Saturday, May 12, 2007

A fair price?

A fair price of any goods or services in any economy is down to the difference between wages and cost. The reason we in the west have such a high standard of living is that we rely on our goods to be cheap compared to our average wages. This can only be achieved by sourcing them in a low wage country.

If a pair of trainers (sneakers to you US surfers) are made in China, or Bangladesh in effectively slave waged conditions, where it costs the manufacturers $1 (60p) a day per employee, they can put their own profit percentage and the retailers profits onto the price and sell to us, the consumer a product at £50. What would happen if these workers were paid by UK minimum wage standards and around £5.35 per hour, an 8 hour shift would cost £42.80. Wage costs of 60p sell for £50, what do wage costs of £42.80 make the selling price? You can bet your bottom dollar its not £50, more like £500. If the selling price is £500, how affordable does that make the product for the average wage earner in the UK, who has around £170 per week to live on?

That is only one example, imagine if that "fair pay" culture spread round the world, where all our goods were made with a decent wage, the average wage in the UK would barely make the food and utility bills, along with rent. What does this do to everyone in industries not essential to survival, like cinemas, DVD retailers, games manufacturers etc? If there is no disposable income to spend on extras, those industries collapse. The result of this is the loss of many, many jobs around the country, which puts a hefty strain on the unemployment benefit system and an almighty long term resentment of the party in government who allowed it to happen.

We take for granted in the UK the ability to visit our supermarket and choose food we may never eat, just on the "oh, we could try this; if we don't like it we bin it" philosophy. We take for granted the ability to buy extra food not essential to survival, like crisps, sweets; or to buy party food and drink. This is only an option because most of our goods come from low wage countries.

It's understandable when companies move their labour force to these low wage countries, after all the priority of the board is to make the right level of profits to show the shareholders they're doing a good job. For the board members luxury yachts, sports cars and holiday homes in tax havens don't come free, and without a good company profit performance they struggle to get their multi-million dollar bonuses past the shareholders.

Those shareholders need to see those results to continue to keep faith with the company, and not shift their money elsewhere. In it's simplest terms this means cut costs, increase profits on sales wherever possible; so with that in mind why wouldn't they jump at the chance to make the same product much cheaper and let them cut prices at the till while still making an increased profit?

We've seen companies with a presence in the UK do just this, and the workforce striking in complaint that they are being made redundant, they try to get the UK population and politicians onside to change the companies mind while forgetting one major thing; it's a GLOBAL economy, you can't take parts of it, while staying immune to others. The reality is that it's costing the companies much more to employ in the UK than it needs to be. The labour costs alone do this, not counting all the extra things like corporate taxes, electricity, gas, telephone and all the various costs involved in meeting a legally safe working environment for their employees. The low wage countries have little in the way of safeguards or rights for employees, which is great for the companies, but not a good place to work.

Western governments talk the talk about tackling poverty and inequality but the action is almost invisible on the whole. The odd occasion it slips through it is piecemeal. This is due to politicians knowing that it's their voters who will be negatively affected if equality hits. We in the west have long gotten used to a standard of living way beyond our fair share of the worlds resources, and are loathe to give it up; but you can't equalize this long term effect without us losing out, it's just not possible.

This results in them protecting their own at all costs, regardless of the inequality involved. Subsidies for industries to make sure that they can undercut any imported competition and still make a living wage according to the host country while limiting access of the developing countries to their own markets are rife. Letting countries trade their way out of poverty on the same rules as the rest of us is the only way to allow them to develop. Until this changes wave after wave of immigrants will flood into the rich countries seeking the possibility of a better life for themselves and their families; in short, they seek hope; hope they don't have at home under an unfair system designed by the rich to keep them rich at the expense of everyone else.

While western governments rightly condemn the human rights abuses and terrible working conditions in some developing countries in public while propping their governments up in private they continue the cycle. While companies continue to use regimes who treat their citizens like slaves they are part of the problem. Stopping this would allow other companies in to exploit who they don't however, so it needs to be governments who suit action to words; in short, what's unacceptable at home for your own people should be unacceptable abroad for EVERY person regardless of race, colour or religion.

A corrupt dictatorship is much easier to deal with for governments and companies seeking to exploit the workforce than a democracy with a civil service and laws to fit within. When you can pay an installment to a leader who cares only for his own power and wealth to give you land, and free reign within it it's a quicker process than applying for permits, licenses etc and having to follow regulations on workers rights which may change with a change in governing party. In a dictatorship dissent against a companies practices can be easily silenced for a little extra bonus, and lawsuits are non existent. In a democracy this is much more difficult, and more costly. In short; the western governments continue to support these regimes because it's in their commercial interests.

One answer they have is quotas dictating the total number of goods in any given industry allowed to be imported into our marketplace in a financial quarter; which protects our own manufacturers from a flooding of the market by cheap imported competition. China are already producing way in excess of their quotas we've allowed them, which results in goods we want to buy being blocked at ports until the next date comes round.

The western governments also insist in tying the "opening of their markets" to any aid deals they receive. This is simply a euphemism for saying "allowing western business to buy and control their companies", which allows foreign influence in their political decisions on the world stage. They want access to parts of the market while denying access to others.

By "foreign" or "western" in this case it's mostly to be read as "US". They seek and Empire by modern methods; why install a phony leader and prop him up when they can control the economy and discipline him for daring to speak his mind when it's not in line with Washington's plans with the stroke of the pen in Washington. This way they can show an illusion to their own people who are justifiably proud in their history as having won their freedom from the British Empire that they are not an Empire themselves, merely a country looking out for it's own interests like every other.

This has gotten the international "stamp of approval" on many occasions for Washington, and to a lesser degree according to the financial clout they carry the other major economies like the UK, France, China etc. This allows these governments the opportunity to claim that their plans are supported by other countries, when in reality the plans are rarely supported but the votes have been bought, bribed or bullied out of them.

A major part of this problem is down to the public in the west, we need to accept that we are being subsidized heavily, and that we need to pay a LOT more for our goods. One retailer started a "Fair Trade" label for their chocolate bars which meant that farmers in Africa in their farms got a fair price for their cocoa beans. This meant a range of chocolate bars on sale here much more expensive than the rest. The farmers who spent their entire lives working dawn to dusk to sell cocoa beans know their crop is popular in the west, but had no clue as to what it was being used for; they had never tasted chocolate until a representative from this company gave them a chocolate bar.

In our culture we are tuned more to what new movie is being released, or what new video game we can buy, or what brand label of sweater is in fashion right now to the fact that we are living in a false economy We do see the odd story here and there on the news if we watch it, but it feels distant and unrelated to our daily lives. It allows us to have our lives as we do, but out of sight is out of mind; giving us a clear shopping conscience. If you worked dawn to dusk and earned barely enough to survive how would you feel? All the things we take for granted would vanish in a puff of smoke, no more new mobile phones every six months just because the one we have is now out of fashion etc.

It's not surprising that our governments want to ignore and marginalize the protesters who see this reality and are trying to help their brothers and sisters around the world by making the system more equal. They don't want it to be an issue; that would mean they'd be held more to account on their actions, not just their words; and they can't afford to act without a drop in living standards for their own supporters. With a 24hr news culture and instant reporting via mobile phones and the internet people now know the results of those words.

The longer this inequality exists the more resentment grows towards the west, by people who have nothing, and have nothing to gain. Religion teaches you that hardship in life is rewarded by wealth when you die, this is a fertile ground for those who want to corrupt people who have nothing to attack the west. They have the means, the opportunity and the motivation. In the west we are used to being able to ignore the political and social realities around us because we have distractions of a reasonable life with holidays planned, car to buy, nights out to have, games to play etc. This luxury of lifestyle is not shared by most of the people on the planet. We have been bought, but everything has it's price.

The motto of the capitalist west seems to be "double standards and hypocrisy are to be proud of as long as we are the beneficiaries". This is a major bone of contention as to why the love / hate relationship many people outside the west have with us; on one hand they hate us for forcing poverty upon them, and giving them no hope of getting out of it and on the other they seek to be part of the west by immigration (legal or illegal) as an answer to the lack of hope. I genuinely believe that if the system was much fairer it would allow people in developing countries to take their own countries back from the dictators and give them a reason to stay where they love and build a future for themselves and their families. That is dependent on the discarding of the double standards code of practice the west has gotten rich on, and introducing the same rules for all.

This is a problem we can solve collectively but not without a drop in our living standard. The next time you're shopping and see goods you consider "good value for money" think beyond the price and ask yourself why.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The lawmakers dilemma

Our lawmakers can't do right for doing wrong it seems. When they introduce a new law they don't tackle the problem. Many laws seem to be more about the political appeasement of the people to avoid losing votes than addressing the issues they claim to be. They are however in a very difficult position, even when you remove the political bias.

Laws do not stop crime, they merely provide a potential for legal repercussions when the crime is committed, and a case put together for a court to judge it. Since our system requires lawyers to defend their client and get the best outcome for them regardless of guilt or innocence it requires them to exploit loopholes in the law to win their case, even if the loophole used is absurd and irrelevant.

A recent example of this is a case of drivers caught speeding by a hand held speed camera, where the lawyer's case relies on the fact that it was civilians who took the readings, and as civilians they do not have the power to enforce the law, where the Police, as public servants do. The fact that the drivers have been speeding and been caught speeding seems to be irrelevant to the charge of speeding, whereas the identity of who caught them may let them avoid repercussions for breaking the law.

To me, the simple answer to avoid being caught speeding is not to speed, the case for speed cameras being in the right places or if the speed limit is suitable for the road in question are entirely separate issues. It's because lawyers find loopholes to argue in court and win cases on, which in turn let's the guilty go free and the public outrage at this that laws have to be very restrictive. They have to try and imagine every possible situation to make sure there are no loopholes, this removes discretion from the system.

When a doctor makes a house call, his or her patient is the top priority, so parking as close to the scene is vital, if this happens to be in a no parking zone and they get a parking ticket they can't argue that their patient comes first; they still have to pay. In the UK there's evidence of buses stopping to let someone off getting a parking ticket as it's stationary in a no parking zone for a minute, as well as a whole heap of other absurd examples of parking attendants "doing their job".

In many cases, laws come in after a high profile case where the law wasn't covering something that should be covered; and the loophole was pointed out. This is natural, but done in the right way. Often it's a case of politicians appeasing the public by throwing together a new amendment to show that they're "responding to public concern" which is generally badly thought out law. When a new amendment is properly debated and examined from every angle to make sure it does what it's supposed to and don't close one door just to open another it can be good law.

Of course, laws only work when they are enforced. They are only respected when they are fair. How many people copy a friend's CD to save them buying it? This is copyright theft but unless it's on a large scale for profit, the Police are unlikely to ever enforce it. Imagine the outcry if Police forces across the country raided every home and seized their CD collection, and started working out how many offenses each of us had committed, then preparing the cases for the courts. Technically they are within their rights to do this, yet what would happen with the serious offenses like rape, murder etc? The Police wouldn't have any time to deal with them.

In the UK the common mantra of the Blair administration is to introduce new laws to get headlines. What's often not pointed out, is that in many cases the law is fine, it's just not being enforced; that's why the case has been highlighted resulting in the public pressure to "do something about it".

When a new law is added to the statute books we complain that it adds a new layer of red tape and restricts the discretion the people enforcing it have; like the Police and Judges, yet when the laws allow for discretion we complain when the guilty use a loophole that wasn't meant for their situation to get them off. We are outraged when the innocent are punished because the law allows no discretion for circumstances. Even with the best will in the world if you remove party or personal politics from the equation, the lawmakers have a very difficult job in balancing this situation.

The law is about a deterrent from offending as well as a punishment for offending. A deterrent only works when the law is enforced. When our prison places are about zero, with little capacity for new inmates our Judges are being advised to give lighter sentences and more community based punishments. At the same time Police cells are being opened to house convicted people. People already in the system for offenses, non payment of fines etc. Which don't endanger the public are taking up valuable space where they don't need to be. Since overcrowding and lot's of short sentences are the norm, the chance of rehabilitation is gone, which inevitably means that the circumstances in their life which led them there in the first place are waiting to reclaim them when they leave.

When people see a law they consider to be unfair, they are less likely to obey it themselves, the same goes when they see a law which many others are flouting with no repercussions. Why should I respect it if no one else does? Perception can be different from reality however. A flood of anecdotal evidence in the headlines, and from those around them may or may not reflect the reality of the figures, but it does affect their trust in the law in question.

The more you restrict people who want to do things which harm no one else they will rebel, no one apart from the ruler wants to live in a tyrannical regime. When you open the laws too much and allow too much freedom some will inevitably take that too far for their own ends. You have to find that balance, which centers on being as free as possible, but making the people responsible for their own actions, which means sensible laws which protect those who need protection and not punish those who have a harmless freedom of expression which is slightly different from most.

After all, if someone wants to sell sex, and someone wants to buy it; is it up to anyone else to decide that a transaction can't legally take place? Personally I have never used a prostitute, and I doubt I ever would but I see no offense there if both parties agree; each to their own. There are other potential offenses there, such as enforced or underage prostitution or to feed a drug dependency, but not the transaction itself.

What don't help the public perception is cases where the media follow every turn and the case looks clear cut either way; and the Judge makes his ruling which seems to the public that he's been listening to a different case. This is most apparent in government inquiries where they appoint a senior loyal Judge as a "trusted third party" who then proceeds to whitewash any allegations against individuals regardless of the evidence presented to him, and finds "system errors which have now been fixed" and "recommendations" which the government who started the inquiry to stop the slippage of public trust then ignores, or cherry picks which particular recommendations they want to adopt.

It's time our media and politicians evolved above the name calling too, this only helps sell papers. When we seek to group people into easily defined labeled groups and attack them for an opinion on a subject that don't fit their stereotyped image it reflects badly on all and achieves nothing. People can be liberal minded on some subjects and hard line on others, the world is not easily defined. People who can rise above being labeled have more influence in their views, as they see the world in a more mature way. The traditional viewpoint in politics of right and left wing is irrelevant and damaging in a complex world.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The purpose of education

Education seems to be getting more and more skewed as time passes. The focus is on passing exams so the student can hit the working world with a nice impressive looking piece of paper. Yet what's missing is a whole lot of life skills. Why? Is the point of education not to prepare the young to gradually become valuable members of society; to provide some value to it?

Babies are born with no knowledge and an insatiable thirst to learn. From birth to adulthood and beyond should be that learning time. It is not just up to the schools to educate either, basic skills are picked up before pre-school by interaction with parents, siblings etc. Kids also learn from their mistakes too.......and from their friends. We try to protect our kids and stop them making their own mistakes, or minimize the effects of those mistakes by covering for them, or making excuses. Why? They need to learn, and will learn if we let them. Why is it that many parents suddenly decide when their kids go to school that the role of educator is suddenly on one source?

None of us are islands, we are all connected.....and so we should be. We are communities of people who are often very different, but share a place we call "home". Why is it that community minded areas are sought after places to live?'s because people care about each other, they have a basic level of respect and acceptance of each other. That is not taught, it is absorbed by living there.

When kids leave the education system they are supposed to be educated and prepared for life in the real world. They are supposed to be emotionally prepared for life as an adult, where they can and most likely will become parents of their own. Yet so many are not.....why?

Through pressure from governments, parents and community groups some subjects are either not mentioned or taught is a completely useless way. Some subjects are oblique to real life for most, and only of use if an individual plans further study at college or university. Some useful subjects are not taught at all.

  1. We have an obesity problem, with many hooked on an unhealthy diet, yet basic cooking, dietary, and keep fit classes are lacking. Personally I have no clue what the different food groups do, and it's not easy to research on your own.

  2. We have a "me" culture where people have no concept of debt management, and are happy to buy fad items and build up huge debt......yet no basic home accounting classes are lacking. Information about interest rates (particularly compound interest), hidden clauses, debt recovery, small claims courts, bankruptcy etc is lacking.

  3. STI's are on the increase, along with teenage pregnancies. Kids have to teach themselves through the veil of peer pressure to admit you know more than you do. This leads to bizarre beliefs like "you won't get pregnant if you're standing up" or "eating a spoonful of sugar before sex will stop you getting pregnant". Kids MUST be taught safe sex.

People tend to be looking at kids the wrong way. Yes, these are children, but more important than that is that they are the adults of tomorrow. If we fail to equip them with the skills of judgment, common sense, community and living respectfully of those around them......can we really blame who they turn out to be?

People who can analyze an issue from several sides and make their own judgment which sees underneath the hype will rarely be fooled. This is not a skill learned by parents or schools who restrict ideas. If your taught that one idea is right, and all others are wrong.....your not being taught to use your own judgment.....your being taught to accept the judgment of someone else. This leads to a closed minded adult who has beliefs which they cannot really explain logically in a debate, but believe anyway. This is ideal for ensuring the kids think the way they're told to (the way their parents do)......but many won't, many will rebel because they want to make their own way.

Finding out about the realities of life is essential, but the timing is all important here. It's no good saying "watch that spike pit" after someone is impaled on the makes much more sense to teach them about the spike pits so they can avoid them in the first place.

This analogy filters through many life skills like personal debt or pregnancy. The idea of not teaching them is justified by the "if we teach it, some will be encouraged to go try it" line. In the case of sex education, why is it that Dutch kids are much more relaxed and mature about sex, relationships, STI's, contraception etc when they are taught at school while places who treat it as taboo have huge problems? This is not a skill learned by continually being told "you can't know about ........ because your too young."

People don't live in an ageless bubble.....we are only 10 years old for one year (365 days). Each day that passes is one day closer to becoming an adult......yet those in the position of preparing us for that adulthood feel it's alright to deny knowledge which will be useful as adults. Every child is different, as every parent will tell you...which means there is no easy age to start learning some life skills.

Look at what's being taught, and ask.....are those life skills? We all grow and mature in different ways, we have different passions, different goals, different interests....which often change and evolve over time. Education is about giving kids a taster for many different paths, in the hope that one or more may energize them into taking it further later in life. That is often at the expense of common sense life lessons which we ALL need, to allow our communities to be the canvass of our daily lives.

It does not matter your skin color, religion, sex, height, weight etc....we ALL need to know that unprotected sex can and often does have consequences we have the rest of our lives to deal with, or that getting ourselves into enough personal debt that it ends in bankruptcy will have many years of repercussions on the possibility of a mortgage etc. We ALL need to be able to make our own minds up after seeing a range of viewpoints, rather than fall for hype or scams.

So much of our education is on "book smart" things which mean little or nothing for most of us, and really only have value if you plan further study. What do we expect of our kids if they are taught to pass exams for OUR benefit. They are a measuring stick we use to show how good we are in comparison to others. This is not education in my is failing the people who are our future society.

What good is a certificate of straight A's if:

  1. You don't know that drinking to excess can kill you?

  2. You fall for politicians hype on a given subject without making your own mind up?

  3. You end up as a stay at home single mum stuck on welfare because of a series of unfortunate choices of boyfriends?

  4. You have no clue heroin is very addictive and is almost guaranteed to consume your life and send you to an early grave if you experiment with it?

There are millions of "if"'s in this list in no particular order....I've only given a hand full to illustrate my point.

Which is more important and relevant to daily adult life?

  1. Knowing the date of Henry VIII died?

  2. Safe sex should be the only sex you practice?