For better and worse

Consideration of the US ought not to be all about Trump. There are some respects in which they do less well than us, but others surprisingly where we could still learn some lessons, writes Rhys David

How much more would you like to pay? That’s the message on the screen when the salesperson in a US coffee shop or restaurant, or a small shop owner, pivots the till point credit card reader around to face the buyer after swiping. The technology is new, but it represents a sideways development rather than an advance, adding an inefficiency into US transactions that has been largely eliminated in the UK, and much of the rest of Europe, through the widespread adoption of contactless payment.

The new devices – about the size of a small tablet computer – overcome the embarrassment on both sides of asking the purchaser whether they want to add a gratuity. Instead, the till does the job, asking the customer whether they want to add another 15 per cent (the starting point), 20 per cent or even 25 per cent. There is the option of making your own choice – 30 per cent perhaps or 10 per cent, or, perish the thought, no tip at all. (Anyone who has watched Larry David (no relation) arguing with the maître d’ and getting his car blocked in the car park in comedy series Curb Your Enthusiasm after refusing to supplement the tip that had already been added will know this step is taken at your own peril.)

As the tip must be added after the amount has been rung up, it means contactless is much less widespread for small transactions, such as the purchase of a coffee or a newspaper, than in Britain. To authorize the extra amount that the customer has added it has become necessary to move away even from chip and pin (the predecessor of contactless in Europe). Instead, after you have added your tip on the till, you need to add a digital signature to authorise the extra amount being collected using a finger on screen or special pen.

There are other ways, too, in which the US – birthplace of so much modern technology – seems behind the times. Amtrak trains are large, comfortable, staffed by cheery conductors in crisp uniforms – and slow and infrequent. The 215 miles from Boston to New York takes four hours, admittedly having to cross several spectacular and presumably slow-speed long bridges over estuaries on the way.

The 220 miles on to Washington takes a further three hours, in both cases rendering air travel a preferable option for the time conscious. By contrast the 250 miles from London to Newcastle can be accomplished in 12 minutes under three hours and the 170 miles to Leeds in two hours twenty minutes, and British railways are not even very fast by world standards. My journey from Boston to New York took nearly five hours because of that familiar railway issue – signaling problems. Nor are the trains very frequent. The Boston-New York service runs at two-hour intervals, two trains leaving within five minutes of each other, one slow and the other slower, followed by a two-hour gap.

This journey between populous cities – Boston is 4.5m, New York is 8.2m and Washington is 7.4m, with other big cities en route – would clearly be highly suit able for the equivalent of Europe’s or Japan’s high speed trains, reducing the journey to New York from the two other cities to 90 minutes or so, less than the time it would often take to travel to the nearest airport, check in and wait for a possibly delayed take-off. The vigorous opposition of the airlines to any competition brought about by private sector seed funding, as would be needed in the case of new railway infrastructure, has made this politically impossible in the free market US. It is not a fight Donald J. Trump is going to take up.

One battle he has engaged in, however, is trade, seeking to punish China for what he sees as unfair practices, rewriting agreements with Mexico and Canada, and lamenting the large trade balance in Europe’s favour. This does ignore the extent of US ownership of European assets and the scale of US-owned manufacturing in other countries, including in Europe. These operations generate substantial income for the US from repatriated profits. The US is also the world’s biggest provider of financial and other services and its technology companies – Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon – dominate in their fields.

Nevertheless, the extent to which US manufacturing has retreated can come as a shock. In places like Saco, once a centre of textile machinery manufacture, the once US industry has left only vast mills converted to apartments and offices in its wake, and has lingered on for only a couple of decades further south in the Carolinas and Georgia where much of it moved post-war. Most recently it has been the turn of the US-owned motor industry to suffer a similar fate.

The US industry’s output is still huge, as is to be expected in a market of nearly 18 million units a year, but sales of cars by foreign manufacturers, from Europe, Japan and South Korea, from their US plants and imported vehicles now exceed by roughly 2m. units those built by the US big three – GM, Ford and Fiat-Chrysler America. The average US content of even these suppliers’ vehicles is only 38 per cent. Ford has thrown in the towel as far as supplying passenger saloons is concerned, deciding that in the US market it will concentrate on trucks and SUVs.

Whether a switch to electric vehicles will bring a return of US manufacturing through the arrival of new carmakers such as Tesla, and the possible emergence of other new entrants into motor  manufacturing, such as the technology companies, Apple and Amazon,  is unclear but the traditional US carmakers appear to be behind their international competitors, Toyota, Nissan, Hyundai and BMW among others,  in developing battery alternatives.

Yet, as the restrictions placed on Chinese phone technology group, Huawei, shows, when it comes to action designed to protect US business interests, US administrations can and will act with a decisiveness for good or ill, that other governments would shrink from.  The US may yet see an upturn in manufacturing, whether driven by reshoring – the repatriation of activities previously dispatched overseas that has already begun – or trade barriers. The American public will ultimately decide whether the extra costs this is likely to impose on it are acceptable.

If some weaknesses in processes and some chinks in US commercial invincibility – particularly in older industries – can now be discerned, there are many respects in which in ordinary life the US does get it right.  This is why it remains such an attractive country. The friendliness and levels of service provided  by customer-facing businesses remains impressive, extending even into fields such as car hire, where the European experience – overstretched booking clerks, less than satisfactory vehicles, phantom damage appearing later as large additions extracted without consultation from debit and credit cards – provide a much better experience for the visitor.

In New England, and perhaps in other areas too, the problems faced in Britain by the residents of many rural areas – closure of shops and other facilities, making necessary a visit to a supermarket many miles away for even necessities – appear to be under better control. Remoteness in some parts is admittedly responsible for keeping the chain stores at bay, and rendering home delivery too expensive, but their absence has allowed the ubiquitous village store to appear to thrive. Unlike the British Spar, Premier, local Co-op or independent, these stores manage to offer a range of services to the community and to be focal points for meeting up and exchanging news and information.

The village store is where you might go not just for a loaf of bread, a pint of milk, or breakfast cereal but to actually buy and eat your breakfast, cooked on the spot, or to get a fishing licence, wood for the fire, a mid morning (or afternoon) cup of coffee self-served from one of several insulated jugs on a conveniently set up table, and many grocery varieties, some hardware, plus a limited range of clothing, gifts and novelties. Interestingly, unlike most British convenience stores, huge displays of beers, spirits and wines from around the world are missing, drink appearing to play a much smaller part in American life than it now does in Britain.

This surprisingly is true of another institution – racing where the contrast with the UK could not be starker. At Belmont Park, home of the Belmont Stake, one of the races in the US Triple Crown, entry into the park is a mere $5 and this entitles the holder to visit every public part of the ground, including the grandstands and to bag a place next to the finishing line. Or, you can stay in the huge park grounds and watch the racing on the big screens dotted around. Absent are the champagne tents, the Guinness tents, the gin tents, the fish and chip bars, pulled pork pagodas, the burger vans, and the other inducements to drink and eat to excess of the UK racecourse. Present are hundreds of families with young children enjoying a picnic.

There are other things they do well in the US, too. Under the wing of the federal National Parks Service the register of National Historic Landmarks (NHL) brings together thousands of buildings, sites, structures, objects and districts deemed worthy of preservation because of their significance in the development of the US, including presidential homesteads and business leaders’ Victorian-era houses. Sagamore Hill on Long Island, for example, gives a fascinating insight into the life of the first Roosevelt  – Theodore – who assumed the presidency after William McKinley was assassinated in 1901, Roosevelt is now mainly remembered for his big game hunting exploits and his house is indeed full of such trophies, displayed as animal heads on walls, elephant feet as footstool, rhino horns as inkwells, and bearskins as rugs.

However, the museum in the grounds in Long Island also shows another side to Roosevelt, who only went on his hunting safaris so he would not get in the way of his successor. He later disapproved of William Howard Taft’s actions in the White House and stood as a dissident Republican against him in the 1912 election, winning enough support to let in Democrat, Woodrow Wilson. In office Roosevelt was a reforming president challenging corrupt politicians and businessmen and breaking up the monopolies that dominated industries such as oil and banking. He also started the US national parks.

American historic properties under NHL  management appear sober and serious, telling a story in a straightforward way without feeling the need to push relentlessly the various dimensions of the inclusivity agenda, which has become part and parcel of  the approach generally adopted by the UK’s heritage custodians, notably the National Trust and English Heritage, whether it is the need to entertain the young or project guilt for whatever historical sins have become the latest anathema.

For all its reputation as the land of free enterprise and enemy of public sector meddling, in some respects the US can now seem in certain respects much less in thrall to commercialism than Britain. Surprising, occasionally frustrating, but always interesting – this is what makes the US a great place to visit from time to time. It offers an insight – without having delved into its politics too deeply – into the directions in which western society is moving, many of which we might not want to follow, but perhaps some others we might.

RAD June 3rd, 2019

Rhys David is chair of Nova Cambria www.novacambria.wales

 

 

 

 

 

 

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