Mary Dejevsky: Why do we always take the wrong ideas from the US?

From education to policing, American ways don’t always provide a model

Tuesday 13 January 2009 01:00

What is it about American ideas that Britain, and New Labour Britain in particular, finds so seductive? Oh, I know how fertile their think-tank culture is and how persuasive US advocates of bold ideas can be. Across the Atlantic, salesmanship is part of success – let's hear it for Bernard Madoff.

But the United States is big enough, diverse enough and decentralised enough to allow itself a bit of social experimentation here and there. You could even argue that the US does it so that our more cautious and less ruthless societies do not have to. Yet still we in the old world are seduced.

And invariably we get it wrong. We fail to take into account the great differences between their culture and ours. We mis-time our borrowing, enthusing even as the unintended consequences have begun to multiply. Or we pick and choose different bits, when the secret is that the whole thing works as a package or not at all. Mainly, though, we just adopt the wrong ideas.

One of the most irresponsible of recent borrowings, to my mind, is the Ivy League model of university development. It is hard to know where to begin with this folly. Oxford University, my alma mater, launched a £1.25bn appeal to make itself competitive with leading American universities – just before the US economy went into free-fall, taking much of the capitalist world and, presumably, hoped-for benefactions, with it.

Poor timing was not the only problem. Oxford thrives on its collegiate system. Allegiance is to college at least as much as to university. As a recipient of two glossy brochures on successive days, I know that university appeals compete with college ones. US and British cultures of gratitude and giving also remain quite different. We still tend to regard education, including higher education, as a right that should be publicly funded. Charitable donations are seen not as the lifeblood of a university as often in the US, but as a supplement for the elite.

I cannot see this changing, nor should it, especially not when the Government's approach to higher education is as muddled as it is. Thus our universities are supposed to compete at once worldwide for Nobel prizes and for the 50 per cent of school-leavers the Government wants to go on to higher education.

And they are supposed to fund much of this themselves – hence not only the fund-raising (and all the expensive apparatus that goes with it), but the chase for high-fee paying foreign students, which in turn raises questions about admissions standards. All those extra students are now going to graduate into a recession, with degrees that are two-a-penny and debts counted in thousands of pounds.

And by the way, Harvard projects that its $37bn endowment fund will have lost more than 30 per cent of its value by June; Yale reports similar figures. Does this make the Ivy League a sensible model for our universities to follow?

Similar questions hang over two other favourite American ideas: "zero tolerance" policing and welfare reform. For all the lionising of certain US police chiefs over here, I am not aware that any British force has followed every dot and comma of the drive against broken windows and graffiti that apparently made it work, still less "three strikes and you're out". Nor have I seen much note taken of US crime rates that are now rising. The appeal of "zero tolerance", however, appears undiminished.

As for welfare reform, I doubt whether any British government would countenance a cap on either the number of children or the number of years for which a mother could receive benefits. Even if it did, would it have the finance in place to provide mass job-training, or the focus to make the recipient choose between food stamps and a minimum wage job? That's the deal on offer in many US states. After all that, though, it turns out, that the real secret of the fall in US welfare rolls stemmed less from the numbers forced into work than those discouraged from claiming benefits. Might less draconian means have achieved the same objective?

This time next week, Barack Obama will be inaugurated as US President. His first initiative will be a massive programme of jobs, infrastructure projects and tax cuts. In a recent New York Times article, even Thomas Friedman, US guru of the globalised world, embraced this latterday New Deal, recognising – rightly – that the US had fallen behind other developed countries. He called for a "re-boot" and a "national makeover".

With even so convinced a free-marketeer as Friedman now signed up to the project, why do New Labour – and the New Conservatives for that matter – seem to be dismissing it as a US solution too far? If there was ever an idea – all-American in its breadth, ambition and inspirational purpose – that cried out for imitation here, Obama's new Rooseveltism is surely it.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments