Observations on LA, New York, and Washington

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!

Author: paulfrijters

Professor of Wellbeing and Economics at the London School of Economics, Centre for Economic Performance

6 thoughts on “Observations on LA, New York, and Washington”

  1. I’m surprised you hadn’t really been to the US before. You seem to have gotten a lot of good insights though in a short time. I think it is hard to understand the world without understanding the US quite well. The climate in LA is more like Perth though. I think that paradoxes, contrasts, hypocrisies are a big thing in the US puzzle. Big porn industry and access to it combined with widespread puritanism about many things at the same time, for example.


  2. Egalitarian? The Dutch? Maybe to the extent of collectively agreeing that the Dutch are fundamentally superior to all other races, nationalities and species.

    Being the cruellest yet least competent European power of the colonial era didn’t seem to harm the national psyche at all, so full points for resilience at least.

    The US, meanwhile, is an amazing place, and certainly not on the brink of collapse. It’s a wellspring of ingenuity, art, technology and fresh ideas.

    As the post observes, though, it’s a very self-obsessed place. There’s so much happening within America that world affairs are regarded as distant, parochial matters involving strange tribes with weird customs and languages, and many Americans are truly unaware of the extent to which their nation interferes with other societies. That’s why they seem so hypocritical when they’re upset that the US has to abide by international laws or, worse, when inhabitants of one of those alien places attacks America, which they believe is just sitting there innocently making apple pie and sitcoms.

    Definitely on the compulsory polling. Survey after survey demonstrates that the American populace is centre-left, but a quick bit of gerrymandering and rabble-rousing can establish an extremist conservative voting base that carries elections.


  3. Nice article, a lot of great insights. I have a question about inequality and the b-s justification used to maintain it. Are you primarily referring to:
    A. Those who argue for lower levels of government spending and taxation (primarily benefiting the rich at the expense of the poor). For example, the Koch brothers, Murdoch, Wall Street.
    B. Those who lobby for special privileges that redistribute wealth to themselves, at a loss to society. For example, agricultural subsidies, Medicare, tariffs, DOD, and excessive regulation (on competitors).
    C. Those who use the state to maintain above market wages, benefits, and rules that protect their privileged status. For example, most government bureaucrats, a student loan system that shields universities from cutting administrative bloat, teachers unions. (Primarily benefiting incumbents at the expense of consumers/taxpayers.)
    D. None of the above.


  4. Interesting observations, but on a very small subset. I have travelled extensively in the USA over a period of twenty years. You have barely touched the surface. Go back again an learn more. It is a highly complex and diverse country which few academics here in Australia really understand.


  5. Sancho,

    “Being the cruellest yet least competent European power of the colonial era didn’t seem to harm the national psyche at all, so full points for resilience at least. ”
    Hahahaha. You seem to have a chip on your shoulder regarding Dutch history!? My stock in trade response is that I try no to hold people responsible for what other people did before they were born.

    A+B+C+E+F+…. E and following to be explained at a later date!

    you like telling economists how superior you feel to them, don’t you? I don’t really mind, but why don’t you just get over it and join them!


  6. Sancho,
    Title of “cruelest European colonial power” has some serious competition, but the Dutch are not very high on that list. Certainly they are behind Portugal who left Timor, Mozambique and Angola in ruins, and even further behind Belgium who’s cruelty echos even today in Rwanda and the Congo. Have you read Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ about the Belgium Congo. We don’t know what nationality Kurtz is — only that “all Europe went into the making of Kurtz”.
    Sam Wylie


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