By Gwydion M. Williams
The Mixed Economy – Thatcherism’s Secret Vice
Technology: the World Not Set Free
Inheritance – Preserving Small Businesses?
Women Hated for Not Being Inferior
China Fine for Useful Foreign Businesses
Religion and Superstition
Free Speech and Arab Winters
Korea & Turkiye.
Heat Waves, Floods and Drought
Dickens’s Mr Micawber kept a fond belief that ‘something will turn up’, even as he slid into hopeless debt. And business people mostly take a similar view of Climate Change, which demands lots of the taxes and regulations that they dislike.
But most of what turned up was worse than what the experts had been warning of since the 1990s. Someone in their 30s in the year 2000 could hope that it would only get bad after their time – and if they were rich, they could protect their children. And politicians had even better reasons for short-termism. Promising lower taxes and fewer rules has been a path to power, and they’d be retired and rich before the disasters began.
Interestingly, the insurance industry is an exception. They prosper by charging customers slightly more than what they expect to pay out for claims. They also have to keep customers, mostly good at finding the lowest prices. They have to be exact, and know full well that disasters are more common than they once were.
The rest of them favour less tax and also fewer regulations for themselves – most are happy to get harsh about offences they aren’t likely to want to commit.
Business people operate within a complex society that they did not create. They mostly try to shirk any duty to help maintain it, apart from charity work they like or can swank about. This has got worse as 1960s demands for freedom easily turned into selfishness among those who made business careers. The classic hippy-to-yuppie transition was just the first stage. It’s no longer a distinct group: it is the New Normal in the West.
Letting their views dominate has the predictable result of social breakdown. A failure of even the economic growth they think they are expert at. Personal profit is just as likely to damage overall wealth as to boost it.
Believers in the libertarian dream deeply resent those who report its failure. Some even threaten weather forecasters for daring to report that Britain’s recent heatwave is a global disaster: very different from the mostly-British event of 1976. That year didn’t have the drought and forest fires of Continental Europe, where Spain and Portugal have the driest climate for 1,200 years.
Less reported by Western media is South China’s worst heatwave and drought of modern times:
“Chinese authorities are attempting to induce rainfall in parts of central and southwest China amid a severe drought and record-breaking heatwave.
“The Yangtze River – Asia’s longest waterway – is now at record low levels. In some stretches, there has been less than half the usual rainfall.”
But elsewhere, there is extreme rain and flooding. India, Texas, Pakistan; it is the New Normal.
As well as curbing greenhouse gases, almost all parts of the world will need a lot more reservoirs. Not just for crops, but also for river navigation. The Panama Canal is running low on water, and so is the Rhine. And of course they can ease flooding, as the weather swings between too much rain and too little.
Britain is unusually badly placed, thanks to dogmatic privatisation:
“Pipes, reservoirs and treatment works were once owned and run by local councils, but are now in the possession of a mind-boggling mess of interests that includes a Malaysian conglomerate … Norway’s state-owned bank and JP Morgan Asset Management. The consequences have been as mad as that suggests: between 1991 and 2019, such shareholders were paid £57bn in dividends – nearly half what the water companies spent on maintaining and improving their infrastructure.”
Too bold a policy for Starmer?
I said earlier that personal profit is just as likely to damage overall wealth as to boost it. Once, saying this was denounced as ‘ignorance of basic economics’. But now, even the Daily Mail notices:
“From water shortages to soaring energy bills and chaos at airports, greedy bosses have betrayed Margaret Thatcher’s privatisation dream
“Back in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher changed Britain’s economic landscape as she privatised swathes of business and public services.
“Her vision was simple: freed from state control, utilities would be able to devote themselves to investing in the future — and serve the public better.
“By the time Mrs T left office in 1990, more than 40 formerly state-owned UK businesses — employing some 600,000 people — had been sold to the highest bidders, with the total share of employees working in nationalised industries plunging from 9 per cent to just 2 per cent.
“At first, standards improved dramatically under British Airways, British Telecom, British Steel and British Gas — to name just four of the companies swept up in the Thatcherite revolution.
“But now the reputation of our privatised public services is at its lowest ebb since the Iron Lady came to power — and using and paying for them often feels like a rip-off.”
Hilarious; they are astonished that capitalists put themselves first. Capitalists who’d been told it was fine just to pursue profit.
It also overlooks that business people in the 1980s had got used to enormous Trade Union power, and a general drift to state control. Everything was uncertain in the early days, so they were cautious about being proper capitalists.
A duty by the rich to restrain themselves is a human norm. A mix of custom and law restrained them, though permitting much we’d now view as selfish, or even abominable.
18th century Britain let some of the rules slip – but we also had intense protectionism for the whole period of our rise as ‘the workshop of the world’. Our rulers pushed Free Trade only when they thought Britain would win on a ‘level playing field’.
A dogmatic belief that public welfare was best served by selfish profit-seeking came from Adam Smith. I detailed the dishonesty of his claims back in the year 2000. The Wealth of Nations appeared in 1776, at the same time as the USA was declaring itself independent after being offended by limits on its trade. It also justified what had already happened in Britain, with the notable exception of the big growth in the British state and state spending. Like the modern New Right, he explained it away as a needless burden. Something which the marvelous vigour of Free Trade had fortunately overcome.
The New Right will claim most of the good things in human history, and deny that the rest is in any way linked to them. But it was global commerce that created the abomination of race-based slavery in the New World. And the USA and Imperial Germany also rose with protectionism.
The disasters of the 1930s discredited Adam Smith for several decades. The preference outside of the Soviet bloc was for the Mixed Economy. Capitalism was allowed, but also regulated. State-run or non-profit-making organisations often replaced it.
A hybrid system is not always admirable. European fascism got as far as it did, because they were right-wing anti-capitalists and quite happy to use state power to control both bosses and workers. And after 1945, West Germany and Italy and Japan thrived by keeping the economic success while being centrist on social matters.
But the Soviet decline and collapse was a disaster for Moderate Socialists and the non-capitalist Centre-Right. Mostly because the Hard Left made the system unworkable in the 1970s, but resisted sensible reforms like Workers Control and Incomes Policy.
Yet genuine Free Markets didn’t work. What you have is the Mixed Economy practiced as a kind of Secret Vice, limited to where the elite see it as either profitable or else unavoidable.
Despite his divorce, Bill Gates is the nearest to a good man that the New Right can offer. But also committed to elite control as a software pioneer, though he has done more of the Old Right benevolent gift-giving than most of them. And Microsoft continues in the same spirit, inflicting ‘exciting new upgrades’ on users who mostly could do without.
Gates easily defeated the naïve libertarians of early personal computing, because it only takes a few tricksters or pranksters to destroy trust. Microsoft offered honesty and reliability for people who saw the new computers as useful tools rather than an obsessive hobby.
I find their software very useful, but also full of their desire that I should do things their way. One point – the windows for Microsoft Windows. I like to have several windows shown separately on a larger screen, but the system keeps reverting to stacking windows on top of each other. It does this even when there is plenty of space elsewhere, and I have to keep moving them.
Elsewhere I have called this the Sinatra Principle. ‘I’ll do it my way: you’ll do it my way.’ The man was a much worse bully than any of the computer pioneers.
Another irritant is their wish to push you into storing all of your files on their Cloud system, rather than your own machine. For Excel – or at least the recent version I use – this goes as far as removing the once-available option to automatically save your file every few minutes. I refuse to submit to clouding, but occasionally lose data from a system crash when I’d forgotten to press [Save] often enough.
I can’t held noticing that a central business-run storage for files would save a lot of time for US intelligence agencies. I’m also aware that any machine linked to the internet would be vulnerable: I warned of this back in 2000, when there was a widespread fantasy of the internet being beyond control. And there are other ways to hack devices, so if I had anything to hide from the CIA, I would never risk putting it on any electronic device. In real life I hope they do read it, including unpublished notes: it might encourage them to advise against some of their government’s current follies. But that’s just me. Central collection is certainly convenient, and a possible method of control. A way to sabotage whole societies when the USA decides that they are being too independent-minded.
But it goes wider than that. Another gripe I have is the bullying and unintelligent attitude of many automated supermarket self-checkouts. The ones I meet constantly nag me to ‘Please Take Your Items’, even when there are other self-checkouts free. Worse, I had this happen when I was unloading a large number of items. The check-out tray checks the weight to see you place everything and do not try to sneak out goods; but when it comes to being polite to customers, the software designers could not be bothered.
Nor are they such a good idea, from a human viewpoint. The modern business aim is to destroy jobs to make more profit. And it is not for better service – they adjust the number of people at the manual tills to keep queues tolerable, but still wasting time.
Profits matter and you don’t. Your concerns count for something, but it is all about power.
Most socialists have been hostile to small for-profit businesses, though the Greens have promoted some. But the simplistic Marxist formula of total state ownership has lost popularity, though the Marxist expectation of large capitalists destroying small commerce remains true.
For some purposes, and especially farming, small can be better.
For doing no more than be born, a few people inherit privileged economic security, and can safely denounce welfare.
They also get enormous unearned economic power. Often the power to wreck the lives of others.
How would I like to reform it? How might Labour change it, if our leaders ever got over their habit of being scared of Thatcher’s legacy?
I’d limit it to three times the average personal wealth. And not allow inheritance of ownership of a business unless they want to carry on with it. Have an independent but non-profit-making Small Business Trust to pay the value to heirs.
If an heir wanted to carry on, anything more than the three-times-average would go to a Small Business Trust. The role of the Trust would be passive, unless there was actual cheating by ‘siphoning out’ money from the business. But the inheritor would get no extra benefit if they later sold it on. Only the actual increase in value, if any.
It’s not capitalism. It could be part of a New Socialism.
One actress gets hated for being smart as the She-Hulk. Another for being a Native American doing better than Arnold Schwarzenegger when fighting mysterious human-hunting alien predators. Part of the US culture that gets the less successful males hating successful women, rather than the men who still hold most of the power.
A stratum of fools who trusted Reagan, and now trust Trump. And there are some in Britain, but nothing like as many.
People who accept the inferior position that rich white males impose on them. Want to take out their frustration on women and non-whites. But though media power is still dominated by rich white males, women and non-whites are a better source of both profit and talent.
It was worse in the past. I’ve detailed elsewhere the attitudes that Star Wars and even Star Trek started out with. And another case has just been in the news:
“The Oscars has apologised to Sacheen Littlefeather, a Native American woman booed off stage nearly 50 years ago.
“The activist and actress appeared on live TV in 1973 to refuse an Oscar that Marlon Brando won for The Godfather.
“Brando rejected the best actor award because of misrepresentation of Native Americans by the US film industry – and sent Littlefeather in his place.
“The Academy said Littlefeather endured ‘unwarranted and unjustified’ abuse following her brief speech.
“‘I never thought I’d live to see the day I would be hearing this,’ she told the Hollywood Reporter.”
It’s also said that at the time, she was nearly assaulted by John Wayne! How life changes.
“Xi Jinping has a master plan for China. Its ultimate goal is for the country to be the 21st century’s dominant superpower, both feared and admired. China’s increasing sabre-rattling encapsulates the desire to be fearsome. As for admiration, that is to come from growing economic and technological heft. Here, Mr Xi’s plan involves a reshaping of Chinese private enterprise.
“At first blush, this exercise has been painful for business. A crackdown against successful internet companies has wiped as much as $2trn from their collective market capitalisation…
“Yet if you look closer the picture is more complex. Even as some businesses suffer, others are thriving”
That’s from the business section of The Economist. I’ve noted before how their practical advice to business readers contradicts what they say elsewhere.
Heavily controlled capitalism works fine. The Chinese themselves note that Western predictions on China were mostly wrong in past decade.
And that’s just the current party line. I’d say, wrong for every decade from the 1950s.
Religions were made by humans, to meet our needs. And made among people who already believed in supernatural forces, and did not distinguish them from early science. The West gained when the theology of Thomas Aquinas made a useful distinction between natural and supernatural.
Christianity was not alone in unreasonable fears of unauthorised supernatural forces:
“Papua New Guinea fails to end ‘evil’ of sorcery-related violence
“Brutal torture and assault of women accused of witchcraft go unpunished while initiatives to end crime make little progress.”
Socialists and communists have been quite good at rooting out superstition. Market forces no good at all. The USA is still burdened by far more rubbish beliefs than Western Europe.
I was never impressed by the Arab Spring. And unsurprised that Tunisia recently voted to restore strongman rule.
Iraq remains deadlocked between two rival factions, both hostile to US values. Elsewhere, most Arabs now believe that Western-style democracy would work badly for them.
Meantime the attempt to kill Salman Rushdie was probably only likely in the USA, with its strong tradition of violence by sad loners offended by life in general.
The Satanic Verses was banned by the Republic of India before most Westerners had heard of it. It did insult Islam, with a tasteless joke about prostitutes taking the names of the much-respected wives of the Prophet Mohammed.
The claim was made that Britain allowed criticism of religion. This wasn’t actually true until 2008. Back in 1989, Tony Benn tried to conciliate Muslims by removing seldom-used laws against blaspheming Christian values. But these had been useful for squelching Gay News: officially for a poem about Jesus, but it also counted that they defended under-age sex at a time when it was still a matter the society was undecided on.
The entire Western attitude was never a defence of an abstract entity called Freedom. It is a defence of our particular understanding of Freedom, which a majority in Britain are entitled to impose for our own country. An ever-changing understanding. Liberals should not talk as if they were the ones who actually had a Direct Line to God.
Don’t forget that Shia Islamism emerged because the USA had frustrated secular radicalism in Iran back in the 1950s. Another case of short-term ingenuity, but long-term foolishness and failure.
South Korea offers peace if the North will give up nuclear weapons. But those weapons protect them against the USA aiding South Korea to force unification.
I’m sure they remember what was done to Libya, after Gaddafi tried to be nice and give up the weapons the West feared.
What’s odd is that US policy-makers are surprised that they get mistrusted. Likewise their media boosters. Worried that the only Muslim nation in NATO is helping keep Russia strong. But still scorn its wishes by calling it ‘Turkey’.
Old newsnotes at the magazine websites. I also write regular blogs – https://www.quora.com/q/mrgwydionmwilliams