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Diary

Diary

16 June 2012

6:00 AM

16 June 2012

6:00 AM

The best moment during my trip around America was at a charter school in San Lorenzo, California. Talking to a group of children, I asked one of them, Michael, a slightly sulky-looking Hispanic boy, where he would be if he was not at this school. ‘Juvie,’ he replied. The other children explained that he meant Juvenile Hall or Detention. In other words, if he had stayed at a normal state school he would have made an early start to a life of crime. Here at the charter school, he had not. How and why had the school made such a difference, I asked him. ‘We spend our whole life here!’ he grumbled — no time for crime. His mother had made him go. Evidently a wise and determined woman.

•••

From Washington, I drove out to see the great Charles Murray, author of Losing Ground. It took me an hour and a half to find his modest house on the edge of a one-crossroads hamlet in the wide-open countryside. Murray believes his country, of which he has been so proud, is inexorably deteriorating. He regretfully recognises that not enough people are Libertarians, as he is, so things won’t change and the downward path is likely to continue. I ask him: has anything got better? He tells me he plays poker at a casino where all sorts mix. The good news is this: relations between blacks and whites are more natural — less tense — than 20 years ago. But that’s it.

•••

On to the celebrated Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. The massive medical complex dominates the town. How is Obamacare working, I wondered? Well it has not fully started yet and it might yet be skewered by the Supreme Court before the end of the month. A policy person tells me that as a result of worrying about the potential effects of Obamacare, ‘I don’t sleep at night.’ But she, like everybody else, does not really know how it will work out. It is a gigantic, muddled compromise between a host of interests, including the insurance companies and doctors. Not a single person I met on the whole trip regards it as coherent legislation. Obamacare does not even mean that everyone will be covered by health insurance. You are allowed to opt out by paying a penalty. Sally Pipes, head of Pacific Research in San Francisco, tells me that a Congressman remarked to her: ‘Let’s put it into law and find out what it means.’


•••

I’m delighted to visit a government school in one of the poorer districts of San Francisco. There is little violence there but the children are not allowed to wear red or blue because these are the colours of the local gangs. The head tells me about the tactics he uses to try to get good teachers and avoid being forced to take lousy ones. It takes years to sack bad teachers. The astonishing rules about hiring and firing came about because of the overwhelming power of the teachers’ unions. I wonder how the union leaders can live with themselves, knowing that they are damaging American children more than anything else.

•••

Back on the East Coast, in Manhattan, I visit social housing on the Lower East Side and in Harlem. The massive Stalinist blocks are desirable residences. Two taxi drivers tell me that if you pay money under the table, you can jump up the waiting list. Come to think of it, paying to get up a waiting list is also reminiscent of Stalin’s Soviet Union. One reason that Harlem is desirable now is that it is safer. All the taxi drivers agree that New York as a whole is far more secure. They unite in giving credit to one man: Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor. One black driver grudgingly remarks: ‘He was a racist but he was good.’

•••

It is a curious thing that Americans and many Europeans cling to the same illusion about the USA. Americans want to believe their country is a bastion of free enterprise and self-reliance, while many Europeans love to think of America as a bogeyman — an icon of brutal capitalism. Both are wrong. America has a welfare state and a mixed economy. Rather like Europe.

•••

In Washington airport I came across a shop selling objets politiques — you know the sort of thing: magnets, mugs and posters. I bought a little tin of sweets with a drawing of President Obama on the lid and the words, ‘This is change? DisappointMINTS’. Back at home I already have a fridge-magnet photo of George W. Bush, cheekily grinning as he says, ‘Miss me yet?’ It makes me laugh every time I open the fridge door.

James Bartholomew is the author of The Welfare State We’re In. His next book is about welfare states around the world.

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