Paul Mason (2015) Postcapitalism: A Guide To Our Future.

Paul Mason is an optimist. I’m a pessimist.  He outlines the problems mankind faces in the future and suggests as a utopian solution of free money and us all working together in a non-working world. I tend more towards the four horseman of the apocalypse scenario.

Mason suggests there are a number of negative feedback loops that will work together to make the world a much poorer place for 99% of humanity, but if we reverse engineer this process we can all become richer and make a fairer and more prosperous world for all. ‘Neoliberalism is Broken’ is the title of his first chapter. We all know how this works. We’ve being doing it for the last thirty years and the process has accelerated since the financial meltdown of 2008. Work longer hours for less pay, or no pay. Sing hallelujah, and thanks boss, as money flows from the poor to the rich at an increasing rate.  Thomas Piketty, Capital, did the maths. Algorithms rule the world.  But Mason sees a chink of light in the information age. Technology that puts at least fifty percent of the workforce out of work, (timescale by 2050, or at cinema near you soon) will, as work itself become redundant, give us more leisure time. When the distinction between work and leisure becomes blurred creativity will flourish. Examples, oh dear, ‘people will blog, make movies, self-publish books’. Shit. I’m already doing all these things. I must be living in the future. It’s Martin Ford’s The Rise of the Robots, but with a happy ending. The robots won’t gain an awareness of themselves as a singular being, in the singularity, and mankind as being a species that has reduced the planet to a giant hamburger, and instead of keeping mankind as a pet, they’ll not do the logical thing and mine us for the energy in our hair and skin and meat and reduce the world to something like a boxset of hell played on an endless loop, but instead of that, our android friends will free us from work.

The merit in that argument is it is logical. William Shakespeare’s Brave New World  before Brave New World has Ariel working for the man, Prospero, in  The Tempest.  All utopias are a bit like that. Prospero might have stolen an island home, but it was from an evil witch, and give him his due, he did give gainful employment to the witch’s son, and became master of the monster, Caliban, who he used as another source of free labour. Prospero was free to do what he willed, as we will be in a prosperous new age based on exciting new technologies. Fritz Laing, Metropolis. As above, so below. Aldous Huxley and George Orwell both envisaged a time when work would be something that would be optional – for the elite. As it always has been, but Mason argues that the problems facing us are global problems and unless we face them together they will defeat us and the capitalist system will fall apart.

Global warming is an example of this. Mason doesn’t think the market can work well enough to allocate resource so everyone can meet their energy needs and keep enough fossil fuels out of the air and keep the temperature of the earth below an increase of around two-degree centigrade level. After that runaway global warning will take place. Being born in a particular location will be the equivalent of a life in poverty and death with millions of refugees on the move. I called this melodramatically, The Third World War, and suggested it’s already begun. I think it’s a war already lost. Human casualties, I’d guess, somewhere in the range of the Black Death, one in four. I can be bland about it because I’ll be dead by the time this is fully realised. But if you’ve children of grandchildren, be very afraid. Mason suggests that we leave all fossil fuels in the ground, turn to solar, wind, and sea, as Germany has done, with up to 50% of its needs being met in this way. So it is possible, but is it probable?

China and India playing catch up and building or having recently built hundreds of coal-fired stations.  But as Mason states ‘Between 2003 and 2010, climate change lobby groups received $558 million in the US. Exxon Mobil and the ultra-conservative Koch industries were major donors…’ What’s in it for them? Simple. Leave fossil fuels in the ground, or as Mason suggests in his chapter ‘Project Zero’ and Exxon Mobil will be worth zero on the stock market of any market. Far simpler to go out and buy a politician, or president.

One of interrelated problems Mason identified was workers in the Western world are getting older. Gee whiz, you may be saying, my hips killing me, I sure know about that. ‘Futureproofing’ on Radio 4 that around 50% of children born today will live until they’re 104. Great news for them. Around 4% of those born at the start of the last century lived long enough to collect their pension. So work hard and don’t collect your pension was the order of the day. Think about this. One in two hospital beds are filled by our fossil fools. Piketty suggests that rich countries growth will fall to around 1% to zero or negative growth. That’s where we are now. More must be done with less. That’s where we are now. Piketty also shows that the equation that you put into the system early and take it out in your later years, in health deficits, no longer works, or can be taken seriously. Mason shows that six of eight nations with populations under 30 are in Africa. Throw in India and US and the equation that one worker will be supporting one pensioner (around four workers fill those positions now) and you’ll be able to determine it doesn’t add up. Mason also shows that all that money invested in government bonds and shares and other financial assets are, in the longer term, worthless as the International Monetary Fund recognises. The bearer will not pay on demand.  When it unravels, as it will, then the provider of last resort is the government.

Here’s another of my favourites. The problem of supply is one of demand. Rosa Luxemburg, and all that. As Apple who make those nice phones and tablets and were the richest company in the world find to their cost, unless poor people have money in their pockets they can’t afford to buy those shiny new toys. One in eight workers in the US have at one time worked for McDonalds. Tens of millions wait for food stamps and flood into Walmart, who tell their staff to claim for food stamps. In our country we’re looking at the same solution: the race to the bottom. The solution, increased liquidity, give more money to the rich in the hope that it trickles –eventually- down to the poor, doesn’t work. It’s never worked, but is  neoliberal ideology in action.

Mason takes a hint from that well-known libertine, Friedrich Hayek, and suggests that citizens should be issued with an income to do with it what they liked by the government. Imagine if universal credit really was universal credit and how work would become an optional choice. But it’s another of Hayek’s truisms Mason challenges. Only the market can allocate resources. Computing power, argues Mason, can now do that just as effectively, or more effectively than any free market. Facebook and Google, for example, can anticipate our every need before we can even voice it. Their algorithms are getting better. What we think of choice is just a bit of camouflage as the servant serves us more of the same, but in a different colour. But imagine Mason suggests harnessing this power. Imagine the government building more houses. Imagine the government taking control of the money supply and instead of trying to sell banks we already own, lending money to rich people, lending it to fund social projects. Imagine the government running the energy industry for our benefit. I know, I know, it’s a bit much to take. Especially, the bit about taking money from the 1% who are rolling in it. There’s a loss of liberty there. Liberalism. Liberty. More equality.  Mason thinks that the threats that we face will allied with the technologies that we have developed will make it brave new world with everyone sharing in the fruits of non-labour. I’m more cynical. We’re at the Wright brother stages with the first aircraft. New technologies will enrich us, but not us all. The world is a more stratified place and will become even more stratified and uneven. Four horsemen on the horizon. Not even that far. I think I can hear the thunder of hoofs. But I hope Mason is right and I’m wrong, as I usually am.

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Iain Duncan Smith’s big gamble.

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As a story teller, with Leicester City at the top of the Premier League it’s been the year of the underdog, and I’ve been following the Iain Duncan Smith, or the IDS narrative, with interest. He resigned from the Cabinet because ‘I am unable to watch passively whilst certain policies are enacted in order to meet the fiscal self-imposed restraints that are more and more perceived as distinctly political rather than in the national interest…[I] wonder at the balance of the cuts you have insisted upon and wonder if enough has been done to ensure “we are all in it together”’.

I wonder too if we are really in it together. I wonder too at the surprise and talk of salami slicing of the welfare budget. I thought as the former head of a think tank, IDS might have noticed that money was moving from the poor to the rich at increasing rate, and Osborne’s budget was following a familiar pattern. We can go back to Robin Hood stealing from the poor and keeping his loot because he worked damned hard for it. Or the debates in the House of Commons in the 1830s. The surprise and outrage some MPs gave themselves over to that children were being used in the workforce and forced, for example, to sweep chimneys and go down coal mines as a health cure for sloth. Up until then they thought it was simply small deformed adults of which there were too many for even Charles Dickens to enumerate, or black men kept in chains, which didn’t really count as human exploitation, because other people were doing it and fairs fair. In no time at all, with hymn singing and weeping and wailing and gnashing of pearly-white teeth children were provided for. By Parliamentary decree they should have at least two hours of education a day until they were thirteen. We were all in it together, now as then.

I do wonder what is going to happen to IDS’s flagship policy of universal credit. Cynical commentators would suggest that re-packing all benefits together such as housing, working tax credit, or jobseeker’s allowance et al, at a reduced rate, could be construed as a cost-saving device. Pulling a government lever and the poor are diminished and as we know they have no backbench peers. But IDS is not alone. Martin Ford (2015) in Rise of the Robots also suggested that as robots will be doing most of the jobs we do now, citizen should be given, as of right, a fixed income. As any Think-tank leader knows this idea does not come from Marx, but from the darling of Thatcherism, Friedrich Hayek. A basic fixed income was something we used to naively believe in. A social safety net. Remember that? When Pete Townsend’s Poverty in the UK  in the 1970s had politicians rushing to the barrier demanding that something should be done to help poor people. Poor people with an income of £40 000 per year. Of if you are a refugee around £35 000. Yes, us poor are all in it together.

Cynics might imaging that when IDS recovers from the shock that Conservative policies are ideologically and not economically driven then he might take stock and someone –quite soon- might propose him as leader of the Conservative Party. Certainly good old Boris Johnson is IDS’s rival. When David Cameron steps down, who has the Trump-card? Then, of course, there has to be the right market conditions. Britain must be out of Europe. The alternative, when there are no alternatives, is Osborne, or so he keeps telling us, which was a successful enough narrative to get the party re-elected with an increased majority. If he keeps salami slicing the poor, he would seem like a safe pair of hands – and favourite as the next Conservative Prime minister. With boundary changes and the continuing dissolution of the Labour Party he could be in power as long as Chairman Mao. I’m sure in ten or fifteen years we’ll still have a Conservative government, but it’s interesting watching the starters mocking for position.  IDS might turn out to be a Leicester City and take the big prize. The only losers will be poor people and we don’t count. It’s relegation for us and literally fighting for scraps.

Why I hate Downton Abbey

I know it’s the last series of Downton Abbey. It sells big in America where people like former vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin things we live in stately homes.  Lots of people here watch it. It’s won sacksful of awards for best drama. I’ve never seen more than a clip of an episode, yet Downton Avenue has me reaching for my Kalashnikov.

There’s nothing down town about Downton Abbey. It’s a showcase of beautifully dressed people with impeccable manners showcasing all that was great about Great Britain. Let’s start at the top. Take away the gold frame from around the jug ear of Prince Charles, our future king, and perhaps someone can explain what particular skill set he, or his forebearers brought to the Industrial revolution, or to the modern world? There’s no answer to inherited land and inherited wealth. The people that own the land, like those portrayed in Downton Abbey, also owned the people on the land. Attend the right sort of schools. The right sort of University. Pull on a graduation robe and take the prizes of  public office and the trappings of power and the promise of yet more wealth. Look no further than our Prime minister and his Chancellor of Exchequer.  As Thomas Piketty, among others, have shown in the modern world wealth begets wealth, in spite of, not because of who owns it. Briton is a good place to be rich.

It’s not a good place to be poor. The antithesis of programmes such as Downton Abbey show mainly on channels 4 or 5 with the tagline ‘benefit’ attached. Type it into a search engine and see how many hits you get. Then add the Jeremy Kyle effect. There’s a Victorian cruelty to these programmes, a type of bear baiting, in which the working class are prodded and poked and made to dance and squeal for our master’s entertainment.  Upstairs, Downstairs, and while they are in the ascendency we’re downstairs where we belong, read the subtext, because we’re thick and left to ourselves would be primitive savages, what right wing commentators Charles Murray call a ‘feral underclass’. A recent poll at the Edinburgh Festival found the majority thought  Waynes and Waynettes and foul mouthed Vicky Pollard are not seen are representatives of Little Britain, but embodiments of the working class. But it fits a larger narrative.

To paraphrase R.H.Tawney (1913) what rich people call a problem of poverty is what poor people call a problem of riches.  A general post-second world war consensus and belief in a subsistence minimal under which no individual living in the UK should fall. The level at which national assistance or supplementary benefits were set as a monetary equivalent of a poverty line. Even then, in the 1950s, one in twenty household were said to be below it. And when Peter Townsend’s seminal work Poverty in the UK was published in 1979 seemed to be a call to arms. With empirical data, our Labour government would right a great wrong.

Yet, as Stewart Lansley and Joanna Mack show in Breadline Britain in 2012 three in twelve fell below the poverty line. And the problem of child poverty has been solved, by our Eton-educated betters, by re-categorising it as a problem of poor parenting that can be solved by parenting classes. A moral problem. A story many of us are familiar with.

I’ve got a mate that’s got cancer and I’ll expect will die this year. He’s been knocked off the sick, told he’s fit to work. He’s appealed that decision. But in the meantime has zero income. His housing benefit is no longer paid. Local authority housing employees send him threatening letters demanding increasingly larger sums of money. He’s been told by his medical consultant to eat a balanced diet and drink plenty of fluids. He’s a causality, one among the many. Classifiable in that old throwback to Victorian society and notions of the deserving and undeserving poor. The underserving poor where those thought able to work and not willing to work. Those like my mate.  And the place for them was prison –for vagrancy – or the poor house, cast in with the old and sick where they’d be made to work. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London, trailing and documenting these spikes prior to the Second World War, showed what little work there was for the men (and it was mostly men), wasn’t worth the cost of administration or effort, but it had to be seen to have a salutary effect as not being a soft option. Language we are familiar with today.  Weighty matters such as how much salt should be added to the gruel and whether sugar was a luxury inmates would come to depend upon where debated at parish level. Scotland was the most frugal of nations here.

The privilege of being rich and owning land and the servants on the land as they do in Downton Abbey extends to a policing role of the morals of the lower classes. Sarah Waters gives a fictional account of this in her novel The Little Stranger set in a decaying aristocratic pile, Hundred Hall, just after the end of World War Two. Doctor Faraday who visits the Hall, in a professional capacity, recounts to Lady Ayres how her mother had worked as a nurse maid in the same house in which they were sitting. She wore an identical uniform to the other nurse maids and had to stand with her hands out each morning while the housekeeper examined her fingernails. How the former Lady Ayres would often come unannounced into the maids’ bedrooms and go through their boxes one by one.  Dr Pamela Cox in the BBC programme, Servants – the true story of life below stairs, shows that such experiences were not unusual. It really was an us-and-them world. In 1911, one and a half million worked as indoor servants. Cox suggests that few in Britain would have an ancestor that was not a servant. When I watch clips of Downton Abbey I don’t see the leading actors, I look for subterranean tunnels, damp basements and attic rooms. I look in vain for a serving class on their feet and at the beck and call of their masters for sixteen hours a day, six-and-a-half days a week. I look for servants that cringe at the behest of the master and mistress and are urged to make themselves invisible – until needed. I rejoice that those days are gone, but mourn the lesson of two world wars have been forgotten and they have returned under the guise of neoliberal orthodoxy and extended choice.

Linda Tirado, who works –among other jobs –as a waitress, in the introduction to Hand To Mouth, feels the need to remind readers, ‘I’m a human after all’ and most poor people start their day in debt and end their days in debt and in between isn’t much fun either.  Her chapter titles show where the fault line in the propaganda war against the rich has been lost and the poor routed and tagged with epithet worthless, subhuman, scrounger.

‘It Take Money to Make Money.’ This is not Thomas Piketty telling the reader that money flows from the poor to the rich at an increasing rate, but a working- mother’s view from the bottom rung, two jobs, living on fresh air and foodstamps. No matter which way you cut it, isn’t going to make any difference. Her car gets towed and she can’t afford to pay to get it out of the compound. You need money for that. More than she makes in a day. Martin Ford shows a different pattern. Waltmart is busiest at midnight when food stamps are first issued. Stores are least busy in the week before food stamps are issued. The end of the month is the end of the line for tens of millions.

‘We Do Not Have Babies For Welfare Money.’ What Tirado does not say is that she has the wrong kind of babies. Babies that are born poor, are likely to grown up to be poor as Robert Putman, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, shows.  She admits this herself. ‘Poverty is Fucking Expensive.’ They don’t swear like that on Downton Abbey, but then again, perhaps they don’t need to. Tirado in her penultimate chapter sums up where the propaganda war has been won and lost, ‘Being Poor isn’t a Crime – It Just Feels Like It’. Let’s be as honest as Tirado, when you’re the servant of the rich you’re going to get screwed, whether you like it or not, and there’s nothing much you can do about it. Rich men hold all the trump cards and they have a big stick at their back. The propaganda war was lost a long time ago. Hunker down or rise up. Winners such as those in Downton Abbey write the history and talk about traditions. It leaves a sour taste, but I don’t have to watch it – not yet. But it’s hard to hold your tongue or listen to such claptrap getting cheered.

Martin Ford (2015) Rise of the Robots

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Robots are pattern-recognition machines who have grown arms, legs and visual awareness. Each time we take a step, for example, we are continually falling. Robots face the same problem, but they have not had tens of millions of years of evolution to solve it. Moore’s Law comes into effect here. Computing power which provides the software for computer hardware; robot’s arms and legs and eyes (these are anthropomorphic attributes) doubles every eighteen to twenty-four months. Software engineers are coming up fast against the physical limitation of the materials used to encode machines. With the development of quantum computing that problem seems –temporarily- to have been solved, but few people can explain the mechanics. Martin Ford’s analogy of driving speeds highlights where we’ve come from and where we’re going. Imagine you’re in a car he says, driving at five-miles-per hour (mph). Drive for a minute. 10mph. fifth minute, 80mph. Imagine you’re on the twenty-seventh minute. We’re approaching the speed of sound. Then the speed of light. That’s Moore’s law. That’s where we are.

Another way of looking at it is to think of the brain power at Los Alamos around 1944 when plans were being developed to develop the first atomic bomb. Most of the great Western minds of maths and physics were working on the probability of different scenarios and outcomes. Unless you were a future Nobel winner, you were probably working in the canteen. Now that kind of mathematical grunt work could be done by a ten-year old boy or girl with an iPad. What direction are we going in? Think in terms of a continuum.

Where we are now, I’d guess is similar to the place where the Crow Indians were in Jonathan Lear (2006) Radical Hope: Ethics in The Face of Cultural Devastation; a place and time before the white man came, before around sixty million migrating buffalo were indiscriminately killed,  and with the mass cull went their food source and way of life. Lear writes of the Crows, but he might as well be writing of the Greek, the Roman, the Holy Roman, our own sense of the possible and the impossible: ‘The inability to conceive of its own devastation will tend to be the blind spot of any culture’.  Martin Ford suggests we are at endgame and the chess analogy is appropriate.

Graphic evidence comes from games. It was no great surprise when IBM’s software Deep Blue beat world chess champion Gary Kasparov over a six-game match. While the possibilities in chess are quantitatively enormous, we tend to think of it being on rails. Daniel Kahnerman (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow uses the example of a chess master looking at a chess board, and intuition will suggest the best move for him or her to make. That’s thinking fast, but it takes years of training. Software such as Deep Blue travels all the lines of the board at speeds faster than human thought. Speeds that we think of as simultaneous.  And if it makes a mistake it learns from it. Software does not forget. Given such enormous computing power it seemed inevitable that the machine would beat the man.

IBM’s success on Jeopardy! was a different level of success. Deep Blue had been taken off the rails. The brute force of computing power was competing in a general knowledge quiz with idiosyncratic questions and an idiosyncratic format. Computers don’t do spontaneity or intuitive thought over a wide range of subjects. Yet Watson, IBM’s software, triumphed in two televised matches over Jeopardy! champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in February 2011.

At one end of the continuum humans become grey gloop. Nothing is wasted. Eric Drexler one of the leading proponents of this theory suggests the combined effect of nanotechnology and increasing computer power to develop their own heuristic, and innate ability to shape the world in their own image, human will be little more than feedstock. If this sounds a bit corny (pun intended) then the co-founder of SunMicrosystems, Bill Joy, article in 2000, ‘Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us’ runs through the existential dangers of cross fertilisation in the fields of genetics, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. Nobel winner Stephen Hawkins has also signalled his belief that this is a real danger. And Nick Bostrom (2014) in his New York Times Bestseller, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, argues the future is already here. We’re nurturing artificial intelligence and like a cuckoo’s egg it will outgrow the nest, feed on the hominoid family, and colonise space in its search for perfection.  These Jeremiah voices seem more science fiction than science fact. But look around you. Self-driving cars, drones and rocket back packs. Not in the pages of comic books, but on our roads and buzzing in the air.

Ford identifies other trends that any moderately sophisticated pattern-recognition software would immediately identify. One of them is climate change. He talks about the declining price of solar panels, technological innovation and government innovation. Or what the British Prime Minister called ‘all that green crap’ while withdrawing funding in the areas we really need to invest in.

Money flows unevenly from the rich to the poor. The only place it sticks is with those with money or capital. That’s another trend or pattern. Ford suggests the evidence points to a longer-term trend in which  the five percent who claim ownership of the world’s wealth, and in particular the moneyed-class in the richer nation, those who have cannibalised the wealth of the other ninety-five percent, then the one percent will cannibalise the wealth of the other four percent. Winners take all. Losers take the fall.

“The last capitalist we hang shall be the one who sold us the rope.”
― Karl Marx

Marx was wrong of course. Let us look at the data.  Losers are not sold the rope, only leased it and have to pay economic rent for their funeral. The triumph of capitalism is it is the only game in town. Communist China and Russia, for example, mirror the inequalities of the West. Martin Ford offers sobering statistics. An Oxford University report published in 2013 suggests 50% of US jobs will be automated. And a parliamentary report in the House of Lords in 2015 estimate 35% job losses in the UK. The flight to higher education with the promissory note of a well-paid job at the end of it is the same sort of myth building as, from a different era, Tony Benn’s ‘white hot heat of technology’ changing and modernising society. Thirty percent of employees are currently overqualified for the job they are in and while wages have declined in the last thirty years, the cost of education has more than doubled from £22 billion 2007/8 to £46 billion 2012/13 and that trend looks to continue.  This is one form of credit poorer members of society have access to and they are signing up in record numbers, both in the UK and the US. But not only is their grade deflation, but those printing presses we call universities, some of which  are more equal than others, can demand a premium for their gilt-edged qualification, in a race which our leading universities largely exclude the poor from entering. It would be interesting, for example, to look at what Oxford University defines as those in need of such a leg up. But this is hardly surprising when social housing is defined as costing up to £450 000. And our public-school educated Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, boasts of conducting ‘the most sustained squeeze on public spending for one-hundred years’. Back in 1918 the upper classes contact with the working class was likely to be a master and servant relationship, and as an employer. Those that owned the land owned the people on the land.  But in a contemporary global market as Ford notes, if cognitive ability follows the usual bell-shaped distribution curve, and India and China’s top five percent of intelligentsias adds up to around 130 million, almost double the population of the UK. Technology, based on deep neural learning models makes the universal translator inevitable. See, for example, Megaphoneyaku digital megaphone developed by Panasonic in 2014, which translates whatever language is bellowed into it according to the setting required.   If the offshoring of university graduates and teaching programmes move online, as they are likely to do, then the current crop of graduates will find it even more difficult to find paid work commensurate with their education. Software such as Geekie, launched in Brazil in 2011 because of a shortage of teachers, delivers the whole high-school syllabus, monitors pupils and designs courses based on individual responses and aggregate scores. A movement into higher education and universities with their expensive living costs seems inevitable.  It also seems to me likely that health care assistants will be the add on element of general health care practices with all the heavy lifting done by machines designed like Geekie to have the knowledge element built in and modified and upgraded with each interaction.

A trumpet it a wind instrument. It has the highest register in the brass family, which brings us nicely to Donald Trump and Trumpetism. We’ve had the bit player and actor whom Betty Davis called little Ronnie Reagan getting to play the role of US President. Then we had George Bush senior and then junior getting on the same horse. Anything is possible in the good old US of A. It’s dressed up in frontier ideology and the analogy of a rising tide of wealth lifting all boats. But as Chrystia Freeland says in Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich, ‘the super-rich don’t like to talk about rising income inequality’. The rising tide lifting super yachts that leave the rest stranded in their wake. They like to talk about the Kuznet’s inverted U-curve, how as societies become more complex and productive, high inequality peaks at the top of the U and falls. Wealth generated by a nation’s better-educated workforce is able to get a bigger slice of the national pie in terms of wages is proven to be a short-lived myth. Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, using historical data going back to the eighteen century from twenty countries showed that the thirty years following the Second World War was a golden age in which wealth re-distribution did take place, but it took two catastrophic world wars for that to happen. Piketty and Ford both suggest the fallout from the golden age is toxic for all but the gilded few, and aligned with climate change and the rise of the robots it’s a good time to be rich. For the rest of us…man the lifeboats.

Julian Barnes (2011) Pulse

I’ve got Flaubert’s Parrot kicking about the house somewhere, god knows where.  My mate Brendan asked me the other day in the pub what I was reading and I couldn’t remember. I looked over at the pool table and the board beside it to see if anything was scrawled up there. Sure enough Julian Barnes’ Pulse was chalked up below Martin Ford’s The Rise of the Robots. Writing things down is a sure way to forget to remember.  I have enough problems remembering my own name and should really wear a name tag. All people should. And no swapping allowed.  But I do know that Flaubert’s Parrot isn’t really about a parrot. I like short stories because I can always remember where I am.

Pulse is the last story in Book Two of Pulse and the best of both books, (apart from one which I’ll keep you in suspense about because I can’t remember the name of it). I like Pulse because I didn’t know if it was true or not. If between the sheets lurked a youngerish Julian Barnes.  I won’t spoil the ending by telling you the narrator’s mother gets motor neurone disease and dies at the end. Or that the narrator’s father is overly uxorious. A stolid kind of bloke that worked all his life as a family lawyer and owns a particular kind of shirt, which he has a number of faded copies. And he loses his sense of smell. He’s a just-get-on-with it type of chap and doesn’t want to bother the doctor, but he does miss the intimacy of knowing how his wife through smell. That’s a lovely detail. I laughed at “‘hormones’ is a catch-all word for when women don’t want to tell you something,” and later when he has the not having a conversation about Janice with his mother, and she admitting she loves him unconditionally as a son, but loves he future daughter-in-law on the condition that she makes him happy. Lawerly adivce, she does and doesn’t, but that’s the nature of the short.

There are four other stories in Book Two. Carcasonne takes a quote from Ford Maddox Ford as a jumping off point. ‘I just wanted to marry her in the way some people want to go to Carcassone.’ I’ve read The Good Soldier, can vaguely remember the opening being about the saddest man I’d ever known. The rest is a void, as Carcossone itself is. But I’m sure I hitchhiked through it, spent a night in an auberge. A medieval feel to the town? Not sure. Carcasonne has the feel of Flaubert’s Parrot. It jumps from Garibaldi as a romantic hero of European history. How he captured towns and captured heart. Coup de foudre. Garibaldi looks through the telescope on the schooner Itaparica and inspects the Brazilian coastal town of Laguina. What he sees is Anita Riberas, eighteen, dark hair, large breasts “ a virile carriage”.  She speaks no Italian (a difficulty since there is not yet such a place as Italy) and he speaks little more than pigeon Portuguese. When they meet he tells her, “You must be mine”. And she is, but Barnes shows it’s not that simple. It never is. “The expectation of an experience governs and distorts the experience itself…” Barnes tells the reader this after segueing away from Garibaldi to a bookseller conference in Glasgow, where two women discuss the effects of different food types in the taste of a man’s sperm. Obviously if book conference in Glasgow are that interesting I might start attending some myself.

I’ve no idea why Barnes split Pulse into Books One and Two. If pushed I’d say it’s because Book One is shite, with the exception of the first story, East Wind, about a man delving too deep into woman’s territory which I liked very much. There are four stories Phil & Joanna’s something or other about middle-class people talking twaddle. And another few which aren’t quite as bad. Apologies. My memory isn’t what it was. Marriage Lines, which also appears in That Glimpse of Truth: 100 of The Finest Short Stories Ever Written is outstanding. The best short story in Pulse, well that and Pulse, but worth buying for that story alone.

Barnes has the capacity to climb inside other’s heads and I liked this riposte – to among others Oscar Wilde – quoted in The Observer, from the viewpoint of a narrator inside the mind of Shostakovich: ‘Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time. Art does not exist for art’s sake; it exists for people’s sake. But which people and who defined them?’

Art for the people’s sake.  Meme and match. For the people’s sake we should have artists like Barnes. Science has its place. But Art needs its space, but I guess that’s an outdated idea. No use parroting on.

George Osborne’s bumper Christmas Compendium

I wasn’t sure how to structure this. I’d a vague idea about explaining the significance of the tax-credit U-turn by George Osborne and the jibes about Mao’s Little Red Book, a joke that backfired and made the Shadow Chancellor seem the more foolish. I also thought about telling you about my visit to the dentist. We are an ageing nation of shrinking gums. So I guess I’ll start there.

I’m good on nostalgia. The dentist I go to is the same dentist I went to forty odd years ago. We used to scale the wall in the same way we got our teeth scaled and steal the needles from the dustbin. They smelled of different planets and we’d lunge at each other, wild with excitement. Boredom set in quicker than rain. We’d fling them away. Back then the dentist prodded and poked at your teeth with a hooked pick until he found a hole to fill, a tooth to take out, usually, both. It’s the same rooms, upstairs or along the extended hall, with faded white paint, but it’s a practice now, a business, the hook comes out before you’re allowed to see the leading practitioner, or business man, or woman.  Receptionists want to know who is going to pay for treatment. There’s different kinds of forms for different kinds of patients. You can get your teeth whitened for £250. An older woman, a pensioner, was told she had the wrong kind of mouth for a plate, and the practice couldn’t be expected to carry the cost.

As surely as my tongue runs over a newly-fitted filing this is the future of the NHS. People will be turning up with the wrong kind of body.  An estimated £20 billion is needed to keep our NHS treating patients until 2020. Osborne has fronted some of the money, which is a politically astute move, as it stops some NHS trusts threatening to shut at Christmas. Bah Humbug! But it’s never enough, because too many old people are living to long. Let’s call them bed blockers.

Where do all these bed blockers go when they come out of hospital? Most bed blockers become the responsibility of local authorities.  Local authorities have had between fifty and seventy five percent of their budgets cut over the last five years. The Monty Pythonesque leaked letter exchange between out glorious leader David Cameron (with less that twenty-five percent of the electorate voting for him, the ‘great ignored’ as Cameron termed them before the 2010 election, leaves me thinking what we’d call the other 75%) and The Conservative Prime Minister writes to a Conservative council leader Ian Huspeth in Oxford and asks him why he’d made such dreadful cuts to ‘front-line services’ such as care of the elderly. Couldn’t the councillor made savings by sacking people that weren’t needed and not hired people that were needed, and sold off some surplus land or council properties. But says Councillor Huspeth I’ve already cut off our arms and legs, fell on my sword, sacked 2 800 staff, sold off all our ‘surplus property’ to try and make up our £72 million deficit because we get 37% less from central government than we got last year. And this is one of the more affluent front-line areas.

Service cuts are uneven. Even the Conservative-controlled Local Government Association talks of a postcode lottery. Councils in poorer areas can no longer afford home care service for the elderly. Social care is in an inverse relationship to health care.

The Office for Budget Responsibility suggests that the Osborne has to find £22 billion of cuts from 15 departments with a total budget of £77 billion. Here’s the rub. Their budgets have already been cumulatively cut by 30% since 2010, spread unevenly with local authorities’ grants in particular hardest hit and with backtracking on tax credits and policing all signs point towards being cut even more.

This is politics at its basest level. It’s personal and it’s ideological. Beveridge described the five giants on the road to reconstruction. They were poverty, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness. All are related and feed into the roots system of the other. Whatever way you measure them they are all on the increase. The idea of welfare has been a stick used to beat us.

I’m with William Keegan on this one: ‘Personally, I always preferred the older term ‘social security,’ which gives a better indication of what the social settlement during those early post-war years of austerity was all about.’

The terrorist attack in Paris dominates the headlines, as it should, when we really are all in it together. Kenan Malik idea of social and political hegemonic influence gets it about right: ‘Evil…is not simply about defining an act of being particularly wicked, it also about defining the space within which we can have a meaningful debate about good and bad, virtue and wickedness’.

France spends around 54% of its GDP on public services. The United Kingdom currently around 38%, spends less that all other G7 countries with the exception of the United States. Trying to balance the books is a good story and achieve a surplus like China is an even better story. It fits in with the Dickensian notion expounded by Mr Micawber’s famous, and oft-quoted, recipe for happiness:

“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

There is an element of truth in this, but only if Mr Micawber didn’t have his own printing press in his basement and wasn’t allowed to print money quicker than the Japanese. Added kudos, if like the most successful company in the world in terms of share value, Apple, they could choose to fund their growth by borrowing at in interest rate of almost 0%. Indeed buying and selling money is what the United Kingdom does best. Before the Crash of 2008 it accounted for almost a quarter of all UK tax receipts. It allowed Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, to build hospital and schools and invest in the infrastructure of the country, which was seen as the common good. This has been turned on its head.

We are not fighting a war against Isis, not yet anyway. Government debt has rarely been lower over the last 300 years, but with every bomb we drop over Syria (if or indeed when Cameron is given his mandate) can we expect to think there goes another public library in Islington. There goes a Sure start Programme in Drumchapel. There goes another mental health unit in Belfast. There goes free school meals. Some wars are more pointless than others. We have been lied to for too long. Shakespeare gets it about right with Shylock’s promise that he will outdo the evil that was done to him.

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.

William Keegan suggests in the aftermath of financial crisis and fiscal policies pursued since the summer of 2010. ‘If the historical pattern of growth had been allowed to continue, output in the UK would have been up to 20 per cent higher in 2013-14 than proved to be the case.

Martin Wolf of the Financial Times in the 2013 Wincott Lecture: Monetary Policy clearly and decisively failed to promote recovery. Animal spirits were completely destroyed. Demand fell. It was a machine designed to fail.’

Joe Stiglitz notes the same pattern over the other side of the Atlantic. Subsidies for the rich, mass poverty for the poor.  A race to the bottom. The Big Mac Index, for example, is an economists attempt to measure the relative expenses of living in different countries. Stiglitz describes working for McDonalds as the income of last resort, with more than a thousand applicants for every job. Martin Ford describes how a worker for McDonalds in October 2013 called his employer’s financial-help hotline, asking for help, and was advised to apply for Food Stamps and Medicaid. Yet, the fast food industry continues to grow, at around £6.9 billion in the UK in 2012.

We don’t –as yet- pay directly for our healthcare. But Nicholas Timmins, The Five Giants: A Biography of the Welfare State, noted the paradox of we used to send experts to the United States to advise them how to run health care, but now that has been reversed. Advisers come from the States, with the most profligate health service in the world (see Pickwick) and advise us. It’s no great surprise that Jeremy Hunt, our Health Secretary, doesn’t believe in the NHS. He’s rich and will never need it. Neither will any of his colleagues or friends. Only poor people will (short-hand for scroungers).

A programme was recently shown on BBC 2. Unlike those Jeremy Kyle-type programmes on Channels 4 and 5, and the Hollywood movie Friends With Benefits, it was meant to show the diversity of Scotland and it’s working population. For example, bespoke food from land and sea for the tables of the rich in London. Compare this with the idea of bespoke care for the poor. The elderly poor. It would cost too much. The idea is ridiculous. The difference between a fish farm and a granny farm is one of them is under water. Southern Cross and other ‘caring’ companies threaten bankruptcy unless local authorities give them more money.

Assets such as the buildings in which old folk have been corralled have been separated on the balance sheet from the cost of caring (price) of caring for residents. The problem of liquidity fits into a larger narrative of Freidrich Hayek, the title whose book The Road to Serfdom could be rewritten and neatly quipped as the slippery slope towards totalitarianism any government intervention entails.  Milton Friedman and the problem of demand is one of supply. If money is cheap enough demand for it will grow and problems such as unemployment will disappear, but only if the government doesn’t interfere. Chile’s Pinochet was an admirer. After the fall of the Berlin Wall advisers from the Chicago School helped to create a new Russia from the old Soviet Union modelled on Friedman’s principles.

The new kids of the block of the early eighties Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan had won the Cold War and already set out their stall to roll back the state. Simple equation government = bad (totalitarianism). Free market = good (liberalism). The hidden hand, I want for Christmas, had never had it so good.

Why fling good money after bad on a defective product?

But it doesn’t begin and end there. We’re all familiar with the idea of bureaucracy = power. And bureaucracies become bloated and create their own reason for being. Think local government. Think any government. Companies listed on the stock exchange. They are not off the raider. They too are bureaucracies

Predatory lending. Is there any other kind? What does non-predatory lending look like? It looks like James Stewart, a man you could trust. You may remember James Stewart playing someone that was not James Stewart, George Bailey, who looked confusingly, for us old timers, very much like a young Henry Fonda, in a feel-good film, shown every Christmas about the value of non-predatory lending. It wasn’t called The Value of Non-Predatory Lending, but the more striking It’s A Wonderful Life.

It’s a simple equation: Non-predatory lending = It’s A Wonderful Life. ‘Every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings’. Clarence Oddbody, that’s a good name for an angel. The run on Bailey Building and Loan would be something familiar to those over thirty watching this film on telly every Christmas, those living in small-town America of the hungry thirties, or the citizens of modern-day Greece. ‘I’ll stroll, you fly,’ was George’s advice to Clarence, but Oddbody’s however quick he or they travel can’t save Bedford Falls. George appeals to reason, those paying in and having a stake in the Building and Loan were bankrupting themselves. They weren’t just borrowers but lenders. That Tom’s money was tied up in Ed’s house and Ed’s money tied up in Mrs Davis house and when they hadn’t worked for a while George didn’t chase them for repayment. He knew they’d come good. George was just asking for the same consideration for the Building and Loan. He wasn’t asking how much they wanted, but how much they needed to get by. They were shaking the same tree.

George, of course, has hard cash to back up his rhetoric, a thousand dollar bills set aside. He runs a thrift and he’s thrifty. ‘How much do you need Tom?’ George asks the first customer, pushing to the front of the line. ‘$242,’ Tom demands, ‘and that’ll close my account’.

‘Have you no romance in you?’ asks George. The thousand dollars is, of course, money he’s set aside to travel with and for his honeymoon.

‘Yes, I had some, but I soon got rid of it,’ answer Tom.

Tom has made a rational choice and not a romantic choice. Ed, next in line asks for $20. Mrs Davis asks if it’s ok if she gets $17.50. George kisses her on the cheek. State regulations means that the doors of the Building and Loan need to stay open until 6pm. George and Uncle Billy kick out and have a party as they carry two crumpled dollar bills and deposit them in the vault. They have made it through the day without Old Man Potter closing them down.

Henry F Potter is a twisted crocodile. In the opening scenes he rides in a carriage and one kid asks another ‘who’s that? Is he a king?’ He is of course. But a king without subjects. Peter Bailey (senior), at the dinner table, explains to his son George why they should feel sorry for Old Man Potter. Henry F Potter has no future. He is unmarried. No children. ‘What’s he going to do with all that money?’ The message is he’ll get his comeuppance.  Later in the film, when Clarence grants George’s wish not to be born Bedford Falls becomes Pottersville. There’s bars on every corner, where people go to get seriously drunk and half-dressed girls spilling out of every club. Full employment and housing to rent. Pottersville sounds like my kind of town.

Old Man Potter is sick and he wants to infect George and the town with his values. He’s tried everything and now he tries buying George. He offers him a salary of $20 000 a year to manage his affairs. George admits the offer is tempting. Cost-benefit analysis. Money’s tight. He’s got four kids now. Around $40 a month.  An old barn of a house.  Old Man Potter offers George a thick Cuban cigar, time to think about it, reminds him that’s starting salary and if he plays along he could make more. The answers, ‘No’. The answers always no. ‘You spin your little webs,’ George tells Potter.

The problem that Bailey Building and Loan faced was they had the wrong kind of money tied up in buildings and loans. Think of poor Southern Cross and other care companies with properties full of poor people, which they could monetise and sell separately from their services. They had no way of knowing who was going to pay, when they were going to pay and if the Bailey Building and Loan would be there for them to pay into. Modern economists make short shrift of that thrift. Thrift is shorthand for the thousands of Savings and Loan companies spread out throughout the United States and loosely bound by US government support for home ownership,  the biggest franchises being Government National Mortgage Association (Ginnie Mae) owned and run by the US government; the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae), around 1 in 10 US mortgages at a very conservative estimate of $100 million mortgages on its books and is backed by the US government; Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporations (Freddie Mac) was a corporation created by Savings and Loan companies were backed indirectly by the US government. These organisation had like the Bailey Building and Loan, which George bailed out with a handy $1000, a problem of liquidity.

Everything is a problem of liquidity if you look at it properly. Let’s get back to George Osborne’s speech to the Conservative Party conference, October 2013, and his claim to have a seven-year plan to achieve an absolute budget surplus before 2020.

How to define it as a problem of ‘idleness’.

Here it is wrapped in the Stars and Stripes with mum’s apple pie: ‘We had the oldest secret in the world, “hard work”’. This from a man endorsed by fellow Texans George W Bush, his father George H W Bush and further afield Bill Clinton. These Presidents of the United States whom Lance Armstrong on speed-dial helped quash an FBI investigation into the activities of the seven times Tour de France winner. Let’s put a figure on Lance Armstrong, career earnings of somewhere between $70 and $100 million. That sounds a lot to me and you (who can forget Margaret Thatcher going to the European Union and crowing that she’d saved Britain a million pounds a year) but Armstrong’s career earnings were the kind of loose change ‘geek’ bond traders such as Michael Lewis of Salomon Brothers could lose without burning anybody important. Perhaps I should put in here that David Cameron was a stockbroker as was his father before him… Lewis tells us that Salomon Brothers the directors boasted that they had the equivalent of $80 billion worth of securities in portfolios every night. Multiply that by 365 and you’ll get an estimate of their annual income. Bigger than the combined profits of all other Wall Street operations. Bigger than the Netherlands GDP. Salomon Brothers, of course, later went to the wall. Financial institutions are the auteurs rewriting the economic script of what is meant be profit and loss, success and failure as they went along. In the years 1977-1986 when Salomon Brothers had almost a monopoly on new bonds they had helped create in regard to housing the trading floor jumped from millions to billions to $2.7 trillion, with ‘mortgages so cheap your teeth hurt’. That was the ‘gospel’ of the rich. What Lance Armstrong was selling was a message rich people wanted others to hear. Compare Armstrong’s message with, for example, the message Aaron Schwartz was selling, and the outcome of the subsequent FBI Investigation into Schwartz’s activities.

Mao’s Little Red Book? Simple. A problem of liquidity. We’ve been giving rich folk billions of pounds every day to help poor folk. We can’t keep doing that (see Pickwick).  We’ve being building nuclear reactors since the end of the 1950s, but we’ve asked the Chinese Government to send experts to build one at Hinkley Point. This creates in the region of 25 000 jobs. With or without the Chinese, or any other nationality this creates around the same number of jobs. Crucially, though, the Chinese have agreed to finance it. In the short-term they transfer a few digits from their machine’s finance model, we add it to ours. We agree to the costs of any mishaps and the hundreds of thousands of years it takes to get rid of spent fuel rods. We subsidise the Chinese economy by moving money from the poor in this country to the rich in the Chinese economy. I suppose it makes a little change from subsidising the rich in this country. Win-win. Apart from the far more worrying Balance of Trade deficit. But that’s another story. I’m sure when that nice Mr Osborne will deal with it when he’s Prime Minster in five years’ time. Merry Christmas, Boris Johnson. Now there’s an angel for you. He doesn’t look like Clarence Oddbody for nothing. He winging it for now, but we’ll see how he turns out.