"And sometimes he's so nameless"

A Nation of Shopkeepers?

Posted in History, Social commentary desecrated by Chris Jensen Romer on February 24, 2012

So Napoleon famously mocked the English, or so it is said. Actually the phrase came from Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations, where he wrote — “To found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers may at first sight appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers. It is, however, a project altogether unfit for a nation of shopkeepers; but extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers.” Napoleon may have taken up the phrase, and used it, but I seem to recall that actually his tone may have been rather more respectful than is general believed. Still, whatever the truth, has anyone wandered down the Regent Arcade, Cheltenham recently? It was Lisa who pointed out to me the large number of empty shops — when this happens to Cheltenham, you have to wonder. I think I might try soon to interview either the Town Centre Manager or the Economic Development Officer for the borough, though to be fair they probably have rather more important things to do. Cheltenham has weathered the recent economic storms quite well, but the changes are visible on the High Street, and a host of innovative new shops appear to be opening to offer the cheapest of the cheap to the once prosperous shoppers of this fine city. I’m not moaning, as I say, Cheltenham is still much more prosperous than most places, even if that prosperity is rather unequally divided among its citizens, with areas of (in 21st century terms) deprivation, but nothing like the real poverty of some cities districts.

I’m moved to write by something I read yesterday, by of all people Prime Minister David Cameron. Amid much nonsense (he seems to think businessfolk are motivated by altruism and social concern, and the belief they might be motivated by personal gain is “dangerous”!) he accused the British of having a snobby anti-business attitude — and I happen for once to agree. In fact it has often been said that I have a Cavalier attitude to work, and I don’t think those who accused me of idleness realized how right they were. The real “cavalier” attitude of the Seventeenth century, but which existed for centuries before and centuries after, was that Trade and Commerce were little better than manual labour, being the lot of the unwashed asses, and certainly not at all respectable. One did not worry about where one’s money came from: and one certainly did not indulge in crude money making schemes. One sets one mind on “higher concerns”, and academia, the clergy, government or administrative posts are just fine, as is a career in the Armed Forces — but running a business? That is for peasants! :D

For all their aristocratic aloofness, the ruling class of England have actually never been adverse to owning money. If they had adopted Apostolic Poverty one might have more sympathy for them, but the cavalier attitude of anti-trade that I am said to be (mistakenly, but according to my friends) an arch-exponent of was always tempered by a desire to live well and have plenty of money. Historically one achieved this by various means, such as marrying well, inheriting vast amounts of money, exploiting the labour of the lower classes, gambling, carving out a private domain in some other foreign lands and if worse came to the worst investing in some scheme or other. (I guess nothing changes much ;) ) Jokes aside, there has always been an element of the British upper class who have troubles themselves with improving crop yields, creating new machines to make labour more efficient, and running commercial concerns, and another element who have jumped on get rich schemes like the infamous South Sea Bubble, or the Dotcom Bubble.

Generally though Cameron is right – historically there has been a desire to own land, avoid grubby commerce, and spend ones time in other pursuits, such as chasing members of the Vulpes family, chasing a Mr Darcey (or young actresses), snoring through sermons or engaging in heroic-age science, like that of Buckland, Darwin or Kelvin. Yet despite this, Britain had developed, even in those cavalier times, a great tradition of tradesmen, artisans and merchants, and in fact by the time of Napoleon we had half the population of France, but greatly exceed it in industrial output.

And in fact our great Empire, and all the abominations which came with, was founded on trade and commerce: Napoleons was at least based on the ideological principle of “Liberty, Fraternity, Equality” albeit much tempered with his dynastic ambitions and the inevitable rise of the bourgeoisie. The British Empire was a trading empire – the vast wealth of Victorian England founded on the horrors of colonialism, and the good things which came from it too, as well as the wonders of the Industrial Revolution. And the Victorians knew that, and many of them, like Prince Albert, believed that trade and commerce were the way the world could be improved not just for the British but for all, and knew that commerce and industry underlay the great literature, judicial and engineering achievements of their rapidly improving world. Faced with global warming, pollution and scientific atrocities we fear technology and progress: most of our ancestors seem to have embraced it lovingly with a feeling of optimism, with the exception of those dispossessed and ruined in the name of progress. We are all Luddites now, compared with the world known by H.G.Wells.

In recent decades we have seem something of a return to the world of HG Wells – in the last few years I have watched with wry amusement the rise of the New Atheists, whose faith in Science is untempered by the horror the previous generations felt at a world where ‘progress’ had led to the threat of nuclear ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’. In the 1960s and 1970s a lot of popular music looked to a lost Eden, and pre-scientific Golden Age that never was; an Atlantis of “Merry England”. The Hippy/New Age advocates of that generation were castigated by the punks, but it is the New Atheists who really embody the reaction against this mythic woo, and fervently embrace the hope that Science van lead us forward, as it has extended our lives, saved us from the ravages of disease and fed millions. It’s hard not to sympathise with their optimism and hope, rather than the doom laden nay-saying of the hippies. I am thinking of things like Eve of Destruction (YOUTUBE sound link) by Barry MacGuire, or In the Year 2525 (Exordium & Termius) (YOUTUBE sound link) by Zager & Evans, typical of the apocalyptic end of that era.

Now the old post-war critiques of science as enslaved by what the hippies called the “Military-Industrial complex” are largely forgotten I think – certainly the rhetoric of the New Science fans tends to look to what I have termed the “heroic age” of 19th century gentleman scientists of independent means, not the reality of commercially driven science research programmes of today, but the point could be made there is little scope for the amateur scientists these days, with a few exceptions – astronomy still throws up discoveries by empirical observation by the amateur, and the natural historians still do invaluable work as do volunteer conservationists learning about ecological systems, and the Zooniverse Project is an amazing example of what can be done with public participation, as was the recent work in protein chain folding by gamers. Science is hip, and the fact that for many science graduates the career outlook is very bleak indeed is largely overlooked.

If there is part of our society that is invaluable but has really suffered from a loss of prestige, I’d say it was the poor engineers. Engineers used to be heroes, and still should be, but outside of late night cable TV shows, when did you last see a big name British engineer lauded? In the 19th century we produced an awesome crop of engineers, with a disproportionate number of Scottish or Welsh, and yet nowadays engineering seems to be neglected, unless you happen to create microcomputers. I’d love to see greater public awareness of the amazing achievements of the engineers of the past, and even more so greater public appreciation of what engineers continue to do for us today, but somehow I doubt any will be pushing Cheryl Cole off the covers of the tabloids soon…

David Cameron - from Wikimedia

So is the British attitude to commerce and wealth creation really ambivalent? Hating investment bankers has certainly become a national sport (with some good reason I fear) but actually we have long been pretty negative about the world of business. I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, and the TV dramas of the period often had villains who were corrupt amoral grasping businessmen, or mad scientists. Was there any thing extolling business? Perhaps Dallas from the USA, or are more parochial Crossroads Motel, but as far as sitcoms go there were leftist gentle critiques of our rat-race like The Good Life, and Rightist critiques embodying cavalier attitudes like To The Manor Born? Actually Only Fools and Horses gently mocked the yuppy mentality, and Open All Hours and Are You Being Served? arguably at least showed businessfolk as heroes, but the inherent drama of the Public Sector jobs in The Bill, London’s Burning, Casualty, Soldier Soldier and other shows arguably did a great deal to gain public respect and lead to the pay rises and improved conditions public servants gained in the last three decades. I would not push it too far – I doubt many peoples career aspirations were shaped by Porridge!

The social class struggle in the English sitcom still awaits a definitive treatment – Polly Cox did good work on it in her undergraduate dissertation, but I have seen little since. Still, business does not come off well in our popular culture, even in the yuppie 80’s. Now for Prince Albert there was a great hope that trade and commerce would build a peaceful world, and the Victorians seem to have seen globalization as benign and a huge positive — something few do today it would seem, but Albert’s beliefs were something along the lines of the modern adage that no two countries with a Macdonalds have ever fought a war, though since the 90’s that is no longer true. It is however a tempting vision of peace and prosperity, and today I don’t think many people see business as a major benefit – most kids really do seem to regard employers as oppressors, which in an increasingly de-unionized society could happen. There are still good employers out there, and millions of people who love their jobs though.

So yes, Cameron is probably right – and the division between the commerce loving right and the commerce hating right may have been healed, with everyone an heir to Thatcher, Blair and Cameron at least. Us Britons are not enthused by wealth-creation – we want instant gratification, via the National Lottery, instant fame by the X Factor or some other get -rich-quick-scheme like those Del-boy and Rodney dreamed of. More interesting to me is the changing social attitudes, the different heroes of each generation.

In the 19th century industrialism was associated with horrors, but actually Whig Liberals and Fabian Socialists, left-leaning Nonconformists such as Unitarians and Quakers, owned and built many of the great mills, and many did much to try and help the poor trapped in the industrial city hellholes with their philanthropy and model communities. Their fate was probably at times little worse than those left to starve in the countryside in the agricultural slump of the 1880’s, where right-leaning Tory squires likewise did much to assist in some cases.

Where are we now? I think Cameron should be mollified – while I despise The Apprentice, a lot of people love it. Alan sugar, Richard Branson, even dare I say it Clive Sinclair, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates – all household names, all major entrepreneurs, seeming loved, even idolised by the public. There is perhaps a new enthusiasm for business; or was, when The Apprentice was conceived in 2004. I remember hearing from a Commisioning Conference that TV back mid-last decade was to be “aspirational” – that was the buzzword. The crash of 2007 caused it to falter, and perhaps now the slump has killed it, but I think last generation was in the UK broadly that. It was the decade when grunge was abandoned by students in favour of a lifestyle more like Friends – and when I see students now, they look attractive, well dressed and wealthy, far more so than in my day — because their expectations were shaped by two decades of wealth from the businesses they despise now.

I started this ramble, which in no way should be mistaken for a coherent critique – I was thinking as I wrote — with Cheltenham. Cheltenham today is arguably one of the very few pieces of evidence for the trickle down effect, where the poor benefit from the rich, working spectacularly. What could have been a tiny market town much like Tewkesbury benefited from the immense wealth of the 18th and 19th century visitors, and the quack spa cures they enjoyed. It’s a town built on “alternative medicine”, and on snobbiness, but it is a lovely place to live. Ironically it was never much of a producer, or manufacturer, until well after it was wealthy – Dowtys and others went on to make it a major manufacturing centre, but Cheltenham was really little more than a quack cure super-casino for dilletantes to pursue each other, find mistresses and enjoy the snobbery of their exalted social position. Thanks to the generosity of James Agg-Gardner, Baron Ferrieres and others who donated and subscribed to the parks and museums, art gallery and library, we all benefit from that past, and reading the towns history there was little oppression and a lot of opportunity, albeit with much horrible poverty and illness, for the poorer inhabitants.

I’m left wing as most of you know, but Cheltenham does seem to show that business is not all heavy industry, investment and mercantilism – there is room for prosperity based on a service culture of entertainment, so long as wealth is being created **somewhere** to be spent here. So come back Cheryl Cole, all is forgiven, and come and spend a few million in our town. Maybe Cameron forgets that in some industries, like pop music, TV, and entertainment software, services and tourism, we are still world class business folks.

I think it’s gonna be OK, but I was always an optimist.

cj x

Dying by inches?: Understanding our NHS as it is now.

Posted in Social commentary desecrated by Chris Jensen Romer on July 13, 2010

OK, today has seen a fascinating (frightening?)  White Paper, which looks like completely changing our NHS. I am probably going to talk a lot about back-door privatisation and the threat to our health system, but I thought I would actually read the White Paper first, and as always I encourage others to check the facts for themselves, rather than relying on media spin or what bloggers have to say. So I hope once you have had a look at my little piece you will actually look at the proposals for yourself.

So why am I bothering to blog on the subject at all? Because a sense of proper outrage generally requires one to have some idea what you are talking about, and unsurprisingly most end users of the National Health Service  have absolutely no idea how it is organised or run. So what I am going to present here, courtesy of the notes of Lisa Langood and my own thinking, is a quick guide to the  organisation as it stands, so that when you read about the reforms you fully understand what is being suggested, and what is there already to be changed. I am sure this may count as the most boring thing I have ever written in many people’s eyes, but hell, I think it’s important. This is a rare thing, a CJ/Lisa Langood co-written piece, though Lisa is at work and does not know I have used her notes! :)

The National Health Service (henceforth NHS) came in to existence in England with the National Health Service Act of 1946, forever linked with Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan who fought to establish the service in a very limited time frame against initial opposition from large parts of the medical establishment (but mainly the GP’s who were at that time private practitioners You wanted a doctor, you paid for it, or went to a charity hospital). The Scottish NHS was brought in to existence by the National Health Service Act (Scotland) 1947, and after 1967 Wales came to organise its own NHS which became autonomous of the NHS England. Health and Social Care in Northern Ireland (HSC) has many similarities, but its structure is sufficiently different that I will not discuss it here at all. I will focus primarily on the NHS in England, with differences in the Welsh and Scottish mentioned passing.

nhs structure 2009

Figure 1. The Structure of the NHS – from Junior Doctor's Guide to the NHS (NHS, 2009)

OK, look complicated? I will briefly run through what each bit does…

The Department of Health

The overall responsibility for the NHS in terms of planning what it needs to do and meeting statutory requirements (making sure it obeys the law) and government policy is the Department of Health, a large Civil Service organisation, which deals with advising, formulating and implementing government policy and directives on matters of Health. The Department of Health is headed by the NHS Chief Executive, supported by the Chief Medical Officer, who advises the government on medical issues and public health policy and the Permanent Secretary, a civil servant who manages the Department of Health. A number of doctors are appointed to senior positions, acting as civil servants and serving successive governments. These include the Chief Medical Officer already mentioned, the NHS Medical Director, the Director General Research and Development and the Director of Medical Education.

Some government ministerial positions involve a role in the Department of Health, changing with each election as parties appoint their candidates to the roles. These are the Secretary of State for Health, who is a Cabinet member, and include the Minister of State for Health Services, Minister of State for Public Health, the Minister of State for Care Services, and the Parliamentary Under Secretary for Health Services. A Departmental Board of highly qualified individuals provides oversight, but the Department of Health’s main role is the implementation of legislation and creating of policy, as well as oversight of the Strategic Health Authorities. (see below).

Summary: The Department of Health consists of civil servants and politicians advised by high ranking doctors who set policy in line with the Government objectives. So this is the department of Government who has proposed the changes in line with Cameron’s vision for the NHS, a sone might expect and is their duty.

Strategic Health Authorities

There are ten Strategic Health Authorities (SHA’s) in England.  These regional bodies are tasked with oversight of performance of local NHS Trusts (but not Foundation Trusts, both explained in a minute!) and implementing national policies and directives at a local level, as well as ensuring that the correct decisions are made at regional level, taking in to account the different local context. So rather than have specialist care in every regional hospital, certain regional centres specialise – Frenchay in the Southwest for example for head and spine injuries. With a key objective of improving performance and staff development, (and checking all staff are properly trained to the required standards) they form a middle tier of authority between the Department of Health and the local Trusts.

“Created by the Government in 2002 to manage the local NHS on behalf of the Secretary of State, there were originally 28 SHAs. On 1 July 2006, this number was reduced to 10.” – from the Office of the Strategic Health Authorities Website (http://www.osha.nhs.uk/)

The ten SHA’s established in 2006 are (1) NNS East of England, (2) NHS East Midlands, (3) NHS London, (4) NHS North East, (5) NHS North West, (6) NHS South Central, (7) NHS South East Coast, (8) NHS South West, (9) NHS West Midlands and (10) NHS Yorkshire and the Humber. Gloucestershire NHS Trust is within the NHS Southwest Strategic Health Authority region.

Strategic Health Auhorities 2009

Figure 2. The Ten SHA's in England after 2006 from wikicommons

Primary Care Trusts

There are currently (2009) 152 Primary Care Trusts (PCT’s) in NHS England, which answer to their regional SHA; before  October 2006 there were 303, but the number was reduced for efficiency purposes and to redraw boundaries to match those of many local authorities.

A Primary Care Trust is a commissioning body, whose purpose is to ensure local health needs are met in  accordance with the targets and objectives set by the regional SHA, and each Trust has a smaller area which it is responsible for. PCTs manage their own budgets and set their own targets and strategies, in line with the directives from their SHA and the Department of Health. They are responsible for commissioning the provision of the full range of health services . These include hospitals, mental health services, ambulances and paramedic services, GP practices, opticians, community pharmacies, dentists etc. (McCay & Jonas, 2009)  They commission smaller NHS Trusts such as a Hospital Trust (see below) or from the private sector to meet these needs, and are responsible for allocating 80% of the NHS budget. (McCay & Jonas, 2009)

NHS Trusts & NHS Foundation Trusts

Within the area of a Primary Care Trust there will be a number of individual NHS Trusts, which are commissioned to provide one type of service to the region. These generally cover one area, such as a Hospital or Hospitals (Acute) , Mental Health, Ambulance and paramedic services, or Community Health Services such as district visiting, health visiting etc. There are two special kinds of Trust – Care Trusts, which are multi-agency task forces which only exist as partnerships between health and social care providers in a region, ensuring both services work fully together to provide a unified care plan. The second are Children’s Trusts which were created under the Children’s Act 2004, which again are multi-agency Trusts working to bring Education, Social Services and Health care provision together to address cases. (McCay & Jonas, 2009)

A Trust is managed by a board, often of eleven members, who provide direction, monitor performance, deals with the financial integrity and management of the Trust. Trust boards usually have a number of non-executive directors who may not be form a medical background but who bring other expertise or the public’s voice to the meetings, which are also open to the interested public if any wish to attend. Trusts have a legal requirement to break even financially, meet specified quality standards and meet other SHA targets.

A Foundation Trust is a newer initiative from the old New Labour government, designed to give increased local autonomy to the Trust.  Since 2005 Trusts who have met certain levels of financial and other target success are able to apply for Foundation status, which exempts them from SHA and Monitor control, and allows them to “run their own financial house”. They are able to set local wages and conditions, borrow money to meet short term needs under certain statutory limitations and  to manage how they meet targets and performance benchmarks in their own way, as long as they meet  the somewhat higher financial and quality control goal posts. They are regulated directly by a supervisory board called the Monitor which reports directly to Parliament. The aim is for all trusts to move towards Foundation Trust status, but as of August 2009 the number achieving this was 122 (the Reforms announced today will make ALL Trusts Foundation Trusts by 2013.)

A special type of Foundation Trust is the Foundation Trust equivalent, (FTe), all of which are specialist psychiatric trusts such as the one that covers Rampton Hospital for the Criminally Insane. They are still regulated by the SHA, but the Secretary of State has a personal remit to review cases and provide oversight to problems arising here.

Primary Care Providers

This group, often the first point of contact for patients, are businesses who work within the NHS structure but are privately owned and managed in accordance with legislation. They include GP’s surgeries, NHS dentists, optometrists, community pharmacies, etc. They are still subject to Primary Care Trust supervision and must work within constraints and parameters laid out to meet patient needs. It is for example not just possible to open a new pharmacy, especially in a rural area which may already have dispensers attached to a local GP’s surgery, but the new pharmacy must meet certain requirements to ensure it meets a perceived need in the neighbourhood and is properly run by a fully qualified pharmacist. Receipts, prescriptions and payments from the PCT and the constant supervision of the latter body mean that these primary care providers work closely alongside the licensing PCT in support of the local plan, at least in theory.  Also working in this area are Voluntary and Charitable groups and Social Enterprises who meet specific needs but work closely with the PCT to fulfil the overall health needs of the area.

Lisa wrote in 2009 “The NHS structures have evolved over time, with the creation of the NHS Trusts replacing the older Health Authorities and the introduction of SHA’s being major changes. Alan Milburn’s 2002 creation of Foundation Trusts, which came in to effect in 2005 have sparked considerable controversy, with opponents claiming that the setting up of the monitor and allowing them to stand outside the existing NHS plans of the Department of Health and SHA’s is a stealth move towards privatisation.  More importantly some claim this removes the cohesiveness of the National/Regional/Local plan, and reduces SHA’s ability to draw upon needed resources and create a regionally effective structure. Some of the heaviest criticisms have been directed at the financial targets which it is claimed may lead trusts to specialise in cost effective and profitable health care options, leaving expensive but necessary services underfunded and pushed out to other providers. As with any complex management structure there are obvious issues when the various Trusts and commissioned Primary providers must engage in multi-agency work, such as in the case of children with severe mental health, family and  educational problems, and even within the NHS structure different trusts must create working guidelines for how to share information and responsibility on specific cases, while maintaining client confidentiality and abiding the  provisions of the Data Protection Act.

Any multi agency approach runs the risk of the “somebody else’s problem” issue, where the relevant organisations and individuals assume that the needs are being addressed elsewhere, but do not check that  this is actually occurring. Faced with busy case loads and many issues it has frequently occurred in the past as we see from many high profile cases which eventually became newspaper tragedies, where a lack of coordination led to unfortunate oversights. Communication between the parties involved is absolutely key. Many health care  authorities are working to create regional multi-agency teams to deal with exactly this sort of case, but this has led to new challenges.  For example, when one steps outside of sole practice and works as a team, where does accountability lie?  Who is ultimately responsible for the decisions taken by the team?  Some GP’s are already concerned about the professional repercussions of decisions made by multi-agency teams they comprise part of, and the GMC has issued guidelines –  http://www.gmc-uk.org/guidance/current/library/accountability_in_multi_teams.asp

These problems can plague the attempts for various Health Care Providers to provide a unified and consistent approach to a problem.”

So what is actually changing?

I still need to read the White Paper properly, but the Strategic Health Authorities and Primary Care Trusts are being abolished. So everything will devolve to local level, and the GP’s will be asked to form consortiums instead to run the local areas doing the work of the now defunct PCT. For this they are being granted an £80 billion pound budget, and the provision of services currently provided by the Primary Care Trusts will pass to the GP Consortiums. Overall responsibility for Public Health campaigns and services passes to the  Local Authorities (by which one assumes county and town councils, and hence one might cynically assume, our Council Tax bills). ALL NHS Trusts are to become Foundation Trusts by 2013. To allow this to occur the current caps on Trusts taking on fee paying private patients are to be lifted, and Trusts which fail to achieve profitability and go bankrupt will be allowed to go under, not be bailed out. (So yes, hospitals can now go bust and be closed down, if they fail to break even.)

I am unsure if the new GP consortiums will consist of solely NHS employed doctors, or include GP’s in the private practices that treat NHS patients and are paid by the NHS for providing that service currently by the PCT’s. If the latter, it means that the doctors consortiums will be able to award contracts to their own practices, set their own fees etc, etc? I really need to read this paper! I’ll write more once i have properly read and digested it in a future post.

Anyway I appreciate this has been a bit dull (understatement I guess!) but hopefully if you took the time it read it you have a little more idea of the background, and a better understanding of the news coverage of the NHS reforms announced today.

cj x

Wheelchairs, brothels and community spirit!

Posted in Social commentary desecrated, Uninteresting to others whitterings about my life by Chris Jensen Romer on June 28, 2010

OK, it seems like forever since I last wrote. I stopped blogging during the election, and it has proved hard to start up again, but I suppose I will slowly get back in to it. Part of the reason is I have been so incredibly busy with the old lady down my street who I have long been friends with; we now go for an hour long walk every evening, and her cup of tea every night takes another hour, with frequent visits during the day eating up  my spare time.  She’s lovely but the endless phone calls as she has become forgetful do drive me mad! Still I guess this is part of the “big community” we hear so much about — I’m lucky enough to live in a street where people are very friendly, (yes, that includes very much the really nice folks from the brothel that used to be down the road till the big police raid a couple of years back — not that I ever twigged it was a brothel till the police kicked the door in, and I lived next door to it!), and spend a lot of time talking to one another and helping one another out.

Actually thinking of the brothel, or massage parlour or whatever it was in reality reminds me of the one night I nearly realised what was going on, or should have done. A chap in a wheelchair knocked on my door, and when I answered appeared to try to be asking me to sleep with him. He had a mild speech impairment that made communication difficult, and I was very polite, simply assuring him “I was not that kind of girl.” (I’m not any kind of girl actually, I’m a bloke.)  He remained quite insistent, and then I realised he wanted sexual favours from someone else, not me. I became rather confused and a little embarrassed, till he suddenly realised he had the wrong house  number. That was a relief! I should have referred him to the woman at Lloyds Pharmacy who covered Lisa and others holiday or sickness when she was a Dispenser there — she was unfortunately entitled a “Relief Dispenser”, and that was what this chap claimed to want!  Anyway the brothel is long gone, and life here has returned to what passes for normal in this ironically named street.

The whole brothel affair was brought to mind a few minutes ago when I was walking Chris in her wheelchair down the road. We parked in the shade of the garages to talk to Tina, and then a lady from a letting firm drove up, a pretty blonde girl.  So naturally I had to wander over to chat to her a minute, as the residents of the street interrogate any one we see walking past (more on this soon). I asked her if the house was still for rent, and she said no, it had just been let — “to a lovely couple of working girls”. I must have looked shocked, because she blushed and said “I mean professional women”… That did not make it any better, and we both burst out laughing, and then she said I knew what she meant — “women professionals”, and laughed more and apologised and said she knew all about the brothel raid! Nice lass, very friendly, as letting agents tend to be.  She assured us if we had any problems with the new people in the street we could complain to her — and I was mildly amused, and said “why on earth would we do that?”   To which she replied – it’s that kind of street!  Er, OK.

Life in the street progresses at the usual slow pace; we have all been worried about one of my neighbours cats, a beautiful fluffy black Persian that looks like a walking bush with two glowing orange eyes when she sees my cats and fluffs up. She was fitting on Friday, and it was touch and go, but after veterinary intervention, some shots and a considerable bill she is now seemingly fine – let’s hope she stays that way, she is a lovely beastie.  Yet I wonder how many people in the UK would know about the current state of health of their next door neighbour but sixes cat???

So let me get back to what started all this. I’m busy with work, Becky, and lots of other things — but I have to stop and think about the “Big Community” idea that is currently so fashionable in Cameron’s rhetoric. Obviously I like living like this — or I would not do it — but would you??? It’s an honest question. I like it, but it drives me mad. In a sense I have spent much of my life “growing up in public” — I never valued my privacy much, and much of what I do (though not all) is well known to many people. I’m a chatty, outgoing, open kind of guy. I think a lot of you think you know me and what goes on in my life pretty well for that reason (though I think I could still surprise even those closest to me at times!).   I know what “big communities” are like — and I know the pitfalls.

Firstly, I’m an amateur. What I do for Chris can not replace the dedicated health professionals — doctors, nurses, opticians, pharmacists, and the lovely NHS carers who come round four times a day to look after her. I can’t heal my neighbours cat — she needs a vet for that. I can’t look after the street lights, make sure the water supply is clean, or mend a broken boiler or chimney. Community activism and volunteering supplements but does not replace the need for dedicated professional services, and never will, unless we return to a very small economy and near subsistence living.  Even medieval villagers were not as self-sufficient and isolated as people often think.   A “big community” can do something to make life better, but it does not replace the need for social services and properly trained professionals.  Secondly, while the voluntary sector with superbly run organisations – we all know the Red Cross, Age Concern, The Samaritans, the RSPCA, NSPCC, etc, etc, which perform such incredibly valuable work in our society — can take up some public services and perform them very well, these organisations still need funding. More importantly, they need committed, hard working volunteers. And sure, twenty years ago I knew loads of people who did this kind of work — but in fact that is getting harder and harder to achieve. People on JSA or HB are seriously penalised if they spend too much time working in the voluntary sector – because they are limited to working less than is it ten or sixteen hours now, or face losing their benefits? The Benefits people look askance at volunteers – if you can work for the PDSA or British Heart Foundation shop, why are you not getting a proper paid job they ask?  So many volunteers are those who own their own homes, have an income from another source, or have well paid partners.  When I was an undergrad Student Community Action was a popular way to help others and get some stuff on your CV – nowadays its muh harder, and as Student Grants were replaced by Student Loans the number of volunteers diminished as students who previously were leading tea dances or doing gardens in run down parts of town were suddenly forced to do a MacJob to pay their way. Not necessarily a bad thing — but we saw a contraction of the voluntary sector, as economic realities hit home.

Next up, it might sound idyllic living with great neighbours who look out for you and always stop to talk or ask you in, but is it really?  Everyone in the street knows who Becky is, who Lisa is, and what my latest situation is at any given time. I can do almost NOTHING without becoming the centre of gossip for a week! I don’t mind, but you can absolutely forget privacy – DC, Kevin, Tom and Dave Sivier are all known by name and reputation and what they are up to equally to many of my neighbours, but they are just casual visitors to my home. In how many streets are passers by stopped and chatted to and quizzed about heir business? (the Brothel customers used to often walk round the block several times before ringing the door bell, because they were too embarrassed to walk up to the door while half the street was outside chatting, drinking tea and coffee on door steps or playing with cats or whatever…)  In how many streets would a letting agent come to do something at a house be interrogated by people from the street, and feel she had to offer assurances?

And that is what it’s like. Forget privacy, forget coming home after a long day and just watching the telly. I have a constant stream of visitors and telephone calls, a hundred demands upon my time.  Most of today has been spent on talking to neighbours, taking the wheelchair out, talking to Tom who popped round and making calls for people or just chatting on the street. I had a day fairly free – and while I had some work to do, and have spent more time on this post, I can promise you it can be a little tiring. I think a lot of people who bemoan the loss of community forget how claustrophobic the world I live in, a world that really is best represented by EastEnders or Coronation Street where everyone knows everyone’s business and everything becomes a cause for public discussion, is.  Fall out with someone here, and thank heavens I never have, and your life could soon become almost intolerable. I think it’s really quite intimidating for people like my new Polish neighbours, who are talked at whenever they walk to their house, and find themselves the subjects of intense scrutiny, or for the young married couples down the street who don’t know the history of the various households, or unwritten “customary law” and “traditions” of the road I have spent the last five years learning.   You park in the wrong place, like the poor actress who rented a house the Christmas before last for a few weeks while she worked the panto season, and face the consequences. She was unloading her baggage to move in  the house, and had a group of neighbours asking who she was, why her car was there, and shouting at her because she had parked in a spot outside their window. I went out and tried to help her, and managed to find out she was becoming a resident, but then I became the subject of some of the hostility – she only managed a few days before she moved on I think.  God help those who try and park their cars down here to go shopping: the roads nature pretty much precludes that though, as it is so narrow. Parking your car an inch too far across and impeding others access and you immediately incur a lynch mob…

Still it’s a wonderful place to live, and I want to reiterate that. If you are a private person like Lisa, or are used to the anonymity of a suburban semi, I’m sure it could be hell on earth. Communities are people, and big communities mean you have a lot more people in your life. I think Andrew Oakley would enjoy it here — I certainly do — but for those whose lives are shaped by privacy, neighbours who may nod in passing, and a comfortable retreat in to their own homes, this could be a future vision of Britain they are not keen to see come to fruition…

cj x

Acceptable in the Eighties?

Posted in Social commentary desecrated, Uninteresting to others whitterings about my life by Chris Jensen Romer on April 8, 2010

OK, it’s been a while. Let’s just say life has been filled with sick neighbours needing caring for, loved ones with serious work hassles – about as serious as they get actually – and CJ trying to get some work done. I have also lost a couple of days to POLTERWOTSIT, my little poltergeist based blog, chronicling the “Doncaster Poltergeist” (Parts 1, 2, 3, 4).  I have been strangely absent from my favourite forums, and have barely responded to comments on this blog, even the interesting discussion on Eostre, though I was pleased to read Cavalorn’s excellent Live Journal article where he writes much sense.

Still I suppose it’s time to comment on the General Election, and talk politics.  Please don’t change the channel — you all know that I am an old lefty who will vote Lib Dem because I live in Cheltenham, but for reasons to do with economic policy and supporting the public sector (I’m still likening our position in some ways to 1947, and see public sector spending as one potential way out: I’m sure the economists among you can tell me why this is a  hopelessly naive assessment) I want to see Brown re=elected. Bet that really scares and outrages a lot of people? Hey we can differ. :)

Anyway I had a good laugh at this —

New Labour DCI Gene Hunt poster

Unfortunately a lot of people think the 1980's wer pretty cool, and this might make me want to vote for Cameron who seems a nice bloke!

And here Labour effectively capitalise on my fears – the fear of a return to Thatcherism. I lived through the eighties, and I must say that my thinking is still scarred by it — not so much by Thatcher, as by the fear of thermonuclear annihilation at any moment, that wonderful gift to my generation of the Cold War. You wonder that religions and apocalyptic cults boomed in the period after the horrors and genocide of WW2? When has  fiery eschaton (‘end of the world’) coming out of a clear blue sky, with a four minute warning heralding the final Trump, ever seemed more realistic? It’s hard to disengage and be realistic about the strengths and weaknesses of Thatcher’s experiment with Libertarianism without taking that constant unease in to account…

So why were the eighties bad? They weren’t. For CJ, it’s in some way forever 1987, and I’m still an 18 year old student leaving home and living through “interesting times”;  still dress a bit like it’s the eighties, and my musical tastes have not really evolved much beyond the goth/indie/alternative scene of those years. In some ways I’d like to see a return to the eighties; not the real eighties of urban riots, the miners strike, the housing boom that was to end catastrophically in the early 90’s, or terrible sitcoms on TV — no the eighties I miss are the times I was a student, discovered girls (I was a very late developer) and made many of the friends I still hold dear today. Nostalgia is not what it was…

So why do I bang on about the dreadful legacy of Thatcherism? For the same reason it’s hard to find a New Labour supporter among the twenty somethings and teenagers of today. We lived through a long period of Tory rule, and while i quite liked John Major as a bloke from what I saw of him, and many Tories were brilliant politicians and great  thinkers, the social experiment that was conducted in those years scarred many of my generation. So why this feeling among my younger friends that we need to have a change of government?

spititng image puppet of MAggie Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher

The human heart seems to hanker for change; “the grass is always greener” as the proverb has it. After three governments of any party one wants to try the alternative, wants to see if they can do better. We all have Messianic Expectations – the new guys will get in, make all right with the world. It’s why like many other traditional Labour supporters who welcomed the 1996 victory of Blairite Labour as if we had all our birthdays and Christmases come at once, disillusionment soon set in. When Labour stopped being “Socialist”, when Labour seemed to turn it’s back on students and followed the old Tory funding plans, when Labour seemed to fail – and they did in my eyes – to meet working class British interests, I realised what we were seeing was not Labour at all. Blair was a Democrat, as in the US party: he took us back to the Thatcherism that Major and IDS had repudiated to some extent. Blair’s Britain was the party of Middle England, and there is much to be said for that I suppose…

So I became a fierce critic of Blair, but in years when the Tory party self destructed over Europe: now under Cameron they seem to be mounting a credible alternative. What of Brown? I have said before Gordon Brown saved the world, and I’ll say it again: Gordon Brown saved the world by his bail out plan. While the Americans dithered, little old Britain again, perhaps for the last time, became a world power,  as Brown and Darling (sounds like something from Blackadder IV doesn’t it?) hammered out a plan that prevented the banks collapsing and complete melt  down. I don’t know how far we were from no food in the shops, but I do know that a lot of people would probably not have been paid and things got very hairy indeed if it was not for that commitment to a plan.  They may have failed to forsee the disaster – they had a couple of years notice, and failed to act, and for that they should be rightly criticised – but when they finally acted, it was decisive. The only question is does the parent who rescues the baby from the burning house deserve the praise when their carelessness allowed the baby to be their in the first place?  In thsi case the conflagration was general – the fire started in the USA,  and no one had tried to regulate efficiently for fear of stifling the market and causing a recession – so we trusted the bankers…

So Brown was the man with a plan. Sure it’s a plan that has plunged us in to massive debt – still insignificant compared with the USA’s – but that worked in 1948, when we borrowed through the Bretton Woods agreement and set up the NHS on the yankee dollar; it can work now. The trick is to keep the public sector expanding, so we have a safeguard against the vagaries of market and private sector failures.

A brief digression in to Theory…

I’m surprised by how many people i know who seem to not understand the most simple economic and political ideas. I humbly forgive those who know all this: I’ll offer a short synopsis.

Capitalism believes in a free market.State intervention is kept to a minimum: the market sets prices, and so competition will always lead to an efficient market price. The job of the state is to regulate and protect that free market, and allow people to prosper through their own hard work. It’s a beautiful idea, and since Adam Smith put it forward in 1776 it has proven its worth. Huzzah for Capitalism! :) The problem is that a free market is subject to ups and downs – boom and bust. Gordon promised an end to boom and bust, and then presided over a bust, and I don’t mean Edwina’s bosom – that was the Major years…

Communism is more complicated, because it is far more than an economic theory, it’s also a theory about history, sociology and the nature of reality. The basic idea however is that the State looks after workers, and sets prices, taxes, and has huge amounts of control of every aspect of citizens life. Eventually it will wither away and be replaced by a utopian paradise, but er, that never really happened. Still Communism is complicated like I said – but think State control, representing workers interests through the Party.

Socialism (in the UK sense) has strong links with the cooperative, Trade Union and though many do not relaise it Christian movement of the 19th century. The basic principle is that social justice prevails, reigning in the excesses of capitalism. It does not endorse the Free Market as Capitalism, or State Regulation as in  Communism: instead it favours a Mixed Market approach – some industries such as water, power, trains, postal services, and other necessary parts of the infrastructure are controlled by the State directly – much like our NHS (National Health System, or the US postal service), and other parts are in the hands of private companies, and subject to competition and the market. This process is called a planned economy, because in theory the government has some control over what happens in the long run. Unfortunately the results of Labour’s policies will come to bear on the Conservatives if they win: many economic policies, like business management strategies can only be fully understood years later when the consequences become apparent. It’s not so much planned as do something, hope it works and hand it on to the next guys…

There is another factor involved here, that I briefly touched on in my discussion of Brown and the Credit Crunch above – globalization. The bonuses and problems inherent in this can be discussed another time; but the internet, phones, and a shrinking world has meant that now we do far more business than ever with the rest of the world, and whatever the British politicians do, a boom or bust may be as much to do with events on the far side of the world as events here.  The role of government has changed from trying to control their own country by dictating a management strategy, to trying to weather the ups and downs of global events.

There are other types of economic system – of which perhaps the most important is Anarchism.  Anarchism is the ultimate end of communism in Marxist theory, where the State ceases to exist,  and it’s a utopian in many ways ideal where people don’t need a Government at all: all state regulation is removed, and a genuinely free market develops, where people govern themselves, and while you still have laws, you don’t have any kind of State at all. There are many many types of anarchist thought — left anarchists such as Anarcho-syndicalsist where workers running their own industries and setting up communes which trade with others; Right Wing anarchists are generally today called libertarians, and they believe in the Free Market, being super-capitalists – let the Market decide, get rid of all state regulation, and people will strive to get rich and better themselves. As Thoreau wrote “that government is best that governs least”…

Thatcher the Anarchist?

So what was acceptable in the eighties? Why does the spectre of  Margaret Thatcher still arouse such strong feeling in many of my generation? And why do New Labour think that poster might work? Down here in Cheltenham the eighties were boom years, likewise in the City of London. Why would others fear a return to the decade of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet, other than fashion sense?

The most important thing to recognise was that Thatcher was a revolutionary. What she created was basically “New Conservatism”: while she could be authoritarian, imperious, and a promoter of a mythic England she loved, she also had that small business hatred of over-regulation and bureaucracy, a fear of Big Government that tried to impose answers from above. Thatcher was in many ways an anarchist – she dismantled the State, and tried hard to reduce governmental control in every sector, from finance to industry. Thatcherism has often been described as the politics of “I’m alrtight, Jack” — self interest, everyone out for themselves – but it was far more than that. One of the basic principles of Free Market capitalism is that there si an “invisible hand” that regulates the markets – I’m not sure if Smith felt it was the hand of god, but basically it is self-interest – give people the mean to make money and better themselves, cut any red tape in their way, lower taxes, and everything will work out fine – because people will act rationally in thei rown economic best interests. Get rid of the “nanny state”. This was actually a radical departure from older Conservative theory, which had seen paternalism – where the State looks after peoples best interests – as key.

So Thatcher adopted a lot of libertarian ideas, from right wing think tanks in the States — she gave people new options, new possibilities, to sink or wim. And let';s face it, huge numbers prospered amazingly. She pretty much reversed the ratio of people who rented to people owning their own homes – give people a nice home of their own, and hey what happens? They become better citizens, because they are stakeholders in society. They become wealthy, and prosper. This was a miracle that benefited a generation; but it was at the expense of a credit based mortgage driven society, and the sale of the council house stock. When you sell someone their council house they benefit, but when you need council houses you ain’t got none. New Labour compounded this disaster by failing to build new council houses – it’s all downhill…

But Thatcher presided over an economic boom. She followed a fiscal policy that ended post war austerity and the drab misery of the 70’s – a decade we would all probably happily forget – and she made us a nation of entrepreneurs. There were scandals, there were bad times – but she made people rich, allowed them a shot at their dreams, made the yuppie work ethic and aspirational culture leave the City and New Romantic clubs and gave Britain a kick in to the 21st century, two decades early.  It was a golden age – marred only by the shadow of the Cold War…

Except — she did this at a terrible price.  To dismantle the nationalised industries meant huge redundancies – as unemployment headed for one in ten again, pretty much the situation when she came to power, everything fro the buses to British Telecom was effectively flogged on E-bay. Thatcher distrusted the State so she dismantled it, and as the pit closures and the privatisation led to a wave of industrial action similar to that in the Winter of Discontent of 1979, she smashed the unions power, tilting the balance in favour of the employer over the employee.  The result was a Ravaging of the North not seen since William the Conqueror — whole communities shattered as their traditional industries failed to be competitive when the government relinquished control and allowed them to be privatised. New Labour have followed in this path: but interestingly while Blair brought in more and more employment legislation to give rights to workers, Brown has largely dismantled it, and replaced it with “Guidelines” and “consultation”. No one is interested it seems in employees rights any more – the emphasis these days is on supporting the employers, as wealth-creators.

Now to understand why Thatcher destroyed the unions, you have to understand that the unions were in the 1970’s still a major political force. Old style commie union leaders used strike action as a way to bring down governments, and in fact it was this kind of mass industrial unrest in the Winter of Discontent (1979) that brought down Labour and allowed Thatcher to sweep to power. Thatcher believed that the unions prevented economic growth, and she took decisive action, and used the police to try to prevent what she saw as revolutionary action by striking miners and flying pickets.

The Fying Pickets

The Flying Pickets - any wonder Thatcher tried to break the unions? :)

Hugh used to ask me with each new sell off  “given that we owned this company as a people, and can’t afford to buy shares in the stock market in the new privatised one, where is our pay off?”  I liken it to parents who decide to sell their children’s inheritance; the new privatised companies were not run for social benefit, but to make a profit for the shareholders, obviously enough. Has competition brought down the price of phones, gas, water, in real terms while providing a more efficient service etc, etc? I honestly don’t know, I have never seen the figures. I do know that many of the coal mines closed in the eighties would now be profitable again if they were not flooded, but hey, hindsight is easy.

What the eighties saw was  sudden jump in the difference between the haves and the have nots in our society – a pattern that has continued relentlessly ever since, with the successful entrepreneurs, CEO’s, small business folk and managers seeing a greater and greater share of the pie. Wealth has become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands – not quite as much as in the twelfth century I suspect, but the disparity between rich and poor continues to grow. In fact we have new factors now like Information Poverty – why Brown’s “broadband in very home” pledge is so vital, however he manages to pay for it…

So the eighties was a revolution in British society: the breakdown of the old class system, the creation of a “new middle class” of home owners, the devastation of whole communities, the collapse of old certainties like “job for life”.  Many prospered; if I had left uni a couple o years earlier I might have done well — many others sunk without trace. It was the decade fo the North/South divide, of boom-town London, and of immense wealth and immense poverty. It all came down crashing down with the collapse of the Stock Market and then housing market in the early 1990’s which were a hang over for the part of the decade before — all presided over by Conservative administrations who had to deal with the real cost of Thatcher’s experiment, and who repudiated Thatcherism in the same way the USSR repudiated Stalin. It’s been hard to find anyone with a good word for Thatcher for a long time, outside of neo-con Americans and Libertarians, and while I appreciate her courage (in the Yes Minister sense – her ideas were often “courageous”, the Poll Tax the most so) Thatcher was arguably a great success. You could probably say the same of Blair..?

To me, it’s all irrelevant now. We are stuck with the legacy of the eighties, and I’m too old to fight on the barricades if Thatcher Mk 2 comes along. I want a quiet life. Yet what was acceptable in the eighties is probably not acceptable in 21st century Britain…

cj x

The Undeserving Poor?

My post on the Reverse Robin Hood started a lengthy and interesting discussion – thanks to Andrew Oakley and Tom Ruffles for their comments. Part of the discussion came to revolve around the role of risk and unpredictable elements in people’s personal financial situations – and I must admit that I am woefully unqualified to comment upon this. Down in the City of London there are extremely highly paid analysts who sit all day fiddling with formulae to try and predict market fluctuations, and this country must have tens of thousands (at least) of highly trained and highly paid experts in exactly this area – underwriters. I have no idea how successful these methods are, but I’m assuming they must have some value. After all, if you know the outcomes of ten thousand decisions made previously, then maybe another 40 year male with a fairly academic past and many years freelancing and living without visible source of income becomes predictable. Sure, you might make errors in regard to individual outcomes, because you can never have all the data -and the same applies to market analysts – but you might hope that on average you would do well (– though as we shall shortly see, I am not actually convinced this is true!)

I think at the heart of the discussions of the last piece was the question of individual responsibility for financial outcomes. The poor may always be with us – unless we manage an imaginary “true communist” equality of money, which would end the moment someone bought  something, by definition someone is always poorest. It is certainly true that we don’t seem fond of absolute measures of poverty, and this can lead to problems in our understanding and policy decisions – poor children in the UK today are probably a lot better off that say poor children in the UK in 1950 -most have shoes and a meal a day at least?

I think, and I may be wrong, that Andrew thinks most financial outcomes are predictable, given good planning and money management. Tom and I (and again this is my impression, speak up if i am misrepresenting you) are more inclined to believe that random factors may play a large role in how ones personal finances pan out. I don’t think any of us think its all one or the other: Andrew clearly accepts that random factors can cause problems, but simply believes they can often be mitigated by shrewd money management. Tom and I suspect that some situations may place one in a position where no matter how careful one is, you may end up in real trouble. Yet clearly many people who end in financial trouble have been extremely reckless, and at least partly instigators of their own downfall. (And I would go as far as to say that the State does much to cushion the blow these days compared with in the past, and that equally our culture is geared to actually promote fiscal risk taking, indebtedness and bad financial management by individuals. But I would say that, I don’t have any credit card etc, wouldn’t I?)

The Deserving (and Undeserving) Poor

In fact it seems to me we are rehashing one of the great debates of the last few centuries. It certainly filled the 18th century mind – and it was a major theme of 19th century thought. We are back on the question of the deserving versus undeserving poor.

In my last piece I commented on how I missed the security of the bi-weekly giro, and having my dole money guaranteed. I sympathised with those who work, and are on bitterly low incomes. I may have here been apparently aiming at a deserving/undeserving poor distinction, but that was not my intention – I was actually trying to point out that for many self employed, freelance and entrepreneurial types there lives are marked by a greater degree of uncertainty in financial matters than for those who receive state benefits. If you look at what the average UK soldier serving abroad is paid, or many low grade civil servants, you will notice they face the same problem. Those in manufacturing also have the problem – the uncertainty of th future of their jobs. So at least on the dole you can plan, to some extent, and know it will never be more than 13 days till your next payment — assuming they are still bi-weekly – the days when I used to sing a little song to thank God (and the British taxpayer) for my giro  have long since passed…

Now once we get  in to the deserving/undeserving poor debate we instantly hit problems, and are conditioned by our Right Wing or Left Wing political roots. After all, the modern Conservative and Labour parties were shaped by these questions, and the response, be it Socialism or Social Darwinism or whatever is deeply ingrained in how we see the world. People always say to me “I’m not interested in/don’t understand politics” Actually they are an ddo – they just don’t feel any interest in what happens in Westminster, and don’t understand the minutiae of the British system or what the parties stand for – but they generally can grasp the actual politics, because it comes down to Big Questions which are easily graspable, if impossible to easily answer.

I’m not going to rehash all the thought of two centuries and political responses here on the so called deserving and underserving poor. I will note it is my gut feeling that no one hates the undeserving poor more than the deserving poor do – the British Working Class appears to me to have a real horror of “benefit scroungers”, “junkies”, “drunks” and “gamblers” and others they categorise as the undeserving poor.   I’m not actually convinced the categories are all that important – if you place genuinely stupid people (and half of British citizens are below average IQ for a British citizen after all!) in a situation where they are offered easy interest free credit, mortgages for huge amounts based on nothing more than what you can lie to claim you earn, and then bombard them with shows about exotic foreign holidays and advertisements implying their lives are not worth living without the Gizmogadet 2000 what do you honestly expect to happen?

Politicians Are Predictable

Before I start the heart of my argument though, I guess we should consider wht this deserving/undeserving dichotomy may not be useful. To Labour, well it’s obviously nonsense: they see people’s financial situation as situated in a wider social context, so that market forces and teh economy are responsible for poor people, not the fact these people are reckless or lazy. To the Conservatives – well Cameron has told the fat and the poor it’s their own fault.  That’s me told twice then!  In fact he is keen to qualify this  –

“Of course, circumstances — where you are born, your neighbourhood, your school and the choices your parents make — have a huge impact. But social problems are often the consequence of the choices people make.”

So both political parties manage to continue the debate by stating the bleedin’ obvious, in line with their Left and Right wing prejudices. Of course if you are laid off because your factory closed because US mortgage brokers gave money to people who never could or would repay it, it is not your fault if you suffer financial catastrophe.  And of course if I go out and spend all my weekly disposable income  on, I dunno,  Dominos Pizza (thats easy – one medium 11″ pizza, one chicken wings starter for dinner tonight — and I have absolutely nothing left after that for the rest of the week for food, electric, water or gas bills — job done!) then it’s my own stupid fault. I could have bought  pasta, cous cous, jacket potatoes, some cheese, butter and a loaf of bread, and still had a fiver for the bills.Trust me, I bloody know! :(

So Labour blame the economy & society, the Conservatives the individual. Or rather that is there emphasis – both clearly realise that both are true. The Victorians tried a slightly more novel approach – the Poor House, where you were locked up, separated from husband or wife (to stop you breeding more poor kids) and set to work, while being lectured on the folly of your choices. I dunno if it worked, because it was not really for the benefits of the inmates, but rather designed to inspire horror and a real terror of ending up in there. Many of these buildings still stand, bleak reminders of the social trends which culminated in the inscription over the gate at the concentration camp at Auchwitz – “work makes you free”. Yeah right…

Auschwitz

The gate at Auchwitz - "works makes you free", a great lie that long predated the Nazi's

We have heard a lot in recent weeks about Labour’s pledge in the Queen’s Speech to abolish child poverty. I’m genuinely baffled by this one – the major cause of child poverty might just be poor parents who don’t look after them properly or can’t, because they have no money? No if those parents are poor because of the credit crunch and losing their jobs, or are poor because their parents spend all their money on SKY TV and drinking down the boozer, whether Labour or Conservatives are right, what difference does it actually make to the poor kids? Might I hazard a guess that poor kids of the undeserving poor are just as miserable as poor kids of the deserving poor? Neither chose which family to be born in to after all?

Let’s go budget!

Still, at last I will address my main point – how predictable is financial disaster? Using this handy budget calculator and basing my figures on an 18K salary, with no kids, renting in a cheap area (in this case Derby) I can assure you that a couple will struggle to survive, let alone save.  In fact I worked out after the cost of getting to work, bills, council tax, rent, and a £50 weekly food shop their disposable income is less than a hundred pounds a month. Unless one partner is earning maybe 21k + a year, you can’t afford to actually have a homemaker or stay at home partner anymore, because our economy is predicated on dual income households now. In my figures I was scrupulous to keep costs to an absolute minimum – these puritans do not drink, smoke, go on holiday or eat out. (They do have internet and phone though!) Yet they can not possibly hope to weather any unexpected financial set back, and are budgeting only £10 a month for clothing. They might be able to put maybe £10 a month in a savings account – but to get interest much above the rate of inflation they need to tie their money down for a long period – which is exactly what you don’t want to do if you are trying to save against sudden unexpected costs. And let us remember that HSBC have declared that current account customers don’t want interest on their money, as they would prefer it went on higher rates on other accounts! I don’t recall them asking me, I must have been out that day. :(

Now a lot of this comes down to energy costs – maybe they will fall. Here Labour’s analysis scores points, because gas, electric and petrol prices have a major effect on most households finances, but are not controllable by the individuals. Rents have remained pretty much static, while of course mortgage costs have generally plummeted again with the drop in interest rates. Unless you are Governor of the Bank of England this is again outside your control — I have no choice but to pay the rent, my main priority, and I always do. These factors do seem n the buget I looked at to make a huge difference.

So financial responsibility, what you spend your money on – sure it is important. But it only cuts in when you cease to be poor. In my situation it does not seem to make a lot of difference – when your disposable income is under £80 a month, you ain’t gonna have many choices to make.

CJ & the Beggars

This actually reminds me of something which appalls many of my friends. When I have money, I sometimes slip a quid to a genuinely messed up looking beggar on the streets. “but they will spend it on drugs or booze!” they cry. And I reply “good for them!” Why? Because actually when you are really poor, it’s not the lack of money which really degrades and makes you miserable – it is the fact you no longer get to make many choices. I can reliably predict what I will eat next week, and the week after, and the week after that. I won’t be buying much, because I can’t. I might get to make the choice between two titles in a second hand book shop if I am lucky. Poverty erodes choice, and erodes personal responsibility - because you can’t learn how to be responsible when you have nothing to be responsible with.

The Inevitable Passing Reference to the Credit Crunch

As Axel and others who have listened to me moan over the years know, I had long been predicting a Credit Crunch based on the fact that UK mortgages no longer bore any resemblance to actual bricks and mortar costs or annual incomes and salaries.  This was not based on any economic brilliance on my part, but upon a simple understanding that if people defaulted and banks stopped lending, well a lot more people would face the situation that the deserving and undeserving poor face every day – No Credit. In fact a good way of telling how depressed a part of town is is to go in to a shop, and look for the felt tip sign posted above the counter “Strictly No Credit”. Then go to the richer part of town – and see the Store Card adverts, and the endless encouragement to take interest free credit (“subject to status” – in other words if you are CJ and you have wandered in here, piss off!).

The Undeserving Middle Class

Many of the “undeserving poor” may actually have high incomes I guess – and far more choices – they just made bad ones, and are now faced with ruinous credit card debts for that holiday they enjoyed in some hot exotic location, the repayments on their flash car, and the huge amounts they spent at Waitrose and Threshers or wherever rich people shop. A couple of generations grew up expecting a nice house, nice car, nice holidays and well nice things – hell I’m heading in to a Jamie Reid single cover for the Sex Pistol’s

Jamie Reid's cover for the Sex Pistol's Holidays in the Sun

Jamie Reid's bleak cover for the Sex Pistol's Holidays in the Sun

Perhaps when we talk about the undeserving poor, who blew their money on bad choices, we actually mean the British Middle Class- the people who actually had the capacity to make serious financial choices in the first place? Maybe that is why this is so deeply ingrained in Cameron’s view of poverty – because he reflects the deserving, hard working and frugal middle classes, and the deserving poor working class (who make the best of very limited means), who can’t imagine  how people would make reckless choices like investing in the markets,  pensions  or shares?  I jest of course – but I do notice that bastion of Conservatism the Daily Mail seems a lot more worried about “House Prices Plummeting” than about how those working for the NHS on 12k a year like Lisa are meant to pay their share of the rising gas bills? Should we not castigate those foolish enough to irresponsibly put money in houses in the belief property prices will never fall, or who could not read the small print that reminded them that the value of their investments could go down as well as up? But enough teasing the noveau pauvre! It may shock many people, but I love the British Middle Class, who encapsulate much which is great about our nation – I just get tetchy when one group  are labelled undeserving, profligate and irresponsible, but others who made equally bad decisions, but are seen as unfortunate victims of greater forces - regardless of the party proclaiming the double standard. Maybe it is just my inherent left wing biases showing?

It seems clear to me that the middle class investor who lost big in the Credit Crunch and the working class person who lost their job are equally victims of circumstance, and that they can not really be held to blame for their choices – but the investor did get to make more choices in the matter than the person laid off. Yet for some reason they attract more sympathy? I actually feel deep compassion for both – ’tis rough on all at times…

So Let’s Get Back To The Point

So how predictable are financial emergencies? This was where we started, and where we return. I’m going to look to an unlikely source to resolve this – after all I have no statistical data at hand – David Hume, the great Scottish Philosopher.  (Of course I recall Dire Strait’s song Industrial Disease (link contains sound)- listen to it and you will get the joke – but anyway…) Hume made famous The Problem of Induction: nd the second part is relevant here -

presupposing that a sequence of events in the future will occur as it always has in the past (for example, that the laws of physics will hold as they have always been observed to hold.)

Which brings me back to those market analysts and underwriters, who try to generalise rules from past data, and who try to make models that predict based upon that data. How well do they perform? I dunno, I’m guessing that is sensitive commercial data. My guess is not that well.  Some will get lucky, some unlucky, and ost will perform as well as the data they have available and inherent unpredictability of financial markets allow.  Because yes, as I have been hinting, I think markets are fundamentally unpredictable, and I think personal finances are similarly chaotic.

The Tory emphasis on sound fiscal planning and personal responsibility makes  a lot of sense and to some extent is rooted in our Judeo-Christian heritage (but then read Job!). The fundamental assumption is that people are to a large extent responsible for their personal financial outcomes. I question this assumption on a  number of grounds. Firstly, the playing field is not level.  I have done pretty well in some ways in terms of education and using the talents I have – I’d like to believe that I might have done better if I had more opportunities when younger, and particularly if I could have got a PhD in something I wanted to so I could keep lecturing, the single thing I was best at. Hey, shit happens. A few knocks, set backs and I sunk forever in to the great unwashed. It happens. Others start off much worse off, and do much, much better. But no one can pretend on average we are an equal opportunity society yet. Born poor, you tend to stay there you know? (Darwin in one of his few reactionary moments argues this was good, or humanity would cease to struggle and evolve. This was why he opposed Trade Unions and industrial reforms. Shame, he was remarkably liberal in most ways!) Still for 10K I could have returned to lecturing – and then I could have had a slightly rosier future. But I never had it, could never borrow it, and my studentship applications never worked out.

Secondly, the future is not predictable. Why? Because we do not exist in a financial vacuum. All kinds of decisions from others, from the gang of muggers who decide to use your head as a football, to the decision of American mortage brokers, to government policies, to the laws of the land and moral responsibility, set limits on personal freedom and choice, and upon the outcomes we face. The citizens of Herculaneum and Pompeii might have saved and practiced Stoicism and financial probity, but on August 23rd, 79AD, they learned that living under an active volcano was not so wise.

I saw plenty of right wing US claims a few years back that the victims of the 2003 Asian Tsunami should have chosen to live somewhere safer — but few explanations as to how that was a financial reality for them, or how they were meant to assess the risk they faced. I suspect a lot of them may have not fully paid attention to the subduction class in their plate tectonics education at school, as obviously this must have comprised part of their elementary school education? Well maybe not. Maybe they lived where they did because they knew no better, and because their families had always lived their, their livelihoods were there, and Alfred Wegener’s theories on Continental Drift passed them by because they were dreaming of affording another goat next year? Can anyone really blame them for not knowing their worlds were about to catastrophically change? No – because very few people if any knew that.

And this is how I perceive the world: we are perhaps little more in control of our lives than those people were. Financial outcomes are not predictable. All we can do is try to save when we can, to alleviate poverty and distress where possible, and to try our damnedest to actually help people make informed choices, and drag themselves through.  We are like doctors – preventative medicine is laudable and a great cause, and we should encourage sensible health measures – but if a new disease like SARS or a new Flu breaks out, a new unforeseen disaster – we can only fight to save the victims.  We might have made all kinds of contingency plans, and perhaps like Mormons we have stockpiled a months canned food for this scenario or similar, but ultimately, if a hacker cleans our bank accounts out, we can only check if we were following sensible security precautions. If the bank’s computer system was compromised. and yet we can’t make a mortgage payment while we try to get compensation sorted, whose fault is it?

Chance, risk, the unpredictable, the irrational and unpredictable actions of others – for long I have worried that our economists assume markets are rational, when all the evidence shows me that humans are often quite irrational in their economic activity – all these things clearly impact upon us. Of course our personal responsibility is vital;  of course we must plan to make the best uses of our resources to cushion us against the blows of fate – but ultimately, rugged individualism is possible only to  the extent one has the power to make choices, and the resources to prepare – and the poor have far fewer options here??

I’m sorry to write so much – thanks to everyone who took part in the previous discussion. I fired this off in an hour, in one sitting, so it might not make a whole lot of sense. Thansk to anyone who troubled ot read i tthrough.

cj x

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