Each time that I visit London (this time for the successful birth of a grandson via the National Health Service) I am taken by two related questions - what makes this economy go? and, are there any lessons here for the US of A? The answers are certainly more complex than the impression, but the impression is compelling.
The first thing to note is that there's not much going on here in terms of making stuff - manufacturing (down under 16% of GDP), agriculture (production equals 60 % of consumption), or mining (about 1% of GDP). The common answer for several years has been "Financial Services", with London being the world's largest financial center. My central premise is that the UK is living off of the residuals of the empire ... both in terms of a place where the elites of former colonies continue to invest, and in terms of having an infrastructure that can be gradually depleted over time - no wasting the country's treasure on McMansions and SUVs. Parallel to the US, the British benefit and suffer from a vibrant immigrant community - in their case from Eastern Europe (via the European Union), and South Asia. All is very comfortably similar - if 45% off of course.
A few tidbits:
- The Labour Party of Tony Blair and Harold Brown has been in control since 1997, and is on its last legs with a general consensus that the Conservatives will take over in 2010's required elections. Issues include personal corruption of Members of Parliament, responsibility for Labour's part of the global financial crisis, neglect of the education system (the university system will be short some 50,000 spots this Fall) and a general tiredness with this gang of rascals. Republicans looking for some unifying themes might look to fiscal prudence, reflected in the British public's acceptance of the need to raise taxes as opposed to Obama's commitment to trillion dollar deficits.
- The British Afghanistan discussion is not so much about the strategic rationale (the Brits have been there before), but rather competence ... inadequate personal armor; inadequate helicopter capabilities; continued top-level emphasis on aircraft carriers and fighter aircraft - like some of our discussions about Iraq a few years ago. The Brits are our most steadfast military ally, currently with 9000 troops in Afghanistan compared to our 62,000. The opposition Conservatives are steadfast in support of Labour's commitment.
- The Lockerbie bomber's release is a good example of how things can come out of left field. The United Kingdom has been moving toward a more decentralized government with Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland having more powers through a process called "devolution". My perspective: the UK deferred to Scotland; the Scottish government deferred to their justice minister; the minister wanted to put Scotland's authority on the map. In the background, there have been numerous discussions with Libyan and UK leaders about commercial (mostly oil and gas) connections, with the prisoner's release serving as a much-appreciated lubricant. The UK prime minister and the Scottish leadership found a conciliatory path with adequate "deni-ability" of a quid pro quo. Commerce trumps principle.
- The papers here are full of defense of the National Health Service. While it is free to all legal residents, it does benefit from lower expectations. Babies are delivered by midwives (perhaps generally OK); there is minimal use of CAT scans, MRIs, hip replacements, and the like; and nursing care for the elderly has its critics. The existence of a consumer-friendly set of performance standards is impressive - access to a health care professional within 24 hours or a doctor within 48; maximum of four hours in a waiting room; maximum of 62 days from referral to treatment for cancer; maximum of 18 weeks wait for a non-urgent operation; 95% of ambulance calls answered within 19 minutes; etc. (No lawsuits.)
- And the miraculous Oyster Card - the pre-paid transportation pass that can be swiped on buses and subways. Imagine that in the Bay Area's 35 transportation agencies.
This week's You Tube seemed appropriate - British health care humor.
bill bowen - 8/28/09