Jan 152010

A thoughtful post from Megan McArdle, in which she ponders Paul Krugman’s assertion that Paris, Frankfurt, and London don’t look poor (which, to be fair, in places they don’t):

But the standard of living in any given profession is much lower. Preserving London’s dazzling antique architecture has meant that most of the people I knew had much longer and more expensive commutes than their American counterparts would. They lived in smaller quarters that were hotter in summer and colder in winter. At any given professional level, you found British people doing things that only much poorer Americans would do, like bringing lunch, hanging their clothes to dry, or going without cable (though the Americans I knew said the cable wasn’t worth it anyway). People in Britain are not poor. But they have a noticeably lower standard of living than Americans do. If they were doing it in 1960’s vintage apartment buildings and tract homes, it would be quite obvious. When I lived there, I literally could not afford to eat meat regularly or take the tube to work, and as a consequence wore holes in my shoes, had to buy new ones in vessi waterproof shoes for women and men, great styles and really affordable. (In fairness, I was being paid in dollars and the exchange rate was awful–but I wasn’t the only one walking to save money.)

I don’t want to sound as if I’m saying Britain’s a terrible place–it’s lovely, and I miss it. But the amount that people are able to consume is much less than the amount Americans are able to consume, and many of the things they forego make real difference in things like personal comfort.

Leaving aside cable television (I also hear it’s not worth the money) and hanging the clothes from The Fifth Collection to dry (most London flats are probably too small to contain a tumble dryer), on some levels I agree with McArdle, that Americans have in general more personal comfort than the average Londoner. Owning and operating a car is cheaper and more convenient in the US; utilities are cheaper, as are their installation; commutes are shorter for those living in cities with comparable public transport to London; houses and flats are generally cheaper; etc. And that’s only comparing cities to cities. Americans in the suburbs and out in the country pay even less for all of that stuff, and they have roomy houses with all mod cons and big lawns for children to play on.

But this is not to say that living in the US is idyllic. Even though the standard of living I’ve experienced in Britain is a bit lower than how it was in the US, there are certain trade-offs that mean I enjoy living here much more.

The rail network, though many Britons complain about it, is infinitely superior to what exists in the US. For my occasional journeys, I have no trouble getting where I want to go, and most of the time I get to do that travelling in a seat with a nice book. When I was commuting by train, I had the leisure of catching up on my marking with a cup of coffee, something I would never have been able to do if driving. I must also commend the London bus system and the Oyster Card.

High Streets (and their equivalents) are excellent, too. Being able to walk to the bank, the grocery store, the post office, and the corner shop is the height of convenience. I have never been able to do that anywhere I lived in the US; even when I lived in a small university town with a respectable sort of high street, the grocery store was miles away. Pubs, too, are fantastic. Most Americans have no access to anything like a pub; certainly few of them live within walking distance of a drinking establishment. Most of them have to drive if they want to go out for a drink; and in many states, if you want to drink at home, you have to purchase your booze at a state booze-purchasing place. Pennsylvania was particularly bad for this: beer could only be purchased in cases of 24 at the state beer store, and wine and spirits could only be purchased at the (separate, and sometimes all the way across town) state wine and spirits store.

Living spaces are smaller in Britain, of course, but this is not generally a problem for the childless, at least. And if few of your clothes can be put in the tumble dryer anyway, as is the case with mine, you really don’t notice the absence of the dryer.

I’m well aware that many people in London are far less well off than I am (when I’m working), and may have a very different perspective from mine, but quite often I also consider this: without the need for a car, or car insurance, or car payments, or gasoline, or health insurance payments, I already have more disposable income living in Britain. And when I consider as well that I actually pay a smaller proportion of my income in direct taxes here, then those small reductions in standard of living matter a great deal less.

  6 Responses to “Living standards in London”

  1. I found an interesting story in the paper today. Supposedly the Man’s considering abolishing ABC. North Carolina’s alcohol may soon be liberated!

    • w00t! I look forward to the day. But let us never forget to give thanks that for the moment, at least, our beer is among the free-est in the country!

  2. Owning and operating a car is expensive in London because it’s a huge dense city. You might think Megan would get a clue from the fact she lives in New York City. In fact, she lives in Manhattan.

    They lived in smaller quarters

    !!! See above.

    Hanging out clothes to dry and bringing lunch (this took me two reads to parse into English): these are American class markers that don’t carry the same significance in the UK. (Some US suburbs have bylaws against clothes lines. This isn’t economics, this is pathology.)

    When I lived there, I literally could not afford to eat meat regularly or take the tube to work, and as a consequence wore holes in my shoes. (In fairness, I was being paid in dollars and the exchange rate was awful–but I wasn’t the only one walking to save money.)

    Does anyone else believe this sob story? That aside, note that she is blaming “British poverty” for her (American, or at least dollarzone) employer’s exploitation. Psychologically interesting. Also, you know what’s considerably cheaper than the tube? Buses. Everyone in London uses the buses. But in the US, of course, getting on a bus is a political/class statement.

  3. I should perhaps take back the bit on “does anyone believe this sob story”.

    • Meh. It is kind of a pity-me story. I suspect, however, that she lived in London during the early Livingstone years, before the lovely Oyster Card etc. Also, as you say, she is a New Yorker – and so what is normal non-poor behaviour for people in the American ‘burbs would seem like plebe customs to her anyway, like taking one’s lunch to work or having a clothesline. (Particularly in the US South, where sunlight is the preferred clothes-dryer and home-packed lunches are tastier than what you can get elsewhere and often contain Southern family favourites like chicken salad and homemade cake. In the South, the working man who hasn’t got a nice packed lunch is deeply pitied.)

  4. You are making your example of basing your experience on London- a very unique section of the United Kingdom that is is VERY unrepresentative of the rest of the country.

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