The best of all possible third worlds....
David Leonhardt, at the New York Times, has come in for a righteous kicking for his interpretation of the latest financial and monetary figures in the United States. In his column, he fixates on wage and inflation data to suggest that workers who have kept their jobs are in a better position, because of falling headline inflation, than at any time since the Clinton boom. Just seven days ago, he was suggesting how Americans and the west faced a decade with no income gains.
Please--integrate, integrate. The headline inflation figures are covering differentially rising prices, or falling incomes, which amounts to the same thing--best characterised as a reassertion of the value of things over money and money-wage jobs. Some things, which people use a lot, are maintaining their price or growing; some things, which are pointless or indulgences, are collapsing in price. Those are things which we used to buy a lot of, and define ourselves by. Many things, and in the coming months this may include staple foods and energy, are slipping away from people paid in money wages because they are earning less, or paying more in fees, bills, charges, or fines.
In America, people are also seeing employers shift the balance of health and pensions costs onto them. This is about to happen in Britain through the mechanism of cuts, which will increase waiting times or deny access to services. Many workers are also working five days and being paid for four. Rent increases and remortgage costs are through the roof. Banks are imposing usurious charges and refusing re-credit. That is their right, but in societies which built professional and adult life around the availability of loans and the capacity to roll over loans, that is disastrous.
So, even if it looks as though inflation is low--and even if you just look at year-on-year job figures--the reality is that people are in real difficulty and the situation will worsen considerably soon.
The interesting thing, in the proverbial Chinese sense, is whether the things that will worsen the situation can avoid happening all at once. So, for instance, relentlessly rising unemployment, added to a collapse in derivatives markets, a shock in oil and food prices, the end of the global commodity race, renewed strain on European public debts and the euro via the German banks, and a failure of a US or British gilt issue, if they all came together, would produce a catastrophic storm.
As it is, coming in succession, as they might, would produce a multiple-dip depression. I write personally; I funded myself through the bar, as almost all did, with debt, which I can now just about pay off. I've got myself a good teaching contract. I notice that the fees that used to come in in regular numbers now are regularly drawn out for months, and that banks that used to turn a blind eye to any stall in the flow of money have gone predatory and are sustaining debt.
There may come a time when rents, taxes, and interest combine to knock me out; but since everyone's credit rating is damaged, and since I have secured that good contract, through a good friend when I saw this crisis coming earlier this year, I may survive longer than most. My degrees were all funded, so I don't labour under a burden from any of them. I can service things, just. I worry for friends who cannot, and for those who have already been drowned in what has hit us, and in what will continue to hit us.
It's funny reader. There were good reasons why I sympathised with those determined animals rooting out the food and the shelter in the tube stations and colleges that I've reflected on before. I'm chuckling as I write it--but there are squirrels in Brompton cemetery to whom I've fed Imperial college biscuits and sandwiches, and mice in Gloucester Road tube, and Pigeons in various parks, to whom I am some sort of big orange benefactor, or a latter-day Benjamin Lay. Do squirrels have a mental world that would support the category of 'nutter'? Who knows? Even they wouldn't swallow the rubbish the press comes out with though.
Journalists sitting in offices in which they are feel a pressure to write happy stories, partly because they are all competing against each other, and partly because they write in awe of the rich who own them or a narrative which is dissonant to say the least, should be ashamed of themselves. They aren't. One of the few good things about this crisis is that the rubbish they, and many of their co-conspirators in the academic establishment, have been peddling for years is now being exposed as the delusional thinking that it was.
But--oh God, what is it going to take for our societies to see the pressures that people are being grinded down under? Human beings, people I know and you probably know too, are being broken under the pressure of this crisis. Saying, 'oh well, its their own fault or everybody has their troubles' is not enough. Posturing from our leaders has never been more grossly inadequate, and the the crisis of the west in particular never more exposed.
Times have been hard before, they may be good again. There are also worse places in the world to be. I've also learned over the years when to ask for money in advance, I've been lucky with kind employers and landlords, and I know when to ignore banks and utilities and when not to. Most of my contemporaries at the bar or academia are in genteel poverty, or under huge pressure, and many others I have known have gone under. It's a narcissistic thing to say--but I feel for them. Yet I'm relieved I don't have the huge debts and income collapses that I have seen elsewhere.
A stupid comparison, nightmarishly so, perhaps, springs to mind. Geronimo, I think, ended up in sundry wild west shows. As with many Indians, he couldn't be paid eventually, because he would share all his money with the 'braves' he saw in gutters and street corners who had fallen off the economic machine at the end of the nineteenth century. He'd been a warrior, he'd had delusional dreams of an arena, and he'd understood the valleys and mountaintops. He saw how stupid money was.
All those people, living in the dark and under pressure for something as stupid as money, and money enjoyed by others at that. Like my grandfather worrying on cold nights about men lying out at the boating lake in Corby, because in some distant past decades ago he'd lived the depression, Geronimo knew what a cold night with no hope was too. I hope none of us find out.
There must be a way through. But I can't see how, at the minute, and I trust to God and those I love and my mind, just to hold on. As I write, I'm sitting at a terminal in Admiral Nelson's old house in Bath, where I've been teaching. I'm off home to the train, and to London, and my girlfriend. One of my best friends in the world is holding herself together with her mother in agonies, as far as I know, in Rome. I hope that you are OK. Good luck to you, reader.