Uncharted Territory

March 4, 2009

Logan’s Run, Peston & Goodwin, James Baker’s loony ramblings and Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs

Filed under: BBC, Credit crisis, Economics, Film, Global warming, Media, Reflections — Tim Joslin @ 8:34 pm

I was treated last week to a screening of the 1976 dystopian saga, Logan’s Run. The event was organised by CRASSH, so we discussed the themes of the movie afterwards (and the 1970s haircuts!). There’s the idea of what the world would be like if we disappeared – a longstanding human preoccupation recently discussed, for example, in Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us. The film treats us to an the sight of an overgrown Washington. Perhaps the familiar trope – remember Survivors, Twelve Monkeys? – arises from a collective experience of living among the ruins of past great civilisations – Egypt, Rome, Greece, Inca, those of the builders of Stonehenge and the giant Easter Island statues, the fascination with mysterious, powerful Ancients reinforced in a thousand Hollywood movies and supplanted to imagined worlds in numerous SF works (check out Iain M Banks’ Against a Dark Background, Feersum Endjinn and Matter) and a dozen Star Trek episodes – coupled with the perceived Cold War threat of the rapid destruction of our own civilisation (as most memorably explored in the classic novel, A Canticle for Liebowitz). The scientific question of “what would happen without us” is an interesting one, though, so perhaps more on that another time.

Logan’s Run also presents a future of overwhelming state power. This was a common theme in portrayals of future (or historically contingent “parallel world” alternative) societies in the media of the middle part of the 20th century – think of 1984, It Happened Here, and, less high-brow, Blake’s Seven and Star Wars. The examples are endless, but less common today, when the narrative is more likely to revolve around external (or internal) threats to society – think 24 or even Battlestar Galactica.

We forget how the state became so dominant in people’s lives during the mid 20th century, and the battles to throw off the yoke – remember 1968 and 1989. It wasn’t just the Nazi and Soviet phenomena. The World Wars were among the factors leading to powerful states everywhere determining the course of their citizen’s lives. But even after 1945, conscription sent the youth of many countries to fight in pointless wars, food was rationed in the UK until the 1950s, and it was only after the Thatcher Revolution that the state’s role in housing provision started to decline. Globally, the post-war Affluent Society rippled out from the US, where it asserted itself in the 1960s, reaching the Soviet Empire in the 1980s, and China – where Tiananmen has postponed political change – only in the 1990s.

Perhaps it is my interpretation of recent history as a battle for individual freedom that causes me to react so viscerally against the scape-goating of Fred Goodwin, led by the dangerously influential, over-excitable Robert Peston. I consider it nothing short of scandalous that the BBC – the only UK website in the world’s top 10, they seemed to be saying on the radio today (though I don’t recollect what metric this was based on and Mr Google can’t verify this factoid) – presents a single dominant opinion on financial issues to the world, in the form of Peston’s blog. It is, in fact, the only blog in the hundreds of links on my customised version of the BBC homepage, appearing prominently at the top of the Business & Money section. I checked all the boxes and, looking at the selection menu again, “Robert Peston” appears on the same level as category headings, such as “Economy”, “Companies” and “Top stories”! It reminds me of how, in 2007, many UK newspapers contained News, Sport and Madeleine McCann sections.

It’s not just me who sees the hounding of Robert Peston as the thin end of the totalitarian wedge. There’s Daniel Finkelstein in The Times, for example, and – flaming hockey-sticks! – I even find myself agreeing with Boris in the Torygraph. Unfortunately, it’s not just Peston. Vince Cable is another who is profiting immensely by talking down the financial system. Here’s what he has to say on the Lib Dem website:

“In the case of Sir Fred Goodwin, it seems to me the Government would be on strong ground to tell him he is entitled to pension payments available to employees of bankrupt companies under the Pension Protection Fund, which have a maximum of £27,000 a year. If he feels that’s inadequate he can sue.”

Unbelievable. Let’s make it up as we go along, shall we?

But it’s not just executives such as Goodwin who must be punished, apparently. Look at this paragraph from a prescription by James Baker writing in the FT:

“To prevent a bank run, all depositors of recapitalised banks should be fully guaranteed, even if their deposit exceeds the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation maximum of $250,000 (€197,000, £175,000). But bank boards of directors and senior management should be replaced and, unfortunately, shareholders will lose their investment. Optimally, bondholders would be wiped out, too. But the risk of a crash in the bond market means that bondholders may receive only a haircut. All of this is harsh, but required if we are ultimately to return market discipline to our financial sector.”

Everyone must be protected from their actions, it seems, except shareholders! Forget the law. Forget fairness. Forget even the economists’ cherished but flawed principle of moral hazard. Apparently there are consequences if depositors lose confidence in the system, consequences if bondholders lose confidence. But… hang about. What about those crashing stockmarkets? Aren’t they one of the feedbacks in the system, ratcheting down business confidence and people’s willingness and ability to spend? Don’t massively devalued share prices make it more difficult for companies to raise money? If there’s a danger of bank-runs by depositors and bond-holder panic, then maybe, just maybe, there’s a danger of stock-market crashes if shareholders are wiped out, or if confiscation of their assets is threatened.

Value judgements and confiscations by government don’t help us solve this crisis – they make it harder – but they sure reinforce the power of the political classes and their media rabble-rousers.

I was minded of this on Sunday evening when I was trying to make a complex point in a discussion. Someone had earlier pointed out to general amusement that the UK’s Middle England tabloid, the Daily Mail, had, in the same week, railed against the ban on traditional incandescent lightbulbs and pointed out the money that could be saved by installing them! I rhetorically suggested that maybe the ban on incandescent bulbs had been counter-productive. Meaning, a better way to phase out the old type of bulbs would be to convince everyone that the new ones are a better product. Anyone stocking up on incandescents now in advance of the ban could use them for decades, whereas someone switching to compact fluorescents (CFLs) to save on their electricity bill would do so immediately. And are we going to abandon CFLs in favour of advanced LEDs in a few years’ time? Probably not, but those conscious of the electricity cost may well make another switch voluntarily. But apparently my comment about banning bulbs was beyond the pale and I was interrupted mid-flow.

Do we really want to solve our problems by state diktat? Or should we respect fairness, reason and individual freedoms? The latter is the only possible path that can succeed. If we imagine that we can only achieve our goals by capture of the state apparatus the result will be endless conflict. And we might not like the end result.

The Great Depression of the 1930s was a factor in greatly increasing the power of the state over the individual. Let’s not repeat the experiment.

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