Visiting the U.S. for the first time has to be weird for foreigners. This has been the case for as long as America has been a nation, and in fact a French guy made quite a name for himself writing about our peculiarities for a Continental audience over two centuries ago. We've always been a bit "different" and like most countries we're rather proud of (some of) our unique attributes. But I think we are starting to overdo it with the cognitive dissonance. We're far and away the wealthiest nation on Earth but we sure as hell don't look like it. We've built a magnificent castle of wealth on top of crumbling, centuries-old infrastructure in which no one seems willing or able to invest. The effect is not unlike seeing a decrepit trailer park with a 2010 Bugatti Veyron parked out front.
Two anecdotes are relevant before we move on.
First, I have a friend who was raised in Berlin Wall-era Eastern Europe. I once asked her to recount her impression, having been raised in a much different society and subject to considerable anti-American propaganda, of seeing America for the first time. She responded that she was amazed at how shabby it was (being in the South at the time didn't help). Potholed, filthy streets lined with boarded up buildings. Trash everywhere. Public transportation systems that would embarrass any other nation on Earth. Say what you will about the failings of the Communist system, she concluded, but at least it was clean and looked like someone gave a shit about it.
Second, the company at which I worked in Chicago for several years briefly took in a Kenyan exchange student studying law at a university in the city. He accompanied me on a field visit to a hospital in the decrepit Austin neighborhood on the far west side. He surveyed the neighborhood and said "This looks exactly like Nairobi." That made me incredibly sad. It didn't help 30 seconds later when he added "Actually, most of Nairobi is nicer than this."
I don't think many Americans understand this. We raise our children to believe that everyone else in the world wants to come live in America. Most of us, I think, believe that America looks terribly impressive to foreign visitors. I seriously doubt that Los Angeles is impressive to a traveler. Other countries have shitholes too, so I assume most visitors have seen one before.
Pictured: St. Louis. Or maybe Mogadishu. I don't know.
The NYT has recently emphasized the fact that most major cities' sewage networks are crumbling. Many date back to the 19th Century and are literally leaking shit into our water. Our roads and bridges are disintegrating (and occasionally fails at considerable economic and human cost). Our society and economy rest upon a "third world power grid" that occasionally fails spectacularly. The average African country has better, newer, cheaper cell phone infrastructure. We lose (waste) seven billion gallons of clean, treated water every day through the leaks in our water system. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that it would take a five year investment of over two trillion dollars to bring the nation's road, levee, and utility infrastructure up to a passing grade. Not even an A. Just a C. And this doesn't even include general urban blight – the collapsing tenements, abandoned businesses, and wagon-rut roads.
Our theory, aided considerably by how continuously broke state and local governments are, seems to be of the patch-and-pray variety: do just enough to prevent total collapse and hope it holds up. We did precious little to address this with the Federal stimulus package, most likely because the right would have gone into hysterics over infrastructure projects as a Trojan Horse for funneling kickbacks to organized labor. Not that we could use blue collar jobs these days.
It makes perfect sense that Americans, like many people, adopt the ego-defensive position that we live in a great place. While we certainly don't need anything else to be sad about these days, I can't help but wonder why more people do not look around and think, "Wow. Was this place always such a dump?" Instead we tell ourselves that billions of people around the globe secretly long to live in Spartanburg or Waco or Merced. Sure they do, Billy. Sure they do.