“It remains to be seen how the Eurozone crisis will affect the long term health of citizens in the PIGS, who’ve typically been held up as doyennes of health, with their much vaunted heart-healthy Mediterranean cuisine. But if the Argentinian financial crisis and resulting heart attack rates, and now the spike in cardiac arrests in Kalamata are anything to go by, using the European south as a guinea pig for austerity is fatal, as well as economically illiterate.”
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.
Summer’s finally arrived, we’ve been less promised more ordered to have street parties this year. The shops and high street windows are festooned with bunting. The high street shops that is, that are still open. So UKUncut decided to have a little street party of their own. Where better to do so than outside Nick Clegg’s house? So they pitched up with picnics, bunting and blankets. They knocked on neighbours doors to explain what they were doing and why. The neighbours we’re perfectly friendly and understandable: some found it hilarious. Then they sat down and engaged in a “Great British Street Party” in protest at the cuts Clegg has been implementing.
Because UK Uncut is about “bringing to the doorstep” the face of the cuts. When Clegg is sat in Parliament jeering at an opposition bench alongside Cameron, he doesn’t ever have to really consider the day to day life of the disabled kids and vulnerable adults lives he’s cutting. If someone asks him a “difficult question” on Marr he can pull a face that is designed to look like “human empathy” but is in fact closer to “drawn out constipation” then blame either Labour or the Greeks, whichever we’re riffing on this week.
Then, as the Uncutters were doling out potato salad, Westminster’s Ayn Rand tribute act logged onto Twitter. Rather than seeing it as an amusing protest on a summers day, and a five minute diversion should Miriam decide to pop to the Co-op for some pasta, she started mashing the keyboard. Ah! A situation! An opportunity for a vox-pop! What shall my position be? She stopped short of calling them DAMN REDS AND COMMIEZ but did call on her followers to donate to the Lib Dems to redress this heinous wrong. At this point, Tim Montgomerie pointed out telling people to donate to your political opponents might not be the wisest move.
Twitter was alive with people squawking “Oh no, what if his children see!” See what? A street party? Well christ alive they’ll be fucking terrified next weekend. The entire country will be off limits. Or that a lot of people are very, very displeased with their father? Well, that’s a fact of life. And when you’re trying to teach children why we don’t lie, perhaps the consequences of your lies being on your doorstep isn’t a bad lesson. There was talk of banning peaceful protest from outside politician’ houses. We already have to apply for a permit to protest outside outside the seat of democracy, and if the expenses scandal taught us anything, it’s that our MPs have a glut of houses. Ironic really, considering young people like me will never be able to afford one.
But, his children didn’t see the peaceful protest. Because they weren’t there. Possibly because they were at one of his two other houses, or the grace and favour mansion he shares with William Hague. My siblings on the other hand, have to see the effects of his austerity programme every day. What happens when you cut benefits. Just like I had to the last time the Tories got in. Luckily privilege affords you the luxury of avoiding being confronted with the every day face of your actions. Do we really think that holding a street party is an “extreme reaction” to slashing benefits to thousands of individuals and families across the country? People struggling to even survive? We know how inequality works: this isn’t a short term measure, the effects of poverty will send ripples through generations to come. I think I know where my sympathies lie.
As some light relief on election day – here’s an extract from Sonia Purnell’s excellent biography, Just Boris. The 4th June 1983 edition of the Etonian newspaper The Chronicle carried an interview with the then leader of the Greater London Council, Ken Livingstone. Ken didn’t hold back on what he thought about Eton and Etonians:
I think your school system should be integrated into the state system, because I don’t think you should have the right [through] what your parents can buy [to] a privileged start over the rest of society. I look at the people who have emerged from Eton and Harrow, Oxford and Cambridge and I think you’re a load of bloody wallies.
One student decided this couldn’t be allowed to pass unremarked. In the same issue, a 16-year old Boris Johnson responded:
I tell you this. The Civilised World can ignore, must ignore entirely these idiots who tell us that by their very existence the public schools demolish all hopes most cherished for the Comprehensive System. Clearly, this is twaddle, utter bunkum, balderdash, tommyrot, piffle and fiddlesticks of the most insidious kind. So strain every nerve, parents of Britain, to send your son to this educational establishment (forget this socialist gibberish about the destruction of the State System). Exercise your freedom of choice because in this way, you will imbue your son with the most important thing, a sense of his own importance.
Some things never really change.
This time tomorrow, failing any unfortunate accidents or natural disasters, I’ll have voted. Twice in fact: a friend’s out of town for work, so I’ll be proxy voting for her too. I’ll be voting Ken first, Jenny second. at no point have I even considered voting for Boris.
I love voting. By a happy accident, I’ve lived somewhere there’s been an election every year since I was 18 and voted in the 2005 general election. I’ve always woken early on polling day, taken my card to the school, church hall or scout hut that’s been commandeered for the day, and purposefully put my cross or numbers next to my preferred candidate. The stiff ceremony of those five minutes never dulls: knowing that the mark you make with the pencil provided is your physical mark on our democracy is uniquely pleasurable. Then there’s the slight anti-climax you feel once you’ve posted your slip into the ballot box, tempered by wondering how those walking in as you leave will vote.
I love the election campaigns too. Yes, they’re exhausting and by election day, you’ve heard every party member spout the same sound bites until they’re hoarse. But it is exciting. No more so than when you see candidates visibly rattled by their gaffes and stories the press have unearthed. That’s democratic power, right there.
It was only when I was cycling home this evening, thinking about the Chartists mural in my hometown (it’s still there, though they’re destroying it, criminally) that I paused to think that however much I hate this government, however disenfranchised I feel by the fact we elect MPs by the unrepresentative First Past the Post system, I can still vote. I’m a woman, I don’t own property and I’m working class, though have now done quite a bit of vaulting in the social mobility stakes. I can vote, when women and men in some parts of the world still can’t. So do get out and vote tomorrow. Because every time we vote, it feels like we’re moving forward.
I recently got an iPad as well as a Kindle, and now carry roughly 60 digital books around in my handbag at all times. The upshot of this is that I’ve spent far more on books in the last two months than I have in the past two years. I’m reading an awful lot more than any time since my degree. If someone recommends a book, I can start reading it the second we finish our coffee.
Now, instead of feeling guilty about not reading, I’m feeling guilty about what I’m reading. For full disclosure, my degree was in English Literature, so three full years of my life were devoted to reading fiction, the theory of fiction and the political, social and historical background of that fiction. But now, whenever I start reading a novel, I panic. I think about all the books I’m not reading. How little I know about economics. That everyone knows more about the Middle East than I do. How I might come across as less of a pillock if I read more Chomsky. I think a lot of this is to do with growing up, and realising how little I know, and identifying gaps in my knowledge. This article sums up a lot of my fears. But it still niggles. I asked Twitter, and my followers are always super-erudite. Here are some responses, storifyed.
And a few here: