Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Looking After Number 1 ...

Following on from yesterday's post, I have to make some comment on the state of the western democracies in the light of the economic decisions and activities as I see them at present. Watching a televised debate last night on German television several things leapt out at me. Firstly, the German economy is currently strong and this is, in part, because the labour market is largely free. People negotiate their wage levels with their employer, not with some national minimum in mind. It has led to a situation where there are lots of "mini-jobs" and many on the lower end of the pay scales hold down two and even three such hourly paid jobs. Secondly it is because, with some notable exceptions, the employers and the unions work together and not in opposition.

The exceptions are the "international" employers and the "state" owned (or the state has a major share and say in the running of them) companies. Here the pattern is confrontational, and one does have to wonder why. The debate last night highlighted at least one reason. One of the debaters was a passionate lady from Die Linke, the former Communist "Socialist Unity Party for Germany" which ran the East German State with an iron fist, secret police, guns, walls, fences and all. She provided, for me, the perfect example of the passionate ideologue with little or no experience (or contact with) the realities of the world or the lives of the people she claims to wish to "improve". Her passionate interuptions, tirades and denunciations of everything and everyone who dared to say anything she disagreed with was evidence enough of her inability to recognise any other point of view, but it was compounded by her emphatic stance on the position of tax and ownership.

On the first, she was adamant that everyone had to pay more tax so that the infrastructure, the schools, the nursery places, health care and virtually everything else could be "improved" according to her ideal. She became extremely aggitated when it was pointed out that a large portion of the crumbling infrastructure lay in the parts of Germany her party had run for over 40 years and failed to improve. That the shortage of money for this everywhere in the western parts now is largely the result of it having to be prioritised to bring the eastern Lände up to standard. For me this highlighted the political divide across the west, between the well-to-do "socialists" who see themselves as "liberal, enlightened and benevolent" and driven by the desire to create a "fair" society in which, presumably, everyone enjoys a "fair" division of wealth. The trouble is, that their idea of "fair" usually means they keep the power and the wealth, and the rest of us get to share what they determine to be the appropriate reward we "deserve". On the second point she was ambiguous and rather evasive, but the implication was that her party believed they should have a say in who had what.

On the other hand at present we have the "conservative" politicians who are perhaps better described as "monetarists" and want a society in which tax is low (most of us would say we want that), government is small and less intrusive and they and their cronies, supporters and camp-followers are free to reap uncapped and unrestricted rewards. Of course they also believe that some of the wealth needs to be directed to keeping the less fortunate from the barricades and to maintaining infrastructures. After all, what is the point of owning a Jaguar or a Bentley if you can't drive it on the roads, or the airport terminal is falling apart and you can't actually use it to get to your First Class seat for that holiday on a private island? People notice if the lights go out because the power lines fell down, or the gas stops flowing through the pipes because the gas mains are broken. So they tend to spend just enough to keep that from happening, and by shuffling the cups (round and round they go - where the pea is no one knows) you can keep people from noticing that the pea is actually shrinking.

It may well be true (and I certainly believe it is) that our civil services have become bloated and that the senior elements of it are way overpaid, that our politicians are lining their pockets at our expense, but then, it has ever been thus. A simple reading of the tales of the corruption in the corridors of power in the 17th to 19th Centuries - which led to the creation of the civil service as we know it in the first place - to realise that the wheel has turned full circle and we are back to a very similar state. The corruption is less visible, but just as in the 18th Century contracts were handed out to cronies and friends, now they go to "preferred bidders" with gold plated get out clauses and inflated bids. The whole thing runs, as has been exposed in a number of political biographies recently, on a very selective and very closed network. One that runs not only through the upper echelons of Westminster, but through Whitehall and on into the major companies of the commercial, mercantile and industrial side as well. If you aren't in that network from the start, you'll find a very solid glass ceiling in place - unless you've the money to buy your way round it.

That network is the key to power and the real wealth of most western nations. One needs patronage, one needs the right contacts. One needs that all important "nod" from the right heads to gain access. A single "black ball" and you're out, forever on the periphery. It's a fact of life in the corridors of power, but even insiders can fall out of the net. As one very senior civil servant once confided at a dinner I was Master of Ceremonies for, "the way to survive in Whitehall is to be THE expert on some 'problem'. You must never offer a solution, just be THE person who everyone has to consult if they need to know anything about the problem." He went on to explain that sometimes one had to 'create' a problem ...

To this must be added a new phenomenon in Whitehall/Westminster - the Special Adviser. These individuals are usually students of political 'science' and are hired at marvelous salaries to 'advise' ministers on specific subjects. Some are straight from university, activists with a passion for some single issue, full of 'factoids' about that issue, but with little grasp of anything beyond it, or indeed, of any of the impacts adopting their preferred solution will bring. Thus we have the Chief Scientist being told by an impassioned non-scientist how ecologically unsound it is to use a diesel car. This, despite the said scientist explaining that the diesel car is more economical and less ecologically damaging to manufacture and run than the alternative hybrid whose batteries have a life span of five years. These cannot be recycled and the manufacture of them produces some really toxic and ecologically damaging wastes - which cannot be reprocessed.

Then one looks at where the SpAd came from and who his/her connections are and, surprise, surprise, there's a network connection through school, university, Party and possibly even family. That is the bottom line unfortunately. The Whitehall/Westminster/City network has existed for centuries and it exists in one form or anther in every country, no matter the ideological flavour of the government. It exists for one reason only, to preserve those in the "Upper Ten Thousand" (the classic 1%) in their positions of power and wealth, and to make sure their dynastic successors remain in it.

Can we change it? Probably not, since destroying one such network will simply give rise to a new one. The best way to deal with it is to learn the rules of this game, and then play it to your own advantage, not always the easiest thing to do, and probably a very selfish view. Better still, in my view, is to play the game, but with a moral and honest view to sharing the reward. That, perhaps, is what the political class is not prepared to do.

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