Saturday, August 04, 2007

On to Edinburgh

Our trip to Edinburgh began and ended in the Malt Shovel. Well, our first and last drinks in Edinburgh were there. The place was thus our cultural ground zero regardless of the Fringe and other arts festivals that were about to begin. Yes, those are bagpipes towards the right of the picture. These guys haven't played together long enough to have a band name, but they were great. Bagpipe folk stomper rock? Their genre is too good to have a name yet either.

We did spend some time outside of this pub. Avery has a chance to live in Edinburgh for two years so we had a good dinner, evening walk, and morning car tour from the folks Avery might work with. We love Scotland, so it was great just to be there. Edinburgh is beautiful, and has had the brains to hang on to its Old Town and its New Town, the latter New in the 18th century and laid out in a generous neoclassical style as though beauty and people mattered, and belonged together. We tramped around a lot on our own, buying way more crime and other Scottish fiction than was good for our backs to carry back to France, and looked at regular neighborhoods like Canonhill where Avery might possibly live. I'm leaning in favor of the move, if it links her up with the Highland mysteries not accessible through higher ed. Edinburgh is still a fairly small town, and far away, even far from Paris and London. But it would be a great place to walk everywhere in Scotland, and northern England, all the way down to the Lake District. And Flybe isn't such a bad airline either, especially when your baseline, line mine, is United.

The pub band reminded me of the greatness of the UK Arts. The power of the various countries' popular music is the best known. Their fiction has been better than the American counterpart for a few decades - it's linguistically more innovative, less ponderous, less conformist. American authors read way too much of the New York Times, just like I do, and it shows.

The same goes for theater. In the UK, acting is a trade and a craft, not a pathway to commercials and movie stardom, and they do it much better than we do. UK academia is burdened with its inane Research Assessment Exercise, where the senior figures in every discipline destroy their productivity one year out of five to grade each department on a numerical scale that literally has a star on top (shoot for the 5*) - another brilliant strategy from Thatcher-Blairite market ideologues designed to tie up independent thinking in red tape. But in spite of this, all sorts of experimental creative novelty crops up in UK schools all the time. This is especially noticeable in the social sciences and business schools, where they are not like our American lapdogs to business.

Still, I am not the UK's greatest fan. Arts aside, I think it has contributed two things to world civilization: the pub, and the waiting line. In Britain people form a line to buy bread, to get on buses, and are equally good about the law of first come first served at the ever-flowing beer tap. Soon some New Labour prat will point out that the queue may have served Old Britain well, but after all it is a seniority system that insulates line members from market forces. Lines should be subject to an open auction system in which the highest bidder boards first; bus lines will be able to use the additional auction revenue to improve bus services through private-sector efficiencies. Until that prat prevails, standing in line is the best of the UK's public experiences.

director pointed out that you see a lot of people eating while walking in Edinburgh, and I saw a lot of that too - it keeps your mind off the food. I saw people lunching on coffee and a muffin, or eating prepackaged sandwiches sitting on the sidewalk. Britons are the second fattest people on earth and its easy to see why - given both market and restaurant prices they'd want to eat fatty crap and Queueing is better than, for example, using UK city parks, which are badly planted and tended compared to their French cousins: in France public space thank god remains an art form. UK line-forming is also better than long UK city walks, which except for special zones like Edinburgh's beautiful 18th century New Town show the hodge-podge effects and profit-maximizing ugliness of the ethic of selling out to the highest bidder. UK line-forming is better than eating and paying for UK food. I realize that Great British food is supposed to have improved through globalization, in which the rich cuisines of its former colonies return to save it from its brutish utilitarianism. We did eat decent budget Indian at the Red Fort off of South Bridge. But we were sent there because we could get out of the place for under the equivalent of 30 dollars (not even 2 dollars will buy 1 pound this week - the pound was between $2.03 and 2.04). The next night two glasses of OK wine and two bowls of festival food (Avery had spaghetti and I had the worst "warm squash salad" ever made) cost us $60. Peter the EAP director pointed out how many people eat while walking, and I started seeing it everywhere. It's better than thinking about what you're eating. I saw people lunching on a muffin and coffee, and lots eating prepackaged sandwiches sitting on the curb. Brits are the second fattest people on earth, and given the prices you can see why they eat cheap fatty food, and Supersize it as often as possible. My daily breakfast was a chicken sandwich at Starbucks (whose coffee was Britishized into burnt bitterness - quite unusual for my favorite neocolonial American food chain). By the third day, I and the brilliant cook Avery were reduced to bread and goat cheese for breakfast, bread and blue cheese for lunch, and bread and hummus for pre-airplane dinner.

The point is that if all your leaders care about is money, it's not going to taste good. It's not going to look good either.

Of course the best stuff is as great in the UK as everywhere else. There were the usual quota of mobster-black Range Rovers and fancy supermarkets. It's just the regular stuff that is crap, really much crappier than the regular stuff in France. Anyone can have a country with great stuff for rich people. The whole point of "middle-class societies" is that great stuff would be there for the vast majority, and eventually everybody. On this count, Anglo-American governments stopped caring a while ago. France is a much more decent middle-class country than the US/UK beacon of the world, on the basis of quality of food, information, mass transit, K-12 education, and everybody's public space. The UK has added the special insult that one can also find on the American coasts - good housing, eating out, vacation hotels, and other elements of traditional middlebrow living are blatantly and militantly out of reach of the proverbial middle-classes, to say nothing of hourly-wage working folks. If Middle Britain has these things, it is because it is borrowing the money. (See one official international comparison of rising debt loads). Modern governments are eagerly indebting their citizenry, since then they don't have to pay for it, but France much less so than the US, UK and Japan.

There's nothing accidental about this. For thirty years the motto of US and UK leaders has been "Business Knows Best." Their corollary is "Business is Always Right." Their other axiom is "the market does everything better." The financial and real estate sectors make huge money out of rising real estate prices and increased debt loads. Obligatory hand-wringing aside, debt the big US/UK growth industry, so why should they stop it?

Housing remains an most obvious symptom of booming UK inequality. I read The Scotsman whenever I'm in the country, and thus saw Andrew Milne reporting that the average income of a first-time Scottish home-buyer is 30,000 pounds a year. The average Scottish house price is 140,000 pounds, and that jumps to 220,000 pounds in Edinburgh (see the "Property' section for 2 August 2007). First-time buyer deposits have gone from 6,000 pounds to over 20,000 pounds in five years. How do you save 20,000 pounds on 30,000 a year when you spend 30 pounds for a glass of wine and a bowl of spaghetti? (See a related example of younger people getting stuck in the US just trying to stay in the big-city rental market.) Whole books have been written on the old breaking the social contract with the young via debt - see Strapped and Generation Debt. And don't get me started on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's obsession with funding new sidewalks and traffic lights with bonds. We'll use it now, the grandkids will pay for our stuff later!

Since I also read The Guardian when I'm in the UK, I saw the core UK problem nicely summarized in Geoffrey Wheatcroft's superb column, "They still use the name Labour, but now only sneer at the working class." Wheatcroft showed that the original Labour Party founders were inspired by John Ruskin's praise of labor and attack on market measures of mankind. The Ruskin slogan that inspired Labour, Wheatcroft wrote, was "There is no wealth but life." For Tony Blair and New Labour, Wheatcroft wrote, "There is no life but wealth." The enormous reversals of not just political power but also social aims flows from this flip from the vision of a world where value flows to work and craft and its various connections to and creation of the world. Think plumbers and also musicians. Imagine a society run for them.

Blair got Labour to repeal its Clause IV, which Wheatcroft cites in part. Here's the full version:
To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.
New Labour said it wanted to repudiate state-planned socialism, or the Soviet-style communism that many saw in the phrase "common ownership of the means of production." No one has advocated Soviet planning for decades, not even on the socialist left. Blair could also have cut or reworded the second part of the Clause while keeping the opening. We must look for Blair's motive of repudiation at something besides his objections to Stalin's 5 Year Plans.

Blair's clear record of mindless application of business solutions suggests that he actually wanted to repudiate a major obstacle to undiluted financial management. This was the belief in the social value of labor, since that meant that laboring people should have an enormous and majoritarian say in politics, which in turn would mean economic control as well. In the last dozen battles in the long war of economic elites against any labor influence in economics, New Labour has sided with the former, acting as though all value comes from capital and its clever financial architects. The New Labour Party is actually the Management Party, having not just given up on but rejected a real presence for labor in governing both the economy and society. This is the source of the prat-like nature of US and UK society. It also explains the supposed mystery of why Blair and Bush love each other so much: they both believe that money is always good and always right.

Whatever Blair thinks, any Labour party - even the Dems for that matter - should push hard for the great core of Clause IV - for securing for workers, whether blue- or white-collar, the world they actually earn with their work.

This is not now happening, as my new economist friend Annie Vinokur reminds us in an international comparison of student fees and loan policies: in the US, salaries represented 53.6% of Gross Domestic Product in 1970, but are now only 45%. Between 2000 and 2005, work productivity rose almost 17%, but median salaries by less than half that. Our neighborhoods and streets and schools look and feel the way they do because the working majority isn't getting back what they put in.

There's some good news for the trusty middle-class bankers and lawyers. The Bancroft family couldn't afford to take the relatively independent Dow Jones and its flagship Wall Street Journal and sell it to global media mogul Rupert Murdoch for $5.6 billion unless Murdoch paid their consultant and lawyer fees, which ran around $60 million. Too bad giving one of the remaining Rings of Power to Mordor had such a large transaction fee! So some bankers and lawyers did indeed get back what they put in. Just don't look for a flat in a neighborhood they're interested in.

Thank Baal for Thursday night bands at the Malt Shovel.

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