Saturday, December 24, 2011

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Nothing stays the same

Future, n  That period of time in which our affairs prosper, our friends are true and our happiness is assured.
Ambrose Bierce - The Devil's Dictionary
There was a lot of argy-bargy during the public sector strike yesterday, which didn't really accomplish anything. One young friend said that he'd gone on strike, "... if only to try to reduce the amount of rage I have been feeling after hearing people who know nothing start spouting off about how I shouldn't complain, because being a civil servant is such a cushy job that I'll never have to worry about losing. Believe me: it's not and I am." Now that he's got that out of his system, I hope he feels better.

I don't have a public sector pension or a private one; only a state pension plus pension credit. This is because I stupidly became ill twenty-five years ago, and consequently never made sufficient contributions when I was a teacher. Since then, I've never earned enough to pay tax. So none of this will make any difference to me.

Will any of it matter in a few years time? I don't think so. In my lifetime, there've been enormous changes. The Welfare State and the NHS were introduced soon after I was born, when everyone looked forward to freedom from poverty, free education and healthcare, and a comfortable old age. My first salary after leaving school, when I went to work in a bank (before equal pay), was £21 a month, of which I gave half to my mum for my keep. My parents rented our home privately - I never knew from whom. They didn't own their own home until after retirement, when they bought a small house with my sister's help. I've never owned my own home, apart from a small mobile home I paid a few £100 for, after my son was born.

In the last fifty years, improvements in healthcare have meant greater longevity for most people. Since Mrs Thatcher decided that "there's no such thing as society", most people have aspired to own their own homes, and, during the 1990s, many profited from the increase in their value. Salaries have increased, and so have the differentials between the lowest and highest paid. If I was a bank clerk now, I'd expect to be paid over £2000 a month. Where does the money come from, to pay the higher salaries and the country's bills? It's all created out of thin air. Money doesn't breed. It's printed.

Meanwhile, the world economic system has changed dramatically. Most people find it bewildering. What are bonds? Why are countries that appear affluent in financial difficulties? Why do so many people still live on less than a dollar a day? China has been keeping the American economy afloat for the past few years, as well as investing in schemes in Africa and elsewhere, but China's success has been built on the export of cheap tat to countries like ours, and now that everyone's feeling the pinch, they're buying less. This is a good thing for the environment - all that plastic rubbish, all that wasted energy in transport costs - but it's making it more difficult for economists, whose crystal balls are misting up, to say how or when things might stabilise. That's because they can't, because they won't.

The public sector pension row is largely about expectations. One of my friends says she just wants what she's entitled to. Trouble is, this notion of entitlement is based on a fallacy; that things will stay the same, or hardly change. When the state pension was introduced, and when pension schemes were started, assumptions were made about the rate of inflation, about how long most people would live, and about where the money would come from. So public sector workers feel aggrieved because they think that promises have been broken, and they have. Trouble is, it was foolish to make those promises in the first place. A young teacher, say, who's been told that he or she will be expected to work another forty-odd years before he or she can claim a pension, is feeling that's not fair. But think about it. Where were we forty years ago? Could anyone have predicted where we'd be today? In 1970, the world's population was 3,700 million. Now, it's about 7 billion. In forty years, it will probably be 10.5 billion. Even if governments come to their senses and do something, quick, to slow down climate change, it's likely that we'll have run out of fossil fuels, there will be more extreme weather, water will be in short supply, and there will be far too many people for everyone to have a job, of any sort. How can anyone predict what state the world economy will be in by then? Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, imagined a society without money that was basically fair because everyone played his or her part and didn't take advantage of the system. That sort of Utopia is only in science fiction. In the real world, few people see past their own immediate concerns.

I'd like to be an optimist, I really would, but, to paraphrase the Chinese curse, we already live in interesting times. They're going to get a lot more interesting. Public sector pensions? Forget about them. Concentrate on the important things, like where we go from here.