There’s an excellent interview with the NYT’s Paul Krugman on the Guardian’s site at the moment, as he skirts around the UK showing Conservatives who’s boss on Newsnight, and other tricks. This section on how we’ve ended up in this economic catastrophe resonated particularly with me since reading:
If we divide the period between the second world war and 2008 into two halves, “the first half is a really dramatic improvement to living standards, and the second half is not.” It was certainly dramatic for the top 0.01%, who saw a seven-fold increase in income; in 2006, for example, the 25 highest-paid hedge fund managers in America earned $14bn, three times the combined salaries of New York City’s 80,000 school teachers. But between 1980 and the crash, the median US household income went up by only roughly 20%. “So it’s a total disconnect.”
Why would economists claim ordinary people were getting much richer if they weren’t? “The answer, I think, has to be that you need to ask: ‘Well who are the people who say these things hanging out with? What is their social circle?’ And if you’re a finance professor at the University of Chicago, the people that you’re likely to meet from the alleged real world are going to be people from Wall Street – for whom the past 30 years have, in fact, been wonderful. If you’re a mover and shaker in the UK, you’re probably hanging out with people from the City. I think that is the story of the disconnect.
And when you’re governed by that bubble, and they forget there’s a society outside that bubble, that economics and austerity immediately affects people outside that bubble, there are problems. It’s telling, that the Conservatives in the Newsnight clip view austerity as something slightly abstract, not something that has direct consequences on people’s lives. Something tells me that those in the social circles the government mix aren’t affected by austerity measures. Just a slight inkling, but perhaps they won’t know people who rely on subsistence benefits, or have had the DLA on which they rely cut, and are now destitute. I do, and I know of towns and cities that are seeing their already fragile economies take a hit as austerity bites.
It’s natural, though not necessarily healthy, to surround ourselves in our spare time with people who are similar to ourselves. Nearly all of my friends are left-wing, and university educated, though their main interests lie in various sciences, media, politics, medicine and art. Most of them are middle class, so I spend a lot of time mentally making notes of books they all remember reading (then later having panic attacks when I get waves of impostor syndrome and wonder if I’ve been let into my social circle on a widening participation scheme just like in university oh god oh god oh god). It’s probably not a problem David Cameron faces at dinner parties. But they’re not all middle class. There are varying degrees of poverty and wealth in our backgrounds, from my bottom-of-the-rung Shameless-style upbringing, to a friend who went to private school. Most of us went to “comp”. Some went to grammar school.
But when the similarity that exists in your friendship circle then spills over into the workplace, it becomes unhealthy. A friend is a nurse, so spends all day speaking to all sections of society. One’s a solicitor and deals with legal aid cases. Another spends all day interviewing people from around the country for different stories. I might work for a left-leaning paper, but all day, I read articles we carry that I disagree with. Some furiously. There is variety. But if there wasn’t? If you spent all day dealing with privileged people who reinforced your beliefs? Then came home and drank wine with people who did the same? Many of whom you’ve been to school with?
I worry then we’ll be in a position where the government make decisions that affect not lives of people because they are people, but their idea of people. And the idea of people requires a bit less empathy. Especially when the idea of people is constructed mostly from reports, files and briefing notes. And when a lot of the problems are caused by wealth inequality, and the very people who’ve benefitted from wealth inequality surround you every day, we’ll see more energy expended defending those people than lifting people out of poverty. Oh, but these people didn’t choose to be educated at Eton as children. No, nor did other children choose to be born into poverty, yet somehow this government sees fit to scapegoat them for all manner of social ills. Unemployed? You’re probably lazy. Nothing to do with the austerity drive. It’s hard to see a more fitting metaphor for this government than some unemployed people, forced to sleep under London Bridge, then work for free in the pouring rain as Brits waved at an extremely wealthy woman in a display of highly policed, organised nationalism. You’d think it’s indefensible that people should be made to work for 14 hours, unpaid, in the freezing rain, made to change their clothes in public, then steward in front of a bastion of wealth. But they will try.