America's 'natural habitat'


The most interesting online discussion I've seen in a while, courtesy of Atrios, is this article and the many comments that followed about a) the differences in how tourists experience the United States versus Europe and b) the differences in the way that people live in these very different industrialized corners of the world. Much of it comes down to the age-old debate of cities v. suburbs (which author Bryan Caplan calls, accurately, our "natural habitat"). Caplan endorses the American way because he doesn't want to bicycle to a grocery store and, in his words:

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.

There are good reasons for endorsing the American suburban lifestyle, but for some reason Appleby's and Costco weren't the first two things that came to mind. While I think Caplan's arguments are fascinating, they're also a tad simplistic. There's no mention of what I think most people would identify as the No. 1 reason that that many people live in or move to American suburbs, which is wanting to send their kids to the best schools that they can afford. I'm not an expert but my sense is that Europeans don't have the huge (and highly unfair) gap between urban and non-urban schools that Americans have to deal with.

Also, I think there's this outdated notion from the Levittown era that the American suburbs are chock full of people fleeing the crowded city. That was 1951. Today, millions of people from my generation -- yes, Generation Jones -- have lived in the suburbs for most of our lives; today moving into a suburban home is often not getting away from something but actually moving to something, closer to parents and other family members or the friends we grew up with -- in other words, the community we've known for most of our lives. That's a positive thing.

Having said all that, the point that the pro-Europeans generally make in the comments following the Caplan piece is that the urban, European lifestyle is more social and more friend-oriented, that Americans suburbs can still be an isolating place -- and that's a compelling argument. I think for American suburbanites, a challenge of the 21st Century will be creating that sense of a broader social community that's been lost over the last half-century or so. And it won't be discovered on Facebook.

(Photo by David Shankbone)