Tuesday, August 11, 2009

I predict the future

One of the very few advantages of having to live below the breadline (i.e. on benefits, which I have to do currently due to illness and recovering from surgery) is that it really gives you a perspective on money and what it can do.

I was listening to a radio discussion today where the panelists were talking about the 'credit crunch' (surely this is a term that is already sounding a little old-fashioned, which is apposite because it didn't sound like any of the panelists were actually suffering from the effects of said event). One had a friend who went to Aldi rather than Waitrose and bragged about how cheap the fresh parmesan was. What? These people are suffering so badly that they have to save money when buying their staples, such as fresh Parmesan. Is this the very definition of middle class poverty? Another was talking about buying cheap clothes and, rather than washing them, throwing them away. Her point was that there isn't enough land-fill to cope with all these worn once or twice items.

I'll just repeat what she was talking about; just so we're all sure of her topic. Buying clothes, wearing them once or twice and then throwing them away.

Live for any length of time on what is effectively negative income (benefits never really cover even your basic expenses, they simply stop you from becoming homeless and dying of cold and starvation. Don't believe anyone who talks about the unemployed and otherwise state-dependent being benefit scroungers. There are, of course people who cheat - claiming benefits when they already have an income, misrepresenting their circumstances in order to claim more - that kind of thing. But people who live on benefits live in poverty and I would suggest that very few, if any, are happy. Yes, the cliché of benefit dwelling is that everyone has a widescreen TV, but it was probably bought on unaffordable credit that will follow people around for decades), and you will find that, along with the things that you need and cannot afford, there are plenty of things that you just don't need.

What is clear is that getting more and more stuff is the default setting for pretty much everyone. Before I was sidelined with illness and disability, I earned pretty good money. But at the end of the month it was almost always all gone. Looking back now I can't understand where it went. I don't have an awful lot to show for it. I guess money just flew away in the breeze.

I'm going to go out on a limb here but I think the 'credit crunch' or whatever we want to call the near collapse of the world financial system is just a taste of things to come. It should have signaled a fundamental change in the way people approach matters of finance and economics. But it didn't. I read that the banks are back paying their bonuses to themselves (continuing to use their bogus justifications of staff retention and contractual obligations - all of which boil down to one thing they never say: I am greedy and I like being rich). It's as if I, as a school teacher had managed to make my results drop from a 70% pass rate to a 5% pass rate but then on raising that to 7% demanded a bonus because I was so bloody good at my job. Or a builder who built a bunch of houses that fell down then demanded a bonus because the next couple of houses they built didn't.

We still have some pretty big issues to work through. Starting with oil. Even though there is still loads of oil left, the issue is distribution and the patterns of consumption. Once Africa starts to join in with the global economy (and it will - pretty soon India China and Indonesia will pass from being producers to consumers and everyone will still want their cheap costs and bloated profits) there will be yet another factor thrown into the mix.

Second we have the environment. And this is not just global warming. It's pollution, waste management, natural resource management and all that.

Third we have population - possibly the biggie.

Then we have global health issues/crises.

Then we have ideological differences.

Then we have historical issues. Can a prosperous, educated China keep itself together? Can Russia retain its sphere of influence? Where does Europe end and Asia begin?

I have no idea if anyone is actually thinking about these things seriously or if anyone with any real power is trying to address them. But they should. My instinct is that governments are like any other social structures, in that the magnetism of the pursuit of prestige causes everyone to more or less line up together. Difference is not tolerated and dissenting voices are quickly silenced or discredited. How else did nobody in government spot what was going to happen to the financial system and take early action? Everyone I know with any financial nouse agreed that the house of cards was heading towards collapse and there was little surprise when it all fell down.

I also suspect that electoral politics trumps most long term thinking, so if a maverick voice is allowed to survive, it is quickly drowned out by other noise. After all, electoral politics is about winning elections and pursuing power, and it is easier to trap electors into short term thinking and then feed them news-cycle-long trivial good news, than to actually effect any real change. Why else would America still not have a decent functioning healthcare system?

My point is that I have just not spotted the fundamental shift in attitudes that would insulate us all from a continued cycle of financial aftershocks. There is an argument that the global bailouts were an easy, rather than a wise choice (governments and leaders often spout the rhetoric of making tough decisions and avoiding the easy choices - surprise! they hardly ever walk the walk). Lots of people kinda think that we deserved some pain and that it might have taught us a lesson in what is really important This is actually something that my (and subsequent) generation (s) haven't learned. The generation that is past retirement age either lived through WW2 or it's austere aftermath. Everyone else in Europe and the UK has reaped the benefits of the war generation's sacrifice. Maybe we have all become too complacent. A little pain might remind us how fragile everything really is.

The bonus culture is apparently still standing. The ideology of globalisation and privatisation remains intact. The obsession with targets is undimmed. The radically conservative low tax, small government ideology is more or less unshaken. All the elements that led us into our current states of crisis (prosecuting ideological wars abroad; the economy cannibalising itself like a rabid snake; the arrogance of self-insulation; the trivialising of reality; the quest for stuff) are still there.

Which leads me to think that, as nations, economies and communities, we are bound, like a wasp trying to escape through an unopened window, to continue bumping ad infinitum into downturn and disaster.