Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Workers of the World, Throw Off Your Labels

Let me tell you a story.

During the first half of the century, people looked at their schools, hospitals, transport systems, mail companies, prisons and a whole host of other services and realised that if they all got together and paid for them to be run by the state, they'd be more efficient and distributed/run fairly. So we gradually acquired state railways, a National Health Service, pensions and other benefits and government-run schools.

Then governments stopped investing in such services properly, because while taxpayers demanded top quality services, they didn't want to pay for them - except in genuinely civilised countries like Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. These services declined - not terribly, but appreciably.

Then a new bunch of lying, smart-suited gits came along and said that 'efficiency' was the preserve of capitalism, because 'competition' would drive prices down. The Conservatives fell for this hook line and sinker, because they don't believe in all of us pulling together anyway - they want competition between citizens. So the rich can buy better services and the rest of us have to put up with whatever we can afford. If you think that's fine, look at the American health service, which takes up far more of the national income than the British one, yet leaves 46 MILLION people outside the healthcare system, on top of a decline in wages since the 1970s. So much for efficiency. The drive to make a profit contradicts the desire for quality - you only have to look at private prisons, 'outsourced' school meals and hospital cleaning or privatised railways to see that profits are derived by cutting corners.

The little things get to me on a daily basis - not being able to afford dental work, Coke machines in schools, 'sponsored' roundabouts, adverts on everything. Prisoners given no chance for rehabilitation because education, drug treatment and pyschiatric help are expensive - and now my institution never mentions the social and intellectual benefits of education: instead, we have a 'business' model in which 'efficiency' conquers all. How 'efficient' is opening a new world to a student through a good book or a fiery discussion? Not at all - so let's get rid of it. O Brave New World.

Think of this: imagine a world without the BBC. No licence fee, you might think. Brilliant. Then you notice that the news is a bit lightweight. Fewer overseas correspondents. Less politics - your advertisers don't want you upsetting the government. Then perhaps the consumer investigations will disappear - your advertisers certainly don't want you criticising them. Perhaps Top Gear, already a whore for the car industry, stops saying anything negative at all. Your soaps start featuring little plugs for products. The weather report tells you to get down to B and Q to buy a barbecue - and suddenly your world has no space not festooned with adverts.

You kick in the TV and lacerate your foot. You dial 118 999 and after a while, it's answered somewhere in Southeast Asia. After some negotiation, a private ambulance arrives, meter running. You look through the brochures, trying to decide which hospital you should go to - the ambulance driver's suggestions carry a hint of 'on commission'. They all look the same - reassuring doctors, smiling nurses, TV in every room, but there's no price list and you can't tell which one's best. You give up and pick the first one on the pile. Oh dear - 15 miles is expensive, and your insurance doesn't cover the ambulance trip. Nor, when you arrive in a state of considerable delirium, does it cover self-inflicted wounds, and treatment will max out your credit card, so you accept an expensive, branded aspirin from a tired doctor wearing a Boots the Chemist white coat and a bandage and hope you get better. Oops - the hospital cleaning has been outsourced to a company which provides inadequate numbers of ununionised, untrained cleaners who, unmotivated by the recently-reduced minimum wage and long hours, don't make the best job of it. So you pick up MRSA.

Time off to recover? No chance - benefits have been cut and privatised, and you're not 'deserving' - you hobble back to minimum wage work and never walk properly again, and lose your job as a postman for one of the private services. You turn to minor crime and end up in a privatised cell for 23 hours a day, losing your skills, getting ill on no exercise and the worst, cheapest food available and picking up a drug habit and some useful criminal skills. On your release you find that your kids, having departed Coke High with no qualifications but a conviction that fizzy drinks help the world to sing 'in perfect harmony', can't support you or even themselves.

All this is because you don't want to pay taxes. Of course, it will only happen to other people. Poor people. You and your kids can go to private schools, elite universities and professional jobs - unsullied by the predations of companies owned by your pension fund and encouraged by the governments you vote in because they talk about 'hard-working families' needing tax-breaks, about 'choice' and efficiency. Not your fault. When they steal from you, smash up your SUV, rob your mobile phone, it's because they're evil, feckless scum who don't want to work or better themselves. Isn't it?

(I gather the US isn't far from this dystopian vision already).

All this, actually, is just a plea for you to read John Harris's piece in today's Guardian, in which he warns us all of what to expect over the next few years. It's grim. Here's a little bit on hospital cleaning:
Not long ago, I met two hospital cleaners whose jobs in Bury St Edmunds had been outsourced to a company that blithely cut the workforce in half. "We were always on about infection in the hospital," one of them said. "Instead of four cleaners on the ward, they said, 'We're going to put it down to two people, but you won't have to hoover.' Effectively, they were saying, 'clean less'."

Don't vote Labour - they love this stuff because it's not socialism and they're all joining the boards of private service providers. Don't vote Tory. They love this stuff because it's not socialism and they own the private service providers. Oh dear.

Sorry. I seem to have become suddenly rather angry. The sooner I move to Norway, the better.


Ewarwoowar said...

You okay Voley? Have a lie down, yeah? Can I get you some water? Take it easy man, seriously, you went a bit crazy there.

I say "crazy" because we both know that is not going to happen. And competition quite clearly drives prices down, did you not do Business Studies at school?

The Plashing Vole said...

Thanks for your concern Ewar, but on factual matters, you're totally wrong. Rail travel, for instance, is now massively more expensive than it was under BR, despite the government subsidies more than tripling. What a triumph for the free market.

The underlying point is that competition never truly occurs - price-fixing or economising on expenses to maximise profit margins take over. Even in volatile sectors such as air travel, the initial period of cheap flights is a false dawn - providers are going bust, and the survivors will raise prices.

Other than in some isolated circumstances, competition is always fixed, by means of tariffs, for example. I didn't do business studies - but I have done quite a lot of reading around Economics, which is the serious version.

The Plashing Vole said...

Oh yes, and it IS already happening: ISTCs in the health service COMPEL the NHS to outsource some operations even if it costs lots more. Schools are becoming 'academies', handing over control to an unanswerable corporation in return for a very minor chunk of cash up front. Many prisons are already privately run, and more will be. Hospitals have been forced to contract out food, communications, car parks, cleaners etc. My vice-chancellor has explicitly stated that courses will be 'bought in from people like the OU or Pearson'.

Ewarwoowar said...

Just to be clear, I agree with a lot of what you said, both in your post and in your comments. These things are happening, and it is worrying, and New Labour should be ashamed to call themselves "Labour" in my opinion.

But every few years The Guardian runs a piece/article about how the whole world is going to the dogs and how capitalism is awful ZOMG Oh noes we'll all die soon!

And I'll wager with you that in a few years time the exact same drivel will be trotted out again. Could you not just read a balanced and unbiased paper?

The Plashing Vole said...

I know, that's how journalism works - but Harris has a point.

Now Ewar, show me a 'balanced' and 'unbiased' newspaper. Seriously. Newspapers have readers and owners and advertisers to please - it's a constant juggling act. The Guardian is better than most in that it doesn't have to make a profit because it's owned by trust which exists only to keep the paper going. Its rules say only that it should maintain 'liberal' journalism - unlike the other British papers which are centrist (the Independent) or rightwing (all the others) but don't make their positions explicit.
From my perspective, the Guardian is too rightwing.

I also slightly resent the implication that my positions are a product of the newspaper I read. Actually, I read that newspaper because it's closest to my positions. I also keep an eye on the others because a) it's part of my job and b) because I'm interested in multiple viewpoints.

Finally - and yet again I'll display my ignorance - what's the Z of ZOMG for? I've seen it around a bit recently.

Ewarwoowar said...

The Z doesn't stand for anything, amusingly.

About a second after I hit "Publish your comment" I groaned and realised that I had left myself wide open for the old "Name me one balanced newspaper" card again. If I was to buy a newspaper (which I dont) it would be The Times, but I'm sure they have some major skeletons in their cupboard as well. Just dont buy papers, tbf.

You do reference the Guardian 99% of the time when linking to things on here, tbf. I know you are intelligent enough to form your opinions and arguments, just you using the Guardian gives me easy ammo as I hate it so.

You've won this battle, Voley, but us capitalists will win the war, just you see :)

The Plashing Vole said...

That made me laugh - as did the pointless Z thing.

The Times - Murdoch owned, right of centre, used to be excellently written but now isn't.

In terms of quality writing, the Financial Times is brilliant. It does amuse me that it's losing money massively, despite having the brightest economists around working on it. It's owned by Pearson.

jadedj said...

Just a word regards the idea that competition drives down the price. If this were the least in the states...then theoretically private insurance premiums would be low and very affordable. The truth here is just the opposite. Insurance premiums in fact have risen to the point that, as you stated, 46 million Americans CANNOT afford insurance. So much for competition driving down prices.

Unfortunately it appears that insurance companies here have once again gotten to our legislators, and the staus quo is probably going to remain in force.

Jase said...

It seems to me that competition may or may not drive down prices, but that is almost always prices for the few, particularly when it comes to large scale services.

However, the obsession with 'efficiency', which is always solely measured in terms of cash savings, doesn't even start to address the true value of services.

As described here very well, the monetary cost of services for the individual does not reflect the broader benefit for society as a whole. Consider public transport (my favourite bug bear!). The focus on cost per individual doesn't incorporate the broader benefits to our society and environment to be gained if we actually could effect a significant reduction in road haulage and private traffic.

The pursuit for lower taxes and cost by privatising, off-shoring and out-sourcing is a false economy for us all and, whilst our tax bill may indeed be smaller than other countries, the cost (both monetary and socially) is much higher.

That, I think, would be my two-penneth!