Wednesday, July 22, 2009

'Stoke' Brit's in King Obama's Court

Welcome to Obamaland....

Like Mark Twain's 19th Century Hank Morgan, surprisingly waking in King Arthur's medieval court, two family guests from Stoke-on-Trent, England who we hosted the past two weeks, found themselves in a bit of a familiar yet strange land.  Unlike Hank, however, they weren't able to offer any advanced solutions to our current problems of health care, immigration, and economics, just their empathy and condolences for what we're going through regarding immigration and health care issues in the U.S.

Having at one time been an ex-pat in Europe for five years, I'm familiar with the curious aspect of finding oneself in a place that appears relatively familiar yet in actuality is quite dissimilar, as a result, I welcomed and enjoyed the conversations we had about their observations of the U.S.

They arrived on the evening of July 3rd,  finding themselves the next day at a huge Independence Day concert and spectacular fireworks on the St. John's River in Jacksonville celebrating our independence from their country.  They were surprised at the speed and ease with which we drove to the celebration, about 30 miles from our home, parked, enjoyed the party, left and returned home. They were also a bit surprised, but not at all disappointed, at the decorum of the large crowd, given all the  movie and TV depictions of the worst of American behavior shown around the world, expecting to witness some crude and rude behavior - but there wasn't any - just the opposite.

Over the two weeks we enjoyed visiting local attractions, as well as traveled to New Jersey, Westchester County, New York and Manhattan to visit other relatives and tour  major land-marks and attractions in NY City.  We had a great time and ample opportunity to discuss the things about the U.S. that caught their attention, or that they found noticeably different from England..

Like our rust-belt Detroit, Stoke is an old labor-intensive manufacturing center that generally has lost it's place in it's historic manufacturing industry - pottery.  Waterford-Wedgewood, Spode, Royal Doulton, and others have either closed shop there, and moved operations to lower cost production facilities off-shore, or have reduced local operations significantly.  And, as in Detroit, the loss of the prime manufacturing operations have significantly impacted all the other associated businesses supporting the industry, leaving the area a center of joblessness.  Unlike the situation in American, however, there's few opportunities to move someplace else in the country to find employment.  England, and the rest of the United Kingdom are relatively small; 244, 000 sq/km vs. the U.S.' 9,182,000 sq/km; and population of 60 million vs. the U.S.' 303 million, and the realistic potential of an average English worker to find viable work and living opportunities further afield within the European Union countries is nil.

Compounding the loss of manufacturing jobs in Stoke, the immigration of foreign workers who work for significantly lower wages has added to the diminished job prospects of the local workers.  Unlike the illegal Mexican immigrants that have streamed into the U.S., the new immigrant workers who have streamed into England are legal, and originate primarily from Eastern European country member-states of the EU, and as such, are entitled to all the social welfare services the UK offers.  But, other than the aspect of legality, many of the attendant consequences seem to be similar: dislocation of the local workforce; low levels of immigrant assimilation; overtaxed social services and overtaxed citizens; increased criminal activity; denigration and elimination of local traditions in acquiescence to the foreigner's practices and demands; and perceived loss of control to a distant central government, and now increasingly, Brussels. The net result seems to be a deeply felt quality-of-life decline.

Some of the aspects of life here that were noteworthy to them were large restaurant portion sizes, the low cost of everything, the widespread obesity of the people here, prevalence of unisex attire and the lack of noticeable feminine casual clothing worn by our women, the huge size of many stores and malls and the significant number of item choices generally available to us in every category, the fact that forty miles north of NYC you're in deep woods, the cleanliness of NYC along with it's vast size, the distances that we travel in our normal daily lives, the vast amount of open space in this country, the genuine openness (sometimes to an embarrassing fault) and friendliness of Americans, the widespread absence of clothes made in the USA, and the quality of goods that are.

On that issue alone they were insistent on buying only clothes made in the USA. We wound up visiting a number of stores and surprisingly finally found one that offered American made clothes.....American Apparel.  Normally I don't check the source of clothes, just evaluate quality, style and price, but now I'll include origin.  I remember that when living in Europe in the '90's, most of my colleagues treasured clothing and other products made in USA.  As a marketer, it appears that there's a significant void in the market for American made seem that someone could/should fill that product gap in addition to A.A.

When we talked about the economic conditions in England and in particular, Stoke, our guest volunteered that he had been born and bred a Socialist for most of his life. However, a number of years ago he realized how antithetical that -ism was to attracting the capital required to produce sustainable jobs and enough excess profitability in a global market, that would support the quality of life that he and most others aspire to.  The comparison of Stoke to the situation in Detroit was very close.  Both labor and government, in a double-teaming approach, squeezed so much out of the producers of jobs and wealth that ultimately, business' only option was to leave for more cost effective options.  The cascading domino-effect of loss of jobs, loss of tax revenue, loss of small community businesses and services, continues today.

During this time it was almost impossible to avoid hearing news reports on the Congressional debates over health care, so of course the National Health Service (NHS) in the U.K came up in discussion.  It appears that most of the critiques that we hear about England's NHS are valid. Lots of  management of most procedures; potentially long delays on advanced testing and procedures due to a triage-like approach to scheduling - treatment could also be denied if one does not meet requirements (see recent death of 22 year old needing a liver-transplant).  There is an increasing occurrence of people in the UK traveling abroad for treatment for various issues. Contrary what many may think, the NHS is not free. They pay about 350 Pounds a month for coverage, and pay for each visit to the Dr. as well.  There was also some frustration over perceived abuse of the NHS by many immigrants, as well as resentment over the ever-so-careful treatment of gypsy's and Travelers (the UK and Ireland's version of gypsy's) who don't pay anything into the system, similar to the same issue here over illegal immigrant's use of hospital Emergency Rooms for medical care.

They are pleased with the prescription aspect of it as all prescriptions are priced the same, around 7 Pounds each.  However, the availability of certain advanced drugs is questionable, and the determination of what is prescribed is also questionable.  An interesting side note was our guest's amazement of the the efficacy of Tylenol.  From my own experience in Europe, one of my family's requirements for me each time that I flew back to the States was that I load up on OTC products like Advil, Tylenol, and Benedryl because they were available by prescription only.

The discussion about health care lead to discussions about immigrants.  Overall, the impression conveyed was that there are overall problems with the assimilation of immigrants, both as a result of discrimination by the British, as well as the immigrant's desire to remain separate and maintain their culture.  Assimilation seems more of a problem with Pakistani's, less with people from India, even on the second generation born in England.  The new wave of Eastern European immigrants are a current noticeable problem because they are a relative new group, and their presence in the UK is more one of temporary guest worker intending to eventually go "home", as opposed to being an immigrant in the classic sense.  Only time will tell how this group ultimately fits in,  My sense tell me that they will, just like the previous waves of Russians did after the Revolution.

It was a great and enjoyable two weeks, and in reflection, I once again treasure my good fortune to having been born in this great country.  (But I'm looking forward to our reciprocal visit to the UK!)

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