Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Some thoughts on the current global financial situation

David Cameron has been in China telling the natives how to behave. Not in the field of human rights, well barely; but in terms of commerce. He wants the Chinese to spend more money, so that more cash starts flowing around the global economy.

Some wags have suggested that he force opium upon them as of old, although there is some truth in this jest. For the opium wars were not just about one substance of use & abuse. Back in the mid 19th century, the British were all over tea. They were positively addicted to it, an addiction which has continued to this day. Unlike today, tea cultivation in China and Sri Lanka was at an early, experimental stage. Some cuttings had been smuggled from the east, but the only people who knew how to grow successful tea plantations were the Chinese.

The Chinese tea planters had no interest in trading with the British; all they wanted was cold, hard payment. And they refused to take this payment in any form other than sterling silver.

The British Exchequer started to worry about this one-way flow. How could they reverse this imbalance in trade and claw back some of their precious reserves? Their answer was to flood China with addictive opium, a crop they could grow in the far-flung outposts of the empire.

When the Chinese provincial governors realised the debilitating effect the substance was having on their people, they tried to ban it. So the Empire moved in and forced them to accept by force of arms.

That was one way to reverse a balance of trade deficit. But it's neither practical nor sane today, and not just because the People's Liberation Army's is made of sterner stuff than their 19th century equivalent. However, the money is once again flowing into China and not coming back out.

Some nations are doing all right. Germany has a healthy trade with China, but then Germany still makes stuff. Like luxury cars.
And like the Chinese, the Germans have come under fire for not spending enough. Too much sensible saving.

Now Cameron doesn't say what he wants the Chinese to spend money on; just that they should. I suppose the idea is that if we can get them hooked on great British exports such as shortbread, Ginsters pies and whisky they'll get us out of this fiscal black hole. Apart from Rolls Royce engines, the biggest UK export seems to be Premier League football at the moment. Everyone goes crazy for that. But all that does is line Wayne Rooney's nest with hookers and gin.

Or perhaps he wants some of the cash to flow back into the City of London, so that the bankers and hedge fund managers can gamble it on the next big venture. Where will the next bubble be found? In the developing markets in the far east?

So - is this what global capitalism is founded on? Is this the whole shoddy mess stripped bare? Everyone in the world has to buy stuff, stuff that we certainly don't need and might not even really want if we stopped to think about it. We just have to do our duty and buy tat to appease Mammon.

The citizens of China and Germany might laughingly point out to Cameron that our spend, spend spend culture got us into this shitstorm in the first place. Are they not wiser to put some away for a rainy day? Look at the example of Norway, which rather than spend all its oil wealth on needless fripperies decided to save it.

Despite the warnings, we continue to throw the money around. The tills will be ringing hot this Christmas. I was in my local Tesco this Sunday past, and the place was rammed to the gills. And the trolleys were creaking not just with essentials but with luxuries. Kia-ora, Dairyleas, Time-Outs, Blue WKD, all that sort of extravagance. The government may be cutting back, but many of us are far from poor:

The UK is the fattest nation in Europe .

UK restaurants throw away 600,000 tonnes of food a year; the general population throws away 12 million tonnes.

While in some Asian countries 40% of children are malnourished.

So how come such an extravagant, wasteful nation as the UK can be so deeply in fiscal deficit? Surely if we can afford so much luxury, so much needless food, so many pointless car journeys, so many DVD box sets we never watch, so many Jimmy Choos - surely we could afford to pay off our own deficit? Maybe we could be a bit more like the Norwegians or Germans. We could take the money we spend on all the crap & plug the hole in the economy. Because this deficit doesn't mean we'll have less fancy goods. It's all about cuts in services - education, healthcare, refuse collection, social work, even street lighting. Things which matter.

But to suggest such a thing would have David Cameron and our wise economists recoil in terror. For as we've seen, the world economy relies on us buying stuff. Even though the UK produces little of real value, we have to keep the money moving and moving and sloshing so that all those jobs in the retail & service industries are protected. And those at the top take the lions share of the money sloshing around and use it to buy more useless products but on a grander scale, until someone points out that the emperor is wearing new clothes and the bubble bursts. As with the American sub-prime property market.

For the last hundred years or so, the political battle has been between the left and the right. Between the free market and regulation, between socialism and capitalism. The left has been widely discredited, whether through the totalitarian horrors of Stalin, doctors working as factory operatives in Cuba, or the broken power of the unions here in the UK. Yet socialist China grows in wealth and influence, and if we're relying on them to save our economy, what does that say about us?

Surely it's time for some alternative economic system, some third way. And I'm not talking about Tony bloody Blair or the Lib Dems. Back in the days before the recession, people were seriously challenging the overuse of the world's finite resources with a green, ethical philosophy. Now we're being told the only way to get out of recession is to churn them out and buy them up. It doesn't feel wise.

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