Manhattan Dirtier than Singapore

Pulaski Skyway Photo The lovely and talented Belle Waring is visiting her native New York from her home in Singapore and was shocked to find how dirty Manhattan, and in particular the Pulaski Skyway (pictured right), is.

Old metal that’s just black with soot! And graffiti! Man, if I fully acclimatize to the level of cleanliness, safety, and well-built massive public investment projects of Singapore I’ll never be able to move home.

Matt Yglesias, from whom I learned of the above post along with Belle’s husband, John Holbo, observes that, “a country like the United States just isn’t going to be able to compete infrastructure-wise with a newly-prosperous country like Singapore — we have a lot of stuff that’s oldish, but still usable, and shutting it down to fix or replace it would be extremely inconvenient.” He helpfully adds, “But it’s also the case that Singapore’s not spending 1 percent of GDP a year on a misguided effort to control Iraq.”

The latter is no doubt [probably] true. [Dave Schuler notes in the comments that, “Singapore has been part of the MNF in Iraq since the beginning and have been enthusiastic supporters of the enterprise.”] Then again, I don’t recall Manhattan having been exactly spic and span in 2003. Or, indeed, 1985. So I’m going to discount the war as the proximate cause of the Skyway’s sootiness nothwithstanding that we could undoubtedly get Manhattan quite clean if we were to devote 1 percent of GDP a year to that end.

It does strike me, though, that a newly rich, authoritarian island city state has decided advantages over an enormous continental liberal democracy in presenting a shiny face to the world. If, arguendo, the next president were to come to office with prettying up the infrastructure as a top priority, he’d surely face strong opposition in both Houses of Congress. Members would no doubt prefer to spend limited resources on building new roads and bridges rather than sandblasting the old ones, for reasons both practical and political. Further, infrastructure spending has to compete against other demands, such as health care, education, and, yes, defense. And, of course, there is enormous popular resistance to raising taxes. In hierarchical societies such as Singapore, these constraints are largely absent.

Beyond that,though, I think there are cultural differences. Americans seem much more willing than people in most of the rest of the developed world to accept visual blight. Dilapidated structures, abandoned buildings, garish billboards and neon signage, overhead utility cables, and the like are quite normal even in close proximity to affluent areas. That’s much less the case in, say, Amsterdam or Frankfurt. Why this is, I have no idea.

Photo: Doc Searls

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. just me says:

    Isn’t Singapore the country where chewing gum can get you locked up in jail? Isn’t that also where the kid from the US who vandalized cars to caned and jail time? I wonder if Americans would stand for the sorts of laws they have there?

  2. sam says:

    Uh, the Pulaski Skyway is in New Jersey some distance from Manhattan.

  3. Hope Muntz says:

    Because we abandon our cities to immigrants almost as soon as we build them.

    And unlike Singapore, we don’t cane them for dropping chewing gum on the sidewalk.

  4. Bithead says:

    The latter is no doubt true. Then again, I don’t recall Manhattan having been exactly spic and span in 2003. Or, indeed, 1985. So I’m going to discount the war as the proximate cause of the Skyway’s sootiness nothwithstanding that we could undoubtedly get Manhattan quite clean if we were to devote 1 percent of GDP a year to that end.

    Maybe so. But I don’t recall large numbers of people moving to Singapore from the US. I do, however, recall the reverse. I’m not by any means suggesting ‘love it or leave it’ or anything of the sort… but it does seem there’s a large number of things the author hasn’t fully considered in her assesment of the situation.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    But it’s also the case that Singapore’s not spending 1 percent of GDP a year on a misguided effort to control Iraq.

    I don’t know how much Singapore is spending in Iraq (I suspect that MY doesn’t, either) but Singapore has been part of the MNF in Iraq since the beginning and have been enthusiastic supporters of the enterprise.

    If MY is concerned about the free ridership issue, I think it’s a reasonable concern and extends beyond Singapore to China, India, Japan and many other countries. Are we paying more than our share for the security umbrella that we’re extending? It would make an interesting question for debate.

  6. DC Loser says:

    Let’s step back a minute and not go down the road of the inane comparison between the US and Singapore. That’s not the real point. What is needed is a serious assessment of what is necessary to maintain our infrastructure like roads, bridges, rail, electrical networks, etc. In parts of the country, we have descended into third world levels of infrastructure reliability that’s really shameful for a superpower. It’s kinda like what we used to say about the Soviet Union – a third world country with a first world military. I don’t think it’s debatable that we need to invest more in our infrastructure.

  7. Bob says:

    If memory serves me right the combined costs for both Iraq and Afghanistan comes to .5% of GDP (one half of one percent).

  8. Dave Schuler says:

    I don’t think it’s debatable that we need to invest more in our infrastructure.

    I agree completely. The only question I have is what do we mean by “we”?

    Is maintaining a bridge in Minneapolis primarily used by commuter traffic the reasonable responsibility of the federal government? I would think it would be an expense that should mostly be borne by Minneapolis, Hennepin County, and the state of Minnesota. Should people in Louisiana be taxed to build roads and bridges in Alaska?

    To clarify: I think the issue is not one of absolute involvement but of relative involvement, an issue of subsidiarity.

  9. just me says:

    Also keep in mind that local government has a lot to do with how much blight is tolerated and how well infrastructure works.

    Sometimes the problem isn’t lack of funding but in lack of priorities to maintain buildings and roads and the like in the local government.

  10. Dave Schuler says:

    Sometimes the problem isn’t lack of funding but in lack of priorities to maintain buildings and roads and the like in the local government.

    I think it’s actually even more complicated than that. Gridlock and political infighting aren’t solely features of the federal government. They’re problems at the state, county, and city level, too (as we here in Chicago, Cook County, Illinois can attest).

  11. just me says:

    Actually I imagine it is probably worse at the local level.

  12. Brian J. says:

    Perhaps the differences stem from a greater live and let live attitude toward others, lesser busybodyism, and respect for individual right to property than those other places?

    Of course, that’s all changing now without the cosmetic improvements unless you think a new cheap strip mall or casino is better than old individual residences.

  13. Wayne says:

    DC loser
    Claiming the US has a third world country infrastructure is crazy. We couldn’t maintain such a dominant economy if that was true. Which parts in this country have third world infrastructure? Our dirt roads are in better shape than many other countries main roads.

    Point to a few black bridges and graffiti walls then scream the sky is falling. Please. There isn’t a town in the continental US that aren’t easily accessible. Railroad tracks crisscross this country. Ports and airports a many. Telecommunications all over the place. Massive Banking systems and the list goes on and on.

    Typical liberal mentality. They find a couple of negatives to point at and then claim what a disaster. They don’t look at the positives of the US or the negatives of others but I suppose that wouldn’t fit their agenda.

  14. DC Loser says:

    Wayne, you obviously haven’t driven the interstates around Detroit (or Wash DC)lately, or trying to take passenger rail outside of the NE corridor and get to your destination on time. How about the lousy broadband and cell phone service we have compared to what the South Koreans or Europeans can get for less? If we say we are a first world country with a first world infrastructure, let’s stop this “we’re #1” schtick and put our money where our mouths are.

  15. Wayne says:

    DCL
    It has been close to three years since I been to Detroit or DC. However I’m sure they are like most major cities like Dallas, St Louis, etc. Traffic is crowded but they do move a great deal of people. Rail outside of NE has suck for years. One they charge as much as a airline ticket and take longer. Two the US is spread out more than other countries and US citizens do prefer to drive and we have the infrastructure for that. My experience with Heathrow Airport in London pale compare to US airports but Heathrow do push the people though.

    South Korea has 50 million people in the space of Indiana. It easier to build up cell phone services in that situation. The US still has very good coverage. I never claim that we were number one if every little area but I would say we are number one overall. USA is like a top rated Decathlon athlete. Yes there may be a better athlete in any one event but very few if any that are the top contenders at many events.

    To claim the US has lousy infrastructure because another country may be a little better in one area is not more than being a US hater. Much of what is considered better is subjective anyway. Is a dirt road that I am usually on by myself and can go 100 MPH better then a crowded interstate that transports 1000’s going 70?