Magazine | December 22, 2014, Issue

Roadside Attractions

Hotels, motels, trains, and cultures

The wonders of modern American life are, most of the time, utterly invisible to us, for the same reason that water is invisible to fish. What begins as extraordinary becomes, over time, ordinary, and, if it survives long enough, an object of contempt. Consider the case of the great American roadside hotel.

Outside of a shopping mall, there is probably no privately owned yet undeniably public space so familiar, so intuitive, so aggressively generic in the literal sense of that word as the American business-class hotel. I write this from a desk at a Hampton Inn, Hilton’s contribution to the genre, right off the Highway 79 bypass in rural Arkansas, but the other players in the market are equally familiar: Holiday Inn Express, Courtyard by Marriott, and other “upper economy” hotels, frequently located on the frontage roads of interstate highways, sandwiched between a Cheddar’s and a Chili’s and a Joe’s Crab Shack, or similar accommodations. Not quite a full-fat Holiday Inn, but a step up from Econo Lodge or one of those dodgy-looking independent operations that look less like an opportunity to catch a few hours’ sleep and more like an opportunity to catch syphilis.

Though generally catering to motorists, these buttoned-down establishments are distinct from motels, an entirely different genre that had its beginnings in (inevitably) Southern California with the Milestone Mo-Tel in San Luis Obispo before exploding into a riotous and uniquely American art form in the middle of the 20th century, the form’s architectural trademarks being the angular rooflines of the Howard Johnson’s chain and the exuberant, scalene lines of modernist portes-cochères sheltering the tailfins on Americans’ brand-new cars. The motel is where you stayed on beach vacations or conducted affairs; it is about fun, licit or otherwise. The upper-economy hotel is all about business, or at least about necessity.

But if you travel abroad very much at all, you will come to appreciate the magnificence of American business-class hotels, which dramatically outclass their foreign counterparts. Outside of the nation’s priciest precincts, they typically run around $100 a night, sometimes a bit less, for which one receives a clean, quiet, uncramped room, with first-rate climate control (often deficient even in the better European hotels), good and serviceable linen on the bed and in the bathroom, a desk, an adequate but by no means spectacular Internet connection, access to a printer and to computers in case you haven’t brought your laptop, etc. Many offer workout facilities, swimming pools, and a breakfast buffet that should probably be avoided (unless you are in the part of the country that knows how to make breakfast tacos and there are breakfast tacos to be had) except for the coffee, which you will want, because you are not here on leisure, not here to lay about in bed — you have somewhere to be if you’re staying here, and you need to get going, and it might take a moment to figure out which rented Chevrolet Cruze in the parking lot is yours.

Assuming itineraries that are not heavy on New York City, D.C., and San Francisco, and assuming that one signs up for all of the rewards programs, one could live on the road, in these modest hotels, for significantly less than the average apartment rental in Manhattan ($3,763/month), a prospect to which this roving correspondent is giving some idle consideration. Staying at a Courtyard, one might be hard pressed to identify evidence that parent company Marriott also operates the Ritz-Carlton hotels and Bulgari resorts, but the beds are, generally speaking, first-rate.

Europe has a long tradition of inns and inn-keeping, and its capital cities boast splendid collections of chic and indulgent hotels with sobering nightly tariffs. London’s Metropolitan is very comfortable and stylish — at a beginning rate of $400/night. When I was working in Zurich a few years ago, four days’ stay in a tiny room with no air conditioning (it was an unusually hot summer in Switzerland) inflicted the same dollar damage as a two-week stay at a superior American hotel, to say nothing of one of the uncomplicated motels organized around swimming pools that I favor when in sunny climes. I very much enjoyed the pillow menu — that’s right — in Amsterdam (buckwheat, extra firm) and the Pacific view from the Terranea Resort and the bustling square in Madrid — as with all journalists, my accommodation preferences are heavily conditioned by the never-irrelevant factor of who is paying the bill — but, at times, one longs for a relatively straightforward proposition such as a Microtel. 

Our European cousins talk an excellent egalitarian game, but when it comes to providing good things to ordinary people at reasonable prices, the American way is difficult to beat.

Until you get on a train.

Americans may be blind to the quotidian commercial wonders that surround them at home, but Europe makes an impression — especially on Americans of a more progressive inclination. There are many bright lines in American cultural politics (beginning with the word “American,” of course) and the issue of Europhilia is extraordinarily prominent among them. Politics is only incidentally about policy; it is mainly about culture, and that includes how we entertain ourselves, and especially how and where and why we travel. A thought experiment: Family A, a married couple around 30 years old, spent their last vacation with their two children at a theme park in Florida, arriving via Southwest Airlines after having driven their Laramie Longhorn pickup truck to the airport with their luggage in the bed. Family B, a married couple just over 40 years old, also spent their last vacation with their two children, but they spent it traveling Europe for ten days on Eurail passes, arriving via Air France after having taken the light rail to the airport with their luggage in hand. Question: Which couple voted for Mitt Romney?

#page#Don’t pretend like you don’t know.

If the more populist conservatives sometimes sound like they are about to break into an enthusiastic round of the Team America theme song — “America! F**k Yeah!” — while our progressive friends all sound like they are suffering from a terminal case of Denmark envy, there is a reason for that.

Europe is relatively good at providing the sorts of things that American progressives value. That is the main allure of the European welfare state to its American admirers. That and the fact that American visitors to Europe generally see only the best of Europe, not the terrifying suburbs of Amsterdam or the French banlieues or the casual anti-Semitism of the Spanish or the relentless tedium of Portuguese bureaucracy. And that begins with how one gets around. Americans who rely upon mass transit, or who would prefer to rely upon it, are generally progressive-ish. Americans to whom a daily commute on New York City’s No. 6 train sounds like a circumnavigation of one of the less pleasant strata of Dante’s inferno generally lean conservative.

If you are the sort of person who is inclined to suffer from train envy, western and northern Europe are indeed impressive. There’s a reason for the proverb that one can set one’s watch by the Swiss trains. New York City’s subway is a sewer compared with London’s. (Technically speaking, it is a sewer irrespective of comparison.) Los Angeles’s train system is a toy set compared with that of practically any European city, and even our better regional commuter trains, such as those around Philadelphia, are primitive compared with their European counterparts, to say nothing of their opposite numbers in the train-loving parts of Asia. European bus services are similarly superior to their American counterparts, with a critical distinction: The thriving market for private-sector, semi-legal, gray-market intercity bus services in the United States provides some excellent options not easily found in Europe.

But it isn’t just trains. Europe excels at providing goods that are highly valued by progressives — or at least by a relatively narrow subset of progressives (more on that in a bit). And it is here that progressives’ own class interests, never far from the surface, are most easily exposed. Progressives turn their noses up at the model of education that prevails at American land-grant universities and at the explicitly elitist aspects of our private schools. (American progressives prefer their elitism on the downlow, not in their faces.) And they spit venom at for-profit schools and other market-oriented alternatives. Instead, they long for a European-style system under which students pay little or no tuition. As usual, there is something left unstated: Many students in Western Europe pay little or no tuition, but that does not mean that everybody has the opportunity to go to college. In France, the lavishly funded grandes écoles siphon off enormous amounts of money at the expense of students in relatively impoverished non-elite schools, while in other European countries “free” higher education is in effect available only to a group of relatively high-performing students, as opposed to the more open (and arguably more wasteful) American system.

Class blindness has always been a deep part of American culture. European mass transit looks great — if you are an urban professional moving from one prosperous part of a city center to another or from an affluent suburb to an office in the business district. It looks rather less appealing from the grim inner-ring suburbs of Frankfurt or the vast rural stretches of Spain. “Free” higher education rationed by numerus clausus looks good if you are (or remember having been) a relatively high-flying academic achiever of the sort who might expect to be lavishly subsidized while studying law at Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg. If you are a forklift operator, the German university system and the German tax rates that support it might look somewhat less appealing than the American version.

This is the sort of thing that would never occur to — let me take a totally random example here — Hillary Rodham Clinton. And Hillary-ites are precisely the sort of people who are apt to look at what Europe does best and wonder why we don’t do the same thing here. (They never ask the relevant question: whether we can.) But the Clinton wing is only one wing of the Democratic party and the progressive movement, i.e., the college-educated, affluent, and overwhelmingly white wing. There is a good deal less Europhilia in the urban, non-white, and relatively poor wing of the Left’s alliance. Consequently, the question of why working-class people should pay higher taxes so that American elites can go to college for free, and the question of why rural citizens of modest means should be heavily taxed so that lawyers can ride nicer trains from Greenwich to Manhattan — those questions might very well occur to Democrats outside of the college-educated elite. According to an American University study of voter-ID rules, white Americans are about eight times more likely than black Americans to have a passport. Perhaps that is why I have not very often heard Al Sharpton talk about the moral necessity of replicating the Nordic welfare state in Brownsville.

#page#Being relatively less affluent and relatively less educated, those non-white voters whom conservatives have such a difficult time persuading of the value of our approach are, on average, a great deal more like that German forklift operator than they are like our progressive Europhiles. African Americans’ patterns of consumption are much more like those of Republican-voting non-college whites than they are like those of Democrats who took Elizabeth Warren’s class at Harvard or Paul Krugman’s class at Princeton. There is much to be said for the European way of doing some things — JFK is a hole in the ground compared with Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport — but progressive Europhilia is an almost exclusively elite phenomenon. And it is an overwhelmingly white inclination.

The challenge for conservatives is that the successes of the American model are so thorough and complete that they can be difficult for ordinary people to really see, being woven seamlessly into the fabric of our lives. But “free” health care and college educations, lavish infrastructure spending, and other progressive priorities are part of a bigger bundle of policies and norms, not all of which can be imported. (One of the difficult-to-replicate factors enabling the Swedish model is that Sweden is full of Swedes.) And those that can be imported come with a price — middle-class Europeans and Britons pay tax rates that would shock Americans with comparable incomes. European cities, like the most progressive American cities (hello, San Francisco!), are playgrounds for the well off, and an endless trial for those with average incomes.

A median-income, $53,000-a-year family of four living in San Francisco probably does not have very strong views about European mass transit, because that family almost certainly cannot afford to vacation in Europe. On the other hand, those lovely old roadside motels from the 1950s and 1960s, with their joyful, optimistic architecture, their bright colors and neon signs — those were built for working, middle-class people, people taking automobile-based vacations at the point when leisure travel had, for the first time in human history, become a mass-consumption good. Their more sober modern counterparts are geared toward providing for ordinary people, too.

European trains versus American economy hotels: Perhaps there is a lesson somewhere in there for conservatives, the same lesson we should have learned from the Export-Import Bank argument, from the entitlement-reform fights, from the unseemly spectacle of multi-millionaire Michelle Obama complaining about her college loans — that organizing public priorities around the needs and interests of the well off and well connected in the end serves everybody poorly, and that entrepreneurs and free markets will do a great deal to look after the needs and interests of the middle class, its members being so numerous that they cannot be ignored.

A little bit boring, but affordable and reliable: If it works for Holiday Inn Express, it can work for conservatives, too.

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