I was going to jump in the canal to save the drowning man, but then I thought, what’s in it for me?

One of my question blog posts. I will probably delete or rewrite in the morning. Written tired and on the journey home, quite near some dried sick on the train carpet.

I am confused, it is frequent state of mind. I think we should all spend some time each day confused. If we’re not confused, then we can’t be putting in another effort questioning why things are as they are, whether it’s why caterpillars become butterflies, what was there before the big bang, or why so many politicians manage to be venal and self-serving with such aplomb. Sadly, on tonight’s Monkey Cage recording, we didn’t have enough time to get to the apparent lack of plate tectonics on Venus or the imagined sexual habits of the Triceratops, so I had to be perplexed by more mundane things. I could have pondered on what my 13 year old self would have made of me doing a radio show with Eric Idle, the man responsible for my near asphyxiation after attempting to eat a bowl of ice cream while   watching The Rutles in All You Need is Cash, damn, I loved that. I did get him to sign my Rutland Dirty Weekend book, the older I get, the less problem I have saying to people I am working with, “I love your work, will you sign this book I eagerly bought when younger”. 

Instead, on this slow route home due to engineering works, I am thinking about utilities. 

Why privatisation? “Greed is good” may not be triumphantly tubthumped while austerity rules, possibly forever we are told, but it seems to lie under the camouflage of “good intentions of poverty for the good of us all”. 

I do not see how a society that aspires to civilisation, would put the means of staying alive and day to day functioning, into the hands of organisations whose primary aim is profit rather than providing. Water for profit, heating for profit, health for profit, transport for profit, light for profit. Are we without motivation without profit? 

“I would give that 97 year old my bus seat, but let’s face it, what’s in it for me”

“to hell with helping that pregnant mum down the stairs with that pram, she knew the risks of step stumbling when she had sex…at least twice”. 

Why shouldn’t centrally run, non profit organisations work to supply these things that are part of survival in a modern age? Can humans only strive if there is a cash reward, are we just rats that require a cheese reward to run the maze? Do we say “fuck you” to the aged, hopeless or homeless if the only prize at the end may be a sense of having done something for someone else. I’d love to help, but you have nothing shiny and I can’t take your wishes and hopes to the pawn shop and those framed photographs of your dead husband have no gilt edges. 

Can’t we imagine altruism and empathy on a bigger scale? 

Why must we presume that private enterprise is the key to success. How many more times to G4S have to balls up a job? Why is East Coast Mainline being re-privatised when after being re-nationalised they were doing pretty well for the treasury? 

I think of Slavoj Zizek’s line, “why is it easier to imagine the end of the world than a change in global capitalism?”

If the only thing we work for is a cash prize, then we don’t seem to have made quite such a bold evolutionary move as some would have us believe.

I went seeking the changes in cost for electricty, gas and water (adjusted for inflation) pre and post privatisation, but I haven’t found the figures yet. And what of executive pay, what changes too? I hope to fill those blanks in a day or so and be pleasantly surprised. Why the costs are little more than before and all that extra can clearly be seen to have been used in implementing radical new solutions to the functioning of the operation and delivery of service. Why the executives are barely on a penny more and the ground force have seen their wages rise at the same rate, seeing a beautiful justice in the ways of the economy and the rewards for endeavor. I’ll wait and see.

Why do we put up with “all being in it together” when some clearly aren’t and have no intention of being so as they mouth their policies while polishing their ill-gotten prizes with a barely hidden hand? What do we do? A sense of prickly powerlessness prevails?

 We are meant to bow and unctuously smile at the super rich if they pay their tax, as if an opt out from the law is quite acceptable once you are on the top table, like congratulating the owners of sports cars more than the rest for obeying the speed limits near schools. “You don’t seem to understand, imagine how many children they could kill if they chose to, and thus they are even better than the owner of a Prius who just doesn’t have the same killing capability”. 

Privatisation has given us choice, the choice of which spiv to rip us off, like counting a broader choice of burglars – “oh Bob is a better choice of burglar has he makes less mess when smashing your window and he can’t always be bothered to carry the really heavy stuff” 

So my question is – have the extreme price rises and executives’ benefits created industries unimaginable when run by the state? Was it really so impossible to restructure nationalised industries especially? If the problem is that being run by the state doesn’t work, then are the politicians admitting, “we are the inept”, and so must government be privatised too? Ah, I think it might have happened already, but no one told us.

Two nights of science, comedy and music in aid of Medecins Sans Frontieres, The Sophie Lancaster Foundation and Manchester University Scholarship fund are happening at Hammersmith on 12th and 14th December. vast array of secret guests, I did let slip that Ross Noble will be on 12th, but sworn to secrecy on the rest. Will Hugh Grant be joining us again this year to play the Queen’s Homeopath? Details HERE

Details of other benefit Christmas gigs at The Bloomsbury with full line ups listed HERE

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14 Responses to I was going to jump in the canal to save the drowning man, but then I thought, what’s in it for me?

  1. I often hear people talking about the NHS in terms of what they might or might not need from it! We’re not paying in just in case *we* need it. We’re paying in because we consider providing free healthcare to all to be part of living in a civilised society. Aren’t we?

    Privatisation surely only works when there can be meaningful competition. The competition between supermarkets presumably really does push prices down for consumers… although presumably that can mean a devastating knock-on effect for their suppliers… oh, and they put all those local shops out of business didn’t they? Then, as our consumer habits reverted to local shopping, occupied the spaces those shops once filled with little versions of themselves…. oh no!

  2. Mary says:

    I quite like you when you’re tired – great post! It’s that it’s sold to us because we apparently deserve ‘choice’, regardless of how terrible all the options are, that totally bemuses me.

  3. Lestrade says:

    It’s a curious debate, but I’m not sure price or executive pay is the only measure of what is most effective.

    First, you can’t assign the issue of greed to just the executives. It’s not like they are an individual species, the same incentives for greed and power and selfishness can be assigned to all of us. It’s not to justify privatisation or diminish nationalisation, it’s just simply that given the right incentives and power, we can all get a little bit self-serving and greedy. Which, sadly, under nationalisation, we saw among all levels of an organisation from the top down. Privatisation limited that greed to the executives, so it wasn’t exactly the solution we needed, but that potential for selfishness and greed is there at all levels.

    The other aspect is again, whether price is the right measure. It would be interesting to get the relative costs, but from an economical sense and geopolitical sense as (taking engergy) it isn’t as simple as additional taxes or exec pay. But without that data, what conclusions can we draw? None. Without that, we can’t create bogeymen or supposition as to who is to blame.

    More importantly, for those of the age to remember, where was this golden era of nationalised services? Even as a life long Labour supporter. Even as someone who has stood on picket lines. Even as someone who has protested in the Thatcher era and saw first hand how the police state handled protests, even then the access to services were at the whim of Industrial Relations. And were all righteous and necessary? Hmmmm.

    You’re so right with the question of the reaction to the faults (and there were many) of nationalisation was privatisation was wrong. The answer is somewhere in the middle, but again it isn’t just the fault of the execs, what role did toothless regulators play? Like in the financial world, they were supposed to be the eye on the private world, but they failed. Do we blame free market companies acting in their own interests as private businesses do or do we blame those from the Public Sector who failed to use the power and resources to control that and reign that in?

    Would it have worked with stronger regulators? We’ll never know and probably not. But then where would we be if we’d stuck with nationalised services? How would our telecoms look? What kind of rolling stock would we have for trains? Would we have had the modernisation of enegry and water services? We’ll never know, but again probably not given the decayed state most of it was in and the blackhole of funding that never went on infastructure.

    There is no simple answer to what will work to provide us with services. Privatisation works in some countries, nationalisation in others and semi-private in others. The part of the model for their success we’ll never be able to implement is the cultural aspect of controlling greed at any level in an organisation.

    Any way, we agree, I think. Neither system is perfect and neither provided the services we should expect or are entitled to. I just don’t agree that the whole blame is on the system or the senior management. Well, not until we can have the data to show us that is so.

    BTW, as a final comment. A Prius driver cut into the bus lane this morning, passing me on my bicycle for to closely and far too quickly. The car a person drives is no indicator of how big a twat they are.

    • robinince says:

      The Prius driver line has nothing to do with goodness, you misunderstood the point of that comment.
      No, it’s not all about executive pay, but it is partly about the overall cost and who are the chief beneficiaries when companies that deal with essential services are put into private hands. The utilitarian in me thinks that these issues are about finding a system that benefits the most people.

  4. Jonathan says:

    Couldn’t you and a few like minded eloquent souls put together a new political party? You’d get my vote.

  5. Don’t use a red pen on your post – it echoes the sentiments so many of us harbour but lack the energy or guts to express hampered as we are by our “prickly powerlessness”. You mention Slavoy Zizek, now here’s a man who could empower us all to soar out of our debilitating serfdom if we just spend some time (and time is sometimes all we got) to listen to his immense clarity of thought. There is a solution to our woes but it requires courage and conviction to start a revolution against greed.

  6. Sergio Graziosi says:

    Robin, you’re touching a nerve here. My heart is with you, but my mind stubbornly keeps finding objections.
    People like me, that naturally lean on the left side of the political spectrum, usually get outraged by all this privatisation nonsense, but I do recognise there is another, legitimate point of view, and interestingly, it is often left implicit even by who supports the current trend. I like to ruthlessly question my own assumptions, so I’ll use the excuse of your post to try and make the reasons why privatising public services isn’t so indefensible after all. Will conclude with the reasons why people that share your view (like me) should think about the problem in the critical way that I suggest.
    The starting question is: what are the drawbacks of centrally managed public services?
    There are two: size-derived problems and corruption/cronyism.
    Size-derived issues: there is no question that scale does impact how an organisation works. The larger the size, the more any organisation will need to be looking at its inner-workings, and will proportionally lower its attention to what happens outside. It will devise, audit and manage internal processes, and each new addition will progressively shift the focus away from the organisation outside-facing purpose and towards a self-centred, self-serving logic. Moreover, each management layer that is introduced makes the final accountability chain grow longer, and there is a certain threshold above which accountability becomes so distributed that it becomes meaningless (how many bankers have served some time in jail?). Also, more complicated internal structures make an organisation slow to react: think of how long it took Microsoft to realise it needed to have it’s own app-shop, a decent touch interface, and how bad their first attempt was (to use a relatively uncontroversial example of the problems that come with size).
    From this angle, privatising a service, so to create a market that is forced to have multiple players, fragments the service provision, putting an inherent cap to the max-size of each provider, and this is a good thing.
    Corruption and cronyism. When size is big enough, an organisation becomes an ecosystem in itself, where individual players will be able to find the resources they need (build a career) without ever having to face the real world, let alone consider what is best for the service users. The long accountability chain allows and promotes this, making it possible to become a major player within the organisation, while not caring at all for its public value. Not good. Furthermore, a public service ultimately responds to politicians, giving them more power to find devious ways to help themselves at the expense of the public interest. The ones that are nominally on the left will regularly present their initiatives as public-serving service improvements, and may well be able to hide their evil intentions in the implementation details (that no normal working person will ever have a chance to scrutinise and understand). So, big publicly funded service provisions, in the end fuel (give occasions and scope to) political corruption, another bad thing (think of some horrible stunts by people like Mandelson, for a real-world example).
    The first conclusion is: it is good (even if it does hurt my sensibility, and hurt it badly) that public services are not automatically provided by the state. This does come with some benefits, as it limits the size of service providers and the scope for corruption (or at least, it diversifies the sources of corruption).
    Yes, but private provision does allow for different forms of corruption and ultimately generates lots of money for top 1% and we all agree they have enough already. So, the obvious second conclusion is symmetrical: it is bad that one can take it for granted that (some, for now) public services will always be provided by private players. We need to challenge this, otherwise we substitute one set of problems with another, for no clear gain and obvious loss (see? I’m still with you).
    The other conclusion is that it is important for people like me, that would like to have well-organised, reliable and equitable public services, recognise the problems that come with them, and consequently promote some decent solutions. Fortunately, as the main source of problems is size, the primary solution is quite obvious. You want devolution, you want a short-ish accountability chain, so that a service provided on my door-step is delivered by someone that I can actually reach. The central state should act as a enabler, controller and balancer, so to hold providers accountable “from above”. The rest should be devolved as much as possible to public authorities. And yes, there is a cost for this as well: it will perpetrate regional inequalities (and other annoyances). But hey, we have plenty annoyances already, so I think I have solid reasons to believe that what I suggest (like democracy itself) is a terrible system, but still better than the alternatives.

  7. Every winter I think of the years I used to travel to outback NSW teaching an undergraduate art course. It gets very cold there, well below freezing especially at night. I had this one mature student, a lovely very talented lady on a disability pension who never missed a class. Then suddenly she stopped coming and after a few weeks I felt compelled to ask one of the other students if she knew what had happened to Mary. “Oh, she said, she froze to death, couldn’t afford to heat her house.”

  8. Calum Loudon says:

    “Privatisation has given us choice, the choice of which spiv to rip us off”

    Well, it’s also given us the choice not to wait 3 months for BT to install a phone.

    Elsewhere you rightly stress the importance of evidence-based policy. So what does the evidence show about the success rate of reforming large, sclerotic state monopolies to deliver innovative, responsive products and services while remaining state monopolies?

    (I’m well aware the same argument can be applied to state monopolies which have been simply turned into private monopolies – no benefit there, other than to the executives. As commented above, key is competition.)

  9. sam says:

    Touch screen first developed by US military, penicillin the government. Show me a invention, I will bet it owes a lot to the state, if you want to see a pure entrepreneurial place with no “inefficient” state, try Somalia.

    • sam says:

      People always use BT as a example of the wonders of private enterprise. It was developments in technology( by governments as it happens) that changed how long you had to wait for a phone.

  10. Pingback: Rigorous Ethics (part 1): looking at the conservative attitude as defined by Boris Johnson | Writing my own user manual

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