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“America just caught up with the rest of the world. Now everyone gets free healthcare! Why are they so angry?”

“I thought you were supposed to provide for the poor. Why are people against the Bill?”

“Wait–I’m confused. Didn’t Obama just do a good thing?”

The British can’t see what the fuss is all about and it’s really not their fault–America’s non-stop party squabbling is not helping. Barack Obama signed the US healthcare bill as law, the entire country went into a rage and if you’re not American, you probably don’t understand why…

BECAUSE nobody is explaining ANY of it properly.

Let’s break this down, nice and simple.

The United States government has never paid for health care. Never–in it’s entire life. Why? Because it’s not in The U.S Constitution, the foundational legal doc for America’s existence. In the name of freedom and independence, The Constitution encourages taking total personal responsibility for oneself (health care and all). Well, the first people to take advantage of that freedom were health insurance companies–the ‘shops’ of healthcare, if you like. Americans ‘shop’ for the best doctor or dentist, they always have; they’ve never known any other way. Gradually, health insurance companies became competitive. If someone couldn’t afford to shop, the government wouldn’t pay for you but they’d help you try to get ‘discounts’, so you wouldn’t stop trying to afford shopping.

This sounds sadistic to the British. Why? Because the British government cut out all this ‘shopping’ business: it promised to pay for health care–no shopping or competition involved. In Britain there’s only government-funded hospitals, government doctor’s surgeries (offices) and government ambulances. (Unless you’ve chosen to pay private insurance.) Nobody in Britain remembers life before the NHS because the ‘pay-for-a-doctor-or-die-in-the-street’-method, was considered primitive and inhumane. Since 1946 the NHS is how it’s ‘always’ been. The biggest disadvantage of the NHS is that you can’t buy a ‘better’ doctor–you just take what you’re given. But if everyone else in the country is also at that disadvantage then, none of us will ever know or want any different, right?

From day one, Britain and America’s models have been as different as chalk and cheese. This is the first difference between our countries that nobody bothers to explain.

The only universal healthcare America has, is what the British would consider ‘discount’ schemes. These are Medicaid, which covers low income families and Medicare, for over 65’s and the disabled. Medicare is 100% federally-funded/managed; Medicaid is 50% state-funded, 50% federally-funded and 100% state-managed. Medicare is an automatic entitlement (i.e you grow old, you claim it), Medicaid is determined by eligibility (i.e show proof of income, we’ll decide if you pay all/part of the fee). Both are in trouble. Why? Because the Health Insurance companies are getting more expensive. Medicare is claimed by fewer people these days, but it is also bankrupt because insurance companies are expensive ; approximately 4 people’s taxes pay for 1 person’s Medicare. Medicaid is also increasingly expensive because states charge high premiums for revenue, making it inaccessible anyway. Neither work.

Still with me at this point?

So what do you think happened? There are an estimated 308 million Americans to provide for. They’re all fed up with the greedy health insurance companies. The government’s ‘help’ programs are failing. Everything’s been badly managed and has spiralled out of control. Then along came Barack Obama.

Of all the changes Obama promised to make during his presidential campaign, healthcare reform was the biggest. To quote: “I’ll make our government open and transparent…No more secrecy, that’s the commitment I’ll make to you as president. And when there’s a bill that ends up on my desk as president, you the public, will have 5 days to look online and find out what’s in it before I sign it, so that you know what your government’s doing…and you can decide whether your representative’s actually representing you.” Now that sounded like change we could all believe in. Inspirational stuff.

Except when he became president, he did the exact opposite of all these things.

Last year a healthcare reform bill 1500 pages long was written, in obscure legal jargon, which an average man cannot read nor understand. In November 2009, this bill was hurried through the House of Representatives without the public getting to read it. On Sunday 21st March 2010, the House voted 219-212 and Obama signed the bill as law. The public were only given 36 hours to read it online.

The American public, even some of Obama’s staunch supporters, were furious. Every step of the way.

To pay for the new reform, the Obama administration says it is taking $500 million from Medicare. Hold on, isn’t Medicare bankrupt? That’s right–it’s a hollow wall. As a result of this bill, health insurance companies are raising their rates and collecting federal funding at the same time. Hold on, aren’t health insurance companies already rich from overcharging people? That’s right–they’re still the controllers of health care. The reform doesn’t take effect for 3 years. The total predicted spending costs are currently at $2.5 trillion. Hold on, didn’t Obama say he would cut people’s taxes to help recover from the recession? Yes, that’s what he said. America’s national debt is already past $700 million and the country is still in a recession.  This can only mean one thing: the American people would have to pay for it…all.

As a friend of mine said, “…He put out a bill that most people can’t stomach in this economic climate…He tried to do too much all in one go.”

To think that the health care reform bill has created one problem, is wrong. It creates several separate problems. The country has gone berserk and torn itself down the middle because many Americans are fiercely against any sort of government dependency. Many believe that a move like this bill, is an enormous and dangerous step backwards. America’s emancipation from British rule was to abolish government dependency, establishing an American government which would represent and preside over the people, not provide. Because once upon a time, a British government once said it would provide for it’s American colony…it robbed them instead. America never forgot that.

And that dear friends, is what all the fuss, is all about.

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Coming from one of the most crime-ridden cities in Europe, within a week, the one thing that struck me as an American resident was that I was able to look around St Louis and discover, to my surprise, that I was not being watched. Like a dog beaten into submission, I became skeptical: “Wait! Why aren’t there any cameras watching my every move?….Do you mean to say that the public can be trusted here!?….Hmm….that doesn’t sound right…”

Many will, at this point, disagree with me. But I would like you to consider this for shock comparison when I say I felt I was “not being watched”. Sources claim the United Kingdom has more surveillance cameras in operation per person than any other country in the world. 20% of the world’s surveillance cameras are found in the UK, according to the Daily Mail’s 2005 report. The 2002 EU study by UrbanEye concluded that the UK has a minimum 4, 200,000 surveillance cameras in public, estimated at one camera for every 14 people. One indicative figure this report estimated, was the average Londoner being captured on camera approximately 300 times a day. An Orwellian tragedy this may be to some hearing it for the first time, but the real tragedy is how this intrusion quickly became an everyday fact of life, a norm for Britons. Stand at any one point in the city of London, and it isn’t hard to believe. At ground level, in a bus, a shop, underground, in an alleyway or under a lamppost in a leafy park; look up and you’ll see a camera looking back at you.

In an unsurprising backlash, a frequent sighting were vandalised and broken cameras. Against all good reasoning, the government went ahead with technological redevelopments resulting in today’s newer “indestructible” cameras being more sophisticated. One example of this outside Britain are the bullet-proofed cameras adopted by the Chicago Police Department. There is still scarce evidence to support these devices as crime deterrents but these developments have gone ahead largely unpetitioned, save for a few towns who still push for answers. Video Content Analysis and biometric analysis now being standard features, high resolution data is now a forensic prerequisite when using surveillance footage. The introduction of the IP camera and it’s sound recording now enables footage to be wirelessly streamed (some of up to 30 frames a second) to a viewing device, recordable instantly. The suspicious usage of thermographic cameras for surveillance has also become a lawful requisite under certain jurisdictions. Angry and vocal as the British public have been about their privacy being reduced to a mere privilege, what is questionable is why the British public did not categorically fight the government on this sooner. Yet now we are no longer alone; Closed Circuit Television/CCTV cameras became landmarks of modern life on the Continent over two decades ago.

The question of surveillance cameras in everyday society is now being raised outside Europe. Growing numbers of surveillance cameras in the US raises concerns that mass CCTV will compromise human rights in America as it has elsewhere. Of course, this same argument was flogged to death years ago in Britain, the only difference being that rather than being held as a propositionary argument, it came as a public outcry to subjection. Those lobbying against the widescale use of CCTV in the US, present the example of the British handling of public surveillance as a strong argument against it’s use. A country connected by highways, one of the stronger ongoing arguments in America is the (mis)use of red light cameras at traffic intersections.  Studies have not only raised the breach of privacy issue at being photographed, but raised the profiles of car crashes and accidents, caused by motorists’ slamming on their breaks at camera intersections with dangerously “adjusted” red light phasing. The fine for passing through a red light varies by state and city and can be anything up to $390, as found in California. A similar argument contested in Britain, regards the use of speed cameras on the motorway, and bus lane cameras used to penalise motorists using lanes restricted for buses as traffic control. With speed cameras proving largely ineffective, the political contention raised in the UK resulted in many devices being taken down, as the government revenue generated from these cameras was brought into question.

We may never really know how many cameras there really are watching us in the world. But in a way it’s small relief being away from intrusion as intense as in London. Still I’m not entirely sure how long this quietude in St Louis may last. Mysto and Pizzi’s latest Geico campaign ditty may have been the inspiration of experiences closer to home than first thought….

LondonBus373570At 6am today, I was rudely awoken by a horrifyingly bad nightmare, although that was the least of my worries. It was an unforgivably dark Monday morning, unforgivable only because the usual organic tweet and twitter of birds dwelling in the Midwestern sunrise did not greet me as I slurped my coffee. My brain immediately reverted to it’s former 28 years of conditioning: Carolyn, there is an unrelenting torrent of rain banging against your window and an insipid grey, overcast sky hanging overhead. Which must mean you are about to grab your coat and brolly and walk 15 minutes to the nearest Piccadilly line station to cram on a Tube to work. The Family Fortunes’ buzzer sounded in my head: “ih-irr! Wrong answer!” No, I was in St. Louis, I was self-employed with a car parked outside and my half-asleep mechanisms were going to have to make an abrupt stop, right now. And this was where my frustration began. I was being forced to switch gears far too early in the morning and for something as apparently inane as torrential rain. As a result, I started feeling homesick for the miserable weather I fought to leave and the old reliable routine it induced; a ride on a leaky carriage, sparks flying off live rails, wet umbrellas ruining belongings, steamed up windows and the comfort of moaning Britons all around.  Yet when I last checked, my Facebook reported at least three London friends wailing and pining to live in New York City after their very first visit to America in said city. I was once in their shoes. I got as far as St Louis, Missouri–further than most Britons get, and I don’t overlook that. But what is this fascination we Britons have with America and what is it based on?

With all the grudge-holding towards the US that Britain received infamy for after the Declaration of Independance in 1776, it is a small miracle that our nations are still friends today. All jokes aside about the national stereotypes of surly Father Britain disapproving of the behaviour of it’s “immature” young son, America, our relationship to each other is a fortunate and beneficial one in both directions. For participants, Britons hanker after America’s “bigger, better” attitude longingly, Americans pine for Britain’s quaint richness for history, reserve and grandeur. Yet the current British public perception of geographical America is still, one only based on exposure to huge, popular cities like New York and LA. Not quite even viewing-range, given that these cities aren’t a reflection of the average American life. This is something that few Europeans are really aware of and the average American is quite aware of this. But who can hardly blame us? Our tellies inform us with American sitcom, romcom and dot.com businesses from these two prosperous cities day and night; we are dazzled with America as far as New York and LA have taught us, buying flights in our droves to return crying and pining with armfuls of currency-friendly shopping. We start fastidiously looking into visa programs and green card lotteries, seriously considering forsaking Queen and country. But the question remains, while life may be better when we switch countries, is life really better when we switch cities?

Many people have asked me if I am happy in my new country of residency. My response is that I am unable to answer that yet. Still speaking from a seat of transition, I can say with some surety that life is certainly better having switched countries and there are several reasons for this. Comparatively speaking, America is a nation governed in a fashion that has completely different reverberations at ground level. These aren’t always agreeable but generally speaking, it is sometimes a great improvement, having been born under a British government which operates in a way that affects the public differently. There is a marked quality difference in agriculture, farmed produce and many other necessary resources made available for reliable consumption and usage. However this is somewhat universal to the US, it is when we look at the city microcosm that things change. And quite simply because American life doesn’t merely hang on to the threads of existence on the East or West Coast, I have yet to find happiness in a US city that is not New York or LA. Thankfully, the search has only just begun.

It is no secret that I am a big city girl and a self-confessed urbanite. What I am doing in a city like St Louis confounds a lot of people, even sometimes myself. Living amongst 8 million people crammed into 609 square miles for approximately three decades has always been unequivocally normal to me. 25 million separate journeys are made everyday in the capital to and from work. In the 15 minutes before 9am, 200,000 people use London Underground and 8000 buses cover over 2000 miles of streets to get people to work. It is said that the average commuter travels the equivalent of 2.5 times around the planet to get to work: London’s Tubes cover 300,000 miles of underground tunnel. While astoundingly impressive, these are not statistics that Londoners have time to stop and contemplate, they are borne into the grain of everyday living. Unnoticed to us all, Londoners live shoulder to shoulder and move amongst people, people, people, everywhere, all the time, non-stop, unrelenting. To someone not born in these conditions, this is the ultimate worst nightmare; out comes the common hyperventilatory talk of claustrophobia, asphyxiation, suffocation, bombardment, panic. Yet to the rest of London, it is just an auto-pilot dance, business as usual, the hum of the concrete jungle, the nucleic energy driving the country, the rhythm that keeps the capital having the first say on everything (The chimes of Big Ben are transmitted to 183 million listeners across the globe). London is considered the hub of the trading world, not least because of the fact that London is in the centre of two major time zones. A trading day begins just as the Far East has reached close of day, and finishes just in time to catch New York’s market. 40% of the office space in Greater London is grouped around the square mile;  a typical day will see £640 billion passing through the trading system. And while I am sure that my current domicile has it’s own statistical boastings, any city has a lot to live up to when considering what I perceive normal. I won’t lie, living amongst 3 million people spread over 8,846 square miles is like living in a county bigger than Yorkshire—with LESS people: it is uncomfortably isolating and alienating.

To those who are considering moving to the US, I say come, it’s beautiful, there’s nowhere else in the world like it and I am sure you’ll succeed–it’s the American motto. But please, for your own sakes, study the demographic before hurriedly selling off your wares and applying for visas: there are at least, approximately 20,000 cities in all 50 states and you’ll likely only have money enough for one. Patience is a virtue; exercise it and you may learn a little more than what you thought you knew about what makes you tick.

So as I was studiously flicking through my New Immigrants handbook, I happened to come across a section pertaining to the fundamentals of education in the US. Much to my relief, they, like the British, also refer to schooling chronology as Primary, Middle and High School. I did however, notice one large disparity which hadn’t occurred to me earlier. The US school-leaving age is 18. It was only then that I remembered my horrified reaction upon being told this years ago, during an early “cross-culture” conversation with my husband. Staying at school til you were 18? I thundered, why, that’s preposterous. How on earth was one expected to get a start in adult life, I wondered……and then the penny dropped. It all made perfect sense now I was on American soil.

The UK considers 16 to be the age at which an adolescent is ready to be considered a “young adult” and begin the ascent into fulfilling adult responsibilities. It is at this age that, once leaving school, 16 year olds across Britain are released into being freely able to purchase cigarettes, engage in intercourse in or out of wedlock, get married….amongst a miscellany of things. By law however, a 16 year old is still considered to be a minor in Britain and cannot drive a car. You must be 17 or over to purchase and drive a car. It is not until the age of 18, where it is legal to buy and consume alcohol, vote, purchase or model for pornography, and become legal for most things in the UK.

This is in stark contrast to legal ages in the US. At the age of 15-16 (variable by state), it is legal to own and drive a car. The age of consent in the US is 17 (variable by state). At age 18 in the US, one can vote, marry, join the army. However it is not until the age of 21 that purchasing and drinking alcohol is legal.

It is certainly illustrious to look at these facts and the consequential behaviours that develop out of these legalities. In Britain, thanks to the national “unveiling” circus which has established itself around the age of 16, most teenagers toy with breaking the law at a much earlier age, simply because of the perceived psychology that there “isn’t long to wait anyway”. It began to dawn on me that if Britain simply kept adolescents at school until the age of 18, there is a high probability that half of these problems would vanish. It seems incredibly absurd that while British 16 year olds do not drive to school but are able to marry, their American counterparts are able to vehicle themselves around their environment with still the promise of more to come in the next few years.

On the other end of the spectrum, where the US has controversially overstretched the legal drinking age in the other direction, the consequences borne out of that is the sheer number of Americans hop-skipping their geographical borders in order to fully inebriate themselves, often to frankly silly and overtly irresponsible measures. Can one really blame them?!

I arrived at this conclusion, that rather than jumping on the British bandwagon of sneering at our “killjoy” American counterparts when it comes to school leaving age, I think it would by and large benefit the UK to bring the leaving age up to 18, along with various other things made legal at 16. It’s all very well saying “this is how it has been for years”, but those legal ages worked properly only up until 50 years ago, when good parenting was commonplace and a 16 year old Briton was a person of such great stature that they were adept even for war.