I’d like to compare three cities: Paris, New York, Boston. They’re about equally wealthy, and I’ve lived years in two and spent a lot of time in the third. Americans dismiss New York and Boston too often as Not Real America, but they’re both excellent examples of how the US differs from Europe.
Private affluence and squalor at home
Visit the home of a middle-class person in the city. (I mean “middle-class” in the European sense of “reasonably educated professional,” not the American one of “not homeless.”) If you’re used to a certain suburban American standard of normality then the New York apartment will look small to you, but the one in Boston will not, and a few years seeing how Europeans live will disabuse you of any notion that New York apartments are small.
Parisian apartments are tiny. I had 40 square meters near Nation, but the citywide average is 31 per person; in New York, it’s 50 if I understand the Census Factfinder correctly. There are studios in Paris well below 20 m^2 – even Stockholm tends to stick to micro-units in the 20-25 m^2 area. There is something called studettes going down to 9 m^2 in the most extreme cases, many inherited from servant attic units built in the Second Empire and Belle Epoque. In New York it’s more or less prohibited by regulation, with the attendant high rents, but the regulations are about bedrooms, not unit size, hence the common experience of living 3 or 4 people to a large apartment, one that in Continental Europe is largely restricted to lower-income cities like Lisbon or Berlin.
In the 1950s, when John Galbraith coined the expression private affluence and public squalor, the American home had amenities unheard of in Europe, like universal ownership of appliances. This is not as stark a distinction today. Europeans have televisions and fast Internet connections for cheaper prices than in the US. But Europeans don’t have driers or air conditioning and don’t have dishwashers as commonly as Americans. I don’t want to exaggerate the difference in housing quality – for one, insulation is a lot better in Paris (and Berlin) than in New York and Boston, so the experience of living on the 3rd floor facing a city street is a lot noisier west of the Pond than east of it. For another difference, American air conditioning is window units in all but the highest-end apartments, which would have central air in Europe too. But the difference exists, and is noticeable.
Public affluence and squalor on the street
Let’s leave the inside of our houses now. How does the public sphere look?
The recent reporting of New York as trash city can make people think that this is literally about the street. To some extent, this is – but it’s not just about trash. For one, the street lighting is better in Paris, and better in Manhattan than in Cambridge, in what I think is an artifact of high density and not just wealth. For two, I don’t remember having to dodge puddles in the rain in Paris; in New York and Boston it’s a common occurrence whenever there’s heavier rain than a drizzle. For three, in the snow, Cambridge becomes mostly impassable to pedestrians, and while Paris does not get serious enough snow for shoveling to ever be a big issue, Stockholm does and the sidewalks in Central Stockholm are shoveled just fine.
The importance of Paris’s wealth and density is that Berlin is not this nice. The street lighting in Berlin is not great by Parisian standards (or, as I recall, by Stockholm ones?). Walking around Bernauer Strasse (let alone Neukölln, one of inner Berlin’s poorest neighborhoods), one never gets the feeling the area is as well-off as Nation, which is itself lower middle-class by Parisian standards. I’m saying this knowing the comparative income levels of Berlin and Paris, and perhaps it’s unfair, but from what I’ve seen, it’s fairly easy to compare France and Germany, their relative levels of public and private affluence are similar.
Most Americans know, on some level, that various public services are better in Western Europe. Life expectancy in France is higher than in the US by 3-4.5 years depending on source, and life expectancy in Germany is higher by 2-3 years. New York and Massachusetts are wealthy states and outlive the rest of the country by a margin, but they’re still not French, let alone Parisian.
Public health is there in various statistics, but the same is true of transportation. This is not even just public transportation – my recollection of the handful of times I’ve found myself in a taxi in Paris is that it’s a much more pleasant experience than the potholed American streets I’ve taken taxis or ridden with other people on. But it’s much more glaring in public transit than on roads, because public transit inherently requires more public competence. Parisians do not think the RER is particularly good, but it’s a marvel compared with any American commuter rail network, and involves a level of interagency coordination in fares, schedules, and services that is unheard of in the United States.
Worse, public transit in the United States has the reputation of a social service. In metro New York the incomes of transit and car commuters are very close, and in metro Boston transit commuters slightly outearn car commuters, but in both areas, anything that is not a segregated suburban middle-class commuter line is treated as a social service, run by managers who do not use their own system and do not consider use cases beyond their own 9-to-5 work travel.
Squalor and incompetence
Squalor and incompetence feed each other. This does not mean poverty is a moral failing or a result of weakness or stupidity. But it does mean that someone who is denied access to good work will, over a lifetime, learn to do lower-value things and, even if the job denial at 18 was entirely random or a matter of discrimination, be worse at high-value jobs by 50. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that countries with more income mobility and less persistent poverty – for examples, Canada, Australia, and the Nordic countries – do not determine people’s careers by how they did at 18 at the university admissions the way the US, UK, and France do. Talented Canadians who get worse grades in high school because of obstructive teachers will have opportunities to shine at 23 that their French or American counterparts, denied the ability to go to the most prestigious universities, will simply not get.
I bring this up because the US has a cycle of public squalor. Public-sector wages are uncompetitive, so workers are either nerds with particular personal or social interest in the field (sanitation, public transit, etc.), or people who couldn’t get better private-sector work – and this is particularly acute at the management level, especially senior management, since the best managers can leak to the private sector and get better pay there. Weak civil service in turns reduces the political will to pay civil servants high salaries, especially among politicians, who encounter senior managers much more often than they do hard-working train drivers, sanitation workers, and individual teachers.
There’s perhaps an analog of private affluence and public squalor, in which Americans are individually diligent and collectively lazy. Some of this has to be political: ambitious politicians get ahead by doing nothing and packaging it as bravery. I can name multiple national Republicans who became nationally famous by saying no to spending, and not a single Democrat who became nationally famous by successfully pushing through a major government program, such statewide universal health care or a green transition. But it’s not just politicians and their political appointees – there’s punch-clock behavior and agency turf battles below that level.
Is there a solution?
Unambiguously, yes. It’s not evident from just reading about the history of the Anglosphere, since Britain took forever to develop its civil service and thus assumes the process would be equally long in South Korea or Finland (“first 500 years are hardest“). It requires political will, and often a good model – I suspect Finland was able to develop good government so quickly because it consciously imitated Swedish governance. It doesn’t even require setting everything on fire first – South Korea and Taiwan engaged in land reform but did not kill the entire middle class the way some communist countries did.
The good news is that most public-sector workers in the US are not incompetent political appointees. The people I talk to in New York and Boston are sharp and informed and often difficult to keep up with because of how much they understand that I don’t, and for the most part I get the impression that they don’t think their colleagues are morons. The competence level on average decreases as one goes upward, partly because of negative selection of management, but it’s possible and desirable to internally promote people and raise wages to retain talent.
Fundamentally, the US needs to let go of the idea that the public is inferior to the private. But this isn’t just about what’s in Americans’ heads. They need to treat the public commons well, and I don’t just mean building monuments that look nice now and will rust in 10 years. I mean investing in public services, and paying the people who provide them competitively. Public squalor is a choice the US makes every day that it can stop making.