Monday, 6 December 2010

The spurious relationship

Role models play an essential role in everyday life.  When looking for new ideas, inspiration or best practice individuals and organisations often turn to others to guide them, or at the very least, provide a counter-point to their own approach.  But which to choose?  In any given situation there are a plethora of different role models from which to choose and it is this decision that is often more instructive than the behaviour or idea that is borrowed.  

It’s fair to say that if I chose to take as my role model an arrogant individual that believed in the universality of their opinions, that the principal of an eye for an eye was a legitimate practice in the 21st century, that poor people wouldn’t be so if they worked harder, that extreme wealth inequality is desirable, that providing healthcare to the most vulnerable is evil, that institutional racism and homophobia should be quietly ignored, most of my peers would be quite alarmed.  They would be especially concerned if the individual from whom I was seeking advice also had a higher than average likely hood of developing mental illness, was more likely to be obese and live a shorter life than the majority of people in the West, was more likely to commit a sexual offence or commit murder than everyone else around them .  If such a person did exist, they would be a truly terrible role model for us all.

Unfortunately in the United Kingdom this type of role model is viewed as the ideal candidate.  Successive governments and now the incumbent administration have turned to the United States for policy inspiration irrespective of the sad truth that for all its wealth the USA is ranked absolute or nearly bottom of every index of wellbeing, health and equality in the Western World.  That Scandinavia, France and Germany gravitate toward the top of all these indexes, that they sit on our doorstep as positive, functioning role models, is sadly inconsequential to the policy makers of the United Kingdom.  That the United States is a largely conservative nation in which its most progressive party sits to the right of centre, sadly failed to deter those on the mainstream of the British Left from imitating it as a legitimate route back to power.   

There are two truths in modern wealthy societies; the first that more equal societies (irrespective of overall wealth) rank much higher in terms of wellbeing (this includes mental health, stress, physical health, education rates, equality of opportunity) and are generally less consumed by major public health issues such as teenage pregnancy and alcoholism.

The second is that the law of diminishing returns applies to the growing wealth of Western economies such as the United States and the UK.  In fact, as overall wealth increases the benefits it delivers grow progressively smaller.  At the same time the number of major public health issues has continued to increase.  It does not take a genius to spot the problem; as the US and the UK have become wealthier the benefits have shrunk to the point that wealth is creating as many problems as it solves.  To exacerbate this problem further the UK and US have concentrated their growing wealth at the top of society, it has not ‘trickled down’ to the wider population.  The growth in inequality has sent both nations plunging to the bottom of almost every meaningful measure of a decent society available (most of this also applies to Australia, a fellow ‘Anglo-Saxon’ nation).
Three things to note; firstly there are two forces both working in tandem, both detrimental.  Secondly many of our European neighbours are wealthier and healthier than the UK, so the current situation is not an inevitable consequence of wealth.  Third; in the post war period the UK has followed where the US has led. 

There are a number of reasons why the UK and its policy makers have pursued this masochistic path, best summed up as the rather spurious ‘special relationship’.  This apparent bond is far greater than that which concerns foreign policy, it also encapsulates the feeling that the UK is a kindred spirit of the United States both culturally and socially.  There is the idea of the Protestant work ethic, a shared and fundamental element in the nature of both nations.  Then there is laughable propaganda that is the ‘American Dream’, the idea that in the US wealth, fame and a better life are just a bit of hard work away.  Why should we not seek to be more like the wonderful land of opportunity across the Atlantic?  Conspicuous consumption and better standards of living looked so much fun to those in austere 50s Britain; there was seemingly no time or desire to ask where it may take us.  That much of the American dream that we pursue, like Hollywood, is actually an empty illusion has been ignored.

The post-colonial hangover has also fuelled close ties with the US as those in power in Britain sought to keep up with their predecessors, no longer possessing their own strategic clout they simply hung onto the coat tails of the new world power regardless of where it took them.  This original ‘special relationship’ continues to direct foreign policy to this day as policy makers live out their West Wing fantasies of walking Washington’s corridors of power. 

The United States is a vast place full of neuroses and contradictory forces and to caricature it as an out and out basked case is a little glib.  It is in theory and reality fifty different states, not just one nation.  But the fundamental point remains; the United States provides a terrible role model.  

The central issue is that the very problems we attempt to tackle are the result of chasing the United States down the path of deindustrialisation, of retail and service led economic growth constructed on cheap consumer credit and vast, damaging, inequality.  To think that the solution is essentially more of the same is to ignore the root cause of the challenges we face; until the US is able to adopt a radically different approach to tackling its own problems the spurious relationship should be ignored at all costs.

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