I don’t trust people who read the financial section of newspapers. In my mind, they’re all of a certain type. They played hockey at university. They like shit music. They obsessively compare mobile phone tariffs.
I don’t want to be like them. I don’t want to talk enthusiastically about index trackers at dinner parties. I don’t want Top Gear to be the cultural highlight of my week. So to protect myself I’ve always followed a strict regime of total financial ignorance.
But recently I’ve started to cautiously peer out from my bunker and gaze down upon this strange grey world – and, from what I can make out, it’s totally fucking nuts. The whole system of stocks and shares, the free market and all that - it’s insane.
Think of something which was good 10 years ago - brands you liked, products you used, services you could rely on. And compare them with now. How many of them are now shit – have been destroyed in some way? How many things can you no longer buy or have been made obsolete?
It’s not just the curmudgeonly effects of aging; things do get worse over time - because that’s the way we’ve designed our system.
This is how I figure it works.
Say you’ve got a company which makes pies; nice, reasonably priced pies. They sell well and the company gets a good reputation. The bloke who started it - let’s call him Trevor - makes a decent profit. Nothing spectacular but enough to live in a big house with a water feature and a surgically enhanced wife.
He has enough to pay his workers a decent salary. Everyone’s happy: Trevor, his workers and the region’s pie eaters. And if they keep making good pies and selling them at a reasonable price, this could last for generations. It’s a stable and profitable company.
But Trevor wants a bit more. He wants to live in a moated castle and have his own fleet of Harrier Jump Jets. He needs more money to build more factories, to sell more pies. So he floats his company on the stock market.
You could try to sell more pies by making them a bit...sexier. Supersize them. Inject the crust with cheese. Add some vitamins. Make them into diet pies.
His business is chopped up it into a thousand imaginary pieces which are flogged to a thousand chinless people throughout the world. These people have one thing in common - they couldn’t give a fuck about Trevor’s pies. All they care about is the line on their monitor which his company now represents.
Trevor’s stable and profitable company is of fuck all interest to them because it represents a straight line. And a straight line is no good, you can’t make money off a straight line; it’s got to be wiggly. Because that’s the only way their shares will be worth more than when they paid for them.
So Trevor, with the help of his new mates from the city, must find ways of making his business more profitable. Expanding, diversifying, increasing efficiencies - all that malarkey. The problem is that this process lasts....for eternity. It can never stop – no matter how much money he makes. It’s never enough. He still has to make more the following year. Or his line will droop.
But how do you manage to make more and more profit for the rest of time? There are lots of things you can do.
You could try to sell more pies by making them a bit...sexier. Supersize them. Inject the crust with cheese. Add some vitamins. Make them into diet pies. Or if none of that works - you could make them smaller. Use less meat. Use crappy, cheaper ingredients.
Or you could diversify. How about a range of X-Factor themed pies? Or you could employ an agency of highly intelligent idiots to rebrand your pies. Do we need to call them pies? I’m thinking single mum, middle-income, love handles. I’m thinking CrustyPots.
And if none of this works then fuck it. Pay your workers less. Or make them work longer. Or employ less of them. Or replace them with robots. Or move your factory to an industrial estate in Cambodia.
As the years pass, it’s likely that Trevor will attempt all of these things. It’s part of the barrel-scraping hunt for profits which must continue until the company owns the entire universe, or goes tits up.
And while he’s frantically doing this, his city friends are listening to Razorlight and stifling their sniggers. Because what Trevor doesn’t know is that it doesn’t really matter what he does. Because the direction of his line isn’t that important. They can make as much money from a line going down as one going up. They’re clever like that.
So who benefits from all this? The chinless people are obviously chuffed – they’ve got their wiggly line to play with. Trevor might do okay – he may get his personalised Harrier Jump Jet. But for the rest of us – it’s rubbish.
The workers get treated like dirt; a costly nuisance. And that pie, the nice one which started all this; is gone. Replaced by an ever-changing line-up of “new and improved” crust based packages.
The process is complete. You’ve taken something good and made it shit.
And this system is the bedrock of our society. It’s what we’ve chosen as the best way to organise our world. We have global corporations – large swathes of our population, millions upon millions of people whose lives are devoted to this process of making things a bit worse than they were before.
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