Thursday 3 January 2013

Right problem, wrong solution

In his New Year's message earlier this week, the Prime Minister said that the UK is competing against countries like China and India for jobs, and his implication was that those seeking the jobs need to bear that in mind and lower their expectations in terms of their pay and conditions. His statement demonstrated to me that he understands the underlying problem at some level, even if he's only dimly aware of that understanding; what he's unable to understand is that there is more than one way of responding to it.

The problem, which is implicit rather than explicit in his words, is that the current economic structures are simply unable to provide enough employment at a decent level for all those in the world seeking it. I agree; but it doesn't mean that the only response is some sort of a race to the bottom, that we have to compete with lower-wage economies for such employment opportunities as might be available.

If the pie isn't big enough to go round, fighting over the crumbs is far from being the only possible response. Indeed, whilst some might try to suggest that it is the only possible response, in the long term it's a response which helps almost no-one. Making the pie bigger would be a better response, and sharing the pie out more fairly would be a pretty good one too. Both are better than merely trying to redistribute the pie – particularly in the direction which Cameron seems to be proposing, whish is, on a global scale, from the have-nots to the haves.

Both of those alternative responses, however, require a co-operative approach rather than a competitive one towards the allocation of resources between people and countries. That's not an approach which we are going to see any time soon from politicians such as Cameron, unfortunately. Competition is almost a fetish for many of them; it's all that they understand. For the winners (and Cameron, like most politicians, is amongst life's winners), competition works of course. But it doesn't – and never can – work for everyone. A system based at its heart on allocating access to finite resources through a process of competition will always have more losers than winners.

And that's the problem with what Cameron said – his world view depends, ultimately, on most of us losing so that a minority can win.

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