Sunday, January 29, 2012

Straws in the wind

Straw and a bluebell by Dylan

I've been troubled this last week, my thoughts not connecting in the usual way; loose strands I want to spin together, but can't quite find the means. They hint at issues we'd rather forget, or at least not examine too closely, preferring cliche to analysis, and if we must have latter, then let it be at a remove. 

You get what you pay for, began a conversation I overheard in the gym. Aye, came the reply, but you have to pay for what you get.  I was on the rowing machine and couldn't see who was talking. The woman who'd spoken first and sounded younger than I think she must have been, said, they'll pay us back when they're settled, to which her other half grunted, we'll be dead by then.  I rowed faster to my target of 2,000 meters - by the time I reached it, they'd gone.

On Tuesday it was reported that the UK had one trillion pounds of debt - more than sixteen thousand for every person. And that's evidently not a true reflection, because it omits the mortgages and credit cards and pension black holes and corporate debts and unfunded future commitments that we're all going to pay for - and some, like my children's generation, a lot more than others.

That evening I’m discussing family finances with my parents in law. I say the idea of my boys leaving university owing forty thousand pounds appals me. Partly I fear for their future, but I’m horrified too at the message it sends about debt as a norm.

On Wednesday Bill Gates says he doesn't pay enough tax. I'm sceptical of this mantra, wondering why those who chant it don't simply write a check to their local hospital. To be fair, Mr Gates has endowed thirty billion dollars to eradicate polio and other killer diseases. Back at the gym I watch the British TV awards on the overhead screens, uneasy with the juxtaposition of jungle celebrities followed by a short clip reminding us that one million children die every year of malaria.

I come home and they're discussing the Euro-crisis on Newsnight.  I find myself nodding and tutting as if I understood the complexities of global capital, and think suddenly of Dylan who after listening to Just William had earlier asked me what lugubrious meant, and the meaning of utter vacancy.  Jeremy Paxman probes an expert on why the Chinese won't bail us out. She replies: because their average incomes are one tenth of ours - maybe they think we could cut back

The comment brought back memories. When I was twenty years old I took what I regard as the only significant debt of my life - I borrowed three hundred pounds from my mother to pay the deposit on a flat. It was equivalent to a month's wages after outgoings and I repaid it in six weeks, preferring to eat soup and rice than purchase non-essentials while in hock. No doubt there was some deeper psychology going on there - but the diet did me no harm and in many ways it has shaped my 'appetite' since. 

Next day, there's an article in the Times confirming we remain the world's sixth largest economy. I wonder why we need any debt, why no politician is suggesting we remove it over, say, a fifteen-year period. In the same edition there are objections to the proposed benefit cuts, to any prospect of scaling back on the NHS, to the unfairness of this or that, the impact on the arts. Overseas aid is a suggested target for reductions.

The philosopher Karl Popper described democracy as the least worst of all the alternatives. He lamented its inefficiency, its disproportionate focus on the immediate and selfish desires of an electorate - it's inability, as it were, to ever eat rice and soup. Every politician I've met has confirmed my sense that he's correct in this. 

Back in my study, I'm confronted by my own contradictions. There’s a letter from our MP responding to my dismay over the increase in student fees. Next to it is another from Medecine Sans Frontier that I’m yet to open – I’m no Bill Gates but my donations are paltry compared to my needs and income.

Is it possible to be too concerned I wonder? Someone told me recently that his partner is so worried about the state of the world that she can lose sight of more immediate ills. It damages those she’s closest too, he said.

Friday, driving into North Wales there are two buzzards, circling above a wood by the Berwyn Mountains. In the mode of that dreadful pseudo-science they call bio-mimicry, I philosophise on nature not doing debt – though it can show altruism, even collective responsibility. Then I notice one bird has a carcass in its talons; the second mobs it and a fight ensues - I’m reminded that nature doesn’t do ethics or charity either.

The rain picks up and the buzzards are lost behind a swish of my wipers. I press on, the thoughts still swirling, unsure if the clouds are lifting or descending. At the farm in Llangynog, there are straws in the wind.


  1. Hello!

    Great post, Mark. Very thought provoking, and I definitely know what you and Mr Popper mean about democracy being the least worst of all the alteratives. Short-termism, that's all we get.

    Thinking about it...nature doesn't plan either does it? It is only about the here and now (in many ways). Is western democracy and capitalism therefore somehow 'natural' too? It is certainly brutal, and sometimes unforgiving, just like nature. Interesting Post.

    Hope you are well mate, speak soon,


  2. there is something that really concerns me about the financial crisis is the way the media screams about the problems.......perhaps it is a time to be a little quiet about the whole sorry mess

  3. Hi Mark:
    A very thought provoking post. We need to be concerned but it doesn't do to be TOO concerned. Everybody should be more fiscally responsible, me included. Okay probably me more than most. I will try harder. ;-)

  4. I've seen the world turned upside down.
    Young, debt was something of which to be ashamed. Bankruptcy was the unthinkable. Credit was not to be thought of except in terms of a building society loan.
    Companies still had significant individual shareholdings.
    The banks had not taken charge of the Stock Exchange.
    Society still existed.

    Post Thatcher, with the encouragement of Blair, corporate immorality has been allowed to play on the baser desires of individuals to enrich corporate leaders - allowed by the governments which should be controlling their activites.

    The individual is subject to more and more control, while financial institutions play wiley beguiled with public money to make private profit.

  5. I sometimes wonder if we need government by benevolent capitalist dictatorship. At least it could take the long view.

    I wonder what the Chinese model will show us, not that I would describe it as benevolent.

  6. We are small in the face of the big machine. But that doesn't mean we can do nothing. Just that we can do small things. And small things are always better than nothing.

  7. There are some big questions there which definitely provide food for thought! The spirit level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett is an interesting read and it covers some of the issues raise here in this post. For me, I would like to see a more just and equal society. I think anyone who wants to be a politician should automatically be stopped from becoming one...might lead to a new breed of government (I live in hope!).

    C x

  8. We were soup and rice people when younger too, Mark, not wanting to be beholden. I can still remember the first time my parents bought anything on hire-purchase - a spin-dryer to replace the old mangle my mother had always used and they had a lot of discussion before doing so. Nowadays youngsters are bombarded with the offer of credit and store cards at the tender age of 18 and we wonder they end up over their heads in debt. As for buy now and start paying in a year...that way madness lies!

  9. such a lovely thought provoking post Mark.
    it's late and i'm on my way to bed. so all i can think of to say it, rather lamely, my daughter's middle name is Bluebell.
    i find your writing very impressive. i hope you are taking it further.

  10. Good one Mark. And on top of that The Urchins will be at home for decades, the average age of the first-time buyer now being around 43, two decades older than when I first took my cap in my hand to the local building society, but then I was not encumbered by student debt, just young and foolish....

  11. I can't get my head around how we as the sixth richest nation yet are so heavily in debt. It strikes me as third world rather than first world. But then I've always paid my way in the world.

    Fingers crossed this is third time lucky!

  12. In America and my state, Ohio, most of our neighbors are old, like us, and are surely out of debt. Unlike some of them, we bought our house in 1962 and the whole thing was less than $15,000.00 US Dollars.

    Times are hard now and many people lost homes or are "under water" indicating they purchased their homes when the prices were way up in value though the original cost remained the same. Many lost their jobs and their homes and are on public welfare.

    Fortunately, for us, we are not in debt. What we have is what we got and we didn't change out the bathroom for something in style in 2010, 11, or 12. It is all in the same state as the day we moved in. Everything works. The furnace and air conditioning system has been replaced three times and we have had three new roofs—the last one was paid for by our insurance company because it was ruined by hail falling from the sky—the hail stones about the size of tennis balls or larger.

    None of this contributes to our status among rich or poor nations, but there is no doubt, in my mind, that I could never afford to pay my portion of our looming national debt, should China make a recall.

  13. What a thoughtful piece this is. Such a change to read posts that raise questions without forcing answers down our throats.

  14. I have been thinking about all this too, it feels like for years! I am riveted by the coverage of the debt crisis and feel both competent to understand it and occasionally entirely at sea. I too was a rice and soup person. I would love to see us all having less and expecting less in the way of material things.