American Urban Decay

American Urban Decay

As you may have heard, Tucker Carlson recently stirred up the indignation of political observers on both the Left and the Right, uniting them, if only briefly, in their hatred of him.

What’s that, you say?  You need more context to know what I’m talking about?  Everything Tucker does stirs up the indignation of political observers on both the Left and the Right, uniting them, if only briefly, in their hatred of him?

Oh.  Well…in this case, I’m talking specifically about Tucker’s observation, made in Abu Dhabi, that many of the world’s cities – and especially their public transportation systems – are far superior to American cities:

What was radicalizing, very shocking and very disturbing for me was the city of Moscow, where I’d never been, the biggest city in Europe… is so much nicer than any city in my country. I had no idea….

If you can’t use your subway, for example, as many people are afraid to in New York City because it’s too dangerous, you have to sort of wonder like, isn’t that the ultimate measure of leadership?…

It’s radicalizing for an American to go to Moscow. I didn’t know that. I’ve learned it this week, to Singapore, to Tokyo, to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, because these cities, no matter how we’re told they’re run and on what principles they’re run, are wonderful places to live…that don’t have rampant inflation, where you’re not gonna get raped….

Some of Tucker’s critics, like the eminently sensible Henry Olsen, pointed out that “he could be jailed in four of those cities if he forcefully criticizes the government.”  This is inarguably true.  Others, less eminently sensible, insisted that Tucker’s comments were racist, that he only thinks Moscow is neato because it has no black people.  Because of course.

For my part, I was specifically interested in Tucker’s comments about being afraid to use the subway systems.  This is an issue I’ve been pondering quite a bit lately, for a couple of reasons.

First, and more generally, I think a great deal about the world that the environmentalists and environmentalist-adjacent technocrats wish to create, beyond fossil fuels.  In almost every scenario, getting beyond fossil fuels means getting beyond automobiles and, accordingly, much greater use of public transportation.  The Greenies and the Davos-ians can’t quite understand why Americans are so disinterested in using public transportation.  They’re selfish, we’re told.  And not-public-spirited.  They’re backward and ignorant and thoughtlessly concerned only about their own “freedom.”

Or – and hear me out, here – Americans are repulsed by public transportation as it exists in the country today.  They’re not especially interested in being compelled to rely on dirty, smelly, dangerous, unkempt, unsafe, and unpleasant trains and buses to get where they need to go.

The other reason we were interested in Tucker’s comments is that we just read the following, from Chris Arnade, who is, in many ways, the opposite of Tucker:

Ever since I began my project to walk around the world, it has always been jarring to come home to the US, often from much poorer countries — in this case Bulgaria — to find that our infrastructure is infinitely worse. Of course, flying internationally is still a luxury, and complaining about it is a bit elitist. I really wish the US, and JFK in particular, would make an effort to meet global standards of air travel — but it was what happened after I left the airport that convinced me that America, and especially NYC, is broken.

After crashing at a friend’s house not far from JFK, I got up to take a 4:39am subway train to the Port Authority bus terminal in Manhattan, so I could catch the first bus home. The train, to be fair, was on time. But it was filthy. The carriages were mostly empty, except for three or four homeless guys in each who were either sleeping or passed-out. The dozen or so of us who got on at the first stop chose our seats carefully, positioning ourselves close to each other, for safety, and as far as possible from the sprawled-out guys and their piles of trash and puddles of urine….

I thought about Sofia, where the subways and buses — and other public spaces and resources — are so much cleaner, safer, and smoother. Where workers simply wanting to get to their jobs don’t have to deal with navigating the mentally ill, addicted and desperate every day. For context, the GDP of Manhattan alone is about nine times that of the entire nation of Bulgaria. But NYC’s problems only seem to be getting worse, especially for those who have the least. I don’t have to take the subway; I have the cash for an Uber. But I try to see, and to understand a little, the world as most people see and understand the world….

Eventually, that morning, a guy covered in old vomit and carrying a cane, his trousers only just above his knees, got onto the subway train, and went up and down each carriage, hitting every sleeping or passed-out guy on the legs, yelling at them to move on, to give the rest of us some space. Everyone else pretended it wasn’t happening, hoping it wouldn’t go south, focusing instead on the floor or their phones.

And nothing “bad” did happen, beyond a few raised voices and some pantomime air punches. We all got where we needed to go.

But having garbage-strewn subways that effectively serve as mobile homeless shelters is no way to run a public transit system.

You should, as they say, read the whole thing.  Although Arnade doesn’t go as far as Tucker does, suggesting that foreign cities are “better” than American cities, he does confirm (from a completely different perspective) much of what Tucker said, i.e. American cities are broken.

Arnade gives a solid explanation for the problem, noting that the United States is a “high-regulation/low-trust” society in which such brokenness is often the inevitable outcome.  He’s not wrong.

At the same time, however, I can’t help but think that the state of the nation’s cities is, in part, a reflection of the politicization of everything.   For at least the last 60 years, American cities have been governed not for the benefit of their residents but for the benefit of political power consolidation.  Cities are managed specifically to ensure the application of ideological principles and the maintenance of the partisan status quo.  In other words, New York and Chicago and San Francisco (and practically every city in between) are experiments in liberal-Left policies and Democratic machine politics.  They are run of, by, and for the machines and their ideological solons, not for the people who live there.

Sometimes, on very rare occasions, cities can break out of this politicized rut, electing new leaders with new ideas – Rudy Giuliani, for example – who change the entire spirit of the metropolis.  In time, however, even these breakout efforts fall victim to ideological sniping and partisan grift, leaving the city polarized, politicized, and further degraded.

Unless and until we stop thinking about cities as Democratic or (vanishingly rare) Republican “strongholds,” our cities will remain disastrous, especially given the vast wealth to which they are home.  Walking home from school safely or riding the train without fear of being raped or charged with murder for preventing a rape are NOT inherently political issues.  As long as we keep treating them as such, however, the more grotesque our cities will become.

Tucker wasn’t right, exactly.  But he wasn’t wrong.

Stephen Soukup
Stephen Soukup
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Steve Soukup is the Vice President and Publisher of The Political Forum, an “independent research provider” that delivers research and consulting services to the institutional investment community, with an emphasis on economic, social, political, and geopolitical events that are likely to have an impact on the financial markets in the United States and abroad.