Reflections Upon a Week in England

November 26th, 2011 at 10:01 pm

Things I Much Enjoyed

The food: that’s right, the food.  I’m not exaggerating: I didn’t have one bad meal.  And while I’m not a world-class foodie, I know my way around the plate.  And neither am I talking about elite venues.  I dined in pubs and take-aways along with top restaurants.  I had excellent pizza in London and great Nepalese food in Bath.  We even stopped at a service stop off of the M3 and, I kid you not, got a delicious lasagna with “mashed” and peas—and not mushy peas either (actually “mushy peas” are a menu item—kind of like congealed pea soup).  I challenge you to find anything close on a service stop on American superhighways.

Like many Americans, I nursed the theory that the English conquered countries across the globe in order to find something decent to eat—the warmongering was actually a global takeout strategy.  But if we have honest taste buds, we must abandon that theory and accept the new reality of Britain as a great place to eat.

Getting away from things American: Obviously, a trip to the UK is not Outer Mongolia—much is familiar.  I think my kids were actually expecting a country a lot more different than the US. Still, some interesting differences persist.

Like the signage on the roads which I must say I found tricky.  Every three seconds there’s a roundabout, and it’s amazing we didn’t crack up the rental car.  As my nine-year correctly predicted when we tried to find our way out of London: “Dad, I think a lot of people will be honking at us today.”

My favorite sign: “Changed Priorities Ahead.”  I hope Cameron and Co. pay heed to that one.

Driving on the left was also very different.  I kept thinking I was perfectly used to it and then we’d pull into a parking lot and start getting honked at.

The Resolution Foundation: A smart, young think tank in London punching well above its weight, these guys were my hosts.  A relatively small group of scholars doing reality-based political economics, these folks put the UK middle-class squeeze that started showing up in the UK in the early 2000s (which they actually call the “naughties”) on the map.  They’re teaming up with scholars in other smart think tanks doing important work on issues that folks like me in the US have been working on for decades, primarily inequality, the productivity/income split and its impact on the living standards of working families.  Check out their website.

The Quality of the Political Debate: I met with Lib-Dems and Labour folks, including MPs and their staffs.  I’m sure there was a selection bias, but I also made a point of talking to a lot of different people about politics and the economy and it seemed to me that the average Brit policy type knows more about American political economy than most Americans.

The issues they’re dealing with are familiar.  The euromess is more worrisome there—not that it’s a breeze for us, but they’re a lot more connected to the continent.  Their deficits are larger than ours and the pivot to austerity, which still seems entirely mistaken to me, has been sharper and more damaging to their macroeconomy.  And this in the land of Keynes!

I asked a few highly placed members of the leading coalition about this, trying to figure out whether they actually believed in expansionary contraction or whether politics was behind the spending cuts.  The answers were surprisingly incoherent—I assumed such an explanation would be pretty well rehearsed.

I don’t think I fully understood until I had a conversation with a particularly loquacious cabby, who nicely amplified something I’d heard elsewhere: many in the UK electorate are deeply pissed off about Labor’s running structural deficits during the last boom.  “They just threw money at everything and when they ran out, they borrowed more and threw that too.”

Now, it’s easy to criticize this view at a time like now when advanced economies like the UK and US, still stuck in the grips of the great recession, should continue running large, temporary budget deficits, but the key word is temporary.  The British public is right: during bona-fide economic expansions, you should reduce your budget deficit, something Clinton did and Bush (and Blair/Brown) very decidedly did not.  If you fail to do so, you should consider yourself to blame when the public turns against you when you actually need to expand your budget deficit.

And yes, there’s the unique American problem that polling data shows that people here think Clinton ended with a deficit instead the surplus we actually posted in the latter 2000s.  But the economics are simple and clear here.  Keynes himself complained of those who ran deficits in expansions as being “more Keynesian than I am.”

Things I Enjoyed Less

Class Warfare in the Air: Jeez, you wanna see the 99/1 percent split, go fly on an airplane.  It’s gotten to the point where if you’re not in first class, you’re like garbage to them.  Even the announcements are obsequious and annoying: “If you’re a preferred customer, in first class, someone with real money please board first and sit in a huge, comfy chair—we’ll get your foot massage started right away.  Everyone else—just try to stay out of the way and don’t bother us.”

(A recommendation: Re United, if it’s a flight lasting more than a few hours, to me at least, upgrading to “economy plus” is worth it.  You’re still scum re the above hierarchy, but if you’re above five feet you might avoid thrombosis in your legs.)

Expense: Not unexpected, but I found the UK really expensive.  The exchange rate is what it is (around $1.50 per pound after fees) but basically—and I’ve noticed this on other trips regardless of the currency rate—something that costs X dollars in the US usually costs at least X pounds in the UK, despite the fact that X pounds=1.5X dollars.  Lodging is particularly dear.  Cabs, however, seem about the same as in New York and they’re very cool.


I could find a few more things for this part of the list—the electrical outlets, e.g.—Bath is a beautiful city but awfully commercialized.  But it just feels churlish to go there.  Fact is, it’s a country with many wonderful attributes.  And I didn’t even talk about the drive down to the coast south of Bath down to Durdle Door. Deeply verdant landscapes, villages with thatched roofs, hillsides specked with sheep, pubs with old salty dogs—both human and canine—limping around.  And the sea…the sea!

I hope to get back soon…dare I aspire to biz class!


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9 comments in reply to "Reflections Upon a Week in England"

  1. Jim Edwards says:

    Totally understand the whole cattle car aspect of flying now. I used to do Seattle to Hyderabad, India and back about 4 round trips per year plus a lot of other destinations in between. This helped a lot!
    Shhhhhh Don’t tell anyone.

  2. Michael Dahl says:

    Gavin Kelly provides an incredibly rich argument regarding the “US Disease.” Thanks for adding him to my RSS feed.

  3. John Goldin says:

    I had the same reaction to the relative cost of everyday items in UK and US. I was hoping you would shed some light on how the VAT affects that. I can simply calculate the effect of state sales tax or hotel room tax. But I don’t think my intuitions are very good about how much of a restaurant meal or a room at a guest house is pushed up by VAT. The rate is up to 20%. Wikipedia seems to tell me that the net effect of a 20% VAT on the end price should be the same as a 20% sales tax. Is that correct?

    • Jared Bernstein says:

      Yep–great point: the VAT’s in the price over there and it’s certainly a factor in the difference between prices here and there.

  4. PeonInChief says:

    Omigod, I thought the “food theory of imperialism” was my original invention. I should have known that anyone who’d ever heard of boiled mutton would think this one up.

  5. PeonInChief says:

    And what’s most irritating is that steerage pays the freight. Someone should calculate how much the flight per person would cost if the airlines only had first-class passengers.

  6. Greg says:

    Jared, as always, found your blog post insightful and I particularly nodded along re: food and air travel.

    I’ve long suspected that the class warfare in air travel exist in England because of the availability and immense usability of the train system. There are many more preferable and more convenient forms of transit available to Europeans than here in the US. So, instead of complaining with their mouths for better treatment at the airports, most people simply vote with their feet and choose to use the Eurostar or drive in the Chunnel themselves.

    It’s gotten so bad that I basically refuse to fly to LHR unless it’s “upper class”.

  7. the buckaroo says:

    Thanks for clearing up the food issue. Had the occasion to visit Salisbury after stopping off at Stonehenge. After parking the car just outside the old city gates, I spied a window menu to a second story walk up.

    Upon returning from the usual church site seeing stuff, we decided to try the restaurant. Husband & wife team (both English), five tables & a kitchen offering that would shame Maxim’s in quality & imagination.

    Fresh scampi, venison, lobster, range hens, duck…nothing but elbows & mouths after being served…& many yummy sounds. The Onion soup was definitive. I’ve not had food the equal since at five times the price. You never know when you’ll stumble upon nirvana.

    Traveling with the youngsters is priceless at our age…experience speaks well. My boy just turned 10…what were we thinking?