Over at the Spectator, Fraser Nelson has made an arresting discovery: the United Kingdom is poorer than 49 of the fifty American states. We only manage to force poor Mississippi into last place because of the wealth of the South East. In terms of GDP per capita, he writes, “the 51st State would be the 50th poorest”.
That’s a sobering thought. But it can’t be that simple: a low overall ranking is surely the price we pay for spreading the wealth around and looking after the less fortunate? America might be wealthier overall, but that wealth is probably concentrated in the hands of a wealthy elite – the ‘One Per Cent’, to use an already stale revolutionary slogan, and their sympathisers on the rungs immediately beneath them.
Not so, continues Nelson. According to his data (downloadable from a link in the article), Americans are better off than their British equivalents at almost every point on the income scale. Only the very worst off – those in the bottom five per cent – are better off on this side of the pond, and then not by a huge amount.
For decades, the idea that we treat our poor better than America has been one of the fundamental assumptions of British and especially European political culture. We looked on resentfully as the US, with its dynamic economy and three-per-cent-of-GDP defence spending, thoroughly usurped our position of global leadership. But Europe comforted itself with the thought that, with its social chapters, ‘social market’, and watchful legions of benign regulators, it was charting a more equal, more civilised path.
The fact that even Americans on lower incomes are better off than their European counterparts ought, surely, to provoke some sort of reassessment. Sadly, that’s hard to imagine.
Nelson points out a couple of reasons that people find looking down on the US so easy. First, social phenomena such as ‘White flight’ are much more prevalent than in the UK, which makes inequality more apparent: the gulf between life expectancy in Westminster and Liverpool might be as wide as any in the US, but it is masked to a greater degree by the superficial ‘sameness’ of the inhabitants.
In turn, this provokes a public debate in the US of much higher quality – and volume – than over here, which leads many to the assumption that America’s problems are more severe, rather than merely more apparent. Our problems are better hidden, and we assume that they are better handled.
Nor is the urge to set ourselves up over Americans confined to welfare issues like social security and healthcare. As I have written previously when discussing the grisly end of Piers Morgan’s US talkshow, firearms policy is another area where the actual state of the issue and British popular perceptions of it are almost unrelated.
We’re so wedded to the idea that the difference between US and UK gun crime levels is explained by our having amongst the world’s most restrictive laws – despite this argument amounting to “Correlation equals causation, especially with a sample size of two!” – that our press treat the sheer existence of a debate on the issue in the US as evidence of some kind of mania.
In fact, both sides of the argument in the US have many intelligent, thoughtful supporters and cogent arguments. But it better suits us to imagine that the issue a simple one and that Americans, rather than being better informed through decades of genuine public debate, are insane. Challenging that assumption even in the mildest terms can provoke a furious response, as Daniel Hannan discovered.
There’s even a version of this phenomenon within the United States itself. At present the southern states are enjoying an economic surge, driven by welcoming tax regimes, low costs and a much more flexible labour market than those found in the union-dominated rust belt. But rather than trying elements of the ‘southern recipe’ to reinvigorate Detroit’s car industry, European manufacturer Volkswagen is bending over backwards to bring the United Auto Workers union – the principal ingredient in the city-killing Detroit recipe – into the South. A good European employer has unionised employees, and that’s that.
That’s why I fear that Nelson’s finding, and a hundred more like it, won’t do much to shift British and European political attitudes. The US carried the World Wars for the West and then went on to enjoy the ‘American Century’. Europeans flocked to embrace their commercial culture, food and music even as they saw Americans facing down the Soviet Union or winning the space race.
We needed to be better than America at something, and for decades we’ve been told that ‘being governed’ was it. We forwent the ‘excesses’ of US success in exchange for the comfort of living in a more moral society. The idea that the American poor are better off than our own, after all that, just will not compute.