The US: the land of marketing over substance, where everything is oversold and routinely underdelivered, has done a fantastic job of convincing us that they do it better.
‘Visiting the US, I am struck by the difference between the advertised price of any goods or service and what you pay’
British politicians look to the US for inspiration, particularly on how to win elections. The business community has also bought into the idea that US companies are more competitive and efficient. In fact, we have all been sold the idea that the way to prosperity is competition because it promotes choice and efficiency. This is such a sure-fire winner it can even work in the NHS, should we persist in the belief that the state should run health insurance and services rather than simply letting the market do what it does best: meet demand.
If people want good healthcare they will pay for it. The result in the US being that the government introduced reforms to try and address the fact that a third of Americans didn’t have any health insurance, mostly due to it being unaffordable. Like most insurance, when you most need it, you can’t get it.
Visiting the US, I am struck by the difference between the advertised price of any goods or service and what you pay, be it a meal out, the cost of hiring a car or a trip to the supermarket. I don’t suppose anyone likes paying taxes but the Americans like to rub your nose in it. The price you see displayed in a shop or restaurant is before the tax is added. Local tax is added at the till. In a restaurant they also add on a 18 per cent service charge ”for your convenience”. In other words, to save you doing the maths or considering tipping less. The result is you pay up to a third more than the price on the menu.
Winners and losers
No wonder Americans are so tax conscious. Tipping is, you soon learn, expected and rather than a means of expressing your appreciation. You signal your dissatisfaction by tipping less. Tipping is essential because the wages of staff are so low they rely on this element of their pay. The thinking is this keeps the staff on their toes, customer-friendly and attentive. In reality it means they keep seeking your confirmation that everything is alright.
‘In the US business is competitive and you play to win. This doesn’t sit easily with our public sector ethos’
The meaningless of this is shown if you say it isn’t. In America staff don’t seem to know how to react if you complain. The manager who previously eagerly responded to your enquires with reassurances and proud boasts about the service on offer is not available and the member of staff dealing with the public is too junior to enter any negotiation. Their standard response was often “I’ve only been working here three months”, which is the US equivalent of “I know nothing”. No wonder Faulty Towers was such a big hit in the US – and we thought it was because our customer service was so bad.
US TV’s 500 channels mostly showing repeats like Faulty Towers have twice as many breaks for adverts as we are used to and they are twice as long in duration. Doesn’t every one just put their favourite shows on series link and fast-forward through the adverts? Which is why American football is so suited to American TV, the action is live but stop-start, so lots of opportunities for adverts.
Sport is very popular in the US but have you noticed their always has to be a winner? There is no concept of a draw. And the popular sports like American football and basketball are all high scoring; a basketball game is won in the last seconds with one team scoring 80 points. The significance of this is the overlap with the business culture, which overflows with sporting metaphors. In the US business is competitive and you play to win. This doesn’t sit easily with our public sector ethos or the introduction of US private health insurance companies into the NHS.
A nice place to visit
The Stars and Stripes fly everywhere on public buildings and houses. Americans seem to find it necessary to assert their patriotism, maybe its because everyone was originally from somewhere else. I visited during the St Patrick days celebrations where every other person claims to be an Irish-American, they parade through the streets wearing green, drinking green beer, overlooking the river dyed green for the occasion. Is this where our discussions on what it means to be British are leading us, to salute the flag every morning in school but retain a cultural identity based on where our great-great-grandfather was born?
‘The culture is so different, which is also why we should not attempt to transplant their ways of doing things and expect it to work in the UK’
The motor car rules. No one walks, except in New York. Therefore cars are cheap, petrol very cheap. Remember the tax is added at the till so every American is reminded how much the government is adding every time they fill up. How many motorists in the UK could tell you what the government adds to a gallon of petrol?
The result is a lack of public transport and a smog problem in the big cities which is rarely mentioned but presents a very real public health problem. They dismiss it as sea fog, heat haze, even barbecue smoke; anything rather than except its pollution from their cars. Which makes it difficult for the city mayor to exercise the type of community leadership we are told elected mayors would be able to provide if we followed the US model.
If this all sounds anti-American, it is not intended to. It is a fun place to visit because the culture is so different, which is also why we should not attempt to transplant their ways of doing things and expect it to work in the UK.