No Place Is Paradise
Having recently returned in late June from my first real vacation in 21 months, I felt remarkably refreshed. Ten days in Scotland and England could do that for anyone.
Upon further reflection, it was blatantly obvious to see just how fast the world is changing and, in most ways, for the better. The United Kingdom, for example, hasn't experienced a recession since the 1990-91 era, a record of expansion that outdistances ours and doesn't trail China by much.
How did this happen? I remember spending an hour as an 11-year-old boy in Glasgow in 1966 and thinking a few years later that it made Gary, Indiana, look like the shining city on the hill. It wasn't easy, but these countries have completed a successful transition to a post-industrial economy.
Even in 1991, Glasgow was a struggling city with high unemployment. Most of the factories and smokestacks were no longer operational and they had sandblasted most of the grime and soot off the buildings. Since then, the old industrial cities of the northern United Kingdom have made an amazing transition to an information economy, led largely by financial services, and unemployment is no longer a major issue. Quality of life is important, but it does not take a front seat over work as it does in France.
Even in a near paradise, nothing is perfect. Crime is a huge issue, although it's down about 44% in the last decade. Binge-drinkers over there could drink the Duke lacrosse team under the table. And the nation that gave the world Shakespeare now serves its teenagers reality shows (which, like tulip bulb speculation, were invented in Holland) that make Jerry Springer's show look like a Chekhov play. Politicians were quick to praise British soccer fans when only a few hundred were arrested at the World Cup.
The high cost of the welfare state, and the prospect of ever higher costs, is starting to dawn on the youth over there. "But in America, you also have to pay 40% [of your income in taxes] and you don't even get any health care for it," one youngster reminded me. Still, unlike the European continent, the welfare state hasn't calcified the economy.
In Scotland, you can see seventy-something retirees walking hilly golf courses and teeing off with one irons, a sight you won't see on Florida cart paths. It may help explain why life expectancies are longer in the U.K.
Attitudes toward America are, as always, complex, particularly among a people who are incredibly polite and also play their cards very close to the vest. As individuals, they seem to genuinely like Americans. It's not uncommon to meet folks from Iowa or Oregon who've picked Scotland as a part-time retirement home, and the natives take it as a compliment.
But as the only superpower in a unipolar world, America also gets more than its fair share of resentment. The wealth of drive-in burger billionaires is at once envied and despised.
On a train from Edinburgh to London, I read a columnist in The Times who was quite cynical about these attitudes. She mocked all the parlor-room complaints about American wealth and greed with a sharp wit (though I later discovered more Americans than Europeans think Americans are greedy).
Then she dropped a bomb on her readers. Americans give three times as much to charity as Brits do, and this was a week before Buffett's gift to Gates. So quality of life does have some costs.