes America, but he cannot understand how we tolerate the diet we eat, or reduce meals to the rapid-fire afterthoughts so many of us do. Read Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food,” a spirited and informative defense of food as our ancestors knew it, and not food-as-commodity as we have today. Also, refuse whenever possible to buy packaged food; buy whole, real, unprocessed fruits, veggies, grains, meats/fish, etc. Shop around the perimeter of the grocery, and avoid the processed stuff. You’ll be glad you did, and your waistline will reflect the change. better yet, if you can, be one of those urbanites who grows some of his/her own food.

    Happy New Year to all….

  5. FM, I believe this is the link you meant to post. The one included is about how much American architecture and city planning sucks.
    .
    .
    FM reply: Thanks for catching this. The titles confused me, but the link is fixed now.

  6. Greg,
    Americans are going to have to adjust to this lifestyle whether they want to or not. Rising oil prices are a reality, bringing with them rising prices for everything else. I don’t buy into the mass-extinction and other assorted doom saying promulgated by James Kunstler, but he’s absolutely right that we aren’t going to keep “Happy Motoring” going on used french fry oil, processed corn squeezings.

    We can’t maintain the knotted infrastructure that we have. Cities are clapping their hands with glee at “shovel-ready” projects funded by Uncle Sugar, but no one is stopping to wonder who is going to maintain the new six-lane highway with on/off ramps every 200 meters.

    The roads are crumbling, the airlines are dying, if we want to keep moving around our cities and especially around our nation it is time to rebuild the rail lines.
    .
    .
    FM reply: I hate to be pendantic, but we can maintain our infrastructure. Poor nations maintain infrastructure just as good as ours. We just choose to blow our money on other things. Like massive military spending and wars. Guns or butter?

  7. We here in the usa tend to have fewer memories of war, in our own backyards, and of city people bartering with farmers for necessaries.

    I still remember my aged mother, who grew up on a farm, standing on the back porch of the first house i bought, and telling me in bad times i could grow a garden and that i would have to stand over it with a gun.
    .
    .
    FM reply: No disrespect intended to your grandmother, but how often has that happened in the US (125 years)? In the post-civil war south. During a few disasters, in small areas for brief periods. Not during the great depression.

  8. Maximus offers : “..snapped from the dying foundations of Christianity…”

    I laughed. But. “Feeding oneself” in an AGRICULTURAL AREA is not an anachronism nor an Apocalyptic remnant. It tells you all you need to know about a Society in love with a Corporate Culture and Corporate Government. BIG is not better, sir, Research it or ask your Cardiologist—-FOOD CULTURE is the essence of health in a population. I spend around 60 days a year in rural Ag areas of the Plains. I seek local food stocks and truck items and avain/bovine locally grown (as an adjunct to hunting there) Such items readily available are as rare as a Democrat out there! Hutterites (remnants) in BC, Alberta, MT, ND, SD etc are the only exceptions. And the food they grow and foodstuffs they produce rival anything I have found in Europe….go figure. My great grandparents were pioneers where I now reside (and have for my entire life) and I recall eating from their home farm produce and animals all the while they had their larger Ag fields. I have “grain -tickets” handwritten and can see excactly what they produced and sold and NONE of that is available in that area anymore. Walmart? Pfffttt…destructive of local culture, period. I own multiple Retail Properties, shopkeepers are my life. I have witnessed the decline of American Retail culture and regional uniqueness in my 40 yr career.
    And from a rural perspective, the ONLY places you will find a vibrant local retail environment still utilizing the structures of the past, is in isloated areas FAR removed (read: too far to drive to the Walmart!)from the onslaught of Corp Retailers encroaching on rural America after they have flooded the Urban areas.

    These things are NOT romance. These things are a lack of diversity in the culture. And Diversity is more than the spice of life. The loss thereof is a tenet of decline. And yes, these “choices” made by Americans are free and willful but no less worrisome to me.
    .
    .
    FM reply: Fortunately this is a democracy, and you are unable to impose your values on the rest of us.

  9. FM reply: Fortunately this is a democracy, and you are unable to impose your values on the rest of us.

    Where did THAT come from? Laughing…I see you periodically set up these Straw Men and then take great pleasure in scurrying back from your own “values” with a stroke of the keyboard. Like the Jim Manzi article.

    Truly 21st Century America is exceptional and its greatest historical significance is yet to come.
    .
    .
    FM reply: Let’s replay the tape from your comment #6.

    “Walmart? Pfffttt…destructive of local culture”
    “These things are a lack of diversity in the culture. And Diversity is more than the spice of life. The loss thereof is a tenet of decline.”

    These are value statements. Wonderful, so long as you don’t get to impose them on the rest of us. Unfortunately, there are many people who believe that these kind of values should be imposed on us — using the police powers of the State. In reality, few share your love of small towns. Small towns are fading away because young people flee them. When you meet people from “smallville” now livng in big cities, esp those 20-40 years old, ask them if they’d prefer to go back.

    “you periodically set up these Straw Men”

    A “straw man” argument involves a misrepresentation of an opponent’s position. My reply to comment #6 gave no summary of your position, just a response.

    “then take great pleasure in scurrying back from your own “values” with a stroke of the keyboard. Like the Jim Manzi article.”

    I gave a correction, due to a sloppy initial reading. Do you never make mistakes?

  10. “Truly 21st America is exceptional. Our 2010 New Year’s resolution could be to be exceptional in a good sense, as we have been in the past.”

    I concur with this statement,however I don’t pine for some romanticized version of the past,I want something better for the future-Europe isn’t it. Europe,nice place but I don’t want to have to pay 50-70% income tax and go to five or six specialists and pay a 15-25% vat tax to get a meal on the table.Walmart works very well for me.

    What was the point of imitating Europe again? Culture?Cost of living? Quality of life? Wonderful health care? Freedom? I appreciate what I have right here and am grateful for it.
    .
    .
    FM reply: This shows an extreme form of “not invented here” thinking. Europe does some things very well, from which we could learn much. Nobody here advocates trying to become a clone of Europe.

  11. I haven’t read the article and have to rush off just right now – but I sure hope someone has given some thought to how post-modern waste refuse is going to work. New Yorkers, when they sometimes think of it, just assume they can ship the stuff off to Appalachia. The problem with this is that Appalachians have no more use for New Yorkers than New Yorkers have for Appalachia.
    .
    .
    FM reply: It’s not a problem, just an issue of cost. At some price many areas will welcome building of a dump for NYC’s trash. But NYC is exceptional in not having suitable space nearby. For a good summary I suggest “Of Mountains and Molehills: The Municipal Solid Waste ‘Crisis’.”, James V. Delong, Brookings Review, Spring 1994 — Excerpt:

    The so-called space problem is really a question of transportation. There is plenty of land distant from population centers to absorb the trash, but shipment is necessary. This need is not a serious barrier to creating an effective system for land disposal of MSW, but it is a novel requirement, and meeting it requires innovation and institutional adaptation. The logic that regards it as a crisis would equally compel the conclusion that New York City has a food crisis because it cannot grow all the vegetables its people need within the city limits, and that it must, therefore, turn Central Park into a giant farm and then ration New Yorkers’ consumption of vegetables to what they can grow there.

  12. Prince Charles made a controversial speech a few years back , lauding individuality in buildings , the advantages of preservation rather demolition , and access for the disabled . He called a design , over which architects were dribbling in delight , as ” a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend ” .

  13. The inability of the US to adopt innovations from elsewhere stems from the perception that Americans have that they are special. Well, they were special: with the Constitution, Bill of Rights, the ease of business incorporation, a solid currency, primary-school education for all, to cite some of the positive aspects of the US in the 19th century. Today, however, these aspects have either disappeared or are no longer unique to the US.

    So it is time for them to stop thinking that they are special and view the ideas and realizations of the rest of the world and borrow them when theis would be an im provement.

  14. I agree with Altertde on the perceptions of being special. I think alot of this is tied in with the popular myths and the understanding of our ‘national character’. We pervasively allow the stories we tell ourselves about our history to cloud our objective vision of the modern world.

    There are many examples of a disconnect between our popular myths and the true nature of our society:
    + the role of the military in society (clouded by Civil War, WWII, and Cold War black-and-white storytelling)
    + the true extent to which we are a democratic society (clouded by our pride in our early innovations and widespread lack of understanding about the structure of other democracies)
    + corporate power and class stratification (clouded by a frontier individualist mentality and Cold War propaganda)
    + ANY race issue (especially towards the historical displacement of native peoples)
    + our role in on the world stage (benevolent vs imperial)

    The list goes on and on. Our myths position ourselves as the shining tower on the hill, and in light of this perceived exceptionalism the idea of America being inferior in any manner is tantamount to a rejection of our national character itself. Politicians and the MSM are slaves to this unspoken dogma, and it forms a kind of cognitive capture for much of our social discourse and the framing of current issues.

  15. Nothing odd here. This is American Exceptionalism at work. American Exceptionalism has been around for a long, long time, since the 18th century. Americans prided themselves on doing things differently from “Old Europe.” That was a good thing when Europe lagged behind America — back in the 1820s and 1880s, Europe had kings and queens while America had a president. American Exceptionalism at work. In WW I Europe had mass conscriptions, but America used volunteers to fight WW I — American Exceptionalism at work again.

    In the 1930s, much of Europe went fascist but America launched the New Deal. American Exceptionalism at work again. In the 1950s, Europe was rebuilding from the rubble while America sent missiles to the moon. American Exceptionalism once again.

    But sometime around the 1970s, Europe started to pull abreast of America and American Exceptionalism became the Vietnam war instead of missiles to the moon and democracy. By the 1980s, Europe had pulled ahead of America in many areas — social welfare, no war on drugs, no endless foreign wars, no laissez faire unregulated predatory capitalism — and by the 1990s a veritable chasm had opened twixt America and Europe.

    In the 1990s America erased usury limits on interest rates, wiping out the bedrock principle of every economy for 5000 years. Europe goggled in disbelief. In the 1990s America repealed the Glass-Steagall Act, creating a happy hunting ground for predatory ponzi-scheme banks. Europe stared with incredulity. In the 1990s America allowed whoole vast regions of its country to collapse into third world squalor: Cleveland Ohio, Detroit Michigan, Baltimore Maryland, and in 2005 New Orleans Louisiana and in 2009 the entire state of California slid into collapse…and the American people shrugged their shoulders and looked the other way. Europeans gasped in horrified disgust.

    In Europe, when a city gets devastated by a flood or suffers an economic collapse, the rest of the European nations pitch in and help out. In America, we just let the blighted region fester and get worse. American Exceptionalism now means letting entire cities turn into Mad Max wastelands. American Exceptionalism now means torture and suspension of habeas corpus. American Exceptionalism now means ignoring Peak Oil and denying global warming.

    Once upon a time, American Exceptionalism was a good thing. Now it’s a sign of America’s decay and collapse. Within another 10 or 20 years, all of southern California will look like Detroit or Cleveland. Within another generation it will become standard practice to torture confessions out of suspects in police stations. Within another generation, America’s primary economic engine will be sex tourism.

    That’s what happens to American Exceptionalism when the rest of world catches up and then surpasses America. We stay exceptional…but not in a good way.
    .
    .
    FM reply: I agree with most of this, except…

    “In Europe, when a city gets devastated by a flood or suffers an economic collapse, the rest of the European nations pitch in and help out. In America, we just let the blighted region fester and get worse”

    I assume you mean New Orleans (in most cases I believe US disaster relief is greater than the EU’s, or anyone’s). Is this the Holy City, which must be rebuilt? It’s below sea level. Rebuilding it is nuts. I doubt insurance companies will provide flood coverage at an affordable rate, so we’ll have to subsidize that also. It’s like buildind in a flood plan, a violation of common sense.

  16. “THEN. It finally occured to me that I was simply wrong! Americans would NOT like the life (well documented in part by this Link) in Europe.”

    Agree. Give or take people get the government and way of life they want and deserve. Sure, the politicians may be more corrupt than average people but they do not come from another planet, they are a product of the society and its values. If a lot of people think that militarism is cool, that the US should bomb not just Iran but a lot of other countries too and the only worthwhile use of taxpayer money is for weapons and wars, the more the better (and God only knows how many of them I met online), then it will be a factor on the political class. Note that Europe was not any better in this regard, it is just that we were disabused of that notion by 20th century history.

    Similarly when you have enough people thinking “Walmart works very well for me” and similar it will be a factor on politicians and socioeconomic arrangements.

  17. mclaren offers: “In Europe, when a city gets devastated by a flood or suffers an economic collapse, the rest of the European nations pitch in and help out. In America, we just let the blighted region fester and get worse. American Exceptionalism now means letting entire cities turn into Mad Max wastelands. American Exceptionalism now means torture and suspension of habeas corpus. American Exceptionalism now means ignoring Peak Oil and denying global warming. ”

    Reminds me; I was in central France near Chartres right after Katrina. Attending a little dinner with rural residents, a Dutch farmer brings up the Event by asking me, sincerely, how the US could just abandon one of the oldest Cities in the country? What is “wrong” with your country? What is this America these days? Not accusatorily but simply baffled. And baffled and worried is the general response I have witnessed time and event, again and again in Europe since 2000.

    How do you respond to such a heartfelt quandry that has moral tones beyond the scope of a simple “reply”? In private company, I offer that the Cult of Individualism has been carried to a logical end in America. While Euros seem always to HOPE that the King will save them, we Americans seem to HOPE always that we can save ourselves! ….both views are not supported by reality.
    .
    .
    FM reply: The easy reply to the Dutch farmer is “The US is a large nation. We have no need to fight nature by building cities below sea level.”

  18. To Greg by way of Marcello:

    It has nothing to do with what we would and would not like. The person living the high life on credit cards doesn’t LIKE when the credit dries up. The guy mooching on your couch doesn’t LIKE when you start demanding rent. The spoiled brat living at home doesn’t LIKE when mom and dad throw her out. The government we want and the government we deserve are two separate things. We want a government that exports militarism around the world, we don’t want a government that makes us pay for that export. We want a government that makes us feel good and safe and powerful and important in the world, but only if we can shift the bill down the line.

    To whip this back around to the OP: We want the so called “independence” of driving as opposed to reasonable building and good mass transit. We want a vinyl house, built using the cheapest material, on a 3/4 acre plot, in the “Shady Creek” subdivision that recreates “country life” 40 miles from where we work.

    We don’t want to face the reality that gas is only going to get more expensive. We don’t want increased city or state taxes to pay for road maintenance. We’ll hold hostage the wealth of future generations so we can cling to these fantasies.

  19. “Once upon a time, American Exceptionalism was a good thing. Now it’s a sign of America’s decay and collapse. Within another 10 or 20 years, all of southern California will look like Detroit or Cleveland. Within another generation it will become standard practice to torture confessions out of suspects in police stations. Within another generation, America’s primary economic engine will be sex tourism.”

    Unless the shit really hits the fan on a world scale I tend to doubt that. When all is said and done the US is still a continental size nation with plenty of natural resources and 300 millions of people. It may lose the hyperpower status so cherished by the “bombs away” crowd, due to significant chunks of the rest of the world catching up in development, but I would expect it to retain at least great power status and mantain the strongest blue water navy in the world for a very long time.

  20. “Americans have plenty of natural resources ” .

    perhaps matched only by Canada and New Zealand , both of which keep a low profile . Lack of water , jobs , family planning and peace , may produce millions more immigrants , legal and illegal .How would you all get on in US with , say , three times as many people ? The other thing the US , like Europe , has been , is a fly-paper for clever or educated people ; the best migrate in , and stay . This is not going to continue , thanks to the Internet.

  21. An aside on American Exeptionalism: It has always amused me that the US is the only country in the CIA World Factbook that is noted as having a ‘strong democratic tradition’. Not even Switzerland has this and Switzerland is arguably the most democratic country in the world, with more political decisions having to go to referendum than anywhere else on Earth.

    It is not a result of GWOT (and subsequent ‘bring democracy to the masses’) that has entered this particular buzzword in th Factbook, I first noticed this in sociology class in highschool back in the early mid-nineties.
    .
    .
    FM reply: An easy winnier for “best of thread.” Also, this would be a super question for Jepordy or Trivia Pursuit.

  22. FM: “One of the great oddities of 21st century America: our inability to learn from other nations.

    Really a great thread comes out of this and the Link. “Subways” and then we end up talking about Exceptionalism: The reason why the US is the only nation mentioned as having a “strong democratic tradition” in the CIA FACTBOOK is because it is written BY Americans! And that right there is the essence of FM’s observation of “inability to learn from others…”.

    Why is it that one can see so much juvenile provincialism in many things American? Such myopia? Such a rush to disown the relationships that gave rise to us…to the USA? And concurrently such disdain for the real roots and first causes of the nation USA?

    Most of it is a long term liability just beginning to be seen and most of it arises due the original efforts of the immigrants who would be surprised that their efforts have led to an abandonment of the essential elements of the Enlightenment that gave rise to their original myth making.

    The status of America is mostly due to an historical accident. I would offer that any grouping of immigrants could have produced the nation, America during this short period of human history. Realizing it is one of the great joys of life to feel superior to someone, anyone, still it is so silly to look askance at what our cousins in Europe (and elswhere) have accomplished and have to offer for consideration just because they are NOT Americans….and that is exactly what we see many times.

    Yet “History ” has not recently been a subject of high regard at University and that will not change soon…..heaven’s there is money to be made out yonder in those Hills! Isn’t that FactBook correct?

Leave a Reply