Who recalls John Gunther? You could acquire a very impressive general geographic education from Gunther’s mid-20th-century gazetteers of the First, Second, and Third Worlds. Inside Russia Today, Inside Europe, Inside Asia, Inside Africa, Inside U.S.A., Inside Latin America, Inside South America, Inside Australia and New Zealand (impressively accurate), and quite possibly, for all anyone knows or cares, Inside Tahiti or Inside Réunion. Gunther carried out an astonishing amount of legwork, personally interviewing locals from presidents to prostitutes, and conveying the results in the best sort of lively but dignified journalistic prose, benefiting from, but not enslaved by, the Hemingway revolution. It wasn’t all, or even often, color stuff either: Gunther invariably took care to supply abundant statistical information, as reliable as anything elsewhere available during pre-Google days.
I thought nostalgically of Gunther’s hard yards when confronted with The Economist’s latest attempt to prove that my own metropolis of Melbourne is, once again, “the world’s most livable city.” Once again, James Bowman’s epitome of that magazine must be pressed into service: “They say that The Economist is an excellent magazine for keeping informed about subjects you don’t know anything about, but its deficiencies begin to appear as soon as it addresses ones you do.”
There is no indication that the report’s writers (anonymous as per house custom) bothered to visit Melbourne themselves or even ask many locals for their input, although the report makes a vague mention of “a field correspondent based in each city.” (To prevent the suspense from overwhelming you, here is The Economist’s top-10 list: Melbourne, Vienna, Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary, Adelaide, Perth, Auckland, Helsinki, and Hamburg. On a scale where 100 represents nirvana, Melbourne scored 97.5 and Hamburg scored 95. Least livable cities in the league table are, unsurprisingly, Damascus, Tripoli, and Lagos.)
It is surprisingly hard to determine from the report itself—which was produced by the magazine’s consulting arm known as The Economist Intelligence Unit—precisely how the authors arrived at their assessments. We get some sanctimonious hand-wringing and virtue-signaling about those U.S. cities whose livability scores have declined “partly … from unrest related to a number of deaths of black people either in police custody or shot on the street despite being unarmed.” (Sydney dropped out of the top 10 “owing to a heightened perceived threat of terrorism,” by which circumlocution the authors must mean the 2014 Lindt Café siege, that quintessential example of a murderous lone nut being given martyr status through criminally graphic 24/7 television coverage and through criminally incompetent police bosses who operated under the impression that they were Swedish social workers.) A few actual crime-related figures are given (we are told that Melbourne’s crime rate of 7,489.5 per hundred thousand persons represents an increase by 3.7 percent in 2013-14 as against 2012-13), but for the most part we are expected to make do with public relations cant about the “big city buzz” allegedly characterizing such centers as New York, London, Paris, and Tokyo.
Eventually we find, halfway through the report, that “Every city is assigned a rating of relative comfort for over 30 qualitative and quantitative factors across five broad categories: stability; healthcare; culture and environment; education; and infrastructure. Each factor in a city is rated as acceptable, tolerable, uncomfortable, undesirable or intolerable.” If you are wondering about the scientific or even anecdotal basis for such ratings, you are not the only one.
The section on “culture and environment” includes ratings for “sporting availability” (Hitler’s and Erich Honecker’s respective Reichs would have scored handsomely on that test), for “level of censorship” (no suggestion that absurdly strict libel and anti-hate-speech laws might make formal censorship redundant), and something mysteriously called “cultural availability,” whatever that might mean (compulsory transgendered bathrooms?). Among the criteria under “healthcare” we find “availability of over-the-counter drugs,” though why opportunities for pigging out on Tylenol and its foreign counterparts are to be considered merits, we are not told. Nor are we informed of what is meant by “education”: kindergarten? Doctoral programs? Everything in between? Meanwhile, here are some of the Melbourne factors which The Economist’s mavens either did not consider at all, or, more frequently, considered without the smallest discernible day-to-day local knowledge.
Primary and Secondary Schooling
Don’t even think of sending your kids to the average Melbourne school unless your Social Justice Warrior credentials are polished to a sheen bright enough to dazzle Hillary Clinton herself. Most of Melbourne’s allegedly Catholic educational system serves much the same mess of cultural-Marxist pottage as does the openly public educational system, and charges four or five times as much money for it. A handful of Melbourne’s Protestant schools (whether Anglican or explicitly evangelical) provide some sort of serious instruction, and attract exceptionally large numbers of Catholic parents who have rightly given up on their own communion’s local classrooms. Orthodox Jews have their local yeshivas, which have been no more capable than purportedly Catholic schools of keeping out sex-criminals. You could, of course, homeschool; but although you would not thereby incur as much legal harassment in Melbourne, or elsewhere in Australia, as you would in Germany, you would experience incomparably more official nastiness than homeschoolers encounter in Alabama or Idaho.
Housing is ridiculously overpriced in Melbourne, and now comparable to Sydney or Perth levels of grand larceny. In the past, compared with most Western nations, Australia had remarkably high levels of home ownership, but this is proving less and less true today, at least in the civilized parts of the biggest cities.
I purchased—with inherited, not earned, funds—my current Melbourne home in 2003, about the last year when local home prices remained reasonable. For this apartment (one-bedroom, unfurnished, and probably too claustrophobic to suit 99 percent of persons not Japanese) I paid $195,000. These days I could sell it for $600,000 without any trouble. Over the last 12 months Melbourne’s housing prices have sunk marginally, but nothing like America’s 2008 housing bubble is on the horizon.
Private rents remain stratospheric, in Melbourne as in Sydney. I have met lawyers—yes, lawyers—who insist that they literally cannot afford to be home-buyers. Vast numbers of Melbourne’s affluent 20-somethings and even 30-somethings are still living with their parents. So much for the “empty nest” syndrome that psychologists once bewailed. These days plenty of Melbourne’s parents have the greatest difficulty emptying their nests with any method less drastic than Semtex.
I am fortunate, in that because on health grounds I cannot drive, I live in a Melbourne suburb (Gardenvale) with better-than-average bus services and train services, plus an adequate tram service 15 minutes’ walk away. A 25-minute train trip from my home, and I can be in Melbourne’s central business district.
This is almost unimaginable luxury by the standards of most Melbourne inhabitants, however rich. In Melbourne’s extreme northern and southeastern suburbs, public transportation is either a joke or nonexistent. Consequently, car ownership levels—despite fuel prices which, while lower than Europe’s, would have Americans raging in the streets—border on the fantastical. Recently I chatted with a taxi-driver living in one southeastern suburb (Rowville) who, on the strength of a taxi-driver’s presumably exiguous income, maintained a four-car household. Not including the taxi.
I could go on—with evidence about what Americans and Europeans would find the exorbitant cost of books, cinema tickets, symphony concert tickets, and so forth—yet the picture will by now be vivid enough. None of the above information is arcane. Nine-tenths of it could have been gleaned by reading a week’s worth of local newspapers, watching (at whatever cost to one’s blood-pressure) a week’s worth of local television, or even interviewing the occasional local cop, garbage collector, morgue attendant, night nurse, or other such working stiff.
But instead of following John Gunther’s example, today’s pundits succeed only in evoking clichés about lies, damned lies, and statistics. If you actually live in Melbourne, if you have the misfortune not to be an investment banker or someone analogously well-heeled, and if you still suppose that Melbourne is the world’s most livable city, I have a bridge to sell you. Brooklyn or Sydney Harbor, make your choice.
R.J. Stove is the author of César Franck: His Life and Times.
This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.