Celebrity Outshines Country

Tripoli

When asked where I am from, I now just say, “Chelsea” and then there’s instant understanding. For a Spurs fan this is irritating but one has to do what works. When Libyans on the street ask me where my wife is from (of course they ask me not her and quite right, too) I say, “Obama”. Again, this gets the job done much better than saying U.S. or America. Cameron, Nick Clegg, Mitt Romney, Santorum — absolutely no recognition. Beyonce works, though.

What a strange world we live in now: celebrities and sports teams have greater name recognition than countries.

I am thinking of trying Simon Cowell next.

Echoes of Putin in the UK

So legitimate and legal tax planning is now the same as illegal tax evasion, according to the U.K. deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, and the chief secretary to the U.K. Treasury, Danny Alexander. Have either of them ever heard of the rule of law? Apparently, the tax bully boys are going to be unleashed on small businesses — they are already in trouble from falling revenue and increased business rates. Britain’s high streets are being blighted increasingly by boarded-up shopfronts. This playing fast and loose with the law is the kind of thing you hear in Putin’s Russia.

The Lost Communicator

Not so sure Michael Gerson is right when he says in a Washington Post column today that “it is the agenda that undermined the idiom” and blames President Obama’s politics for the loss of his communication power. On the other side of the aisle, partisan divisions over the role of government have been sharpened in the UK by the Coalition’s cost-cutting agenda but Prime Minister Cameron and his deputy Nick Clegg are communicating far more effectively than Obama now and seem to be taking more people along with them.

Maybe we over-estimated Obama when we heard him out on the presidential campaign trail, mistaking rhetorical flash and dash for overall communication understanding and ability. Maybe we were overcome by the contrast between an eloquent Obama and a stumbling Bush — here was a man who could speak in grammatical, flowing sentences. Now Obama seems flat, professorial and ponderous.

And maybe Obama is losing confidence in speaking to the nation as a whole and is resorting to what most politicians do when under pressure — namely, speak just to their base, hence the narrow feel of his rhetoric now, the exclusivity as opposed to the inclusivity that was emphasized during the campaign. Gerson is surely right when he describes the President’s recent forays beyond Washington DC. “In Milwaukee, Obama was the feisty street fighter with a union card. But, without humor, his jabs seemed sour and mocking. In Cleveland, Obama personalized the economic argument by repeatedly attacking House Minority Leader John Boehner — as though Americans have any idea who this tanned and sinister figure might be.”

It isn’t just the President’s own performances that are off the mark. The communication strategy of he White House has been flawed from the start. Why not more about the economy from the moment Obama set foot in the White House, after all the polls consistently highlighted the economy and unemployment as the number one anxiety? Only now is Obama talking more about the economy and focusing on it. Neither of his two Oval Office addresses were on the economy. Has anyone over at the White House heard of FDR’s “fireside chats”?

Closing the Gap

Why should the British middle-class instantly reach for their wallets whenever they hear a British politician talk about closing the gap between the rich and the poor? Nick Clegg, the U.K.’s deputy Prime Minister, demonstrated exactly why in London today with his speech on creating a more socially mobile society. The rich quickly morph into the middle class, and so what he really means is closing the gap between the middle-class and the working-class. The real rich, as we all know, will just move overseas, if there is too much redistribution out of their pockets.

Of course, Clegg can’t say that, especially as he is in coalition with the Conservatives, but that is what he means.

I am all for greater social mobility – that is one of the driving reasons I, British-born, embraced the United States – but “wealth” redistribution is not the way to do it, or shouldn’t be the main driving force. Britain has been trying that since the Welfare State was established in the wake of the Second World War and as studies have shown it hasn’t been so successful. The increased redistribution primarily from the middle-class to the working-class and tremendous subsidies to geographically poorer areas of the UK under the Brown government failed dramatically to close the gaps dividing north from south or the one separating the middle-class from the working-class.

The review the Coalition government is undertaking now of the universal benefits system is a good thing – the well off surely should not be receiving subsidies in the form of child credits and heating allowances they don’t need. But how much is going to get taken from the middle-class at the same time as they are facing higher taxes before they decide either that they have had enough of the Coalition government or decide to trigger a 1970s-style brain drain?

Social mobility comes with providing fine schools, access to excellent higher education and the economic, commercial and regulatory circumstances that encourage entrepreneurialism, wealth creation and prosperity. And as history has shown, countries that declare war on their middle-class tend not to do so well when it comes to economic growth.

Arguably, Margaret Thatcher did more than Brown or Blair for social mobility and encouraging working-class aspirations. She did it by allowing council houses to be bought by their occupants at below market value – a policy fought tooth-and-nail by the left and center-left in British politics. She did it by welcoming success, encouraging entrepreneurism, keeping taxes low, reducing public expenditure and ceasing the British industrial habit of propping up lamb-ducks. She was also more heavy-handed with high-blown, snooty and traditional institutions than many Labour ministers were before her and have been since. And aspiring working-class voters loved her for it – that’s why she was re-elected.

Obviously, it was good to hear Clegg saying that the Coalition government aims to assist social mobility by improving people’s lives rather than by providing hand-outs, but sadly missing from the Clegg speech was anything about lower taxes — just more stuff about “fairer taxes”, in short more taxes on the middle class.

And this on the day when an excellent economist, Danny Blanchflower, a former member of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee, urged the Coalition government to cut taxes or face another recession.