An open letter to George Osborne and David Cameron because I’ve been listening to the EU referendum arguments and have gotten completely confused about which way to vote- and I’m university educated, young(ish-32), and I live in Brussels. It should be a no brainer. And yet TTIP? What’s that all about? Why is lowering house prices a bad thing? How is starving pensioners going to help Greece? And while I’m getting politically engaged, what were the doctors strikes all about? What happened at BHS? Are there too many immigrants? Why is every news interview and political debate conducted like some kind of competition where the aim is to ‘win’ the conversation by getting the last word in, and not to actually try and further peoples knowledge and come to some kind of solution? Am I an idiot? Hopelessly naive? Is it my fault for not trying to inform myself better on these issues even though the information is distorted, completely subjective, contradictory or hidden? WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON???
Dear George and Dave,
I was trying to do a cost-benefit analysis of my upcoming wedding party and began to understand why you seem to be having trouble balancing the books and coming up with an accurate forecast for how much Brexit will cost us.
I tried doing a similar exercise as to whether or not my husband and I should have another child and came up with equally nonsensical conclusions.
So if economic analysis cannot be applied to marriage celebrations, or to having children – quite possibly two of the biggest, most common and most desired events in a persons life- how are you applying it to politics which is supposed to cover EVERY aspect of our lives? You may have more data than I do, and be able to able discount rates and risk factors and who knows what else, but I don’t think complicating things can make an essentially un-calculable number calculable. The value of human lives, creativity, education, and health are all completely unquantifiable.
I’m especially unclear on how you are doing this at a time when with the rise of technology we have access to more and more things that are unlimited. We can make electricity directly from the sun/the wind/the tides (all unlimited sources of energy) and we are still messing around with dead dinosaur remains that cause all kinds of pollution because it’s not cost-effective???
If we have an economic model that cannot cope with disruptive technologies and the unlimited supply that these new technologies allow for, we should not be using that economic model to decide whether or not we invest in those technologies because it is NEVER going to tell you those technologies are viable, and it’s certainly not going to tell you you can make a profit out of them.
And yet somehow miraculously, despite the lack of financial incentives we have this technology. We also have the internet, which allows for mass communication and hence could be used to implement democracy on a global scale (given it’s possible to do our banking on-line, why isn’t it for voting?), and the free distribution of all knowledge, ideas, music, art and entertainment that civilisation has created thus far. And we have robot technology that is only improving (the humble washing machine and dishwasher are my favourites to date) which given we have the capability to tap an unlimited energy source, could at some point in the not too distant future mean unlimited menial and bureaucratic labour.
Our current economic system cannot model any of these things, or provide any kind of meaningful analysis of them. It also cannot model actual human behaviours and desires or handle the boundless capabilities of our love and imagination. Does that mean we ignore ourselves and these technologies (as we are trying to do now by stirring up hate, fear and confusion and pitting ourselves in endless competition with each other) or change our economic system? I’ve drawn you a graph to help illustrate the situation I think we are in:
I don’t know where we are on this graph at the current time, but Donald Trump is practically the Republican nominee for president of the United States. If this isn’t a tipping point, I don’t know what is.
And I don’t know about you, but I am tired of telling myself how lucky I am to have food on the table, clean water, a roof over my head and family and friends who love me and need me and who I love and need back.This shouldn’t be considered lucky, this should be considered BASIC. But no, I should shut up and stop complaining and go be mindfully aware of how nice the breeze feels on my face and enjoy the golden age of television that we are living in now. Why am I being encouraged to turn inwards and self-improve but at the same time self-indulge? They cancel each other out! Why am I not being encouraged to turn outwards and engage with the world around me?
I’m tired of telling my daughter she should share and take turns with the toys at playgroup, when the only thing I share is photos on facebook, and to really to prepare her for this world I should be telling her to hoard all the toys and never share anything.*
I’m tired of telling myself that bar doing a sponsored sporting challenge there is nothing I can do to change anything**, and if I get depressed about this I should take a pill because it’s a problem with my brain chemistry and not a problem that nothing in the real world makes sense.
I’m tired of holding a myriad of contradictory ideas in my head about the economic system we live in now. For example:
a) Some classics: ‘Free trade is good and we should enter into more free trade agreements with other countries.’ ‘We are in competition with all other countries for scarce jobs and resources.’ EITHER we are in competition with everybody and we should be protectioning the hell out of our industries, or free trade is good and we can all help each other out to reach our aims as human beings.OR we do a balance of both and we have some kind of conversation about which things are worth protecting instead of waiting till it’s too late (e.g. our steel industry? the NHS? We managed it for our banks in 2008, why can’t we do it for anything else? )
b) ‘A company’s primary goal should be to increase shareholder value (i.e.money)’ ‘Deregulation is a good thing’. EITHER we should incentivise making money above all else and all be nipple deep in regulations so we don’t encourage tax dodging and incredibly short-termist behaviour, OR we should incentivise improving human lives and be able to relax the rules and all think a bit more creatively. But doing both seems insane.
c)Something more contemporary: ‘We are not creating the right financial incentives for pharmaceutical companies to create new antibiotics (i.e. to save lives)’ ‘Doctors should work longer and more antisocial hours (i.e. to save lives) for no greater financial incentives.’ YOU CANNOT HOLD BOTH OPINIONS AT ONCE AND THEN TELL ME YOU ARE RIGHT.
d) Advertising helps consumers make informed choices. Why then does every advertisement regardless of product seem to involve a scantily clad woman or man and a complete pack of lies?
e) Competition stimulates innovation. Then why have we got UBER not flying cars?? IT’S 2016!!!! Wouldn’t an amazing public transport system that negates the need for cars at all trump a driverless car? Why is everything we make at the moment designed to be replaced?
f)’Robots are taking over low-skilled and bureaucratic jobs and this is a bad thing’. Robots will NEVER be able to compete with human beings for creativity and empathy. And why would we want humans to be doing jobs that don’t require these things? There will always be more stories to tell, music to write, art to create, games to play, gardens to grow, food to cook, things to discover, things to design. And people will always need people to look after them. I may not be able to put ‘mother’ on my C.V. and ‘job’ doesn’t even cover it as a description, but it certainly requires every ounce of creativity and empathy I have whilst also keeping me occupied.
So forgive me if I don’t think whether or not we remain in the EU is the defining question of our generation and if I don’t think you have the answer to it. I think we have some fairly pressing existential questions to answer first. We need to rethink our economic system and it’s boundaries and the incentives it creates (and destroys) in-line with the technology that we have available right now, because at the moment all connection with price and value is being lost and we are headed merrily along for another financial crash that I don’t think you will be able to bail the banks out of. (Please tell me somebody is working on this??)
Brand me a radical socialist/communist if you like, but it is precisely because I don’t think we are equal that I don’t think we can all be reduced to a price, and that we should all be engaged in mindless competition with each other. (You cannot have competition -or a good competition at any rate- if there is not some kind of assumed equality at the beginning of the competition***) Bloody hell, I’m even being encouraged to compete against MYSELF for things like the number of steps I can take in a day!
I think the only way in which we are all equal is in what we NEED. Food, water, shelter and energy to power the way we create and distribute those things.**** Do we need to compete against each other to fulfil our needs or are we all just competing for the sake of it?
Energy – we’ve got renewable technology. Let’s roll this out in the geographic locations that it makes the most sense – solar panels to cover the desert, off shore wind turbines where it’s windy, hydroelectric power where you have running water , and use energy storage methods so we have a constant supply. If we have need of any more energy we can use Thorium nuclear power pretty much anywhere else. I’m fairly sure this will cover all of our global needs and then some.Yes there are technical challenges, but they are challenges, not impossible.
Shelter. We are worried over population, but at the same time we are worried about lowering birth rates…And we are worried about the number of old people, even though I think that the one thing we can all agree on is that we would all very much like ourselves and our children to be old people one day. Ok, so maybe we cannot all have a mansion until we colonise the moon, but we are perfectly capable of building skyscrapers complete with skygardens, and we can even build floating properties or underground properties. We can fill all the empty properties, and improve the quality of the ones we already have. Those of us that live in more than one property could cut down to just the one.
Water: In the developed world we flush drinking water down the toilet, and choose to add various chemicals and sugar/sugar substitutes to clean water (i.e. colas) and then drink it. Everywhere else it is a scarce resource, and people are driven to drink colas because they can be sure the water they contain is clean. We need a drastic rethink on the way we use water. Greywater recycling, rainwater recycling, salt water to flush toilets/completely different types of toilets, and desalination plants could all be part of the solution so that we all have enough.
Food: Non-processed actual food, as opposed to a food ‘product’ (which is technically edible and provides calories but not nutritious in any way at all) is what we should all have the choice of eating, in whatever quantities we feel we need. Stopping the production of processed food, vertical farming, localised food production, reducing our food waste, eating insects could all be options so that we all have enough.
As a bonus, I’m fairly sure if everyone’s basic needs are met, our healthcare requirements will go down and we’ll be much less likely to want to blow each other up.
And yes, of course these ideas don’t even scratch the surface of what will be required and it will be unbelievably difficult and require global compromises, but shouldn’t it be at the top of the list of what we are aiming to do? Instead of saying the market will sort it out when the market is part of our economic system that has a giant human shaped hole in it?
We could create global teams of experts to collaboratively come up with sustainable solutions to each of these needs without worrying about GDP numbers or having lobbyists distorting outcomes, and interested members of the public could listen on-line and offer their suggestions and we all vote on what to do? Hang the cost, scrap the debts, we made up money once before so you guys can do it again once we’ve got the basics sorted out!
Maybe this all sounds too much like a utopian dream. But in an age when we have access to unlimited energy and information, and a means for global democracy why is meeting everyone’s basic needs considered utopian? Have our dreams really been crushed that much? No wonder every vision of our future is a dystopian one.
I don’t want an amazing virtual world, I want an amazing real world. I don’t want my daughter to dream of making lots of money for the sake of making money and live her life on a screen.
So stop fiddling around with the books. You can’t put a price on the suns unlimited energy. You can’t put a price on the accumulated knowledge of our civilisation thus far. And you can’t put a price on anybody else. Under our current economic system the books will NEVER be balanced. IT IS IMPOSSIBLE. How about you both try and do something that is possible and make the world a better place instead?
(On the plus side, I reckon it will mean you can delay the new runway decision for a while longer).
A concerned housewife,
P.S. If I keep listening to the EU referendum debates I’ll probably just end up flipping a coin to decide which way to vote, given that’s all it seems to come down to. If I turn off the news and hold on to my belief in the EUs objectives to promote peace and well-being for its people, I will vote to remain because I wish those objectives could be extended globally.
*Despite continually having to tell my daughter to share at playgroup, I don’t think it’s human nature not to share. One of the first gestures she started making was putting her hand out to offer me things. She can’t play by herself for any prolonged amount of time, she wants to sit on my lap while she plays and get me involved in the games. She offers me her pre-chewed food. She loves to share with the people she knows and loves. And I’m fairly sure, if you put the most expensive toy in the world and pile of dirt in front of her, she’d pick up a handful of dirt and start eating it. Humans do not have naturally discerning materialistic tastes. I think they have to be manipulated or ‘nudged’ by advertisers to learn those.
**Before you say, learn some skills and get an actual job instead of p*ssing about looking after your daughter and maybe that will help, I’ve tried that. I have a first class degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Leeds, a distinction in my Masters in Structural Engineering from Imperial College and I speak fairly passable Mandarin. I’ve worked as a sustainability engineer/consultant for AECOM, Climate Consulting and CBRE and felt like I was repeatedly slamming my head against a wall because any time there were any incentives/regulations put in place to encourage clients to switch to renewable energy/increase energy efficiency you then changed the rules of the game (e.g. Code for Sustainable Homes, CRC, Feed-in-Tariffs, Green Deal, DECS…etc etc etc… ), and at the same time I had to work knowing that on the salary I was getting I would never be able to own my own home without the bank of mum and dad. I’ve tried working in the financial/management and technology sector for KPMG and Accenture, but found it soul destroying knowing that whilst I was making money, I wasn’t creating anything of any social value whatsoever. Am I the sort of person you want to disillusion about the value of work? Are doctors? Is anybody??? And for the people who are lucky enough to have a job they find worthwhile that pays well, how much of their time are they spending on bureaucracy (be if life/work admin or managerial tasks) and how is that a good use of their skills? If I’d stayed in engineering, the next step up wouldn’t have been being a better engineer, it would have been managing other engineers and worrying about whether they were making enough money for the company. HOW DOES THAT HELP ANYTHING? (I’ve never been fired by the way, but I had to quit my last job because I got a debilitating case of RSI. Which weirdly seems to have improved now I’ve realised they hey its not me – it is THE REST OF THE WORLD that has a problem.)
***From ‘The limits of Neoliberalism’ by William Davies. I’ve also recently been reading ‘The Happiness Industry’ by the same author, ‘Debt: the first 500o years’, ‘The Democracy Project’ and ‘The Secret Joys of Bureaucracy’ by David Graeber, Paul Mason’s ‘Post Capitalism’ , ‘The Internet is not the Answer’ by Andrew Keen , ’23 things you didn’t know about capitalism’ by Ha-Joon Chang, ”The demolition of the welfare state and the rise of the zombie economy’ by Kerry -Anne Mendoza and ‘Superfuel’ by Richard Martin. They are all very interesting, I would highly recommend.
**** We are not even equal in the quantities and types of these things that we need. And yes assessing needs is difficult, but you could start by ASKING people first instead of assuming everyone is an idiot or a crook.