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what Obama could learn from Britain

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Well, a couple of people are interested to know what I think Barack Obama can learn from the British economic situation.

Let’s start by saying that I am an out and out liberal, in both the British and American senses. The chances of me voting for the Conservative party are slim, and (were I given the opportunity) for the Republicans, non-existent. I also vote primarily on social issues rather than economic ones - taxes are less important to me than civil liberties and freedoms.

I should probably also point out that, as evidenced by the current recession, the British *way of doing things* is far from perfect. Our economy is heavily dependant on financial services so this recession is predicted to hit us hard.

On the other hand, there are a few things that we do differently to the Yanks, where I think they could learn a thing or two.


Oooh, the big taboo issue amongst personal finance bloggers. My friend David at My Two Dollars has seriously been vilified for his wish - based on his own experiences - for healthcare reform. I don’t agree with him about everything, but I think he’s quite right to point out that if you have a socialized fire service then - ideologically speaking - a socialized health care system is no worse.

Now, I’m not exactly proposing that Obama institute a version of the NHS. But, the issue that I have with American healthcare is that it’s anti-entrepreneurs. The question that comes up most when an American says that they are planning to become self-employed is “What about health insurance?”. Do you know what? The most common answer is that their spouse has good health insurance. If you can’t see why that’s not good enough…

The great thing about the British system is that in that sense, healthcare is a non-issue. It should not be prohibitively expensive to get healthcare if you are self-employed. How do businesses start? They start small, usually by someone taking a risk with their own money. I don’t know where taking a risk with your health should also be coming in to it.


In the UK there’s an organisation called the Campaign for Plain English. There mission is for information to be provided clearly, and in a way that most people will understand. As a result of their work, all government departments have guidance and require that public documents are written in plain English.

Now, what does this have to do with taxes? Well, I’ll just ask if you’ve ever had to fill in an American tax return? I have.

Several years ago I spent a summer as a J1 exchange visa student working in North Carolina. In order to get back the taxes I was owed, I had to fill in a 1040EZ NR. It’s a good job that I pronounce “Z” as “zed” because I wouldn’t have described it as particularly easy. And I do know that it’s the easiest one.

Having the tax stuff easier to understand would, on average, save people money. If it was easier to understand, more people would be able to complete their tax returns without paid assistance. They would also be more likely to file the right taxes and earlier, saving potential penaties.

Maybe in the great scheme of things, this is not all that big a money saver. But I’ve seen what’s happened over here. When you make government documents easier to understand, people feel empowered - it’s almost like the government serves the people rather than the other way round.

but, don’t do this…

Well, we don’t do it as much as we used to, but the British government has had a terrible habit of buying up failing companies - particularly car manufacturers - and then not performing miracles on their balance sheets. I’d advise against anyone else doing this either.

Sure, a well managed decline is better than a sudden bankruptcy but what on earth makes anyone think that a bunch of politicians are good at interfering in stuff that they don’t know anything about?

Apparently 3m Americans are indirectly employed by the big three *auto manufacturers* - about 1% of the population. No matter what Obama or anyone else does, I bet this proportion is going to decline. Any money would probably be better spent helping people re-skill themselves than in propping up failing companies.

remaining unsaid…

As I said earlier, I vote on social rather than economic issues.But I was asked to write about economic issues, and so I have.

I’m a values voter and I value non-discrimination, ending poverty, promoting peace, preventing torture and not wrecking the entire planet for future generations. In some of those areas, I think the Americans really could learn a little from the British.

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22 comments for “what Obama could learn from Britain”

  1. Great post- I’ve been waiting for this! I completely agree on voting for social issues, currently I can’t vote where I live but I am surrounded by liberal, yoga-practising hippies so it usually works out my preferred way.
    I really hope Obama makes some big changes to healthcare provision in the States- I find it terrifying that an accident or diagnosis could bankrupt someone.
    By the way, are you going to share your thoughts on the pre-budget report?

    Posted by Looby | November 25, 2008, 11:27 pm
  2. What a nice perspective. Thanks!

    Posted by Eric N. | November 26, 2008, 2:21 am
  3. Great points, well made.

    The thought of the tories getting back in at the next general election fills me with dread.

    All countries need a firm hand on the tiller at tough times like these; but the leaders must also be concerned with the problems of the weakest and poorest as well as the financial health of the country as a whole.

    Posted by Broke Bint | November 26, 2008, 8:07 am
  4. I may well write something about the pre-budget report, although I have to confess I’ve only seen the headlines so far.

    Posted by plonkee | November 26, 2008, 9:23 am
  5. Liberal here across the pond. My line of thinking is horizontal to yours but with one comment on UK Health care system. From online chat friends I hear that it can be such a long wait for services that those who can afford it, buy their own insurance. I personally know of 7 people affected by this in a way hazardous to their health (waiting for surgery for one). I do admit though your system does offer something for your tax dollars.

    Posted by Air Jordans | November 26, 2008, 12:28 pm
  6. Thanks for the read. I enjoyed reading it. Very much what you said is true to what I believe as well. Of course both sides could learn stuff from each other, provided they actually bother to do so..

    Posted by Roger Hamilton | November 26, 2008, 2:50 pm
  7. A few interesting points to mull over…1)Healthcare: working in a collection agency that deals with about 1/2 our income from medical debt I’ve learned that in most cases insurance is insurance, when youre dealing with a 100,000 dollar surgery if you have insurance youll pay a few grand to save your life, if you genuinely cant afford the insurance then 99% of the time (if youre willing to suffer the indignity of filling out some forms) hospitals/doctors/healthcare providers will write off more of the balance than you would be left paying a co-pay on, THIS is the reason why standing in line nationwide for “free coverage” simply doesnt add up.
    2) Sorry about the complicated tax forms in the UK but why would Obama (and i dont even support, nor care for) learn a lesson from these? In the states youre mailed a simple form from where/everywhere youve worked in the last year stating how much you made, that you add into an 18 line form…If youre too simple to figure that out than pay someone the $20 to do it for you…If you make so much that your expenses seem complicated to you, perhaps you shouldnt concern yourself with the small fee it would take to make sure its done correctly
    3)But dont do THIS: In a time of such a worldwide “economic crisis” perhaps the government would be better off running our failing companies for us. the 1% of people who work at aforementioned mechanical plants are already educated in the life skill of “pushing button when product comes to stop in front of them”, Instead of claiming that re-educating people is the answer, perhaps government funded grants would be a better solution to “re-education” since now a good education will cost about as much as home, the only difference being that at the end of schooling you get a certificate saying you are educated enough to push the button at the factory when the entire time you could have had the same skills and pushed the button, all while earning enough money to pay for a home instead of being in twice as much debt…
    AND finally as far as REMAINING UNSAID, well good job with the values speech, youve basically presented the platform that Mr Obama has been elected on. And a little contradictory of remaining unsaid, something usefull to be learned would be a jem

    Posted by ThatGuyYouLove2Hate | November 27, 2008, 7:07 am
  8. To be honest, I think the NHS is awful - it reduces everyone’s healthcare to the lowest common denominator in my opinion. It would be great in theory if it worked, but in reality, I find it doesn’t. I used to work in a NHS office, and the things I saw in there were appalling - people waiting 2-3 years for an appointment after paying their taxes their whole lives! And it irritates me that the whole GP system seems to be set up without thought for the fact that most people work full time. They make it so difficult to see a doctor! I think Australia has got it right with medicare. I can see any GP I want, I pay for it and then walk down to medicare and get most of the money back. I don’t like that you have no freedom to choose within the NHS system - and if you decide to go private to get the care you want, you’re losing out, seeing as you’re already paying NHS contributions anyway.

    Posted by FruGal | November 27, 2008, 11:55 am
  9. Great post! I agree with every point. I’m very proud of the NHS: it’s not perfect, but it’s pretty darned wonderful. Healthcare for all!

    Posted by Miss Thrifty | November 27, 2008, 1:25 pm
  10. I’m going to have to disagree with Frugal- is the NHS perfect? not by any stretch of the imagination, however I think that stories of the problems are usually not representative of most peoples care. I don’t know anyone who has had to wait terribly long for anything that was serious, and people do get shunted up the queue if need be.
    Also I think that every health care system has it’s flaws, my aunt suffered quite badly under the Australian health care system, that doesn’t meant that it doesn’t perform well for most people.
    I’ve had some excellent experiences under the NHS, and am currently enjoying(?) some great care under the Canadian medical system.

    Posted by Looby | November 28, 2008, 7:47 am
  11. Great post - and of course, I am in agreement with a new plan for health care (I like the Canadian system). Also agree that buying/bailing out companies isn’t the greatest idea. But for our car manufacturers, I hope we can use this as leverage for greening industry. We shall see.

    I have to disagree somewhat on the last point though. We Americans do have something to learn on the values you listed - mainly what *not* to do. As someone from former British colonies, I would rather the US not repeat British history. IMHO, we should look further north for the ‘right’ examples.

    Posted by deepali | November 28, 2008, 7:15 pm
  12. @deepali:
    Canada sets a good example on many of those issues. You’re right that us Brits are not as good as we should be, I am working on my fellow citizens :) . Still, if we’re rubbish, Americans are often worse, especially on the things that are important to me.

    Posted by plonkee | November 30, 2008, 7:52 pm
  13. What about Obama’s plans to jumpstart a ‘green revolution’? I think his plan to invest in windpower infrastructure is inspired. Sure he may end looking dumb if someone invents nuclear fusion in a few years, but for now it’s one of the best options we’ve got, and as a method of injecting cash into the economy it beats cutting VAT and encouraging people to shop more.

    Posted by Monevator | December 2, 2008, 1:45 pm
  14. I’m a huge fan of wind power - and anything that goes towards preventing / limiting climate change is a good thing. One of my friends works in cold fusion research - I don’t think that’s happening any time soon.

    Posted by plonkee | December 3, 2008, 7:33 pm
  15. *cheers*

    I have to ask, because it’s something I struggle with. I’m pretty liberal, and the issues that matter the most to me are social justice ones. However, the PF blogosphere seems very conservative/libertarian. What do you think inspires this? Do you ever find this frustrating?

    Posted by Lise | December 4, 2008, 6:43 pm
  16. @Lise:
    Yes, I find it frustrating. I think that people that focus on fixing their own finances tend to assume that it’s possible for everyone to do the same. Some pfbloggers that are fiscally conservative/libertarian are not socially conservative though, and there a a few liberal bloggers.

    Posted by plonkee | December 4, 2008, 9:17 pm
  17. Can’t imagine how ThatGuyYouLove2Hate can say U.S. tax forms are not complicated. I find even the 1040EZ incomprehensible. And if you have to itemize…don’t even ask! If you have several sources of income, one or more of which come from self-employment, you have to hire a tax professional to do your returns — the tax laws are simply too involved for an ordinary citizen to get them right. If you make an honest mistake, you put yourself at risk of huge fines and penalties. Because I have income from investments, self-employment, and one or sometimes two jobs, I have a tax lawyer do my returns.

    I can’t say that I look forward to a nationalized system of healthcare where patients are forced to wait for two or three hours to see a doctor and months to get surgery, “optional” or otherwise. On the other hand, a) I think we can do better than that and b) the system we have now is not working. Most people can’t afford insurance that will do any better for them than the horror stories we hear about the NHS. My mother died — hideously, we might add — because she was in an HMO whose management felt it was not in the company’s interest to admit she had an expensive ailment. Once you’re in an HMO, you’re trapped: you can’t go to a decent doctor outside the company’s employ. If you’re unemployed or self-employed, the cost of health insurance is astronomical, and if you’re in one of those categories and older or have a health problem, chances of getting insurance are nil. If you’re uninsured and you get sick or are seriously injured, you’re looking at bankruptcy.

    As for “values,” I continue to have faith that the sanctimonious fools who have been at my country’s helm over the past couple of decades, many of whom were voted in on a specious “values” platform, have behaved in ways that the majority of Americans find abhorrent. I hope so, anyway.

    Posted by Funny about Money | December 8, 2008, 12:38 pm
  18. We do socialized health care in the U.S. badly.

    Essentially 2 systems: Medicaid & Medicare.

    Medicaid is highly restrictive, heavily rationing procedures and drugs, mainly because it is the socialized health care for the poorest and least politically active.

    Medicare, OTOH, will pay for any medical procedure if there is a billing code for it, and its drug plan is very generous (despite all the squawking about the ‘donut hole’).

    Neither system works very well.

    Posted by Bill in NC | December 8, 2008, 4:28 pm
  19. I really like the idea of having something like a NHS in America, but the closest thing to socialized health care the US currently has are the VA hospitals, which are abysmal by comparison to regular hospitals. So given that that’s the model most of us have to go on, I can understand why many aren’t too keen on the idea, even despite ludicrous health care costs we currently pay. It’s one of those “you get what you pay for” attitudes.

    Posted by Dustin Brown | December 8, 2008, 5:38 pm

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