Friday, July 15, 2011
Smaller Televisions and Good Roads
When we took an extended vacation in England a while back, there were two things about the country that really struck me: the televisions and the roads.
Everywhere we stayed — probably 8 or 9 places in a little over two weeks — the television sets were noticeably smaller than the ones you got in American hotel and motel rooms at the time.
The roads, on the other hand, were smooth and well maintained. Where I live in California, the voters had twice rejected modest tax increases to pay for road repairs following a 100-year storm. I was so used to driving on crappy roads at that point that the good ones in England took as much getting used to as the steering wheel on the right side of the car.
And there is probably a connection between the good roads and small TV sets.
Not to put too fine a point on it, the English have a different view of government than we do. It’s not a nasty word in most quarters, and there is an expectation of good public services. Republicans in America run against President Obama’s national health care plan; in England, the Tories campaigned, in the most recent election, as the party of the National Health Service.
Bruce Bartlett, an economic advisor to George W. Bush, recently blogged about tax rates in Britain during the Thatcher administration. For all her pugnacious conservatism and free-market sloganeering, the Iron Lady barely made a dent in them. Throughout her time in office, taxes as a percentage of the country’s GDP ranged in the mid 30s, which is about where they are now.
Last week’s issue of The Economist carried a graph showing tax rates and federal government spending in the United States as a percentage of GDP. Government spending was at 24 percent and taxes were at 15 percent, less than half what the Brits pay, and the lowest level for this country in years. That certainly explains the deficit, but it doesn’t explain the dogmatic resistance to any tax increases, which paralyzes the American political system right now.
Going back to the earlier point about televisions and roads, the British pay more taxes than we do and get more in the way of public service. They have health care for everyone; their roads and infrastructure are in better shape than ours, and they aren’t laying off police officers. As a consequence of the higher taxes, there is less discretionary income. Fewer families have two cars, people opt for smaller TV sets and so forth. We skew the other way.
Here’s the rub. Both countries are stable, prosperous democracies that attract immigrants from all over the world. People want to live in America and England because those countries offer safe, democratic societies and an opportunity to get ahead, to live a better life.
All of which raises the question of what constitutes a good life. Is it one where you have low taxes, two or three cars, and a plasma-screen TV set in every room? Or is it one where you make do with a little less in the way of personal possessions in exchange for good roads, universal health coverage and top-drawer police services?
It’s a question of what you value, and everyone has to make a personal decision. Me, I think we have more to learn from Britain than she does from us.