Better we’re all a bit poorer than a few of us unimaginably rich and many of us destitute

The Eurozone crisis limps on, with each new “make or break” point presenting choices between alternatives that were but a few months ago unthinkable. Those who always thought the Euro was a bad idea, economically, politically, or both, are increasingly joined by erstwhile enthusiasts in speculating that the single currency is doomed to collapse under the weight of its internal contradictions. But in a way, although the demise of the Euro would be messy to say the least, the crisis in the zone is merely a wrinkle on the surface of a much more fundamental, and global, economic problem. The Eurozone problems are technical, in the sense that the Euro is a half-baked idea. A fully baked Euro would treat the Eurozone economically (and therefore inescapably, politically) as a single nation state, and this is effectively what Merkel and Sarkozy are mapping out in their latest proposals. If that were to happen, then presumably the entire bloc would have its credit rating down-graded a notch or two, but imbalances within the zone would no longer be a cause of concern in themselves. Poorer parts of the zone would be treated just as poorer parts within existing countries are already treated, and any flows from richer to poorer parts would not be an international, but a national issue. Markets would not be free to speculate against the component parts individually, but only against the bloc as a whole, which is business as usual for any nation state with a floating currency. The only problem – and of course it’s a fiendishly complex and fraught one – is getting from here to there.

But even if that could be successfully navigated, it would make no difference to the underlying problem afflicting the global capitalist market. That is the imbalance, not within countries or the Eurozone, but between economies with massive balances and those with massive debts. But that is in itself only a symptom of something, rather than a cause. And it’s a transitional symptom at that. The transition is from countries who have grown rich at others’ expense that are now staring at a future in which those others are getting richer at their expense. The irony is that China et al are dependent on developed markets, rather than domestic markets, for their wealth. So they need the old markets to collapse gracefully, tiding them over whilst they develop domestic consumption. But that is truly a transitional state. Eventually, if the dreams of the architects of globalisation are to be fulfilled, the world will arrive at a steady state of rich nations trading peaceably with one another, in ways that do not depend on one group ripping off another. As dreams go, I suppose it’s not heinous, but it’s also utopian, I suspect.

However the future might unfold (and the key bit that’s missing from the globalisers’ dreaming is their resolute refusal to acknowledge the planetary and biological limits to their utopianism) the fact remains that during the transition from Western economic and political dominance to Eastern, we in the West are going to get poorer. Certainly relatively, and almost certainly absolutely, too.

Our political system cannot deal with this reality. A whole succession of Western generations have been assured that things can only get better, by which we all understand, richer. We believe it is our birthright. Politicians who do not promise steadily rising incomes do not get elected. On the altar of ever greater enrichment we have sacrificed all sense of equity, of justice, of mutual benefit. We tolerate vast riches for a few, because we’ve been led to believe that unless we give the freedom to get rich to some, we’ll all be poorer. We can’t legislate for the curbing of corporate greed because the beneficiaries of that greed will take their bats and balls home, and we’ll all be poorer. We can’t have a “Robin Hood tax” because if we do the City will be deserted and half our country’s wealth will dry up. No-one dares to question this received wisdom.

Why not? For two main sets of reasons, it seems to me, one with genuine legitimacy, and one with none. The legitimate reasons are that politicians know that they have to promise greater wealth indefinitely otherwise we’ll vote for another lot who will promise it. The illegitimate reasons are because the political class are, by and large, the same as the class that is getting richer and richer compared with the rest of us. It’s no coincidence that so many cabinet members are millionaires. It’s no coincidence that New Labour was so famously relaxed about exorbitant wealth. Our politicians are either exorbitantly wealthy themselves, or are friends with those who are. It is a single club, and no-one, once in it, ever wants to leave it.

There is little individuals can do about the second set of reasons, other than deplore it. But we can begin to give the lie to the first. I am a member of the squeezed middle. My pay is frozen, whist inflation roars ahead. My pension is under attack. But (and this is in itself a symptom of just how distorted our relative incomes have become) not only am I a member of the squeezed middle, I’m also in the top 1% of earners. There are very few of us indeed who are neither poor, nor in the squeezed middle.

If we are to do something about the current crisis, it has to include the managed reduction of the West’s average incomes. A Western worker on average earns about 4 to 10 times what a Chinese worker earns for doing the same thing. At root, it is this inequality that is unsustainable. I would resent it very much indeed if my wealth was diminished whilst a tiny minority of my compatriots continued to get richer and richer: but I also know that even if every super-rich person in this country was suddenly reduced to my wealth status and their excess wealth redistributed to the rest of us, it would still be necessary for us all to become poorer. No politician can tell me that my vote makes it impossible for them to do the right thing, to work for true global equity. I know that if I truly want that – and I do – then I cannot remain as rich as I am. I am willing to vote for managed personal impoverishment. I do not believe that I’m alone.

I have specific reasons for my position that have to do with my faith. To me it’s simple. “For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.” You don’t have to share that faith to acknowledge the logic of my argument, and if you’re an avowed atheist, but still want global justice, it’s not for me to question why. I want to make common cause with you regardless.

Are any of you prepared to vote not in your own private interests, but in the interests of humanity at large? If you are, it’s about time that all of us who are thus willing told our politicians that they can no longer hide behind their assumptions about us. And just for a bit of fun, you can vote here!


In the long term fear can’t stop the riots: but hope just might

As I’ve pondered over what I’ve written here in the last couple of days, and been generally heartened by the many very generous responses to it, I’ve begun to focus more and more on one of the questions I’ve posed. It’s the one from yesterday’s post that asks what we might do about many young people’s frighteningly reckless attitude to their personal futures.

Despite the politicians’ rather forlorn attempts to pretend that the rioting and looting is so serious that it’s somehow “above politics”, everywhere else there’s been the usual sharp divide between analyses from the left and right sides of the spectrum. I’ve tried to plough my own furrow, whilst not of course denying that I am from the left. The danger in so doing is obvious: I’ll piss everyone off, and please no-one. There is, though, one surprising place in which the two narratives coincide – and that’s the sudden popularity of an otherwise rather obscure term, nihilism. It seems we all agree that this word does indeed capture something important about the moment. The explanations for it are as polarised as you’d expect, with the left broadly blaming economics, and the right a lack of social discipline.

Nihilism. “Nihilism is the philosophical doctrine suggesting the negation of one or more putatively meaningful aspects of life” Wikipedia solemnly tells us, whilst takes a more overtly political perspective with its talk of “total rejection of established laws and institutions” and “anarchy, terrorism, or other revolutionary activity”. I think Wikipedia must take the laurels here, since nihilism is a philosophical concept first and foremost, not a political one. I am convinced that in this concept lies the key to what’s happening. All the other important matters that I and others have discussed at length are derivatives. But in the rioters’ reckless disregard for themselves and others they display absolutely the “negation of one or more putatively meaningful aspects of life”. Unless we can reverse that mindset, all the talk of consequences, of facing the full might of justice, of tooling up the police, of bemoaning the absence of fathers, of broomstick solidarity, of taking back our streets – all of it is as chaff before the fire.

The nihilism we have witnessed has, it seems to me, two aspects. First there’s a material one. No matter how many individual rioters turn out to be “well-heeled” classroom assistants, the fact remains that poverty, and the lack of faith in its relief, lies at the heart. Poverty, we all know, is relative. And the rioters and looters have overwhelmingly been from inner-city areas of concentrated deprivation. My point here is not to decry inequality as such (although I do decry it) but to point up the consequences when young people lose hope that their circumstances can improve. There are some hard lessons here, I think, for the left as well as the right. We have all colluded in a fantasy that somehow education can lift everyone from their roots within a society where social mobility is constrained only by individual educational achievement. The Labour party has been guilty of this for many years. I was almost treated as a leper by a Labour cabinet member for young people when, as chair of governors of a large London secondary school, I had the temerity to question whether continuous improvement in exam results year on year was either possible, or even effective if the local economy could not offer enough work. Things are much worse economically now than they were then. And many of us in the left, and I definitely include myself here, have clung to the romantic notion that there is almost no such thing as difference in innate ability, and that everyone can be equally clever if only we could work out how to equalise opportunity. It’s not true. We have to create an economy that offers work to everyone, not just the clever ones. We need to stop seeing such work as menial. We need to pay more for it, recognising that it makes an important contribution both to those who thus earn a living, and to the society that gets things done that need to be done. A simple example: street cleaners are everywhere being replaced by men driving small vehicles that are similar to the gutter cleaning lorries. They are supposed to collect up rubbish with their whirling brushes, and they can sweep the streets in no time compared to a man with a broom. Except they can’t. They are, if you’ll forgive the pun, rubbish. They leave almost as much as they collect. And they also dis-employ unskilled workers, and remove human contact within communities. Why are they being introduced? Because they’re cheaper, and thus allow more of richer people’s income to remain immune from taxation. Greed, yet again. There needs to be the opportunity for employment of those who, either through inability or lack of ambition, do not want to go to further education. And that employment needs to be valued and appreciated, not looked down upon with sophisticated scorn. Such opportunities might give some of our young people more hope than they currently have.

And then there’s what might be termed the existential element of nihilism. I had a conversation with my 20 yr-old son recently. He’s at university. He’s not had a remotely deprived childhood. True, I’ve been an “absent” father (although I’ve always also been a present one) so what follows is probably my fault. He’s mixed race, as readers of this blog will know. I was frankly appalled at the bleakness of his view of his own, and society’s, future. He’s probably a perfect example of those youngsters who’ve had too much materially rather than too little. But he feels that his generation have been left to pick up the environmental and economic tab for our profligacy. That the future of the world and of society is in every respect dangerous and uncertain. We must stop our headlong rush to environmental Armageddon. We must set out a plan for economic well-being which is not predicated on unsustainable levels of energy and resource depletion. If we don’t, how can my son’s pessimism be addressed? He needs hope, and hope is not the same thing as denial and pretence.

I began by saying that fear cannot put right the things that have gone wrong. But in one sense, fear has its roots in hope. Unless we have hope for our individual and collective futures, we have no fear of acting in ways that damage that future. That fear cannot be sub-contracted to a militarised police force. It must come from within us. We should also be more honest about what keeps all of us on the straight and narrow. We like to see it as something to do with our personal morality, and castigate today’s youth for not having any. In truth I think it’s less pretty than that. We all make a kind of subliminal calculus about where our personal interests lie. In my youth I did a bit of minor shoplifting. I had as perfect a “moral” upbringing as it’s possible to imagine. What made me stop? It was when the calculus of risk shifted and fear about my future overcame the thrill and possession of what I was stealing. That’s the truth of it. In earlier times part of that internal subliminal calculus probably included the prospect of burning in hell fire, which is quite a disincentive. I’m not proposing that we can deal with our problems by commissioning public sermons on hell and damnation, but perhaps we need to find a substitute. Something that persuades our youngsters that part of what’s important are things that lie outside ourselves.

The most vicious rhetoric of the last few days has come from those paragons of right-wing virtue such as Melanie Philips. It’s all the fault of people like me. I beg to differ. She’s closer to the truth than she realises. Uncomfortably close. The problems in our society are symbolised exactly by the self-seeking, self-serving, self-righteous analysis that she represents. We don’t need more fear. We need more hope.

Food, inflation, health and the poor

As post titles go, I suppose this piece’s moniker is nothing if not broad and inclusive. It represents the bringing together of a number of my passionate concerns in one glorious concatenation, but before I go further I need to provide something in the way of a disclaimer.

One of the least attractive examples of rank hypocrisy and deliberate misdirection is that hoary old bollocks so beloved of our right-wing press, the (usually) Tory matron who declares that they have lived on £2.50 a week for a month, and that therefore no-one in this country is so poor that they can’t eat both healthily and deliciously, so please could they, and their supporters in evil outfits such as the Child Poverty Action Group, shut-up and stop whinging. The Daily Fail article that follows Lady Living-Bracingly-In-The-Countryside’s heroic experiment in poverty research reports lovingly that her Ladyship has gleefully made stews out of old toe-nail clippings, fricasséed freely available larger spiders, supplemented all this with a bewildering variety of root vegetables, and flavoured it with the juices from her Beeton-style everlasting stock-pot which has preserved her family’s left overs for several generations. Later in the article one casually discovers that it just so happened that Farmer Giles from the estate did in fact lob over a couple of haunches of venison, and his Lordship did allow her Ladyship to wash all this bracing fare down with a choice claret from Château Lafite-Rothschild, and a rather promising white Burgundy that by chance were gracing the cellars at the time. I realise that I might be accused of doing something similar in what follows, minus the classic vintages just mentioned, obviously. I can only hope not.

We heard today that the inflation experienced by the poorest people is greater than that experienced by the richest. This is for the simple reason that inflation in food and fuel is much greater than inflation generally, and even more because the costs experienced by richer people are often represented in large part by mortgage payments on property, and the current minuscule interest rate is in fact making those payments lower than ever before. So feeding ourselves is getting more expensive, but feeding ourselves is also a much greater proportion of poorer people’s expenditure than it is of richer people’s. It’s true as well that feeding ourselves is increasingly becoming not a means of nutrition, but a means of self-abuse. Channel 4’s modern day freak-show, Embarrassing Fat Bodies, illustrated this again last night in its trade-mark gory and repulsive detail. Much of this “eating as self-harm” has its roots in the kind of food people eat, and it’s equally generally true that the diets of poorer people are worse in this respect than those of richer people. One of the commonest explanations of this relationship is that bad food is also cheap food. Poor people cannot afford to eat well or healthily.

That is simply not true. It is true that that in any given category of food, cheaper versions are generally less healthy than more expensive ones. But the extrapolation from the undeniable truth that, for example, expensive sausages with higher proportions of good meat are healthier than cheap versions stuffed with starch and fats procured from commodity markets and made just about palatable with flavourings, texturisers, and colourings, to the overall conclusion that therefore only the rich can eat well is entirely false. Another common fallacy is that the middle-class obsession with organic food is merely an indulgence that the poor cannot afford.

I am not impoverished. And that is why I fear that sharing my own experience about mitigating food inflation might be dismissed in the same terms as my own dismissal of Lady Living-Bracingly-In-The-Countryside. Undeterred, I’m sharing it anyway.

Recently I’ve started taking an organic vegetable box each week from Abel and Cole (and I must immediately add that other providers of poncy delights are also available.) This costs me the princely sum of £11.50p, and is also delivered to the door releasing me from part of my otherwise steadily increasing fuel bill. Along with the box, I generally buy a little meat, some fish, and things like breakfast cereal and milk. I’ve never spent more than £35, including Abel and Cole’s massive delivery charge of £0.99p (eat your heart out Ocado with your charges of anything up to £8.) I also buy pulses and other bits and pieces from supermarkets to create my lunches each day. Perhaps on average I spend an additional £3 a week in this way, producing delights such as today’s red kidney beans, walnut pieces, and apple salad bound together with olive oil and flavoured with home-made garam masala. I eat meat or fish about 4 or 5 days out of the week’s 7, on one of which it will probably be a tin of sardines. If I spend £40 on food in a week I’d be surprised. Before starting to organise myself in this way, I probably spent not far short of £80-£100 every week. I accept that this approach takes some discipline, but that is mostly to do with eating whatever the box contains, and refusing to throw anything away. But be clear, there is nothing hair-shirted about this. I eat better now, and enjoy it more. I do it because it makes me happier, not because I hope it will make me more virtuous.

Ironically, that point about eating whatever the box contains is actually the key to all this. We live in a time when choice is supposed to be king. The new proposals on the NHS may have moderated the foolish pursuit of competition, but they still wax eloquent about the centrality of choice. One of the wonders of modern western capitalism is indeed the supermarket with its bewildering array of choice when it comes to food. This choice is not a liberation, nor a nutritional bonus; it’s exactly the opposite. But it’s also largely an illusion. Of all that vast array of choice, most of it is made of the same 4 or 5 things. Wheat, soya, sugar, corn and a medley of deconstructed and reconstituted plant and seed oils. And even though the resulting confections are not actually all that cheap, the raw materials certainly are and they contribute a tiny minority of the final price.

I hope I haven’t come across as suggesting that poor people’s poor diets are poor people’s own fault. There’s a lot more to it than that. But it is true, I believe passionately, that poor people do not need to be locked into bad food and poor nutrition. There is a choice, but it’s unlikely to be found in Tesco or Sainsburys. And part of that choice, strangely enough, is giving up choice.

Dependency: a problem of chickens and eggs

I’ve hardly been hiding my disagreement with the coalition government and its spending review. I believe their approach to social policy is about as wrong as it’s possible to be, but my disagreement is actually more about means than it is about purpose.

Iain Duncan-Smith’s desire to reform welfare is not in itself either wrong-headed or immoral. His identification of the “culture of dependency” as an element of the problem of welfare is not without seriousness, nor is it mistaken. And it’s not of course new either. Sir Keith Joseph’s articulation in the 1970s and 80s of the “cycle of deprivation” was describing exactly the same issue. In fact, the recognition of the “inheritability” (for the avoidance of doubt, not meant in a literal, genetic sense) of disadvantage, physical and moral, is a major biblical theme expressed in passages such as that in Deuteronomy about “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me”. It’s pretty idle to try and deny that children growing up with alcohol or drug addicted parents, with domestic violence, in poverty, with emotional neglect or any other of the almost infinite varieties of cruelty and dysfunction that too many of our children are subjected to, will not be deleteriously affected by it. It’s obviously true that not all these circumstances have anything to do with poverty (other than poverty itself, of course) and still less that poverty is necessarily a causation of these other disadvantages. But we do know that there is a strong correlation between poverty and multiple deprivation of these other sorts.

This is not about inevitability, and we all know about those exceptional people that have overcome unimaginable privations as children to be successful and rich adults. But of course rags-to-riches stories are interesting in a way that rags-to-rags stories are not. They are also infinitesimally less common. They tell us precisely nothing about what might intervene in the cycle for the majority of children affected by it. These individual stories are mostly irrelevant, but they are worse than that: they feed in the popular imagination the notion that all it takes to emerge untainted from a difficult background is guts and hard work. Thus the converse is also embedded in the public consciousness: that those who do not emerge untainted must be both lazy and cowardly. This is why, to our collective shame, 64% of the British people applaud the coalition’s attack on welfare, and think that protecting the well-off (as opposed to the filthy rich) is morally superior to assisting the poor.

But there is an intractable problem that those of us opposed to these attacks on the poorest need to face. It is also true that some of the ways we have traditionally tried to redress the balance have in fact contributed to the very problem that they were designed to deal with. The “dependency culture” is not simply a figment of the right-wing imagination. The government’s policies will make the position worse because they will tend to concentrate poverty both in severity and in geography, as I argued in my last post. This is likely to reinforce dependency, not break it down. Those of us on the left cannot argue that the welfare system doesn’t need fixing because it isn’t broken. It’s obviously broken because it obviously doesn’t work – if by working we mean that it assists in breaking dependency and the cycles of deprivation.

I have no prescription to offer. But it is perhaps a start to acknowledge honestly that a new prescription is needed. I will continue to argue against this government’s methodology. But I know also that if we keep doing the same thing on welfare, we’ll continue to end up in the same place. We have to re-think it. Now is the time to start.

It’s the poor wot gets the blame…

Today I have the dubious pleasure of revealing to some of our staff how we intend to deprive a good number of them of their jobs. It’s by way of a dummy run, for these job losses have nothing to do with the cuts – they are about the completion of a programme of work that was always going to come to an end. There is of course a connection though; in other times these well-experienced and in many cases long-serving staff would have had little difficulty in finding their next assignments. Now, of course, they are being “released” into a much harsher and more hostile environment, and one which is poised to become harsher and more hostile still once the Comprehensive Spending Review’s full horrors are known next month. And then I fear the experience I’ll gain today will be put to further and repeated use until, quite possibly, my unpleasant work being done, I join these ex-comrades once again in another bout of unemployment for myself. Changing the name of my blog back to its depressing original title will be only the least of the doleful consequences.

But I’m jumping ahead and I shouldn’t allow myself to think these maudlin thoughts; nor do I want to be in any way indulging in a self-fulfilling prophesy. Things may not turn out this bad. It’s not insignificant however that I am thinking thoughts as unhappy as these. Throughout the public sector there are many other senior managers such as me who are being frog-marched into acting as agents of the Coalition’s dissembling over the deficit. And it’s having more profound effects than it might appear. Throughout the sector there is a growing sense of foreboding, a chronic anxiety about the future, a disabling resignation. There is a serious danger that not only will public services be decimated by the loss of the skills and experience of those staff who will be the direct victims of cuts, but also that those who remain will be so de-motivated, so over-stretched, and so battle-scarred that the rump of services will be even less effective than they might have been. A double-whammy if ever there was one.

Rich irony then that today is also the day that Mr Bob Diamond, £100 million beneficiary of the banking débâcle that precipitated all this grief, is confirmed as the new Chief Executive of Barclays Bank, which in making this appointment is effectively blowing a loud raspberry at the majority of the citizenry of this country who are now paying the bill for the banks’ collective folly. It is of course more complex than that, and far too many of that same citizenry were colluders in that folly when they swallowed the patently false prospectus that money could somehow be magicked from thin air. Despite that, it remains the case that the real-world consequence of this complex web of financial inter-relationships is that some very few individuals are able to hang on to their magicked money whilst very many more are to be deprived not only of any magicked money they might have been unwise enough to accept, but also the very real money that comes from having a job.

It may be argued that we have no poor in this country, and relative to the total global economy that is largely true. It is not true that no-one is poor even by that definition since we have plenty of people with no food and no shelter save that which is provided through charity. Certainly the people whose jobs I’m about to whisk away could not be called poor on a global scale, even after they’ve lost their jobs. But we all know that poverty is relative and not absolute. Compared with Mr Diamond we’re almost all paupers. So I have no hesitation in confirming that, yet again, “It’s the rich wot gets the pleasure, It’s the poor wot gets the blame”.