The Charlotte Gore Blog

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The Big Society Bank Experiment

February 14th, 2011 at 11:28 am

Don't worry. No-one gets the Big Society.

I freely admit I still have no idea what the Big Society is. I know that, from the Government’s point of view, it’s about trying to get people to volunteer to fix things they feel passionately about rather than relying on the Government to do everything for them. Such a cultural shift would go a long way towards the ever increasing size of the British State, and the near limitless reach that it has.

Speaking of ‘near limitless reach’ they’re setting up a new Bank. Hurrah! Not an evil bank like the Big Four, though. No, this is going to be the Big Society Bank – The Little Bank with a Big Heart. It’s a new Quango, obviously, and won’t lend to businesses directly – it will, instead, lend to… er… investors.. and funds… and things. Those investors will then lend to ‘social enterprises’ and ‘New Green Industry Of The Future’ which, in turn, will create the Big Society.

So that’s the plan. The money it lends out, quite obviously, is your money. At least to start with. The contents of your dormant bank accounts are being confiscated cos, well, they can. That’ll raise them £100 to £400 million, which I’m sure they’ll be very pleased with. Then, after that money’s been used, they’ll begin buying money from the other main commercial banks at commercial rates.

Essentially, then, the Big Society Bank is a middleman between high risk investors – and the actual banks who, currently, because they have this legal obligation to make money for their shareholders, cannot even think about lending to The Green Industries Of The Future or Social Enterprises.

Such a state of affairs is considered a “Market Failure”, or “a politically inconvenient outcome”. The Big Society Bank, then, will step in place between the Investors and the Banks. When it makes a loss, as it inevitably will, it will be the taxpayer that makes up the difference. That £100m float money – which, again, is your money – won’t last very long.

Yet the Government is insistent that the Big Society Bank won’t make a loss, that it will pay for itself and from it will bloom the businesses of the Future.

If this is true, the obvious question is this: Why is Government having to set up a Bank like this? Wouldn’t it be more ‘Big Society’ if people did this themselves?

There’s two possible reasons. The first is that the barrier to entry into UK banking is as steep as they come. Not even Richard Branson can get a banking licence. Alan Sugar? No chance. Virtually every banking brand you see belongs to one of the Big Four banks, using their operating licence.

In addition to the sheer nightmare and cost of getting a banking licence, the current climate surrounding banks means that our new people powered Big Hearted Bank would be subject to the same levies, the same tax regime, the same regulatory structure. The need to make enormous quantities of money just to stay afloat would override all other concerns.

The second reason is this: Banks are only lending – when they lend at all – to very low risk enterprises at the moment. Green Tech and Social Enterprise are very, very, very high risk. No bank could survive with a portfolio comprised entirely of long shots and losers and charity cases, but the new bank won’t even be doing that – they’ll be putting your money into the hands of other people that are utterly detached from the source of the money or the people who underwrite it – that’s you, by the way. They’ll hope that the Investors are wise and clever and able to pick out the winners and losers with an unerring degree of accuracy.

As far as a business strategy goes, it’s not a very strong one. In fact, I suspect the only people who’d lend me money to start such a bank (if I were foolish enough to attempt it) would be… I guess… The Big Society Bank itself.

This fact is, I think, important. I think it’s the crux of the matter.

Of course, the bank – and most importantly the Government – won’t be to blame when the Big Four demand their money back when The Big Society Bank goes bust. The companies who ultimately spend the money won’t get the blame, either – after all, they’ll have tried their best. No, it’ll be the “evil” speculators and investors who will get the blame. It’s all very neat. Win win for everyone, obviously. Politicians AND banks! Everyone!

Now, will someone please explain what the difference between the Big State and the Big Society is because, from here, I can’t see it. This looks like protectionism and planning: reinvented and rebranded, but ultimately the same toxic mess it always proves to be.

On Dependency

February 5th, 2011 at 12:00 pm

A very long rambling essay which should not be read.

Despite the radical change in perceptions of the state of the country in the eyes of supporters and opponents of the current Government, very little has actually changed and, when all is said and done very little will have changed by the time they leave.

We will still be a nation fighting amongst ourselves over who gets the money and who has to pay – the sight of students acting as self-righteous citizen tax collectors demanding enough money from Vodafone to subsidise their own tuition fees illustrates this with depressing clarity.

The machinery of Britain’s surveillance state remains in place, the civil liberties we lost under Labour haven’t been restored and judging by the hideous exercise in double-think that the new Control Order system has turned out to be it would be unwise to expect much, if anything, from this particular Government.

We’re still a heavily taxed, heavily regulated country dominated by vested interests. That’s certainly not going to change under the Coalition.

And, most importantly, the majority of people seem to believe that if something’s worth having, the Government should pay for it. Dependence, we’re told, is not a sign of failure. There’s no shame, it is said, in relying on your fellow man.

Well, I think this is wrong.

Whilst it’s true that the vast majority of people will not really notice much difference between the state of the country at the end of this term of Government and the end of the last term, a small minority – the losers in the current reallocation of resources – will feel some quite striking changes in their own lives. There’s always winners and losers when Governments change hands and the winners of today are tomorrow’s losers

One group who’ll feel it most sharply are those who’ll have to move home as a result of Housing Benefit caps. Moving home is always a stressful, unpleasant experience and to combine that with the humiliation of having to leave a house because the taxpayer is no longer willing to pay such a steep rent (with the implication that the tenant has been greedy and inconsiderate of the taxpayer in choosing their current home)… well it’s safe to say I have some sympathy. I’m not entirely inhuman, it turns out, but that doesn’t mean to say I’m against the housing benefit caps or that this should be stopped.

Instead I’m going to use this as an example to illustrate that “there’s nothing wrong with being dependant on others” is as disgusting a lie as ever there was.

Living in a house on Housing Benefit is not, and never could be, a like for like substitute for owning your own home.

By asking someone else to pay your rent, you surrender control. You live in property that costs no more than the person paying is willing to pay, or you make up the difference yourself. You can’t hold the person paying to a guarantee to pay indefinitely. You lose, automatically, the ability to control how long you live in a particular property because you have placed such matters in the hands of someone else. You are, literally, at their mercy.

This is, by its very nature, is not a very attractive state of affairs to find yourself in – having been through it myself several times I know it to be utterly degrading, humiliating and destructive to what little self-esteem I have… but it is the price of getting for free what others have to work to pay for. You trade your dignity and your autonomy for it, and you hope and pray that the person in control isn’t a sadist who takes pleasure in abusing those who have no choice but to suffer whatever is inflicted.

In a polite, civilised society we prefer to leave this reality unspoken. We understand that there are people who have no choice but to take whatever they can get in order simply to survive, and it seems callous and cruel to compound the simple fact of having to live this way with reminding them that it is so.

By asking them to move somewhere cheaper, however, the Government has indeed reminded us all that it is so. Their cruelty is in exposing the lie that people who get to live in posh parts of London that normal people couldn’t hope to afford are somehow ‘lucky’. They are not.

This, they say, is the evil of Capitalism, this edge case of what happens to people who don’t have the means to support the lifestyle they’re actually living without charity from others.

Yet the alternative proposed is that the right to use money to take control and achieve autonomy is removed from all, to throw all of humanity into collectively owned housing with rent being a matter of what one can afford to pay, entirely disconnected from how much a particular property – or more likely room within a property – is worth, and where one lives becomes a matter of where you’re told to live and how much influence you have with the people who make such decisions. This is what the abolition of private property actually means.

Then we’d be equal? Then it’d be better? I think not.

It’s quite one thing to live in a society that grants people who live on welfare a certain measure of dignity and chooses – yes, chooses – not to be wilfully cruel or sadistic. It’s quite another to assume this means that there’s no difference between dependence and independence.

Save the Libraries… then what?

January 16th, 2011 at 6:08 pm

When it comes to libraries, everyone's a conservative. Except the Conservatives. And me. And probably some others, as yet unidentified.

Libraries.

On the one hand they need to justify their existence beyond merely a source of free books for the unemployed, underemployed, pensioners, and children or people who simply think books don’t justify spending any money on at all. They represent the dream of universal access to literature and information, and in doing so, it is hoped, act as a civilising influence, making people better. They’re a badge that say, “Look at us! We’re enlightened!”

On the other hand, libraries also have to be a bit crap. A limited selection, grubby tattered books, rationing. They need to leave enough people willing to buy their own books so that publishers continue to publish books and writers continue to write. If everyone used the library exclusively, they would quickly become little more than museums commemorating a long dead publishing industry.

If I were the sort of person that didn’t care about taxing the arse off people or the consequences of doing so, and wanted to reinvent the whole concept of “free” access to information for the 21st Century, I’d close all the libraries down and hand out a free e-Reader and simply invoice the taxpayer for every single book downloaded. Luckily I’m not, yet even with this, even with all of publishing at their fingertips, I would be amazed if there wasn’t at least 20% of people that didn’t download even one single book.

I would also expect that, despite giving every person in the country free access to pretty much all of ‘publishing’ people would still complain about closing the libraries, as if it’s not the knowledge or literature that matters but the actual physical books themselves, or the ‘social’ effect of simply having such churches to the written word being public spaces.

The point is that books are very slowly, and reluctantly, heading towards obsolescence. It’s inevitable. The economics of digital distribution are too overwhelmingly against dead tree publishing, the environmental argument too compelling. In terms of accessibility, electronic book readers allow readers to set their own font sizes, their own colour scheme. Electronically stored books have the power to be read aloud or reproduced as Braille for the blind. Books out of copyright can be downloaded for free, current books can be downloaded for a few pounds. This is the future! Rejoice!

Sure, we fetishise the book – the act of turning pages, the feel of the paper, the smell of the pages, but books – as mode of data transport – have had their day. I’m a die-hard technophile and even I still understand the appeal of real books, but I feel my resolve on this fading. What about people ten years younger? Twenty years? Those who’ve just been born?

It stands to reason that the fate of libraries is tied up with that of books and, likewise, are going to fade in cultural importance. With every decade that passes, as more and more of us expect to get our literature and information from or via the Internet, the political question of “universal access to the tools of one’s own liberation” is going to be less about making sure there’s a pile of free books for people to borrow, but identifying what barriers, if any, stand in the way of getting everyone access to the incomprehensibly large source of information that we call “The Internet”.

I see non-fiction, reference libraries becoming something you’ll find only in Schools and Universities where they’ve got a practical use which morphs into historical interest, but increasingly this will be replaced with digital technology for the most up to date information and publications. I see most Public libraries closing or consolidating into regional museums, being replaced with ‘children’s libraries’ at first that are managed by education authorities and serve more as a free childcare service than being the primary source of reading material for kids. Eventually these too will close.

I see travelling libraries, in lorries, continuing to run for another few decades by councils until eventually they’re taken over by charities run by and for those with a sentimental attachment to books as a physical thing.

But I still think, even if laptops cost £20 and the internet was free (as in beer), you’d still get people who didn’t bother, who’d think even £20 is far too much money for access to all human knowledge and the ability to communicate with everyone else. Waste of good beer money. Give it to them for free and it’ll sit, unused, languishing in a cupboard, just some more rubbish from the Nanny State to ignore.

In a free society, people can – and do – choose ignorance. Libraries don’t even begin to address this problem (if you regard being able to decide for yourself a problem, of course), so when people demand I help save the libraries I say, “Do I have to?”.

It feels like a sentimental obligation towards tradition and the pretence of what a post-enlightenment society should be like than any considered answer to the very real questions posed by declining collective (or average) education levels (or, put less tactfully, intelligence) compared with other nations, and the devastating consequences that will have on Britain economically.

If we’re not the best, we need to be cheap. We’re neither.

Public libraries are the answer to one problem: “How do we guarantee that people who want to read books, but don’t have enough money to buy books, get access to books?” How long, really, will this be a pressing concern in a society where books cease to be the primary means of communicating information and literature?

Face it: The call to “save the libraries” may not be the right answer. Perhaps, really, we should start thinking about what the question is.

The New Terror

January 10th, 2011 at 6:35 pm

Yes it's about the shooting. Yes it's about 'violent rhetoric'. No I don't think one caused the other.

It’s the easiest thing in the world to be well reasoned and rational when the reasoned, rational argument happens to fit your own prejudices. It’s quite another thing to use reason to support an argument that you personally find uncomfortable.

The last few days have been very uncomfortable.

A man in Arizona (I won’t name him) shot a congresswoman, a judge, a kid and others. It’s a horrible, unspeakable tragedy.

And, like all other horrible, unspeakable tragedies like this, people rush to find the cause, the explanation, the reason. Depending on the circumstances blame is invariably placed on whatever pop culture the shooter might have enjoyed – Grand Theft Auto III, Marilyn Manson, The Beatles. Sometimes the blame is placed on The Media for their morbid glamorisation of other such killers. Sometimes it’s blamed on Gun Control, or lack of.

This time it is “The Toxic Violent Rhetoric of Politics” that’s to blame. Glenn Beck. Sarah Palin. They’ve created this culture. They’re to blame.

Except, of course, that’s unsupportable as a basic fact: All other Americans have been exposed to the exact same ‘violent rhetoric’ without literally taking up arms against their local politicians. And, we should remember, the shooter didn’t just kill political targets. He went on a killing spree at a town hall meeting, indiscriminately killing Democrats, Republicans, Swing voters and children.

The question we normally ask, “What makes people go on killing sprees?” has been replaced, this time, with, “what can we do about the ‘violent rhetoric’ in America?” and I despair, wondering how it came to be that this comfortable, easy explanation has been swallowed as fact so easily. We literally know nothing. Nothing. Anyone who tries to tell you what caused this tragedy not shrugging their shoulders and saying, “I don’t know” is making stuff up or echoing the opinions of others. It’s possibly only one guy that really knows – and even that’s not certain. “It was an act of Terrorism” explains what it was, but not the why.

As a nod to more rational thinking, some asking this question freely admit that Sarah Palin “didn’t actually pull the trigger” and then follow it up with a smug sounding “but”.

Yet, behind this story, there’s the seed of something else that is genuinely alarming. The rush to blame Palin and Beck for this travesty is not, in my opinion, the result of political opportunism or an organised effort to attack Sarah Palin, even if it looks like that. Even I’m not that cynical. I also think that many otherwise liberal minded and rational people are incapable of telling the difference between a mass murderer and a stereotype of a gun toting Tea Party member.

And herein lies the problem. A lot of people, quite understandably, are scared by the implications of someone being murdered for their political beliefs (even if the other victims of the shooter were murdered for simply being in proximity to someone with known political beliefs). There are real people who are genuinely scared that the bitter, twisted rhetoric that passes for political discourse in the States is turning into something that means people are going to end up dead.

They, themselves, are restrained. They understand that it’s just words, that it’s all part of the stupid game of politics. There’s no way they’d be talked into shooting a Republican, or committing some other atrocity by violent rhetoric.

But that’s the Democrats, the Liberals. They’re sensible and mature, right? But the Republicans, the Tea Party lot? They’re kind of backwards. Stupid. Possibly inbred. Poor hicks with nothing but guns and hate. You can’t trust them to understand it’s just words, that they’re not meant to literally put Democrats to death.

For Democratic politicians, the fear must be so much worse. What if they’re next? What if, in every decision they take, they’re constantly thinking about the possibility of violent reprisals from republican voters? What if they have to shut themselves away from the public behind fortress walls, afraid of facing the very people they’re supposed to represent?

But the fact that people can actually believe that Palin and Beck’s rhetoric could have turned an ordinary GOP voter into a killer is a sign that the dehumanisation of rival tribes is not limited exclusively to Republicans. The hate, the fear, the distrust – the feeling, it seems, is mutual. This sense of desperation to tone down the rhetoric has not sprung out of no-where. This idea that the rhetoric is to blame is feeding on pre-existing fears.

It’s somewhat comforting to imagine that if everyone decides that the rhetoric was to blame and things change as a result then, perhaps, something good might come out of a senseless act of terrorism. Instead what’s happening is that normal, rational people who’d laugh at any suggestion that Grand Theft Auto causes killing sprees are quite willing to accept, without any real evidence at all, that the guy went on a killing spree because of a tasteless-in-hindsight website, or brain-numbing slogans like, “Don’t retreat! Reload!”?

A collective knee jerks, and a finger points squarely in exactly the same direction it always points: The Enemy. Them.

You’re not the Lord of Me.

January 9th, 2011 at 11:36 am

John Prescott doesn't like the title Lord. Diddums.

John Prescott was the UK’s Deputy Prime Minister from the years 1997 to 2007. His name has been changed, by the Queen, to “Baron Prescott, of Kingston Upon Hull, in the County of East Yorkshire” but is, in fact, more commonly referred to by those for whom respect for authority and tradition allows as Lord Prescott.

I raise this matter because John has expressed discomfort with his new Lordly name.

“I don’t like the word Lord. It’s got a Lordly meaning to it.”

Well, yes. In many respects, that’s very much the point. The Torygraph continues:

“I’d prefer to be called a senator than a Lord. It has all these kind [sic] of implications and I get a bit embarrassed about them but it gives me a political platform. But for God’s sake let’s get rid of the word Lord and become a senator.”

Let’s see: To be a Senator would imply that the person in question had achieved their post democratically, that they were a representative of the people in some way. To be a Lord is to have done a favour for someone, or perhaps to have an ancestor who did a favour for the King or the Queen of their time.

To call John Prescott – who received his current title as thanks for his service to the previous Government – a Senator would be a lie, a fraud. John is a Lord, because that reflects the truth of the current undemocratic, favours based system that we use to fill the House of Lords.

But all is not lost, John. I share your discomfort. I’ll never call you Lord. Oh, no, please: Don’t mention it. I’m happy to help.

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More from the Blog

The Big Society Bank Experiment

Don't worry. No-one gets the Big Society.

On Dependency

A very long rambling essay which should not be read.

Save the Libraries… then what?

When it comes to libraries, everyone's a conservative. Except the Conservatives. And me. And probably some others, as yet unidentified.

The New Terror

Yes it's about the shooting. Yes it's about 'violent rhetoric'. No I don't think one caused the other.

You’re not the Lord of Me.

John Prescott doesn't like the title Lord. Diddums.

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