whose party is it in 2018 anyway, Willow?

baby kerr.jpg

To my niece Willow, I was born on the 10th December 1962. Fifty-five years ago not only was my mum Jean alive, but she had given birth and was nursing me back to health somewhere in darkest Braeholm. I wasn’t expected to live. I don’t remember the reasons why.  Yeh, we showed them mum. What we showed them I’m not really sure. I’m nearer death than birth now. Life is the miracle. And I’m not likely to forget you birthday, Willow. It’s also the 10th December.  And as the Bible, book of Timothy, suggests ‘We brought nothing into the world and we can take nothing out of it’.

So baby Willow, I’m 55 years older than you, let’s play a game in which you sit wherever you are in 55 years’ time and look back and tell me what the world looks like. I don’t remember any of this but we had the Cuban Missile Crisis and later the assassination of the President John F Kennedy. I’m hoping you don’t remember President Donald J Trump. Shakespeare knew his villains intimately. He portrayed Richard of Gloucester  as ‘the bottled spider’, vainglorious, treacherous, ruthless murderer and usurper, but nobody’s fool. President Donald J Trump is everybody’s fool. His claim to fame is dropping ‘the mother of all bombs’ in Afghanistan and taking money from poor people and giving it to the rich. I’m not sure why bombs are called mothers. But I hope Willow you see your fifth birthday. Like me, I hope you sleep securely through threats of Armageddon and nuclear winter and the world keeps turning.

Prospero and Brave New World and the closer we get to utopia the closer we get to dystopia is something you’re going to have to live with Willow.  George Orwell, I guess got it nearly right with his three shifting blocs. The axis of the world is shifting and I’d guess China is where America was before the start of the First World War. Perhaps there will be a transition, such as Fritz Laing’s Metropolis, but the future is one in which we are equal but some are more equal than others. Deep machine learning and the use of pattern recognition software will serve your needs before you know what they are. Your body will no longer be your own. Behaviour will be monitored.  Healthy and wealthy will be conflated into flawless new bodies and flawless new babies in smart cities.

‘Hoist with his own petard.’ I’m of average intelligence and can guess what that means. I google it and see it’s from Hamlet.  But intelligence will no longer have any meaning. Machine learning how to play the game ‘Go’ shows it is possible to beat intuition as it is possible to surpass the logic of the best human chess players. Machines will be connected to other machines and humans will be part of that loop. Just as the Wright brothers took off in their flimsy craft, flew and crashed it was possible to predict air flight, quantum machines no longer need to play humans to master the precepts of ‘Go’. Machines play themselves and work out first principles. When, and if, deep learning machines master the problem of consciousness then humans need no longer be in the loop. That’s a different kind of Armageddon.

Willow, what we do know for sure is machines will do most, if not all, of the work we take for granted. How many angels fit on a pinhead? How many doctorates can fit on a subatomic particle? Masters of pattern recognition predict the future and make it happen. Energy usage will be the only transferable currency. All that green crap, waves, wind, water and sun will be the stopgap until the machines figure out something better. Nature will be a treasure trove of a different kind. Picked apart for its lessons and reconstructed. The sea will be harvested as the earth has been.

‘Gentleman, it’s your duty to make yourself rich!’ says one of Anthony Trollope’s characters in The Way We Live Now. It’s your duty to make everyone else poor. Make the world warmer and vast tracts of land uninhabitable. That’s not what Trollope said, but we’ve had our Silent Spring moment with Trump’s refusal to sign the Paris Accord and Global Warming Agreement on fossil fuels. No one can make the super rich do what they want to do. Monopoly holders of data work by their own rules.

But the problem of making everyone else poor, with no work and no surplus value, as they’d say in Marxist ideology is when everyone’s poor and wealth accumulates with the super rich as Thomas Picketty showed in his constant rate of return in his model of Capitalism is stagnation. Not enough money to buy all these surplus goods. But, of course, there’ll be no money. Not as a store of value, but as a shifting energy equation, this will be related to land use and global warming. The problem will be how to find new ways of punishing the poor for being poor.

What is materially damaging to the rich will in an Orwellian way be regarded as an attack on equality of accord.  But I lack the scrivener’s art, the means to look into the future Willow. When I was growing up in the 1970s I never imagined the internet, but neither did I imagine Britain regressing to a state where the poor need to go to a church hall to get food to last them a few days, nor that so many children would be living in sub-standard housing and poverty. Four in ten children. I expected things to get better and I hope you’re not one of them. Outside this shiny vision of the end of scarcity is a dystopian vision. When poverty because a digital country and not an economic and social relationship then that’s where we’ll all live and only the rich will float above it.  We come into the world with nothing. We go out of the world with nothing, Willow it is compassion which makes us fully human. Live in the here and now and not in a simulation of now. That’s a different kind of Armageddon. The church my mum brought me up in called it limbo. It was a sin to be truely selfish.  Put yourself out on a limb, Willow. Dare to be you and not a slice of identifiable code.

 

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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.

Jill Bialosky (2015 [2012]) History Of A Suicide my sister’s unfinished life.

history of a suicide

This book left me cold. I read an extract of the story of these sisters in The Observer a while back, one living and the other dead. I was intrigued.  I know what I’m supposed to feel. What I’m supposed to say. But it feels a bit like someone leaning over the garden fence and saying yada, yada, yada and I’m saying yeh, yeh, yeh. That’s true. You’re right. I wish I’d thought of that.

In the first act of J.B.Priestley’s An Inspector Calls stasis is undermined in this interchange:

GERALD [laughs]: You seem to be a nice well-behaved family –

BIRLING: We think we are –

In sum, we have the Anna Karenina principle. All happy families are alike. All unhappy families are unhappy in their own way. In ‘Opening Words’, each chapter is Bialosky’s book are bite sized, she draws her family in Cleveland in 1970 for the reader. Kim, who commits suicide is the youngest. Laura, Cindy and the author Jill are more than a decade older than their sister. Their father, a Jewish immigrant died when they were infants and their mother re-married an Irish Catholic. Kim father didn’t last. He’s the villain of the piece who left them in relative poverty, and also left their mother for another woman. Kim was lost baggage, left behind, but with her mother and three surrogate mothers in her elder sisters. She lacked a father figure to nurture her. It belittled her. Set her back in  ways that didn’t affect her sisters. I’m not sure why.  That’s one of the arguments the book makes. Jill finds confirmation in Dr Sheidman prognosis, an amateur Herman Melville fan and eminent sucidiologist who quotes Moby Dick to her:

There is no unretracing progress in this life…we do not advance through fixed gradations. But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally.

As the Inspector says:

what happened to her then may have determined what happened to her afterwards, and what happened to her afterwards may have driven her to suicide. A chain of events.

I don’t have a problem with eternal ifs. Temporality, is always dateable. Jonathan Lear, in Radical Hope, quotes Heidegger – a time when. A time when Kim made her last phone call to her sister Jill. A time when Jill lost her baby in the first trimester. A time when Jill lost her second baby, snatched away from life. A time when Kim, with her mum sleeping upstairs,  shuts the garage door and starts the car engine. A time when the boy that’s being paid twenty dollars to cut the grass hears the car engine idling and opens the garage door to carbon monoxide. A time when two police officers stand at the foot of her mother’s bed and tell her there’s no hope. Her youngest daughter is dead.

I don’t have a problem with no hope and its causal link to suicide or even references to Sylvia Plath, Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, William Styron and Darkness Visible. It seems rather obvious. Those without hope seek a way out. Life gets in the way. But what I found myself doing was saying no.

Jill, for example, says, ‘I should have told her that I once loved a boy, too.’ She has an annoying habit of making statements like that and interjecting drama with the added clause, ‘too’. That would have saved her Inspector?

In ‘Last Dance’ as author she constructs a narrative. ‘In my mind’s eye…Kim…Dabbed her eyes with musk. Wore her favourite jeans and a sexy black top, convinced she would see Alan’.

Alan was Kim’s on-off boyfriend. He also killed himself. It’s part of the narrative, his death and her death. Romeo and Juliet. But I don’t buy it. It’s too pat. Life’s too messy.

‘But he wasn’t there. Not him. Not anyone. Longing consumed her.’ I find that very Mills and Boons.

‘Maybe someone leaned over the bar to talk to her.’ Maybe they didn’t, I interject.

‘Hey, you look cute. Wanna do a line in the bathroom?’

If an Inspector called how many suspects would he find with such bland conjecture? For every ‘maybe’ or ‘possibly’ I overwrite with maybe not. When history become a made-up story then is it history? Or something else? I’m unconvinced. Life is for the living. Perhaps that is the lesson of the Jewish Shiva mourning period. Perhaps that is the lesson of religion. I’m not sure. I’m never sure. Not in the grief-stricken way that Jill Bialosky is. I’m not sure. Not sure.

http://unbound.co.uk/books/lily-poole

What do nineteenth-century French novels teach us now?

mcd

http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/nov/30/class-war-is-back-again

Think of the number of times you’ve said: I just can’t do that! Really, I can’t. You’d expect a Noel Edmonds-like figure to pop up on your shoulder, although perhaps not with a gingery beard, to tell you off for being negative. Give some advice about having the right mindset and some superbabble about if you want something enough the universe will provide it. I love that kinda crap. In the nineteen-century novel such dreams are anchored in reality. It’s all about the money.

Let’s do a thought experiment. Set you back straight against the chair take deep breathes. I want you to imagine you work in McDonald’s. Open yourself to the universe. You’re a male worker. You’ve been working for the same company for three years. You work over fifty hours every week. Even when you were sick you never phone in for a sick day. You’re positive about that.  Imagine what the CEO of your company makes. Shorten the gap in your mind so it doesn’t take you 864 years on the wage you now receive to what he makes in a year. Lighten up. You’re obviously doing something wrong. The universe hates you.

The universe hates everyone equally. You’ve got to laugh at some of those nineteenth-century nostrums and notions.  Look at the way Pere Goriot is cured enough to die properly. The universe doesn’t care.  Tisane. If it tastes of bitter herbs and is awful it must be good for you.  Mustard poultice from neck to spine. Bloodletting. Leeches. Moxas. I admit I didn’t know what moxas was. It’s rolls of cotton set on fire and applied to the skin, a jump up from mustard baths. Pere Goriot dies penniless grateful that his two daughters have finally visited him, but he is delusional. He clasps instead the heads of the two penniless students that stay in the same boarding house and have helped ‘treat’ him. He is buried in a pauper’s grave.  The service costs 70 francs, but it is not a Mass, that is too expensive, but Vespers. One of the students Eugene de Rastignac pawns his watch to pay for the old man’s burial, but has to borrow five francs from a servant that works in the boarding house they live in to give to the grave diggers. Lesson learned, even having God and the universe on your side costs a minimum of 75 francs. But that was then. Now it’s Noel Edmond prices.

Honore de Balzac precisely quantifies in terms of the food the lodgers ate, drink, furniture, clothes and past-times of the poor and idle rich in monetary terms. An old man dying in poverty alone in a foul-smelling garret room is only part of the story. He also shows that the rich were rich not because of innate superiority but because after a certain threshold of wealth only a true imbecile could not remain wealthy and watch their wealth grow and multiply—much as it does today.

Balzac does this through the cynical Vautrin who lodges in the ‘Family Boarding House’ run by Madame Vauquer who has seven guests who stay in the house with her and another 18 who paid 30 francs a month for dinner in a dining room that can hold 20. Pere Goriot pays 45 francs a month, for board and lodgings, as does the law student Rastignac. Vautrin who pays 72 francs a month but has special privileges that allow him to come and go as he please is an interesting character. He is amoral in the way that  Jean Valjean in Les Misérables cannot afford to be and flits in and out of upper-class and lower-society in a way that Edmond Dantès, Le Comte de Monte-Cristo cannot, and he is more homosexually inclined than many of Shakespeare’s best love sonnets, but with no softness.  The best apartment is occupied by the widow Madame Couture and her young charge Victorine Taillefer who pay 1800 francs a month. Looking at these figures it’s easy to see who is whom. The rooms at the top, occupied by the hired help, is the working class at the bottom.

Gustave Flaubert’s, A Simple Heart, is set around the same period 1809 (give or take ten years). Here Madame Auburn has married a ‘comely youth’ who just as promptly dies, leaving her with two young children, debts and an annual income ‘which barely amounted to 5000 francs’. Rastignac’s family income in Pere Goriot, for comparison is around 4000 francs, which leaves after paying his digs,  130 francs a quarter for education and personal needs. His father mother, brother, sisters and aunt make do with  200 francs a month. His two sisters are unmarried for whom a marriage dowry must also be found.

Madame Bovary begins with a dowry. Charles Bovary’s father, retired assistant-surgeon major, ‘compromised’ in 1812, about some conscription scandal, marries a hosier’s daughter with a dowry of 60 000 francs. For 200 francs a year he shuts himself, his wife and son in a kind of half house, half farm.

Goriot’s daughters of a vermicelli maker are, in comparison, each given a dowry of 800 000 francs by their father so they can make a proper match. Goriot rises from his death bed and sells all he owns to pay off a 1000 franc debt owed to a dressmaker by his daughter La comtesse Anastasie de Restaud who needs it paid immediately, her credit is not good, so she can be seen at a socially important ball, an occasion that demands the best – and the worst.

Jump forward fifty years into the coal mines of newly industrialised France in Emile Zola’s Germinal. Money still does all the talking. Maheu is a model worker, widely respected in the Montsou colliery. He works for the Company and mines coal at a rate set by the them. He is paid three francs a week for price work and employs Zacharie his twenty-one year old son, who is also paid three francs (but he has a partner who lives next door and they are parents to two children). Catherine who is fifteen, when the story begins, works as a putter, pushing the underground trolleys full of coal along a line, much like a pit pony, only cheaper and more adaptible, is paid two francs.  Maheu’s father, Bonnemort (named after the good death that has chased him all his working life) is an old man, who works above ground as a banksman. He’s fifty-eight and near retirement age, but the reader understand spitting up an ink-like soot and with dropsy and rheumatics he’ll never retire. Jenlin aged eleven makes one franc. The pit boss, Hennbeau has a frigid relationship, but loves his wife despite being continually cuckolded by her. Hennebeau, on a salary thousands of times greater than his lowly workers. Here it’s easy to look at his and make comparisons with McDonald’s worker and the CEO of his company. But Zola takes the analysis further. The Gregoires have a share in the Company. It was once worth one million francs but the share price has fallen to around 600 000 francs, less than the dowry Pere Goriot offers for his daughters. Gregoire is almost the same age as Bonnemort, but the former is content for those scuttling below ground for him and his family. It takes 10 000 Bonnemorts working together below ground to make one Gregoire.

All money flows to Paris. Vautrin’s education of Rastignac (4000 francs a year) is increasingly relevant.  ‘Love and church,’ declares Vautrin, ‘demand fine cloth on the altar’. He breaks this down for the reader. A young man needs at least three horses and a tilbury for the day, and a brougham for the evening. 9000 francs for your carriages. 3000 francs for your tailor. 600 for the perfumer.  300 for hats. Laundry 1000 francs. Gambling/walking-about-money 2000 francs, basic necessities 6000 francs. Not be the laughing stock requires 20 000 francs a year. When Rastignac visits on foot his distant cousin La vicomtesse de Beauséant her lover’s carriage and horse is estimated to be worth over 30 000 francs.

Vautrin contrasts this with the salary the young student can expect to make when he qualifies from his studies. By the age of 30, possibly a judge, with an annual salary 1200 francs. If he finds a political patron a royal prosecutor 5000 francs, if he does a little dirty work for his political masters prosecutor general by the time he is 50, but with 20 000 applicants for such a position his chances of getting it are slim. And in the meantime he must spend 1000 francs a month to have any chance of getting the lowest office. His answer is to marry one of the potentially richest woman in Paris with a dowry of over 1 000 000 francs, which offers an annual income of over 50 000 francs. The rule of patrimony applies. Mademoiselle Victorine who shares a boarding house with them has a brother who shall inherit, but for a man like Vautrin that is a quibble that can easily be erased – for a small cut.  It does come as a surprise when Noel Edmonds appears on Rastignac’s shoulder.

At today values, it would come to around 100 000 000 euros (over £125 million) which would be something of an underestimate, but it’s still not enough, he would probably want McDonald’s tomato sauce and chips with that. Dream on for that pay rise. Dream on equality.  McDonald’s workers unite. The nineteenth-century novel teaches us twentieth-first century readers. Voila! plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

http://unbound.co.uk/books/lily-poole