I read an interesting piece by Peter Foster in today’s Daily Telegraph, titled “The quaintness of America, the backwards superpower”.
The basic gist of the article (written, it should be acknowledged, by a self-confessed admirer of the US) is that while America remains the world’s preeminent economic and military power, in some areas it lags behind the rest of the “modernised” world. He goes on to give several examples of this backwardness, citing the prevalence banking cheques as a payment method, the widespread existence of ATM fees, the use of imperial measurement units, the state of the roads, and – perhaps most shockingly of all – the continued use of corks rather than screwcaps by the American wine industry.
Now perhaps we can forgive Peter Foster his perspective based on the fact that his biography states that he is “the Telegraph’s US Editor based in Washington DC. He moved to America in January 2012 after three years based in Beijing…”
I have also spent time in Beijing, and would certainly agree that if you stick to the glitzy, brand-new parts of the city (as you would likely do when covering “the rise of China”) and you are able to successfully block out the people riding rickshaws along the side of the motorways, then yes, parts of America are likely to lose some of their gleam by comparison. However, the litany of complaints about America, and the fact that the US is singled out, makes me wonder when was the last time the author spent any time in his home country.
In America, if you want to do some banking in a hurry, you can go through the drive-through ATM in almost any town. No parking on double yellow lines, sprinting to the ATM in the rain and hoping that your car hasn’t been towed by the time you withdraw your cash, as is the case in Britain.
In America, there are more drive-through restaurants, pharmacies, (rather dubiously) liquor stores, drive-by trash cans and any number of other modern conveniences that mean you don’t have to leave your car to conduct normal business. You can probably argue about whether this is a good or a bad thing, but the Americans certainly have one over on us in this sphere.
And when the time comes to refuel your car, the chances are that you can pay at the pump in America. Remember that handy invention? I think they tried to introduce it in Britain in a few places, and then the machines broke, were never fixed, and have been covered over with signs, poorly written in felt tip pen, telling you to pay inside and join the long line of other people in the convenience store. Truly the way of the future.
There is a picture at the top of the article showing Buzz Aldrin saluting the US flag on the surface of the moon, with the caption “Sure, they can do this, but they can’t work out how to pay for stuff with a debit card”. Seriously? Mr. Foster, are we even from the same country? I can’t count the number of times I have gone to a fast food restaurant, or the cinema, or any number of other places in Britain only to be told “the credit card machine is broken, cash only, sorry” by some dead-eyed employee. Again, there is usually also a badly-written sign informing me of the same fact, carefully tucked away where it is almost impossible to see when placing your order. In America, I can wave my McDonald’s card at the little sensor at the drive-through window and it automatically debits my bank account. Nice.
And let’s look at consumer goods and food. If I buy a loaf of bread from the supermarket in Britain, it is sealed with a little sticky strip of plastic which loses its adhesive qualities after about two uses, after which time you either have to try tying the plastic bag and squashing the bread in the process, or leaving it to go stale. In America, the same loaf of bread comes with a little trusty wire device that keeps on working until long after the bread has been consumed. If I buy a pack of tortillas in Britain – well, first of all, they will look and taste terrible, because decent Mexican food cannot be had in this country for love or money. But secondly, the tortillas will be kept in a sealed plastic vacuum pack, which, once punctured with a knife to access the tortillas, cannot be resealed. The result, once again, is stale tortillas. In America, the same tortillas actually taste good, and come in a ziplog bag so that you can reseal them.
I opened this pack two days ago, and I could use the remaining tortillas inside as an effective lethal weapon in a pinch. And yes, I could have bought my own zip-lock bag to preserve them, but the point is that I shouldn’t have to!
Oh, and say you want to buy your loaf of bread and your tortillas and it happens to be after 6pm on a Sunday. Good luck finding somewhere that is open in Britain. Sunday trading laws, sorry. In America, I would just nip to Target. Or Wal-Mart. Or one of the many other stores where they have correctly interpreted the phrase “Open 24 Hours” to mean “we don’t leave our stations at 5pm on a Sunday and go home to watch TV, and if you haven’t had the chance to do your grocery shopping yet, well that’s just tough luck”.
Mr. Foster also takes exception to American cable TV, finding the online channel guides to be very confusing compared to “the standard Sky TV menus that most English readers will be familiar with”. Well, shock horror, a country of 300+ million people has lots of regional and national cable/satellite TV providers, rather than the Sky/Virgin duopoly that exists in Britain. Yes, in America the providers may go to war with the content providers sometimes, meaning that you lose your favourite channel from the airwaves for a couple of months while they stare each other down, which is hardly ideal. But at least the American consumers have choice. We still think that’s a good thing in Britain even if we don’t practice it ourselves, right?
I could go on. At one point I thought about starting a blog that focused exclusively on the many ways in which British consumers are shortchanged and under-served compared to their American counterparts. The point is that it works both ways. Britain and America both come across as rather tired and shabby if you have spent a lot of time in the glitzy new developments of Beijing and Shanghai. But I don’t know many people who would willingly up sticks and leave to go there, for all the tea and Mag-Lev trains in China.
And in conclusion – well, I don’t actually have time to write a conclusion. It’s 4pm on a Sunday afternoon and I haven’t done my grocery shopping yet, giving me 45 minutes to run into town, throw some badly-packaged food into my shopping cart and get in line at the checkout.