Fire sale: everything must go!

“Ignorance is the soil in which belief in miracles grows.”
— Robert G. Ingersoll

Politics is a very difficult subject to have an opinion on: if we all agreed, we would all live in peace and harmony. Regrettably, it has been turned into something about as exciting, interesting and attractive as being chopped continuously in the bollocks with a rusty axe. It is this general “good grief, not more of this crap” attitude that our glorious leaders have instilled upon us that creates the precise warm cozy environment for terrible, terrible things to happen. It is generally foolish, especially without alcohol, to talk about politics in detail – one risks alienating one’s friends, damaging one’s career or just looking like a complete nincompoop. I suspect I will manage the latter with ease; the others? Meh, I am too old to cause too much damage to either – any friends left at this point won’t be surprised and no one hires me for my political views, that’s for sure.

Python Churchsnake

Python Churchsnake gives a rousing speech to the Houses of Snaklement

I have had some thoroughly interesting conversations recently about politics with people who’s opinion I greatly value. What has been staggeringly interesting is that regardless of where we stand or where we start, we always end up at the same conclusion: education has the power to lift us into a better future. Then, we realise that the benefits of such investment would not be obvious for perhaps a decade and as a result are about as attractive to politicians as admitting three affairs before breakfast and then claiming the condoms, vibrators and anal beads on expenses. The price we pay for a regularly elected democracy would appear to be a dangerous tendency towards short-termism.

I don’t know what is happening in your country right now, but in the UK, we are having a fire sale in the name of cost cutting and avoiding bankruptcy. Of course, the actual savings from these cuts are microscopic in comparison to the overall problem and are thus a drop in the ocean. Even the most generous spin cannot claim that this is a case of pow, zoom, problems solved! When you are losing a grand a month, saving two cents is not worth the effort. Spin it right, get the press on side and wax lyrical long enough about the need for us to all make huge sacrifices for petty amounts and people actually start believing it. In the meanwhile, everything must go! Remember this and remember it well: destruction is far, far easier than construction. In ten or twenty years time, people will look back on the wholesale disassembly of the network of support and services for the people of this country and will say “well, that was a shit idea.” It will, beyond a shadow of a doubt, cost ten times as much to put it all back than it cost to take it apart.

So who is affected? Those that are already comfortably well off will generally ride such cutbacks fine. Those entrepreneurs capable of sleeping at night whilst making a bad situation worse might set up “pay-day” loan companies and charge the desperate over 4,200%APR for short-term loans. In the meanwhile, those who will not so well off will see their local services slashed to mere ghosts of their former selves. As is usual in situations like this, the majority will subsidise the mistakes of the minority.

Then there is the cost of education. Recently, Universities in the UK have been told that they can charge up to 9,000 per year for providing an education to their students. Of course, when it was announced, it was made clear that just because they could charge nine grand, they probably wouldn’t. The Daily Mash summed up how ridiculously unrealistic that position is. The problem here is that Universities are not just institutes of education: they are generally state-supported businesses that provide education. They must make a profit or they are unable to pay their way. They are incentivised to make these profits as, like any business, they have to keep the lights on somehow and with less and less government support they have to recover their costs from other sources such as the students themselves.

Our system of democracy has many advantages: it is highly effective at preventing dictatorships, it dampens and prevents extremes from taking root, it eliminates long-term stagnation and it provides a highly effective illusion of freedom (and not a bad actual level of freedom, either). However, when being in power is a privilege that is potentially just four years long, there is a huge tendency towards short-term policies. Low-risk strategies that won’t rock the boat too much are far more attractive than risky investments in new and exciting ideas. After all, if you are in power for just a short time, what incentive is there to embark on any massive investment program that won’t pay off in time for you to take credit for it? Let’s face it, you barely have time to do favours for your mates in industry to ensure that you have a lucrative post-politics career of non-executive directorships, consultancy work and after dinner speaking, let alone make the country a better place. No, it’s far easier to operate the standard three phase approach: 1) blame the country’s woes on the previous government, 2) do nothing that could result in complete armageddon and 3) ensure that you and your friends are sorted for the future. In the meanwhile, should you feel the need, there are plenty of little baby things that you can do to keep the masses amused and not engaged in civil war.

The reason why we, the people, entrust some things to government is not because they are inherently more trustworthy, but because they are for the people, more accountable, open to scrutiny and we can pull a giant switcheroo on them every few years if we are unhappy. Politicians can’t fart in public without someone screaming for their resignation whereas if people had the slightest idea of what happened behind the closed doors of some businesses they would lose faith in humanity altogether. Companies are generally more efficient and innovative than government, but they are not charities. They are responsible for themselves and their shareholders: customers often come a poor third, particularly where consumer choice is limited. The government, on the other hand, is like a giant country-sized company in which we are all equal shareholders: ensuring society is appropriately informed to be able to use their shareholding wisely would appear to be a sensible move.

As a civilised society there are some things that we don’t want to be run purely for profit. Should a company do collectible vouchers to provide schools with books, even the non-cynical believe that they are doing so purely as an exercise in marketing and customer retention rather than a deep seated belief that life would be more complete if only someone thought of the children. You wouldn’t want health care or education to be refused to you because you are poor and you would be enraged and horrified if the fire service wanted your credit card before saving your house1. Likewise, after years of paying your taxes, you would expect the state to look after you in event of a life changing event such as a serious illness or unemployment. We support these non-profit activities because they are right, not because they make money.

The socialism end of the political scale would suggest that much more should be owned and operated by the government (public transport and primary utilities are one example) but at the other end there is the belief that the economics of competition and driving shareholder value creates an essential environment for innovation and economic growth. Needless to say, big companies doing well should in theory employ more taxpayers and pay more tax themselves thus ensuring that everyone wins… that is, unless their highly paid accountants can figure out ways of avoiding it (paradoxically – and this isn’t an excuse – high taxes for high earners, both corporate and individual, motivate tax avoidance thus helping keep those high taxes high). The true answer is probably some magical mixture in the middle with an ingredient yet to be discovered or understood: something new that doesn’t simplify the problem into a woefully inadequate two-dimensional left and right (it’s a curious irony that Marx might have been right about capitalism but utterly wrong about communism). I consulted the Hong Kong book of Kung Fu but all it had to say was something about not getting stuck in filing cabinets.

Whilst we have riots in the streets, increased unemployment, no faith at all by the markets in either our banking system or our biggest businesses and more and more people falling into poverty, it is easy to find things to blame. Our prime minister, for example, his government and various members of the opposition parties came up with all sorts of bollocks to explain the recent riots in London. Most of these are deliberately “light” – they are unprovable and there are plenty of cheap, obvious ways to look like you are dealing with them without actually having to do much. For me, though, no matter how much I think about it, I always end up back at education as the underlying universal solution: arm people with the braiiiins to help themselves.

I believe that a world-class education ought to be a fundamental right of every human being in this country and that institutes of education and all those working inside them ought to be treated with the importance that they deserve, given what we entrust unto them. At no point in human history did life get worse when education was either improved or provided to a broader range of people – particularly if the integrity and quality of that education is protected by law from interference from corporate, political or religious entities. By bringing up a new generation of people smarter than us, we furnish ourselves with an insurance policy for the future (i.e., you can think of this selfishly and still justify it). As an added bonus, the more smart people there are, the less incentive and ability there is for a minority of bright people to create, foster or perpetuate an autocracy of any kind.

Quality, free-at-the-point-of-delivery2 education for all might just be the best way of polishing up a prosperous future because smart people are better armed to do smart things. They create new businesses, they discover new things, they live healthier, richer (literally and figuratively) lives and require less support from the state. The goal is for us all to spend more time with our friends and families, retire earlier, lead higher quality lives and pay less tax – indeed, the complete polar opposite to the dismantling of our current system which was, previously, at least, on the correct side of encouraging all into higher education. Austerity is an easy to use word with an impact that will have great consequences that those using it will never have to fully bare.

Don’t get me wrong, I do not want to create a country of comic book guys: a world class education system should prepare those going through it for a whole life of further learning and should never be restricted to just the young: on average, the entire country gains each and every time an individual chooses to learn something new. Wisdom is acquired, not taught and education isn’t just learning facts, it is about critical thinking, questioning those around us, curiosity, discovery and exploration. My pants would be on fire if I said that I wasn’t attracted by the idea of a society where reason wipes out superstitious nonsense and quackery such as astrology, homeopathy and clairvoyance. Plus, I have to confess, I wouldn’t mind seeing our inane celebrity culture take a knock or six, either.

Needless to say, I may be wrong as I have neither a degree nor a qualification in economics or politics. I am monumentally badly placed to have an opinion on the subject, but living in a democracy I have the right to have and voice my opinions even if they are grade-a garbage (this ‘within-reason-freedom-of-speech’ right must be cherished and protected at all costs as without it, you’re fucked, and not in the nice bouncy-bouncy way). Perhaps if I had had some of the education that I am talking about then my armchair-general position would be different but a session of research along with even the blindest, half-arsed observation of the globe and history shows that everything from crime though poverty to market stability, health, employment levels, tolerance and quality of life can be linked to the quality of education that a state provides. Of course, I understand the concept of misplaced links; the fact that seaside accidents rise in the summer and ice cream sales also rise in summer does not mean that ice cream salesmen have blood on their hands. However, the link between quality of life and quality of education is light-years beyond anecdotal.

So my political party, if I had one, would invest comprehensively in education for all, even if it meant borrowing to do so. I’d also knock the school leaving age up to eighteen3 for good measure. I humbly suggest that it would support market stability, economic growth and private investment by providing confidence that even if we don’t have the solutions yet, we are working on it: inspiring belief in our country’s future decisions by investing in those that will make them. Education is one of the few investments that I believe will pay off and pay off in almost every conceivable way if only there is enough time for everyone to see the benefit of it before losing patience… but then again, perhaps some policies should transcend individual governments, eh?

1 Update December 2011: Amazingly, this actually happens in some countries. Welcome to the slide back to the middle ages, folks.
2 Just to be clear: I mean that it is free to the student. No loans or fees required. Obviously it is not free to the tax-payer but to them it is an investment and a good one in my humble opinion.
3 … as opposed to this ridiculous suggestion.

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