Brand and Paxman expose the cracks in capitalism (and ourselves.)

Emily told me to watch this.

If you have an interest in politics/economics/inequality etc, please watch it. I find myself slightly shocked at recommending a clip with a narcissistic smart mouth being interviewed by someone who uses cynicism like a rapier.

But watch it anyway.

Firstly- hooray.

Someone is shaking the tree. The video has gone viral- young people are revolting (if only by clicking the ‘share’ button.)Questions are being asked again about injustice, the operation of power, the distracting divisive effect of the media.The Occupy movement is heard of again in the mainstream media- I worried that it had been blown away like an electronic leaf in a cyber storm of ephemerality.

And perhaps most of all, a voice is speaking for the next generation – my kids – about the possibility of change. No, the NECESSITY of change. I fear that these voices have been silent, overwhelmed by consumerism and the chasing after product; be that a physical thing or a commoditised experience.


Where is the connection to action? What is the vehicle for change? What are the dangerous ideas that will inspire?

The only idea Brand seems to have is this one- do not vote. It is a waste of time.

He may be right- but what do we do instead then?

I hope and pray that my kids might start to find some real alternatives. That they might come to believe that a different world is possible.

Watching Brand and Paxman is like engaging in a conversation between myself and my daughter (in fact it resulted in just that.) Paxman and I failed; after our radicalism, things got worse. Thatcher skewed us ever further into a credit fueled consumerism. The world became more unequal, power more concentrated in the hands of the rich.

We might cast cynical glances at the ideas of the next generation, but it will be their world soon, if it is not already.

Ecomonomic lie number 3- austerity affects us all…


Back to my little mini series about economics. Don’t expect deep learned insights- I did study economics as part of a social science degree 25 years ago, but I was a very poor student. However, there are many approaches to economics- here are a few;

Technical/systematic- clever people who claim to understand the ebb and flow of the complex currents that move in the deep oceans of international finance. They know the difference between M1, M2, and M3. They advise the powerful and hold the fate of millions within their sterile computer generated models. Here, the economy is a desperately complex, ever changing thing, that is not just human in origin, it is supra-human. We are all subject to it, in the same way as the Ancient Greeks lived in the shadow of Mount Olympus. The gods are capricious, mysterious, vengeful and unmoved by ephemera. Our high priest-economists are expected to placate the gods, but they are after all gods and so there is the constant threat of earthquake wind or brimstone…

Political- I contend that most politicians know very little about point 1. They have to pretend they do, like the emperor and his new clothes. They have to pretend to be in control of the gods. They have to present deep ocean complexity in the form of simplistic decisions. All the better if the issue can be polarised, and if their are people/groups to be blamed. So we see two narrative techniques being employed at present-

  1.  The economy is constantly compared to a household spending plan. It has to be about prudence, good management, respectability- the image is a solid middle class family who budget carefully for their two holidays, their new sofa and retirement plan. Except that the economy bears no resemblance to a middle class household budget. Houses can not print their own money for a start. They can not set their own tax rates, they can not invest huge sums in education or health or in nuclear arsenals. And of course not all households are the same. Some are broken, bankrupt.
  2. The other narrative I have already hinted at- it is the narrative of blame. Our lifestyles are under threat from the fecklessness of the poor or the tidal wave of immigrants- the strivers are carrying all these skivers on their backs. We no longer talk about social class because stratification in our society has fragmented- but in case you are in any doubt, check out any mumber of tabloid newspapers- the Express, the Mail, the Sun. They are full of stories of benefits dodgers, single mothers getting posh social housing, dark skinned swarthy outsiders who are clogging up our hospital wards. For a while, the bankers got some mud thrown at them- but mud does not stick to shiny power for long.

The economics of justice- There is another approach to economics of course- one which both politicians and technical economists are aware of, some even motivated by- it is the analysis of the flow of capital from the poor to the rich, and the operation of the machine that makes this happen. It points us to the conquest of poor countries, whose raw materials are used to make the toys of the rich. It also points us to the remarkably persistent and stable gulf between the rich, healthy, educated minority and the rest- both globally and locally.  I make no excuse for this statement; these are the economics of the Kingdom of God.

Two stories sum up this gulf within the UK at the moment. Firstly, this one;

Lamborghini Veneno

The eurozone may still be in recession, but there is little gloom at the Geneva motor show, where Lamborghini, Ferrari, McLaren and Rolls-Royce have launched luxury supercars costing up to £3m each.

While European car sales dropped by 3.3m last year – the equivalent of a car company the size of Fiat failing to sell any cars at all – super-luxury cars are rolling out of the showrooms in ever increasing numbers.

“Most the world is suffering from recession, yet there are clearly people who can buy a Lamborghini at €3m (£2.6m) a pop,” said Paul Newton, auto analyst at IHS Global Insight. “Bentley, McLaren, Rolls are all doing well. There is clearly a market for the most expensive of cars, whereas the mass market manufacturers are nearly all suffering, especially in Europe. It’s the definition of a two-speed economy.”

Philip Harnett, product manager of Rolls-Royce’s latest €245,000 Wraith model, launched at the Geneva show on Tuesday, said that while the global economy was in the doldrums “some people are doing very well and they want to reward themselves”.

He said it was important for staff morale that high-flying company executives continue to buy the most luxurious cars. Executives told him that “the day I turn up for work in a Morris Minor is the day the staff will start to worry”.

(From the Guardian Tuesday 5 March 2013.)

Then, by way of contrast, this story;

Houses in Middlesbrough

One of the most acute concerns about the government’s so-called “bedroom tax” – which from April will force anyone “underoccupying” social housing to either downsize to a smaller property or face a cut in their housing benefit – is the severe shortage of smaller properties available to move to.

The National Housing Federation suggests there are 180,000 social housing tenants underoccupying two-bedroom homes in England, yet fewer than 70,000 one-bedroom properties are available.

From 1 April, anyone living in social housing who has one unoccupied bedroom will have their housing benefit cut by 14%, rising to 25% for households with two spare bedrooms.

Maureen Hagan, 58, lives in a three-bedroom property in Grangetown, Middlesbrough, with her 18-year-old granddaughter, whom she took in five years ago. She will now see her housing benefit cut by 14%, even though she says she requires the extra bedroom in order to meet standards set by social workers, as she is fighting to bring another young relative out of foster care and into the family home.

She feels that the welfare reform is out of sync with the rate of inflation, and calls for the government to prolong the introduction of the cuts. She spoke of her recent struggles to meet utility payments: “That was before that bedroom tax on top of everything else. What am I going to do then?”

Hagan expects to face a £14 cut to her housing benefit each week – more than half her weekly shopping budget.

“I can’t afford to buy makeup. I’d like to buy it but I can’t. I’d like to buy my own clothes; the charity shop’s my clothes shop, and it has been for a number of years.”

(The Guardian, Friday 8 March 2013)

Both of these extremes are a direct result of the current economic circumstances affecting us all. One part of our society profits- gets richer, amuses themselves with more toys.

The other folk (whilst watching Top Gear on Sunday night) have decisions to make about whether they move house because they are mere grit in the cogs of the system. Their fate is irrelevant to the ultimate prize. If they can not consume, they have no value.

We are not all ‘tightening our belts’, or ‘feeling the pain’. We are not all making the same sacrifice.

There are of course other possibilities. Some are about managing the economy better- taking a Keynesian approach to stimulating our economy again. But this does little to change the game- it just clarifies a few of the rules.

Poverty is not a choice, it is an economic necessity to ensure growth. The alternative is revolution- if not of the Marxist kind, then perhaps the Jesus kind, which takes the emphasis off power, and puts it on love. Against this there is no law.

Trickle down economics; economic lie number one…

The first of a little mini series about Capitalism that has been nagging at me for a while…

trickle down economics

There was an article in out local paper last week- Argyll and Bute council, like most of our councils, has to make significant cuts to the budget. Despite our large geographical area, Argyll has a low density of population and services are already stretched tight. The article listed the sordid detail of the cuts- older peoples care, youth rehab, road schemes, outsourcing services to the private sector who will do the support of our most vulnerable more cheaply etc etc.

And what is all this about? Why is money suddenly so tight? Why do we all buy into the collective idea that ‘times are hard’ and so ‘we all have to tighten our belts?’

The fact is that not all of us do tighten our belts. Many people are doing very well out of the crisis. This from the Guardian;

The super-rich – the top 1% of earners – now pocket 10p in every pound of income paid in Britain, while the poorest half of the population take home only 18p of every pound between them, according to a report published this week by the Resolution Foundation thinktank, which reveals the widening gap between those at the very top and the rest of society.

Inequality has grown sharply over the past 15 years, according to Resolution’s analysis: the top 1% of earners have seen their slice of the pie increase from 7% in the mid-1990s to 10% today, while the bottom half have seen their share drop from 19% to 18%.

And then there are those right at the bottom- the Strivers who are forced to become Scyvers, or the Skyvers who have lost hope, or those who never had a fair crack of the whip in the first place. Have you noticed that when the economy takes a dip, they always take a hit? They become the problem– the scapegoats.

So we see all these regressive punative policy decisions being pursued by our current government- lower benefits to fewer people, changes to housing benefit to force people to leave their homes if they have an extra bedroom. All this in the context of reductions in care provision, and less funding for voluntary bodies and charities. Our current government is doing things that even Thatcher at her most strident would have baulked at.

But again- why? Where does all this come from?

What the neo-liberal economists will tell us is that the problem is caused by natural adjustments made by a self regulating economic system. That the job of us all is to get out of the way and let it all sort itself out like some kind of higher intelligent life form. The problem, they would say, is an over inflated public sector, whose interference in the natural order of things by public spending, taxation and welfare provision means that the economy fails to self regulate.

This kind of economic thinking has become so pervasive, so wrapped up in the political system, so much in service of powerful self interests, that we all wriggle on its hook. We are compliant because we have bought in to some of the lies that the system has sold to us- perhaps the biggest one is this one- Trickle down theory.

In a nu­tshell, trickle-down theory is based on the premise that within an economy, giving tax cutsto the top earners makes them more likely to earn more. Top earners invest that extra money in productive economic activities or spend more of their time at the high-paying trade they do best (whether that be creating inventions or performing heart surgeries). Either way, these activities will be productive, reinvigorate economic growth and, in the end, generate more tax revenue from these earners and the people they’ve helped. According to the theory, this boost in growth will ultimately help those in lower income brackets as well.

So, the argument is, if we have lots of rich people, and they are encouraged to become super rich, then our country, and our economy, will benefit- right down to the roots.

This analysis does not regard the wealth of the few as contingent upon the poverty of many- in this country and even more crucially in the poor countries around the world whose raw materials and cheap labour we are entirely dependent upon.

It also does not conform with the facts, as the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.

As the worlds resources are over consumed by the few and our environment continues to be damaged, perhaps beyond repair.

As austerity plans are still touted as ‘good housekeeping’, as if the UK economy could be compared to a household budget.

So, what is the alternative? Fairer, more progressive tax systems? This might be a start- but I think the problem is the system- and we are all part of the system aren’t we? It is really hard to get out of it- the mortgages, the gadgets, the foreign holidays and the dependency on technology to deliver distraction, entertainment and connection.

Where is the Kingdom of God in all of this? What are we, the agents of this Kingdom , to put our energy towards? I am convinced that we need to be engaged critics of injustice wherever we see it- particularly towards the poor and the marginalised.

And the beginning of how we can do this is to take a look at the system through a different set of lenses…