So. Trying to catch up on my political watching/reading and the first stop was yesterday's Question Time. Now I know, I know, it isn't really any good for actual politics, but it is a good source for references, a bit like a poor man's political New Scientist in televisual form. It was actually quite good this time round. There was very little shouting or panellists talking over each other. Or at least, very little in comparison...
Firstly, it made me realise just how little I understand about anything but also how little I suspect the politicians do (which of course is understandable as that is what comes with a democracy. Our rulers are chosen from a very wide pool and well, if that pool includes people like me, it's no wonder we have problems...). I found it interesting that the only person who spoke in terms of figures and financial mechanisms was the CEO*, rather than the politicians (on either side) who tended to use wonderful but ultimately empty rhetoric. For example, did you know that the Euro being overvalued in Southern Europe, means the euro in countries such as Germany and France is undervalued which actually undercuts British exports and contributes to the decline in British manufacture? Alright well maybe it's just me being an idiot, but I didn't know that and I found it fascinating. It didn't lead to any further gnosis, but it did give me something concrete to ponder as opposed to whether Cameron is being an Essex/British Bulldog and Eurosceptical (which of course he is but I'm not sure that actually means anything unless you give examples of what policies he is conceiving based on that philosophy) and tittle tattle about which politicians are disagreeing with each other in which party.
Speaking of rhetoric, I will say I hate it when politicians start using media soundbites. I think it's alright for plebs like me to talk about things like the 'robin hood' tax, benefits 'scroungers' or whatever ('the welfare state has stopped being a trampoline and started being a mattress' - I mean that's fine for a newspaper editorial and even then only for a headline but for a politician just makes me think, really?), but it sounds idiotic when it comes from a politician who is meant to be a bit more knowledgeable than we are, even if they actually aren't. But that's probably me being a bit of a fogey. I just think if you're going to be paid so much for never quite succeeding at anything, you might as well sound like it. Say what you like about the bankers, but at least they can dress well. They actually look like people who deserve a drubbing.
I know I am a bit of a scrooge but... is anyone else feeling a little uncomfortable about the London Olympics? Obviously I am biased, as I thought the bid was a ridiculous idea anyway, a convenient opiate dangled in front of the public to distract them from genuine grievances with the then Labour government (and I was admittedly curious how Paris would do it, if they won the bid). I don't like the way politicians are using it as a sort of panacea for all social problems. There is a lot of talk about legacy and boosts to the economy but these are the very things I find problematic. For example, when I think about the 'poor' areas of London that I know best - Brixton, Lambeth - one of the things I've noticed is that as the area has become richer and more fashionable, the people who used to be able to live there have all moved to other areas that they can afford. It's not exactly a superficial development (though the view from a DLR train through East London certainly makes it seem that way: the river Thames is lined with glittering buildings, providing a glass facade which works to hide the deprived brickwork of old Chinatown) - I'm sure it's real enough on paper in terms of average wages and property value and things like that - but it certainly doesn't feel like a genuine sort of regeneration. Indeed, regeneration in such areas essentially seems to mean getting rid of the unsightly and replacing them with people who can buy more overpriced things to keep a service based economy afloat.
It doesn't seem particularly stable in the long term. Unlike just about everyone else, I still can't get over how quickly we seem to have forgotten just how insane everyone went. When the property market was booming, I kept on hearing people talk about doing up a new house then flogging it for a million or so and moving on to the next and I couldn't help but wonder what was wrong with just getting a house to live in. Apparently, it was this boom in property prices is what at least partly led to first time house buyers taking out mortgages that they couldn't really afford. I'd also talk to fellow students who would take out proper - rather than student - loans from banks to pay for things they didn't really need and certainly couldn't afford even if they were in full time employment. People would even get credit cards from highly reputable stores like Topshop; indeed, that people with no minimum fixed income could get credit cards at all surprised me. I didn't even think it was allowed.
We were all encouraged to spend beyond our means and though I was a little incredulous about it at the time, I realise now that it makes sense because that's what our economy is apparently based on. What's more, did we not enjoy it? It seemed to be great fun for everyone involved, apart from some people who don't really matter.
So whilst I agree that the banks were beyond unscrupulous and took advantage, it wasn't as though they made it mandatory to join in with this culture. Yet, bizarrely enough, we are once again encouraged to forget ourselves to restart an economy because apparently such spending is what it needs to get another push. It's all very interesting, this being encouraged to save a system that perhaps isn't worth saving to begin with.
That leads me to another issue that I have been pondering lately, in light of the OWS protest in the US and copycat demonstrations throughout the US and - thought not to as large an extent - the UK. Although I am not convinced that the politicians really get it, it increasingly seems as though we are all realising that things can't go back to the way they were, or at least they could but then a similar thing would happen all over again in the distant (or not so distant) future. I think part of the problem is - as ever, to be fair - that we don't have an adequate vocabulary to discuss another solution. We know there is a problem, we might even have a solution, but it's hard to frame it using what we already have as a reference. An example of this is how often one hears - well alright, I hear it a lot, but then I live in Manchester where even the conservatives are Red - things like 'capitalism doesn't work' as though capitalism were some coherently designed, fully fledged philosophy rather than a system evolved and still evolving out of the primordial slime of the Industrial Revolution and the human ability to abstract that which is concrete (and make concrete that which is abstract). It's hard to find ways of talking about this without referring to the political language formulated a century ago (it's a little like people who seriously quote Freud and talk about the 'subconscious' in a non-metaphorical way in matters of psychology. This is probably just me being the snooty hard scientist but I find that truly bizarre, like a geneticist quoting the Origin of Species), a language I think - though I am probably wrong - has been shown to be fairly inadequate for our times.
As with Climate Change, Peak Oil and all these other fashionable sort of concerns, it does sometimes seem that on the rare occasion we might know what to do, we just don't want to do it, because it will hurt. I still say it's very hard to take 'Green' anything seriously when we're increasingly using more energy - we're developing technology that may be more efficient (if it even is), but still uses more energy to produce and run, the vast majority of cars run on petrol and so on. If this is a Crisis, we're being remarkably cool about it, I must say. Watching the strike a few days ago and I couldn't help notice that we are only equipped to talk about how unjust the cuts are and the damage they will do, but not about how we can fix the problem or even whether we really want to (it brought to mind an interesting nugget I learned in History that the first pensions and unemployment benefits were as much a result of public shame concerning the fate of it's old and those out of work due to seasons and/or cruel fate, in a country that was one of the richest in the world. Now, Britain is still one of the richest in the world but I do wonder about it's reserves and the very nature of it's riches: if it's just numbers in a computer, that's hardly very comforting. She has no Empire, nor the manufacturing wealth she once did and the services rendered via welfare are becoming increasingly expensive particularly in the medical sector. All the more so when the government still has to spend so much money on things like the military, in order to perform it's duty as an international state with a conscience. It was pretty clear where the money for welfare would come from the first time round. I'm not sure that's the case anymore).
Like I said, I am no economist - I don't understand how this works and the only options ever explained were cuts, by both the Conservative and the Labour parties - but it does seem we have a choice to re evaluate and shift the priorities of how we spend and how we make the money we spend, or to carry on as before and simply prepare ourselves for the eternal cycle of boom and bust.
Speaking of a convergence of topics, but one of the questions asked by the audience concerning diminished public sympathy for those on welfare benefits brought up the need to generate more jobs in the UK, particularly in manufacturing. As I learn more about the Eurozone financial crisis and the challenges faced by other first world democratic economies - all very similar, but due to different approaches and cultures - what has always been a cynicism about the role and ability of an elected government has blown into all out despair because I just don't believe that there is anything a government can do - beyond the political equivalent of a reaction shot - on this scale. In order to prevent this sort of problem - the passing on of toxic bonds, unscrupulous lending and borrowing - it seems we'd need a body at the level of the UN to control how banks do business with themselves and each other, overcoming whatever loopholes they might take advantage of due to their global presence, if we want transparency and accountability. I will be honest in that I am not confident that even more regulation will help: a crisis in ethics cannot be solved by new legislation. The way we still look to governments - who are after all made up of ordinary people with the limitations and quirks of the electorate - to provide us with things we're not even sure exist and if they do we're not too clear about how they can be provided is just so outmoded in a world where these issues seem to be out of the hands of a bunch of mouthy middle-class University graduates with four years to sort it all out, as though we're patients asking for a blood letting to cure a case of the flu. It's weird and more than a little bit tragic.
But that's me being very very cynical. Maybe it's the weather. You know it was hailing the other day with a clear sky? It was the weirdest thing ever. It's no wonder I can't think coherently about politics when I'm living in such a strange city. I swear, Manchester must be the only city in England to have five different climate zones.
I do wish people would stop talking about 'Africa' though, especially people from Africa (ha ha). We really should know better because it just encourages this idea that it's some monolithic entity of darkness, corruption and famine (which, and I feel this is very important to stress, only happens in countries where it hasn't, you know, rained. England'd be getting famines too if it stopped raining and couldn't import enough food. And the next person who says 'overpopulation' will get a virtual steel chair to the back of the head. Seriously. Don't. Even). The only reason I mention this is because there was a suggestion from someone in the audience that perhaps Britain should look away from Europe and towards Africa which I previously would have agreed with, but then I remembered the Chinese have already made the first moves and I think that'll do for now. Britain can carry on with the aid thing and leave the Chinese to create the infrastructure.
There are problems with their involvement, of course - a great deal of said infrastructure is apparently done on the cheap, with little local involvement and heavy levels of discrimination but it's the opportunity that counts and these are post-colonial days. I think 21st century Zambians know how to deal with racist Chinese businessmen. Countries like Zambia and the Congo might not have the qualified force to pick up the pieces (I'm sure they do), but other African nations such as South Africa, Kenya, Ghana and - you guessed it - Nigeria certainly do. They're stuffed with engineers and architects etc etc who are falling increasingly out of love with Europe (though there's a lot of Nigerians in places like Poland and Russia which I still find odd. Must be the cold...?), the UK and even the US. I'm sure they'd take full advantage of an opportunity for business right on their doorstep.
I am probably being way too optimistic, but I'll be happy to be proved wrong - a return to the usual status quo as it were. Well, not happy as that would imply something quite horrible had happened to said countries, but you know what I mean.
*Indeed, it was the same last week as well. It was the businessperson who spoke in terms of things one could actually argue with and the politicians tended to stick to the "Well, if you remember the mess we inherited from the former government..."