Thursday 10 August 2017

Bring back national service

bring back national service
If you’re British, you would have to speak to your grandfather to have any chance of learning anything about National Service. The last healthy young men received their call-up papers in 1960. National Service was introduced in many countries after the wars as a legacy of conscription. It was a simple solution to keeping the borders safe and protecting the democracy of the nation. The bonus was that it also instilled discipline and obedience into many who, as impressionable young men, had been through the military process. Another bonus is that many who served together developed the bonds and camaraderie only possible with people who have had a difficult and defining experience together. Some European nations still have a mandatory period of national service although its number has reduced significantly. Greece, for example, still has 9 months, reduced from 2 years over the last fifteen years. However, the only threats to Greece’s democracy has come from within, civil wars and a coup d’etat. The biggest threat to most western nations’ democracy comes from ignorance and complacency, again from within. Now, it strikes me that National Service should be reintroduced but this time not military but governmental.

In my previous article ARE YOU QUALIFIED FOR DEMOCRACY I discussed the idea that the nation gets the government it deserves. However, we cannot hope to get any better without informed decision and democratic engagement. This cannot happen unless the government invests in the people. Many would, quite rightly, argue that this would not serve the agenda of the political classes and that the persistent dumbing-down to a point where people vote more fervently for x-factor than the nation’s government is part of the plan. I think that in order for any country to be truly democratic, the people need to have some idea about the choices they are making and the effects that they have. Just having the right to put your cross on a ballot does not constitute democracy. To that end, I think that the secondary school curriculum should include a government and politics course and all 18-22 year-olds (I feel the 15-17 year old age group of the ‘National Citizen Service’ scheme would is too young and could have the opposite effect if mandatory) should do a period of no less than 6 months in the service of the country taking roles in local and national government as well as political parties. I am not talking about community service, I do not suggest that the nation’s young be put to work in parks and maintenance departments (something that has been suggested before with great support), what I suggest is putting them into the places (in something like an intern role) where budgets are balanced, decisions made, policies pondered. This would give everyone an insight into how the country is run and motivate the young to take more interest in why it doesn't run as well as it could do.

Party politics
Now, who wouldn’t want to spend 6 months hanging out with Jacob Rees-Mogg, taking notes for Boris Johnson, mucking in with Jeremy Corbyn or working with any up-and-coming candidate or back-bencher. Maybe not, but working with political parties in fund raising, campaigning and administration would help conscripts to understand how the system works, its machinations and manoeuvres. They may choose which party they wish to work with. I think the parties would vie to be chosen as it would be an opportunity to convert young voters, also if any party tried to avoid taking conscripts, they would be seen in a very bad light by the electorate. It may be a good idea to get a balance of working with different ends of the political spectrum in order to obtain a more balanced impression but this may prove complicated. That said, the overall effect across the nation should provide this balance. Of course, working with the parties may strengthen the affiliations of some who had a tendency to their beliefs to begin with, while seeing behind the curtain may cause others to change their opinions. I also believe that having a steady stream of civilians going through the offices would cause them to change their ways. In a way it would be like Big Brother in reverse, the people would be watching, and no doubt tweeting, about the things they saw. This would keep them on their toes, maybe even keep them in touch with the people they are supposed to serve.
Some may become so disillusioned by the state of party politics that they begin to set up their own. Lets face it, some of the parties are so focused on their own survival and internal bickering that they really do deserve to be allowed to be put out of our misery. If it cannot be fixed or is so resistant to change, they should be just allowed to die.

National government
Whitehall may not be able to accommodate many conscripts but spending time in the house of commons and its backrooms would definitely show the young how the country is run. Of course, it would be a pain in the arse for many MPs and civil servants but they have chosen to serve the country and serve they should. Having daily contact with real people may help to keep them grounded to the issues they have sworn and campaigned and been elected to do. Putting TV cameras in parliament was supposed to reign in the carnival of government and it did to a certain extent, I’m sure having voters in their midst would keep them on track. Of course, let’s not be naive, politics and government is not as simple as having a good idea, a compelling argument and a just cause. There are thousands of those and only limited resources. Conscripts will learn negotiation and compromise, skills that would benefit them in all careers and benefit many industries, just imagine having a huge pool of experienced, talented political negotiators to call on during issues within the EU, maybe Brexit would never have been necessary.

Local government
From local MP through town councillors to the people on the front line, seeing how their town is run would give the conscripts an insight into the difficulties of the community. It is easy to throw stones at the council for not patching roads, fixing fences or maintaining schools that the pupils work so hard to destroy but compromises need to be made, even with best of intentions of the best of public servants. Solutions may be offered that have not yet been explored. And, maybe, just maybe more young would learn that working together for what they would like (a better place to live) is better than destructive protest. I’m sure that a more proactive input from the young could solve many of the problems communities face everyday.

Now, of course there will be some huge problems to overcome. First and foremost is the little fact that the UK has over four million people between the ages of 18 and 22, most countries would have similar proportions of the population to deal with. Places would need to be found to occupy the conscripts. We could not have them running around in the House of commons tagging the walls of Westminster but each conscript would serve maybe six months so once the initiative got rolling it would be around four-hundred thousand for each session, eight-hundred thousand per twelve months, considerably less than the number of unemployed. Another issue would be getting appropriate people into the right departments, not everyone is suited to academic administration while others lack the practicality to assist in other departments. I am not talking IQ or schooling but some kind of assessment would be necessary, that said I think most would be surprised at how capable many kids who the school system has written off could be. Now the BIG one, cost. This would be a new financial burden on the national economy and no doubt costly but it seems to me that so much money is spent on patching up problems caused by the breakdown in communities, so much money wasted dealing with the ramifications of a despondent society that this would be a proactive investment, hopefully stopping some problems before they become problems.

This is an embryonic idea, an idealistic proposal and not to be taken as a blue print but what I do know for certain is that something needs to be done. Not more patching up, not more dumbing down. A nation’s most valuable resource is its people and none more valuable than its young. Governments are elected by little more than half of the electorate in most countries and of those who do vote the majority are 40plus and their choices driven by unreliable media campaigns (also discussed in ARE YOU QUALIFIED FOR DEMOCRACY). In the Brexit referendum, which attracted a significantly larger turnout than general elections, constituencies with proportionally larger young populations faired the worst, with Oxford and Cambridge notable exceptions (draw your own conclusions there). We could just make voting mandatory but that would not address the matter of engagement, people would vote ‘whatever’ or spoil their ballot. This is not democracy.

A YouTube video I watched recently said, “Harley Davidson, as American as low voter turnout…” funny until you see what those who did turnout chose and what the only viable opposition was. Time for change, I feel, before it is way too late!

… I await your comments below

Wednesday 9 August 2017

Satirists Protest Politicians' comedic genius

No Joke
London’s police were overwhelmed yesterday by the biggest demonstration the capital has seen in decades as the NUSSaGPT (National Union of satirists, spoofers and General Piss Takers) protested against their loss of livelihood in the present political climate for what a spokesman said “It is high time politicians went back to their jobs and left the comedy to us!”
Charlie Brooker who had flown in especially for the march from silicon valley, home of Netflix, addressed a rally in Trafalgar square. He smugly reminded the crowd, on three separate occasions, that he had preempted Prime Minister David Cameron’s ‘Cock in pig’ episode but lamented that for lesser satirists “Times are lean” going on to groan that “Things have got so dire, I’ve had to go and take the piss out of Americans for a living”.
A packet of Hobnobs, yesterday
Frankie Boyle and Johnny Vegas delivered the petition to 10 Downing street which was brusquely accepted by Prime Minister Teresa May. Fortunately, foreign secretary, Boris Johnson was on hand and popped his head out to offer tea and hobnobs. Boyle told him to fuck off but he and Vegas agreed to split the Hobnobs.
Erudite chairman, Armando Ianucci in an interview with our own roving reporter opined, “We satirists endeavour to eek out a living in a political environment so burgeoning with comedic genius like Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg that we don’t stand a chance. We all thought things would die down after Cameron but they are going from strength to strength, even Jeremy Corbyn, an eccentric chemistry teacher from Chippenham is playing the straight man. Enough is enough!” He went on to say that after ‘The thick of it’ was cancelled he too had to cross the Atlantic for work adding, “Even Stewart Lee was reduced to doing material about going to Tescos Extra for a Twix.”
Ian Hislop and Paul Merton were unavailable for comment but insiders tell us that the next ten episodes of ‘Have I Got News For You’ have been filmed already with a string of back-benchers and that German bloke who can’t speak English.
The metropolitan police chief said the demonstration went unhindered by comedic incident adding that his police dog had no nose.

Tuesday 25 July 2017

Are you qualified for Democracy

Keeping your head in politics
Every nation gets the government it deserves (Toute nation a le gouvernement qu'elle mérite), so said Joseph de Maistre after the French revolution. Plato (see, I always get him in) argued that not all of the populace are qualified to participate in democracy, in fact to include all people in democracy was degenerative. Of course, he had seen his mentor, Socrates condemned to death by a four-hundred-strong democratic court of peers. Then, Thomas Jefferson added that (When a people fear their government, there is tyranny,) when a government fears their people there is liberty. So, who had it right and what is the future of democracy, if any.
Now, as far as de Maistre is concerned, I think he got it right but we must first define a couple of words in the translation. When we talk about the nation we must assume that he meant the country as a nation, it is far too convenient to interpret this as the people. I cannot agree that the people get what they deserve unless we agree that they have free will and informed decision. Now, informed decision has never been an abundant resource in any nation. I would argue that informed decision of the masses prior to the education initiatives of the 20th century was at best limited and after Edward Bernays (Sigmund Freud’s nephew) revolutionised public relations and advertising using his uncle’s discoveries to drive people’s choices, it was completely thwarted. In order for the electorate to make informed decisions and thus elect a government they deserve, they must first objectively understand the bigger picture and secondly be able to count on the manifesto promises of the candidates, neither of which are tenable. I am not being derisive of the abilities of the people, effectively understanding the mechanisms of government and economics takes a lot of time and most are just too busy getting through their lives. Instead candidates campaign on emotive issues that people can feel rather than contemplate. This is a very general statement but if we can agree that democracy is the decision of the masses, it is also a very general decision. So, while many cast their votes based on social class affiliations (I am working class, therefore I vote left), personal gains based on the manifesto promises of the party or on an overall feeling about the character of the candidate, few are making a truly informed decision. So, the people getting what they want or deserve is a highly dubious proposition. However, as far as the nation is concerned, there is a different perspective. The nation administers education, it also regulates the democratic process, party funding, media exposure etc. So if government and politics is not taught in schools, manifesto promises are as ephemeral as marketing slogans and funding is accepted from sources with vested interests in less than democratic decisions, then it will get a pimped administration that whores itself to anyone with enough dollar to pay to ride the people of the nation. Of course, ‘deserves’ could also have positive connotations but seeing as the race to the bottom is invariably the faster and easier direction, it tends to win the day. Creating an upward spiral would necessitate investment in education, security and integrity, something that most nations don’t have the stamina for. So finally what they deserve is what they get, a self-serving bunch of politicians that bleed the nation of its resources in order to maintain their power, status and standard of living.
Be careful what you wish for...
Jefferson was bang on with the tyranny part, no people should fear their leaders. Just as children should not fear their parents, pupils their teachers or workers their bosses. When we get onto good wholesome god-fearing Christians things get decidedly muddy and unpalatable so we’ll leave that one well alone for the time being. As for the liberty part, here I must differ. Governments have the job of managing the biggest and most complex operations, nations. Like any any management team, they must often make decisions that will not be popular, many of you will know this all too well, but for the prosperity of the company and the many, some will need to put up with some results of hard decisions that were deemed to be ‘the least bad’ option. However, if the government fears the people, they will endeavour to appease them as much and often possible, often at the detriment of long-term plans and strategies. But according to Jefferson, liberty will be achieved. Bull! Liberty ends where another’s begins (a paraphrase from a quote originated by Voltaire If memory serves. Although I like another version: my right to swing my arm ends at your nose). So for each citizen there is a revision of the definition of liberty. This, however does not inhibit candidates from promising it and the electorate from demanding it, along with a number of other things such as higher wages yet lower prices and lower taxes yet better public facilities. When candidates and governments fear the people, popularism proliferates which creates demagogues and Trump. In order to have functional liberty, there must be respect from all parts and respect is tough to earn and harder to maintain. The recent wave of popularist candidates trade on, at best promising the electorate what they want and at worst distracting them on emotive polices from what they need. And while they may not fear the electorate, they do fear their disapproval. Children will prefer the adult that promises no school and ice cream for dinner everyday and the adult will revel in their popularity. Ayn Rand in her book Atlas Shrugged painted the picture of a nation that pandered to the needs of the people to the point where people realised that developing their needs was more lucrative than being productive and creative. Ms. Rand’s philosophies have a hugely devoted following among industrialists and while I personally find them a little too extreme, there is some merit to them. Especially when you consider that consecutive Greek governments have created public positions for the voting faithful to the point where it has one of the most bloated and bureaucratic civil services in the western world and is twice the OECD average in the Worldbank’s ‘ease of doing business’ ranking, where higher is more difficult. In order to curry favour with the electorate, it has scuppered the private sector’s ability to do business successfully and often legally. Governments should treat the interests of the people as priority but fear is never good counsel.
So, as for Plato, he argued that if you need a captain for a ship, you should choose someone well experienced in navigation. He gave a number of other examples but you get the idea. He said that the people in a democracy would make poorly guided, self-serving choices that would devolve into demagoguery, not dissimilar to Ms. Rand. But, what is the alternative. Businessmen have great insight into the workings of large-scale organisations but ultimately will make choices based on the needs of their business, profits and stock value. Academics have a deep understanding of the theories of government but often fail to appreciate the human condition. John Maynard Keynes, eminent economist, once tried his hand at the stock market (no-brainer, right?) but lost fortunes before realising that stock trading is not an exact science but driven by emotive decisions. So, a plutocracy and a scholarly aristocracy are as flawed as the system we have. Should we then do away with democracy all together. Entrust our nation to philosopher kings who work tirelessly for the greater good, unencumbered by petty desires and emotions. I fear that this Utopian dream is untenable and we could end up relinquishing authority to an AI system once we discover that such citizens could only be created in a lab.
The best alternative then must be to improve the existing one. To educate and inform the populace better and give them real choices. Force candidates to consider and realise their manifesto pledges better, control their funding better. Maybe even force voters to qualify to vote. This could not be achieved in a climate of fear, one way or the other. A nation is similar to a family, when the parents provide a secure, nurturing environment, the children will rest easy and get on with their job of developing into healthy well-adjusted adults. If the parents do a very good job, they will instill ambitions to improve on their own upbringing. If, on the other hand, the parents are weak and flakey, the kids will become insecure and rebel. They will become frightened, nothing scares a kid more than to look up at he people who should have everything in hand to realise that they are more clueless than them. And as I have already stated, fear is never good counsel.
Getting it right
So, how to make such improvements. In order to maintain a democracy, you need to invest in the people. Not just giving them good education and security but also encouraging them to take part in the whole democratic process. Many countries still have national military service, why could this not be adapted to national political service whereby everyone of voting age should in some way serve on local or national government for a mandatory period of time. The recent Brexit referendum in the UK illustrated the results of complacency. The young did not vote because they either did not engage with the issues or felt that as usual nothing would change for them. They were wrong. Many did not make that mistake twice and the recent general elections brought out record numbers of those who would inherit the results. This, I hope, was a turning point. If as many young voters were to make the same effort to vote for their government as they do for X-Factor we may see some change. If education was afforded the same investment as seducing high-tech companies that desperately need higher educated employees. If the health service were to get the same support as misbehaving financial institutions. If the parties were forced to concede that the electorate could no longer be bought with promises of less foreigners and lower taxes while hanging out with rock stars and comedians. This may result in a nation getting the government it deserves, finally.

Saturday 1 July 2017

Episode 47: Confession

You know me. You followed me around the country. You loved me on the TV when I had you in stitches with jokes about my penis. You followed me in the tabloids, you supported my charitable works. Then you didn't. I don't know why. You just stopped. Now, I have people who love me again. So much that they made me their mayor. This is my new story, From Under Dark Clouds.

I was alive and I had no idea how or why. The stench of death on his breath caught in my throat. Rotten undigested meat and bile. The light in my eyes prevented me seeing his face but I knew exactly what he looked like. Hate moulds all faces into the same gnarled affectation, over-chewed gum once all the taste has gone.

We had followed sometime after the set up team. Partly to get the arrival choreographed and partly because it had taken a fire extinguisher to get me off the well-assembled secretary.
Jude had gone off to Germany. America had a new president, an ex-country and western singer and she was to meet with the chancellor and her eurogroup pets. This took precedence over my antics in the arse-end of Europe.
When we arrived in the town square, I readied my face for the public. We circled the square looking for the welcome team. The secretary was sat up front so as not to distract me too much. I searched for our boys. A pick-up truck pulled out of a parking space into our path. My driver rubbed his hands together waiting to take his place. The secretary leaned round in her seat, she wore a terse smile. I spotted our banner and PA system. It was still in a pile in the middle of the square. I tapped the driver on the shoulder to circle again and call the set up team to get a move on. Shoppers shopped. Kids played. No crowds await.
The pick-up was still blocking our way. My driver raised his hands and huffed. The pick-up driver got out. A shadow fell over the car. The door burst on its hinges, the car rocked. Now, our driver was no light-weight but the hands that reached in and grabbed him were construction grade. He was excavated from his seat and replaced by a wirey man with cropped hair. The excavator wrenched my door open and planted himself next to me. I grabbed the door handle but the pick-up truck driver was there to keep it closed. The secretary screamed and the driver planted his fist into the side of her head and she fell silent. I felt impotent chivalry course my veins. We were moving out of the square. I spotted a squad car and waved frantically at the officers, the driver lifted an open palm, tipped his head and waved. My only thought was to get their attention, my only thought was bounced across the inside of my skull as the excavator replaced the thought with stars.
My hands were tied behind me but would have been useless under the circumstances. The wirey man standing over me was hewn from frustration. I was a man of comedy. Behind him stood the same piece of plant machinery that had filled my head with stars.
“Where is the girl?” I demanded.
They laughed. The excavator glanced at a door to my right.
I warned them not to harm her. I made a show of shaking free from the ropes. I amused them. A man of comedy.
The excavator pumped a laugh, “Like the Chinaman.”
I was alive, maybe the secretary was too. Maybe not. I was too high profile to kill or they were biding their time.
“Listen guys, what do you want me for?” This wasn't the first time I had faced bullies. It was them I had to thank for my career in comedy. “Let me introduce you to some people in London. They’re always looking for talented guys like yourselves. New suits, nice cars, toothbrushes, deodorant!” I didn't get to the pretty girls before they gave me a round of applause around my head.
I came to with the slamming of the front door. Wirey and Excavator stood to attention. The voice behind me was the reason I was still alive. Last time our paths had crossed he was pummelling my face on live TV. Ares was standing behind me. He smelt a lot better than the two before me but I could feel his fury like static electricity. He spoke with the smile of the victor. I hoped he was smug enough to Bond-villain his plans for me before the good guys broke down the door and whipped their arses.
“We've got a girl in the next room who’s full of your DNA.” He was smug enough.
I could feel my phone in my pocket. “MIKE!” The device pinged a response.
“You didn't get his phone?” They looked at each other. “Get the fucking phone!”
“Ares, they did a hopeless job of kidnapping me. I wouldn't stand for it if I were you!” my neck crunched as the blow from behind connected. The boys dove for my crotch.
“Destroy it!”
Wirey looked at the screen. “Just a facebook notification, boss.”
“Destroy it!”
“It’s an iPhone 7 plus, boss. 800 euros!”
I didn't hear another word but Excavator pushed Wirey, plucking the phone from his hand as he fell to the floor then folded it between his fingers.
“You annoy me, faggot!” Ares paced in front of me. “You should have gone home when you had the chance. Back with your beautiful family in London.”
I warned him to leave my family alone and I felt like I really meant it, like my warning made a difference to him.
“We are watching them and I only need to call…” He took out his phone and it pinged twice. Fuck, was it once for no, twice for yes? Four rapid pings. I think this means malaka.
“No!” I yelled. Excavator’s phone pinged twice. “OK”
Ares continued, “Yes,” Ping! “I only have to give the word and they are in a skip.”
“OK, I get it!”
He explained how the bitch in the next room could end up in a skip filled with my shit and I would be safely tucked up in a place in Greece where I would be frightened to take a shower, sleep or even eat for a very long time. He enjoyed this enormously wringing his hands. “…or you can go home.” He swung his fist into my cheek. “Personally, I hope you decide to stay.”
So, they were not going to kill me. This was some relief.
“So, should I stay?” Ping! “Maybe someone is coming to save me?” There was no ping. “I can’t fly without my passport.” Ares reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a British passport. Without let or hindrance. “I guess we are going to the airport. I hope you have money, my credit cards are with my…” He pulled my wallet from his other pocket.
I was surprised that Ares didn't take this opportunity to pummel me some more and before I knew it I had given voice to the words.
“You and me,” he paced. “Are not so different.”
“Yeah, there’s a bit of fascist cunt running through everyone’s veins.”
He smiled, “TV. We both understand the power of it.” He walked around me landing a heavy fist in my gut but at least he missed my nuts this time. “YouTube, facebook. It can make or break people.” He pulled out his phone and waved it like the holy book. “And we can do it all from here.” He swiped, tapped and spoke. “Bring her in.”
A moment later the door opened and Roni entered on the end of a shaved weasel, another came in holding her camera.
“Alright, Roni?” I asked.
She was sat down on a stool opposite me and her camera thrust into her lap. She instinctively made it ready. She was not alright but showed no sign of being treated with the same hospitality that I had.
A piece of paper was shoved into my hand covered with 5-year-old writing.
“I can’t read this, it was written by an illiterate!” Ares told me his nephew had written it and he had a Proficiency from Michigan. Figures.
On the page was supposed to be me apologising to the Greek people for insulting them with the idea that I could save them, that I had the answers, that I was a fraud. I questioned their validity and concluded nothing.
Wirey had pulled himself up from the floor and was rubbing his head. “You know, I could always get Asteris here to wring your scrawny little neck.” Asteris looked perturbed. “He might spend a few years inside but we’d look after his family.” He stopped. “And, it always sends a better message to the community when one of us takes responsibility for his actions. Anyway, when we get in this time, he gets out. And we WILL get in this time.”
“Why not the other one? He’d probably do it quicker.”
“No, he’s too handy and my mother likes him too much. Got a good appetite.”
Excavator smiled a grave-yard grin.
Roni lifted her camera and it was show time.
Ladies and gentlemen of the proud nation of Greece, for that is who you truly are. Not the gilded heirs of a land but the privileged caretakers of this fructiferous European allotment. Mia culpa. I confess my transgressions, of hubris that I may coalesce your democratic voice to one of common cause and purpose from one of self-service and proliferation of a status quo whose objective is to maintain division and denigration.
“STOP!” Ares waved at Roni to lower her camera. “what saying he?”
Roni swallowed hard, “He is saying that he is an arrogant big-head and Greek people are proud and wise.”
He grabbed my shoulder and waved the page in my face. “You say words!” his spittle stank.
I told him in his language that if I read these words, nobody would believe them. He kicked the floor and yelled that he should have brought his nephew.
“Would have been nice to meet the whole family!” Roni kicked my shin.
Roni raised her camera again and I worked out how to say what I wanted without getting myself in a skip.
That same misanthr… shit! Greek word, he’d get that. That same demago… more Greek, this was not going to be easy. Might end up in rhyming slang.
Roni kicked me again and pointed to the paper. Of course. Read it.
And so I make my risible confession so ineloquently composed to aforementioned ends. I read it. Punctuation errors, spelling mistakes like a senile in the throws of aphasia. This pleased Ares no end. And so into democracy’s crucible, I throw my hat.
“HAAAT!” Ares was spitting again. “WHAT IS THIS HAAAAT!”
“Throw in your hat, it means give up, quit.” Roni offered.
He snapped his fingers at Roni but she looked at him.
“Card, memory card!” He pulled out his phone and she gave him the large CF card from her camera. He offered it up to his phone. “What is this?”
“Compact flash. We don’t use the same cards as phones.”
The two men stepped back from Ares, they knew something was going to happen.
He swung the door to the bedroom open. The secretary was laid out naked on her front, her face to the door. Her eyes were open but there was no one behind them anymore.

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Saturday 3 June 2017

Do we understand work anymore?

WORK: for many a four-letter word, for others the epicentre of their existence but for most of us just another necessary evil. Work is how we get the stuff we need to buy stuff and keep the kids in fidget spinners (replace with current craze). For some, it is in all too short supply and barely covers the basics for others it absorbs all our waking hours. It affords us prestige and position, for most a source of frustration. But do we really understand what work is any more. I say not.
Now, my old favourite, Plato (I always put him in, it makes me look smart… is it working?) suggested the principle of specialisation. This means that each of us should stick to what we are good at, traders trade, farmers farm and philosophers sit around telling everyone what to think. Du Monceau in his riveting work The art of the pin-maker used pins to explain how Plato’s ideas could be taken even further. Adam Smith continued the pin-making motif (It was nails, actually but I like continuity) in The Wealth of Nations to show how these jobs could be split up to make great improvements in productivity, Henry Ford used this to create the production line so he could employ less and less skilled people at much lower cost to produce a very complicated product. In other words, give someone something very simple to do over and over and he will be good at it while not having enough scope to demand more money.
In the 1970s mechanisation had reach a point where many foresaw a time when machines would take over the pin-making and we would all enjoy unprecedented leisure time. A logical progression considering that the 1938 Holiday and pay act had provided the first paid holidays for workers. Very soon the idea of being paid even on days when one does not work became a standard. So, the concept of working a 3 or 4 day week while still being able to support a family did not seem to be an unreasonable progression. The computer age should have accelerated this but it didn’t.
It was realised that just as Plato had suggested, everyone should stick to what they did best. And as Adam Smith had concluded, that this was good for the wealth of the nation. So, workers work, employers supply this work, education keeps pace with the supply of the workers that the employers need and the government keep the whole machine oiled with taxes.
Work is a simple exchange of time for money, the more valued your time, in other words, the rarity and desirability of your time, the more money you get. But, we also had a system that would ensure that our needs were catered for and the 5 evils of society under control. This means that everyone contributes what they can to the nation to ensure that everyone’s needs are catered for and amongst those needs are healthcare, security and leisure. Leisure is important to keep the balance right, each part of the machine should contribute, not dominate. At its heart a society which progresses human development and evolution.
Meanwhile a lady called Brownie Wise would change the way we would work for ever. She realised that Tupperware could be sold more effectively through direct marketing. She gave women the opportunity to earn some pin-money (pins again) by monetising their friends, but also these ladies were self-employed, outside the machine. A straight line can be drawn from there to app-builders today. So, now if you don’t have a job it is not because the employers are failing to provide it or the education system is failing to prepare you for it, it is because you are just not enterprising enough. Plato and Smith had agreed that you really should stick to what you are good at and we are not all entrepreneurs. This new ideology also absolves the government from the position it had worked so hard to establish of taking care of its population’s needs. Globalisation had allowed it to supply employers with workers by simply importing them as they would washing machines. They no longer needed to produce and you’ll see that most advanced nations have a skills deficit which they are happy to maintain because it is cheaper to import.
Here is the shift. Governments are now working to the needs of the employers, not its population. They continually tell the population that it must tighten its belts and forgo some of the luxuries of the so recent past, free higher education, healthcare and leisure time. They should continue to pay the taxes to support the system but should expect less for it. Business should be above all else. If we accept this we can all return to times of plenty for all. But expectations are being slowly readjusted. You must take on more of the responsibilities that were once provided by the nation. You need to do many of the things you are not so good at or pay someone to do them, if you can.
Now, businesses have discovered a new way to make money. Instead of making and selling pins, they can make money through the markets. Their stock value is the real route to success and all resources should be focused on maintaining a healthy market value. The pin-making is just a utility to this end. To increase the market value companies must make more money and this means higher efficiency which depends on cheaper labour expenses.
Workhouses 21st century
We live in the tech age and as the industrial revolution mechanised production, the tech age will automate almost all areas of the company’s operations. Artificial intelligence is rapidly out-pacing the abilities of the lesser educated and their jobs are in imminent danger. When was the last time you interacted with ebay or amazon, did you get the feeling that you were not talking to a person, interactive chat services are passing the Turin test on a daily basis and they are getting better every day. Call-centres were outsourced to India and other cheaper countries and it is one of the biggest industries in the Philippines but many returned because customers complained of the lack of communication, AI will do better and cheaper. Many of us shop online. We go to shops to try on the clothes and then order the same product, cheaper through the net. Some retailers have realised this and use their stores to close the sale and give customers incentives to order from them online after trying on the garments. As more and more of us get used to buying stuff without any interaction with a shop assistant, the retail fronts could be booths where you try on and order for delivery to home. No more shop assistants or call centre workers, next. Autonomous vehicles will soon be able to get us back from the pub after a skin-full, safely and legally. They may also have been serving our pint. They will also be able to drive our Uber, black cab, bus, train or truck they are even working on drone deliveries that will make postmen and pizza delivery boys obsolete.
Online education courses will increase the abilities of educators to be decentralised to begin with but will soon be surpassed. There are also robots that allow surgeons to operate on patients from thousands of miles away. These too may be surpassed by AI. Technology in conjunction with our diminished reliance on personal, human interaction will make all this seem quite normal. Just imagine, many of your facebook friends could be replaced with AIs and you wouldn't know the difference.
So, a whole bunch of menial jobs will disappear, so what? This could be great. The same thing happened after the industrial revolution and that saw rise to the welfare state. More leisure, more education, more interesting jobs. However, in order to develop the skills necessary to do these jobs, you need education and skills are a supply and demand market. To stem the flow of capable people, education costs and a great education costs a great deal. People are going into careers with a huge debt around their necks and to make the payments that are working harder. The information age makes them more available, more of the time. And those who don’t make the grade, well they’ll be left outside the wall and there will be no workhouses to ‘save’ them, no busses to drive, no call centres to man.
Work has always been a way to provide. First we worked our patch of land, hunted in the forests to feed our families. Then with the division of labour, it became a team effort and we evolved into a species that lived more and better. Work is a medium of distributing the wealth of nations. Each getting on with what they do best, no matter how little or how much. Each paying into society and communities to benefit from its prosperity. Work is not the reason for living. We hold ourselves superior to the ants and the bees. Quality of life is progress, servitude is devolution. Without it, children are not parented properly, communities do not have cohesion, we open ourselves to exploitation from those who would take from us, whether they be corporations or gangs of muggers.
“I’m working” is a phrase too often heard, it means I am being productive, useful, I have purpose. The same should be true of “I’m taking the kids for a ramble” or “I’m going to the neighbours for a drink.” Work is part of the equation, not the sum.

Wednesday 31 May 2017

Back to a very dark age

So much progress was made in the last century. Huge leaps in technology, great advances in equality, despite what many believe, education and health care for great swathes of the population. We put men on the moon, connected the world’s peoples with voice, video and written word, put eons of knowledge in the public domain and put computers that would have dwarfed NASA in the pockets of the same people that would have been bought and sold in the 1800s. So what’s gone wrong. We are on the cusp (and I’m being charitable here) of going full circle. Let me explain.
I will take my native Britain as case study but I also hope to explain why Trump happened, why BREXIT happened and why I believe we are in danger of finding ourselves back in an 18th century with touch-screens.
Looks like a call centre, doesn't it?
Around the end of the 18th century many worked in agriculture on tied farms owned by the lords and landowners. They paid to live in a little cottage and work the land to keep their family alive. There was no time for leisure and even less for culture. This was the domain of the aristocracy. They filled their days with lofty conversation, art and literature. Some made great advances in science and exploration due to their brilliance and wealth but mostly due to their wealth. Then came the industrial revolution which invented the middle classes, smart, driven men who took the dispossessed and orphans to work in their factories. They had no rights and were expected to work hard and show gratitude. Education was a luxury and so all doors were closed to betterment. They were all governed by the aristocracy who had the education and hubris to assume their rightful position at the helm of the nation. Some of the new middle classes aspired to these positions as they realised it was leverage to more profitable business.
The workers had no such aspirations and even believed that they had no right to even consider such positions. The upper classes were the men for the job, no questions. They could not envisage people like themselves having the qualifications necessary to make decisions on such a scale. Here we will see the beginning of the loop, be patient.
So after nearly a hundred years of industrialisation work had become a little more technical and there was a need to educate the masses to deal with the advances in technology. It was The elementary education act of 1870 that allowed local governments to set up schools for the less privileged. They were still fee paying schools but they were a little more accessible than private schools and more numerous. More kids were learning the 3Rs (Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic, maybe in itself an indication of literacy levels in those days) than ever before. In 1902 secondary schools were given the same treatment and just after the Great War in 1918 fees for elementary schools were abolished. This was also the year that some women got the vote.
The Liberals (Back when this wasn’t a bad word) pushed for universal free healthcare under Herbert Asquith and David Lloyd George. The masses were learning but still grateful. The British labour party had taken over as the main opposition but many would not vote for them as they were seen as not as qualified for such positions as the ruling classes. People still felt that those in the upper echelons were there for good reason and Joe Blow would never have the wherewithal to handle such responsibility, after all they were just like the blokes they spent their time with down the pub. Some may have been great orators and even pretty smart but they still got pissed and tried to shag the barmaid!
After WWII the Beveridge report introduced the welfare state, the NHS, the largest employer in Europe. John Maynard Keynes found the money and the war on the 5 evils of society (squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease) was declared. People were put to work, educated to better themselves and their health and retirement was taken care of. Without the pressures of survival, people made huge bounds in progress and it is because of that era that we are where we are now. Microprocessors, the INTERNET, telecommunications, science, not to mention the arts would still be in the dark ages if these initiatives had failed. You can forget The Beatles and the Stones (Maybe even Radiohead… Gasp!).
Now, by the 70s things had gotten a bit strained and sectors of society that had always existed started to proliferate, those who were OK to kick back and let others take the strain and those who could make a buck from the toil of others. Neither the prior nor the latter were anything new but the prior were aided and abetted by the welfare state and the latter were waiting for the right conditions and they didn’t have to wait long. Productivity had fallen and the only way to keep the economy liquid was to allow people to spend the money they hadn’t earned yet. Credit was a way to give people spending power without upping their wages while giving bankers a way to make money that, they hoped, would trickle down to the masses. And, it did but not for long.
So now you have a people who had smelt the honey and they wanted more. You have the bankers who had enjoyed real power and they liked it. And you have a system that cannot support either.
The age we live in is characterised by technology but also by celebrity. Education allowed many to fast-track themselves and their kids to positions. Many of the Indians who fled Kenya in 1968 put their kids through medical school while working all hours in their own convenience stores. Many of the natives dreamed of getting on the telly or becoming rock stars, I know I did!
You see, the line, for most, between multimillionaire celebrity and themselves is comprehensible. Everyone can see the boy/girl next door in the people who compare game-shows or sing their favourite song. But, to run an international company or even country is tough and as education works so hard to rationalise their ambitions. Celebrity is far more attainable. The west has a huge deficit in skills production. With the exception of Germany, the US and UK have year on year chipped away at their education systems and health systems with the result of kicking people into survival mode. This results in people closing their circle of aspiration while still maintaining a level of desire for stuff and thus spending ahead of their years, keeping them focused on the job at hand.
Then along comes someone like Trump. He has built a multi-million international empire but still wants to shag the barmaid. He talks in the same simplistic terms as their buddies down at the bar but he has realised their dreams. He is the man for the job. He may be stupid but he is the kind of stupid they can relate to. The product of the education system. He is the perfect amalgam of celebrity and aristocracy, he even had a TV show.
But he will fail. He will be brought down by the incumbent aristocracy, in league with the academics and social media. He will be shown to be incompetent and his brand of bar-room politics to be unworthy. Not that it isn’t but the message is clear. Don’t get above your station. At the moment Britain is coming up for a general election where the winner is clear. Teresa May and the Tories, the same who had their power slip at the beginning of the 1900s, the same who wish those days to return, the same who feel a righteous purpose to privatise a system that tried to deal with the 5 evils of society, the same who will need to rely on imports of educated people to support innovative business or risk it going to the producers of educated people. And the only way they will be able to keep them will be to direct cash away from those services to reducing their tax and wages bills. We will be back in the industrial revolution and we will have come full circle.
The people will no longer feel adequate to aspire to anything more than surviving the week. Anyone like Jeremy Corbyn will be seen as a hapless student union dreamer despite having their needs at heart. And, those who say that in order to float the economy we need to run some teachers, doctors and nurses into the ground will seem most credible. But, education and health care is where this all began, it is what got us here. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a cycle that will come back round. The next phase will putting up fences that prevent it ever happening again.

You have been warned…

From Under Dark Clouds

The Century of DIY