Observations on America

I was travelling through Los Angeles, New York, and Washington the last two weeks in a book-promotion tour. It was my first real visit to the US so I was collecting impressions on the people and the culture there.

Some loose impressions from my egalitarian (Dutch/Australian) perspective about the Los Angeles area:

  1. Infectious optimism. People encourage each other in their plans and high ambitions, leading to a strong sense of possibilities and inventiveness.
  2. Beggars in the street, usually white or black males. Clearly the Latinos and Asians there look after their family members more….
  3. Bad roads. They tell me the roads were world class in decades past. Now, they’re ok, but certainly way behind the new roads in Australia, Europe and the new economies in Asia.
  4. A large degree of pride in the army. The first thing I heard when arriving at the airport was the free lounge available to army servicemen free of charge. Lots of clubs for servicemen around the city and many of the beggars advertise their past as soldiers, apparently aiming for sympathy on that ticket.
  5. There is a strange outward individualism about the US that hides an obvious underlying collectivity. The language is full of individual choice, but woe betide the person who doesn’t tip, who uses drugs for his own recreation, who arms himself (or not), who acts suspiciously wearing a hood, who makes unpatriotic jokes, or who goes around bare naked! ‘Freedom’ is thus used as a word in the oddest way in that it apparently justifies everything, including its opposite. As a word it has lost all meaning and is just used to imply the ability to inflict ones’ social norms on others.
  6. Religion. The number of churches and the level of devoutness, even in LA, just blows you away if you are used to the fairly agnostic and mildly atheist European and Australian societies.
  7. Old airports. They have security lanes that take forever, have taxi lanes that are poorly organised, and lack the luxury of new airports in Singapore or the Middle East. You learn to appreciate Australian airports!
  8. I liked some of the humour on display at Venice Beach. My favourite t-shirt inscription in LA: “Homeland security. Fighting terrorists since 1492” with a picture of marauding Native American on it.
  9. Old-fashioned police cars. You feel like you are on the set of Beverly Hills cops when you see the police cars.
  10. Obese people everywhere. And no vegetables or fruit in most of the local small shops. You seem to have to go to really big stores to get healthy food in LA. Portions in restaurants are huge.
  11. Compared to NY or Washington, LA strikes one as a large collection of suburbs, lacking a clear center. Nice beaches though. Similar climate to Queensland.
  12. You meet a lot of intensely held shallow beliefs, something you hardly encounter in Australia where many people are too relaxed to have intense views (except online). You meet ardent Buddhist who have clearly only ever read one book on the subject but who seem prepared to die in a ditch for that belief and declare everyone else to be wrong. You get free-marketers, socialists, hippies, etc., all very intense in their belief that they are right and everyone else is wrong on the basis of little reading. Its refreshing in a way because at least there is some fervor to it all, but it also makes for heated debates about nothing. What is particularly problematic is that many seem to deem it the height of personal shame to change their opinion. Don’t know why that is the equilibrium though for one can argue that the tendency to change ones mind after new information comes in represents the pinnacle of intellectualism.


On New York

  1. Fruit and vegetables on corner stores. You also see lots of flowers: the tastes of New Yorkers differ from the Californians. There is a huge diversity of shops too.
  2. NY feels like a movie scene. Outdoor escape ladders are prominent, reminding one of the 60s movies. NY has concrete pavements, not brick, giving it a slight Eastern European old-socialist feel. Indeed, the use of numbers, streets and avenues to denote spatial position has a very strong socialist-engineering feel.
  3. Some areas, like around Broadway, have a very European feel to them, almost like being in London near St. Pauls in the City. Some long avenues are reminiscent of the long boulevards in Paris.
  4. The fixed taxi fares from the airport to Manhattan (52 bucks fixed rate, independent of time of day) tell you there have been large taxi-scams in the past with philandering drivers over-charging and taking odd routes.
  5. Police cars and ambulances show their affiliation, ie the hospital and region they serve.
  6. The rich live in Manhattan, the black migrate there once a day: in the morning the maids and security people, often black, come in by tube. They thus migrate into Manhattan but cant afford to live there. To the rich, Manhattan has everything in it and some people proudly say they never intend to leave the island! Everyone else must come there eventually!
  7. Lots of pro bono work of companies: New York is full of good causes and political correctness. Every street sees some pamphlet for some good cause, often involving something in a land far off. To be socially caring is a norm.
  8. The responsible capitalist: inside the major organisations, teams are important and thus fuel the importance of team thinking. The large headquarters themselves have open plan offices, lots of women and seem high on empathy. The men are snags. You miss the cave-man aspect of masculinity when walking through NY!
  9. A strong sense of possibilities: New York feels itself at the top of the world and a place where its possible to think new things, try new ways, and make a difference. You can tell why it is so rich.

On the speeches you see in the parks in Washington:

  1. The absence of competition as a positive driving force in the speeches associated with the great presidents and thinkers that adorn the parks of Washington (such as Martin Luther King, or Lincoln, or Roosevelt): its all about the togetherness of everyone and the importance of common values and worrying about every problem everywhere. Its all about endless possibilities and universal values and goodwill. In none that I read do you get a sense of tradeoffs or how important it is for the health of all that, in local and international life, man is pitted against man in a struggle for more money and influence. The basic insight of economics that competition can be a force for good is thus nowhere, and indeed, reading just all the speeches, you’d think the US is the most socialist land in the world. Its a bit unreal.
  2. The pretense in political speeches that there are no boundaries. You wonder after an hour of reading these speeches whether they really don’t see the budget constraint or are going along with some weird social norm to pretend there is none. Not only is every dream achievable, every problem solvable, but everyone can do everything if they put their hearts in it and keep that sacred commitment going. A childlike belief that good intentions and hard work will get mythical deserts. That constant kind of in-your-face negation of one of the main insights economics (which is that not everything is possible and that everything has an opportunity cost!) must force intellectuals into a fairly radical choice, i.e. to accept that most of what they hear is nonsense or else to give themselves over to the rhetoric and spend their life denying the evidence around them of tradeoffs.

On balance, the US is of course a fairly successful and fairly normally functioning nation state. You hear a lot of nonsense about it going to the dogs but I didn’t see any real signs of that at all, either on the streets or in the overall statistics of that country. The main big thing that is noticeable is the huge inequality and all the b-s that comes with its justification and maintenance. It makes me warmly support compulsory voting in Australia!

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john r walker
10 years ago

on “Religion.” I am told that in the US payments to churches themselves are Tax deductable (not just to charitable schemes run by Churches as it here ). Would think that this goes some way towards explaining the sheer number of churches ( and varieties of churches) in the US.

Ingolf Eide
10 years ago

Good stuff, Paul. Great to get an anecdotal, open-minded take.

Love that T-shirt inscription too . . .

Nicholas Gruen
10 years ago

Thanks for the post Paul. I loved it. I liked the staccato lists on LA and NY the best. Didn’t notice all the snagdom in NY myself, but perhaps I wasn’t looking. All the causes give one cause fatigue I reckon – and feed a kind of self-righteousness in which the good guys have causes and those that don’t are deadbeats – not keeping up their end of the social bargain.

On the army – absolutely true, and strange for us guys. Again, there’s a kind of creepy piousness about it. I was thinking about this recently when Julia G was going out of her way to canonise our soldiers in Afghanistan. I’m naturally someone who’s not very enamoured of reflexive left opposition to that kind of thing, but I wondered about what it was all about. And what it’s about is that saying nice things about the army is a kind of reference to a secular sacredness. Perhaps it’s necessary to a society that is capable of defending itself.

But the fact is that our soldiers are pretty much you’re average Joes, from our country, no better or worse than those back here. We feel grateful to them for doing what they’re doing because we feel we might lack the courage – but most of us really don’t know. We didn’t go into that line of work and have challenges of our own, choices we make between courage and cowardice, doing the right thing and not. So I wish them all like all Right Thinking Troppodillians, but then I wish our nurses well and our teachers and all the rest of them.

As for NY being a movie set, have you ever noticed that Americans are all in their own movie? And the police don’t seem to be able to drive anywhere without their sirens blaring.

My recent trip to both Europe and the US led me to appreciate our infrastructure. Who wouldda thunk? Us with our measly government/GDP share actually have pretty good infrastructure. Our freeways are wider, with better entry and exit ramps than most autostrada/bahns in Europe. Our airports work. etc.

10 years ago

I was amazed in New York how good the customer service was in restaurant and shops. People talk about it being good in Japan, but New York it was even better.

The clothing store staff were adept at picking my size without measurements and quickly worked to cater for the peculiarities of my figure. They had a genuine enthusiasm for the clothes and many of the shops served complementary bottles of water or beer while you browsed.

Similarly the waiters were attentive and competent without being robotic.

The bartenders were great conversationalists and genuinely interested in hearing about my travels.

Crocodile Chuck
Crocodile Chuck
10 years ago

1) One reason the military is so ‘popular’ is that it is the default candidate for support as a government entity. This is a marker for the gaping divisions in US society. No other arm of government cold be supported by both sides of politics.
2) ‘You hear a lot of nonsense about how the country is going to the dogs but I didn’t see any real signs of that at all, either on the streets or in the overall statistics of that country’ Uh, you flew through LAX, LGA and the Washington airport, correct? With its attendant insane ‘security theatre’? And, did you happen to notice the murder rate by firearms, and the ‘concealed carry’ legislation in many (most) US states? And you DID notice the walking endemic health problems aka the morbidly obese?

None so blind, all that……….

10 years ago

I have only spent 10 days in the US. After decades of watching movies and TV from the US I was immediately bowled over by disparity in wealth. You could be walking along really nice streets and then conditions suddenly deteriorate and you see people standing around fires warming themselves! It seems living on the streets is just part of the natural order of things and not considered a problem.

The service in shops was excellent. The food was a bit tasteless and the servings were insanely big. In one restaurant it seemed like every plate went back only half eaten. Maybe this is not standard in all parts of the US but i got the feeling that quantity was more attractive than quality when it comes to food.

“It makes me warmly support compulsory voting in Australia!”

Experience has shown that if voting is no longer a requirement then it soon turns into a privilege that is withdrawn from sizeable portions of the population. See Sarah Silverman’s great short video on voter ID laws