If they can do it, so can we

12 February 2013 - 02:27 By David Shapiro

A few weeks ago, I dined with some Swiss bankers with whom we do a fair share of business. Having completed most of our formal talks during the day, the conversation at the dinner table was largely social.

Back in the 1990s I often travelled to Switzerland. It's a beautiful, scenic country, clean and orderly, but I found the people detached and mistrusting, though, like Roger Federer, impeccably polite. I suppose for a country that hasn't taken sides in a war since 1815, rejected membership of the European Union and only became a member of the UN in 2002, its manner was hardly surprising.

When we called on a well-known, private banking establishment in Geneva, the male receptionist, who could only understand a word or two of English, insisted on watching us as we refreshed ourselves in a restroom. My young colleague, annoyed by the attendant's suspicious behaviour, turned to him, smiled and, in language punctuated by expletives, inquired what he thought we could remove from the toilet that could measure up to the activities of the tax-dodgers and money launderers from bordering countries who made up the bulk of the bank's customer base.

No matter what, Switzerland is an industrious and prosperous country. It has a relatively small population of about 8million people, made up chiefly of bank clerks, lab technicians, precision engineers and cheese makers - the good-looking ski instructors come from Norway. Its economy is 50% bigger than South Africa's, a country that has six times more people. It's a very rich country: its economic output is $81000 a person, compared with South Africa's $8000.

Most South Africans believe we live in the greatest country on earth and, given the opportunity, everyone would happily relocate here to enjoy the benefits of our glorious sunshine, sprawling properties and carefree lifestyle. But my guests confessed that they were blissfully content living in stress-free Switzerland and couldn't imagine raising a family anywhere else.

Everything there worked. Education and healthcare were of an exceptionally high standard, and free. They live in comfortable houses that are not too far from where they work. Public transport is regular, reliable and affordable. The safety of their families is never in question and, to top it all, individual tax rates are negotiable, depending on where you reside.

Generally, though, income tax is a lot lower than ours. Listening to them, I felt like the travelling salesman from Acme Brushes who had the door slammed in his face.

In a recent publication, the Economist Intelligence Unit concluded that the best place in which to be born this year is Switzerland. The lifestyle survey covered a number of indicators, including trust in public institutions, health of family life, crime, geography, demography and economics. Though Australia muscled in at No2, the Nordic countries scored the highest points on a regional basis.

Last week, the Economist featured reasons why - if you were reborn anywhere in the world as a person who has average talents and income - you would want to be a Viking. Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland, as a cluster topped the tables in everything, from economic competitiveness to health and happiness. What elevated their rankings was a reformed public sector that was more efficient and responsive. Collectively, the countries were balancing their books, rooting out corruption and vested interests, reducing their governments' share of GDP, transforming entitlement programmes, allowing everyone access to public records and permitting private enterprise to run certain national institutions, such as hospitals.

As long as public services functioned well, no one minded who provided them. The state was popular not because it was big but because it worked.

A leader in 1988, America dropped to 16th place on concerns that babies born this year will inherit massive government debt, which will encumber living standards when they grow up. Despite their economic drive and vitality, fast-emerging economies such as those of China, Brazil, India and Russia finished down the table.

South Africa was 53rd among the 80 countries examined, in the company of Algeria, Serbia, Romania and Iran. Nigeria finished last.

Last week, at the mining conference in Cape Town, a lot more doors were slammed in our face and global mining bosses warned the government that, unless it clarified its policies and tackled the tense relationships between employers and labour, the resource boom would bypass our economy.

We acknowledge that there are heaps of issues we need to address to put our economy back in play. We have to lift labour efficiency, reduce bureaucracy, protect our citizens from crime and improve the health of our workforce.

But surely confronting these difficulties is far more endurable than living in a country where your kids will dwell in Lego houses, have names without any vowels in them and grow up looking like Max von Sydow.