Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Pay Up or Burn Up!

Two incidents today, separated by thousands of miles and the Atlantic Ocean, and on the face of it totally unconnected.

In Britain, Lord Browne, former CEO of the BP oil company, where he enjoyed a remuneration package of over £5 million per year latterly, delivered a report on funding support for students in Higher Education. In summary, he recommended a reduction in public support to students from £3.5 billion per annum to just £0.7 billion. On top of that, university fees will be uncapped and the average fee will need to at least double to £7,000 p.a. with some universities already indicating a likely charge of £10,000 p.a., and Oxbridge touting the idea of three times that amount. Given that the additional income earned by graduates is now estimated at around £100,000 in their entire working life, other than among those with wealthy and willing parents, or confident of high earning employment, University education will become simply unaffordable.

Vince Cable, the Business Secretary claimed this afternoon that the Browne proposals would be driven forward by economic necessity. This although the UK's national debt was almost double what it currently is back in the 1960s when the Robbins report advocated free, universal higher education.

In the United States, there was this bizarre and sad story - in rural, bible-belt, God-fearing Tennessee, firefighters stood and watched a house to burn to the ground because the homeowner hadn’t paid a $75 fee. Even when Gene Cranick pleaded with the 911 operator to let him pay the fee, they refused him, turning up only to protect neighbours who had coughed up previously.
Last year, when the health proposals put forward by President Obama in America were being characterised as "Nazi Communism" (!), I was one of 23,000 people who joined the ironically titled Facebook group "One Million Strong Against our SOCIALIST fire departments". Starting from the premise that universal public provision of a fire service for was taken as read by everyone, the group sought to show that extending such protection to health was eminently proportionate. A number of neoCons posted to criticise the group as ludicrous on the grounds that of course fire brigades are a public service! Not even they would argue against that - at that time.

History first recorded a fire service being established in ancient Rome around 90BC by Marcus Licinius Crassus. As the Eternal City grew in size as its empire burgeoned, it's cramped space, filled with wooden buildings, was repeatedly plagued by devastating fires. Crassus bought himself some 500 slaves and gave them the  reassuring brand name of the "Familia Publica" (The Public Family). When fires started, the FP rushed to the scene and immediately set about negotiating a fee with the property owner. If a deal was struck, they would put the fire out; if not, the buildings burned.

The Romans established the first
public fire service.
Eventually, the Emperor Augustus recognised that this set up was inefficient, abolished private fire brigades and in their place set up the "Vigiles urbani" (The City Watchmen), hundreds of public servants on permanent patrol, complete with pumps, ladders, buckets and a public water system ready to extinguish fires. With the exception of the devastating conflagration of 64AD, this worked well for five centuries until the collapse of the Empire. Nothing comparable was to emerge in Europe until the 19th century.

Now, the story from Tennessee is not one of privatisation - but fees are charged separately from other local taxes and this hypothecation extends to the provision of the service. If you want the service, you pay, regardless of the consequences of non-payment. It is, quite seriously, called "pay to spray". That is disturbing in itself - but even more disturbing is the willingness of firefighters and public officials to stand idly by while the Cranicks' house burned to the ground; and the enthusiasm of right wingers to subsequently praise their inaction. Although the $75 fee was not part of an insurance scheme, but a flat charge, they refused to let Mr Cranick pay on the spot - something that not even old Marcus Licinius Crassus would have done!

So what's the connection here between British students and a house-fire in Tennessee?

It is the decline in the concept of universal public services, provided to all citizens. Although in material terms both countries, even in these recessionary times, are richer than they were 30 years ago, services that were taken then as a given are in real jeopardy. From Thatcher and Reagan onwards, it has become an implicit assumption that the private sector is inherently more effective than the public. Motivated by profit, it is argued, people in the private field will deliver a better service. The notion that you might want to work in the public services because you want to deliver a decent service to the public without trying to maximise your return from their wallets is scornfully dismissed as the delusions of idealists or the excuses of lazy folk unable to hack it in the world of free market competition.

Is there any proof of this being anywhere near a correct approach to what society needs?

Never mind the poor Cranicks' torched home. What about those other collapsing houses - houses of cards like Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac, Northern Rock and RBS, private companies whose unlimited pursuit of greed presaged the economic collapse that only record public spending prevented from turning into financial chaos?

Or the hundreds of millions of pounds ripped from the pockets of the British public by huge "service organisations" like Serco and Crapita, who have taken on government contracts in almost any sector you care to mention - schools, cleaning, construction, hospitals, railways - at utterly massive profit margins in return for pisspoor services? Or with the grossly misnamed "public-private partnerships" that have mortgaged public assets for decades into the future? Or the "regeneration" of Iraq, where billions of dollars of American and Iraqi citizens' money was sequestrated by a wide range of grasping private contractors?

Western politics are build on a dangerous lie.  Denying all the evidence of the recent disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, or the continuing devastation of the Indonesian rainforest - the "lungs of the world" - by private logging firms, or the successful lobbying by the nuclear industry in the UK for £1.7 billion a year of tax money to clean up its radioactive mess; we are told repeatedly that this is the best, indeed the only, way to do things. There is no alternative.

Really? Tell that to the young people in Britain now facing either decades of debt or lives denied the opportunities and fulfillment of higher education - things enjoyed in the past by the Cabinet of Millionaires who now say such luxuries can no longer be afforded.

And tell that to the Cranick family as they search the ruins of their destroyed home for the charred remains of their three dogs and cat.

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