Where America trails Europe

Dateline: 12 September 2007

Your columnist is a frequent traveler to the United States and is writing this column from Washington DC. His wife is a US citizen, though they are both resident in the UK. It is a constantly entertaining game to make lists of things which work better in the UK and things which are better in the US. There may even be a discernable pattern.

The biggest thing which Americans do better than the British (or indeed anyone else) is customer service. Many of the other things are sub-categories of this: for example shoes. British shoes are sold without width fittings, other than for children. As though all adults have feet of the same width! A major exception to the rule of better customer service is airports. Common Sense has commented in detail on this in the past, but recent experience at Dulles has reinforced this. But then, what would we expect? London’s main airports are privately owned. Federal law requires all American airports to be government owned. One function of an airport is as shopping mall with a captive customer base. Would your local shopping mall be better run by the US Post Office?

Another example is utility businesses, including electricity gas, and phone (including cell phone) services.

America has no functioning national electricity grid. Many of the utilities are privately owned, but often heavily regulated, and with local monopolies. In the UK, local electricity monopolies were phased out in the early 1990s. Gas and electricity supply is now as competitive as telephony. This can be irritating, as people from India keep phoning to offer a cheaper plan, but some of the plans are genuinely cheaper, and the general price trend has been down. Supply is also more secure, especially when compared with California. In a previous incarnation as a business writer, Common Sense wrote about the truly astonishing blackouts which afflicted the richest place on the planet, and eventually brought down former Governor Gray Davis. Davis, incidentally, blamed ‘deregulation’, but the real problem was over-regulation.

Cell phone services are better in Britain than in America. Recently, Americans have caught on to text messaging, but this is one of the very rare technologies in which Europe was three to four years ahead. The US does struggle with a much larger geographic area than the UK, and a much sparser population, especially in the West, but the lack of coverage is only one issue. Pay as you go services in the US have particularly poor customer service. Though customers pay in advance, pre-purchased minutes ‘expire’ in a few months. What other business will simply cancel a product you have already paid for? In Britain my spare phone, for loan to visitors, ran for three years on a £30 ($60) credit.

It is also worth noting that major cell phone suppliers in the US are often European companies. Vodafone is British, T-Mobile is German and Orange is French.

So what is the pattern? Heavily regulated businesses were typically nationalized in Europe and run as regulated private monopolies in America. But Europe (and Britain especially) caught on to the fact that nationalization failed. Britain was behind the US when these companies were government owned. But now they are private there is a much lighter touch regulation, and British standards of service have shot ahead. But America can do better if government gets out of the way. Just go to a shoe shop.

Quentin Langley is editor of http://www.quentinlangley.net an academic at the University of Cardiff and is a columnist with Campaigns & Elections. This article was first published in the Common Sense series for Lake Champlain Weekly.

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