Wednesday, December 09, 2009

A tale of two cultures

Yesterday we blogged on German millionaires who have stirred up a terrific debate in that country about the responsibility of wealth. Concerned about social cohesion and ecological sustainability, these citizens are actually calling for higher taxes on the wealthy.

The Times newspaper, which reported the story in the first place, raised the question 'could this happen in Britain?' Well, we're not holding our breath. The response in Britain to the financial crisis, which has its roots in profound systemic faults of the Anglo-American model of de-regulated financial capitalism, has largely involved a motley collection of celebrities (think Tracey Emin) threatening to quit the country rather than pay more tax.

Today the Daily Telegraph reports that plumber Charlie Mullins is the latest person to threaten to leave the UK rather than contribute towards maintaining its public services.

The differences between Germany and the UK become increasingly stark. The former has a diversified industrial base, a huge depth of investment in highly productive social capital, a formidable investment in physical infrastructure, and a world class manufacturing base. The UK is overly dependent on its financial services sector, lags behind most of Europe in its investment in social capital, its physical infrastructure creaks in every joint, and the entire nation is being held hostage to the selfishness of a tiny elite.

As Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have demonstrated in their compelling book The Spirit Level, the huge inequalities that have built up within Britain, the US, and other countries that adopted fundamentalist neo-liberalism, have catalysed profound social problems. Look carefully at how Britain compares to Germany across a wide range of indicators, including health, child well-being, trust, mental health, drug abuse, life expectancy, infant mortality, obesity, teenage births, homicide rates, family conflict, and social mobility. The statistics reveal a very clear pattern of success and failure.

The contrast in attitudes between German and British millionaires is also revealing. We are not so deluded as to think that all German millionaires want to pay more towards social cohesion. We know this is not the case. But a sufficient number do feel this way to have triggered a major and important debate in that country. Nothing comparable has happened in Britain. We wonder why not.

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