Monthly Archives: September 2014

Lies, Damn Lies, and the Better Together Campaign

scotland-referendum

I entered into a Primark store for the first time yesterday and bought a few items of clothing – something which is out of character for me to do. Normally I avoid this store like the Ebola plague owing to the conspicuous lack of ethics displayed by this shameless company.

What I am referring to is their dodgy supply chain, consisting of a number of unscrupulous third world companies who provide very little in the way of basic workers rights and decent working conditions for their employees.

But alas, yesterday I experienced a temporary mental aberration. A moment of weakness, just lasting long enough for me to succumb to the temptation to acquire new clobber at a price costing less than my bus fare into town.

It was an impulse thing. Honestly. One minute I was strolling past the shop as normal, and the next I found myself waiting in the checkout queue with a basket chock-full of garments most likely originating from some sweat shop located in Bangladesh.

But here’s the interesting thing. Whilst in the store I noticed a number of signs placed strategically around the store. The sign read something like this:

          “We are doing our upmost to ensure all the companies comprising our supply chain are            continuing to uphold excellent working conditions and workers rights for all                            employees concerned.”

Upon reading this sign I felt somehow queasy, a deep nauseating feeling swelling up from the base of my gut. This happens to me sometimes when I feel my intelligence being violently offended.

Less you be under any misconception about this, let me explain. There is no way on god’s green earth that Primark has the slightest intention of proactively take steps to improve working conditions for employees incorporated within their supply chain. The reason? Doing so would sharply conflict with their primary objective of making as much profit as possible. (Basic capitalism 101).

Primark maintains its market position by undercutting most of its competitors. And it manages this by deliberately selecting third world clothing manufacturing companies who exploit their workers for the sake of higher profit margins. Here is the economic theory behind it:-

           Profit = Sales revenue – total expenditures

           Therefore:

           Smaller expenditure  = greater profits

           Therefore:

           Invest little or no money in anything not directly related to the creation of higher profits    

           (such as working conditions etc)

           And voila:

           You achieve your aim of greater profits

(Was that a bit patronizing?)

So what is going on with all these signs? Well in reality they are nothing more than a manifestation of Primark’s sensitivity to bad publicity. Concerned about recent negative exposure in the media their solution is apparently to do a bit of in-store PR. The basic idea I think is that people will read these signs and say to themselves “Hey, check this out. Primark are an ethical company after all. I can continue shopping here in good conscience now, and even inform all my friends who have previously boycotted this store on ethical grounds.”

This is what really rattles me. Primark violating the public’s intelligence in this way. How stupid do they think we are? This company has not turned over a new leaf. Make no mistake about it. They don’t give a monkey’s arse bone about where they get their merchandise from. This company would purchase items of clothing from ISIS if they thought they could get a good return on it.

So anyway, later the same day I arrive home just in time to switch on the TV and watch David Cameron on the news deliver his nauseating “heartfelt speech” to Scotland, where he pleads with the Scottish people from the “bottom of his heart” to remain in the United Kingdom. At one point old Cameron gets really choked up, the depth of emotion clearly overwhelming him. It was moving to watch. It moved me. Or at least it moved my stomach. Then I moved to switch the TV set off. For the second time that day I felt that familiar retching in the pit of my stomach, resulting from the flagrant violation yet again taking place on my fine intelligence. Talk about déjà vu.

Don’t misunderstand me. There is no question that David Cameron feels very strongly about Scotland staying within the United Kingdom. And without doubt he is experiencing some strong emotions relating to this issue. But his reasons are purely political in nature, and not anything all to do with the welfare of the Scottish people, as he was trying to make out in that speech. All we were witnessing here is a carefully choreographed speech coming from a man well versed in the effective use of PR.

So why does Cameron feel Scotland’s independence poses any problem for him? For one thing he is smart enough to realize that Scotland’s departure from the UK under his watch will ultimately, when the dust has all settled, mark the end of his political career. His premiership will no longer be a tenable possibility. Additionally he is worried about the possible economic ramifications to the rest of the UK. Financial markets bear a similar relationship to uncertainty as do Republicans to diplomatic solutions. The unpredictability, and hence lack of control, gives them the real jitters. Responding to complex dynamic situations in a level-headed way is simply not in their DNA. And financial markets are not much better. Also, Britain’s stature in the world will likely take something of a battering. The UK is well known to punch above its weight when it comes to international politics and power games. This has been partly achieved by cozying up to the United States (as exemplified by Tony Blair) and has resulted in the UK getting dragged into some crazy and futile conflicts, much to our detriment. These conflicts have had the net effect of increasing the UKs susceptibility to terrorist attacks. And the public’s ensuing fear of the heightened risk of terror attacks makes further conflict seem a more attractive option. Ultimately then, the effect feeds back into the cause. Simply put, the more we bomb and invade Middle Eastern countries the more radicalization we create. And then the more we feel we have to carry on bombing them. It is both self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating.

This kind of self-defeating cycle of violence has been witnessed many times throughout world history in various guises; attempt to get rid of one immediate problem through violent means and sow the seeds of yet another (sometime worse) problem further down the road. It happens time and time again.

In fact the United States war on terrorism is about as self-defeating as their equally unsuccessful war on drugs. And why is their war on drugs self-defeating? The war on drugs was designed to tackle two separate but related problems. Firstly to reduce the harm inflicted on users. And secondly to tackle the politically more important reason of reducing the violence and crime associated with the drugs trade.

Drug users frequently fund their addictions through criminal activity. The primary strategy of the war on drugs is to restrict the supply of drugs (usually by punitive means). But let’s consider this strategy for a moment through the lens of economic principles relating specifically to free market systems (which in the relevant sense is what the drugs trade is). When supply is restricted in any free market system it will produce an excess demand (or in other words a shortage). And whenever an imbalance occurs between supply and demand in any free market system it will act to change prices (in this case exerting upward pressure on prices). And whenever prices increase in a free market system supply will inevitably increase as a result. This comes from the fact that more and more people are prepared to go to greater lengths to supply a product which will ultimately provide them with ever higher sources of revenue.

This is all bad enough, but it gets worse. Demand for drugs is relatively unresponsive to price change (‘inelastic’ in the language of economics). Think of cigarettes for instance. People will nearly always find the money to smoke irrespective of how expensive the habit gets. This same principle applies particularly to harder drugs; providing a person is sufficiently addicted to some powerful narcotic they will somehow find the money to finance their addiction. And this commonly comes about via some form of criminal activity. Very rarely would a drug user respond to a price increase by saying “Oh well, time to give up my incredibly addictive class A drug habit I suppose. It’s getting a bit expensive now.” No. Instead they will go out and rob someone’s house or hold up a gas station or something.

The combined effect of a modest (an optimistic term) decrease in demand and a significant increase in price will ultimately mean that substantially more money is spent on drugs overall. And the more money spent on drugs the more associated crime there will be.

So the very political reason that the war on drugs exists in the first place – the reduction of associated violent crime – will ironically be exacerbated further. This is a classic catch-22 situation. Even if you win you lose. If you succeed in what you are trying to achieve – a reduction in the supply of drugs – then you push up prices and ultimately push up supply again, but at a higher market price. And levels of crime get pushed up along with it.

So what is the solution? To target demand rather than supply! And this is the only viable solution. You invest as much as reasonably possible in education, rehabilitation, and most importantly tackling the underlying social conditions commonly leading to pervasive drug use in society.

This may not work you say. But even if it doesn’t work you haven’t made the problem worse! And if you do succeed in your aim – to reduce the demand for drugs – then you have actually improved the problem! Contrast this to ‘succeeding’ in the first case – reducing the supply of drugs. As we have seen, if you succeed in achieving this then you create a bigger problem. In other words, even if you win you lose.

(This reasoning uses nothing more than the immutable and universal laws of supply and demand. Basic economics 101.)

Anyway I digress. Back to Scotland.

So what was really behind David Cameron’s so-called ‘heartfelt speech’ to the Scottish people? There are two basic facets to the issue of whether or not Scotland should become an independent country – an economic one and a political one. The economic argument is complex. In reality no one really knows what the economic ramifications for Scotland are likely to be. At least in the short term. There are just too many variables to consider. The political argument however is much simpler – Scotland gets to control its own affairs. In practical terms this translates into Scotland being free of successive conservative governments who the Scottish people never vote for.

The economic argument could reasonably be considered to be a matter for the intellect. And the political argument could be more considered a matter of the heart – for instance what it means to be Scottish. Alex Salmond has quite shrewdly focussed more on the latter than the former. He has been trying to appeal to the hearts of the Scottish people. He has also had to present an economic argument of course, but as much as reasonably possible he has tried to focus attention more to the emotional debate. Westminster politicians on the other hand have tended to focus more on the economic argument, whipping up scare story after scare story and devising ever more scary scenarios of rampant fiscal horror. This has been interpreted by many in Scotland as propaganda and scaremongering to intimidate voters towards the ‘Better Together’ campaign. And perhaps there is a large element of truth in this. After all, if Scotland is intrinsically a financially weak nation, aren’t they more of a liability to the rest of the UK than an asset? Why then would Westminster politicians be trying so hard to keep the Union together? Because they like the Scottish people so much? I don’t think so!

The Westminster politicians, having finally cottoned on to all this, zip off to Scotland as fast as their chauffeur driven limos can carry them and present the Scottish people with the mother of all bullshit speeches, packed full to the brim with emotive language, as much in fact as could possibly be squeezed into the space of twenty minutes or so (“our family of nations” and “I would be absolutely heartbroken to see you leave us” and so on, ad nauseam). Basically Cameron is attempting to respond like for like, matching Alex Salmond’s emotional appeals to the Scottish people with his own emotional rhetoric.

So how do I feel about the prospect of Scottish independence? Somewhat ambivalent to be honest. I genuinely feel the Scottish people will be better off not being controlled by successive Conservative governments which they didn’t vote for. I appreciate the fact that independance is terra incognita for Scotland. But there are always risks associated with change. Without question some of these risks have been overplayed for political reasons. But no one is saying independence will come without any risk whatsoever. As always when making life changing decisions one has to balance potential risks with potential payoffs. And in this case, doing so should orientate people more towards independence than staying in the union, and the chance of a brighter future that this could potentially bring.

From what I can see Scotland has a much stronger sense of what a fairer society means. One that does not constantly blame the poor for the wrongdoings of the rich, and does not keep sending their working class men to fight and die in futile self-defeating conflicts. No, they want something better. And who can blame them?

But here’s the rub. The rest of the UK will likely keep getting stuck with the same Etonian Westminster politicians who do not identify in the slightest with the working class of Britain. The problem is that without the relatively left-wing Scottish electorate offsetting the more conservative affluent regional pockets in England, we are going to get more and more governments like the one we currently have, headed by out of touch ex-public schoolboys who are really only interested in looking after their own kind.

I hope for the sake of Scotland they vote for independence on September 18th. But I hope for the sake of England they don’t. I think that neatly sums up how I feel.

“A core message is we create our own experience. We create our own reality. So if we want to talk about a war on this and a war on that we’re going to be creating a war on this and a war on that. Whereas if we begin to think differently about who we are and what we are, and what we’re creating, then I think we can create something much more harmonious and much more beautiful to experience.”    Natalie Sudman, The Moore Show, June 2014