If blog articles are goods in the bazaar of ideas that is the internet, then comments are the haggling over the worth of that good and a form of exchange of intellectual value to both parties. One of the ideas I learnt about recently was the concept of looking someone in the eye whilst mentioning political characters in order to gain insight into their true thoughts. Where political labels are ambiguous or being fought over this indeed would aid understanding. But what happens if one applies this technique to oneself?
Today I tried this with: a Premiership footballer blowing thousands in a nightclub; a young man spending his last money on cigarettes then attending a food bank; a city banker buying a spare house in Cornwall.
(Note these memes are to illustrate the common stereotypes – I’m not condemning second home ownership in this piece!)
Banker: a scowl of disgust across the forehead, a narrowing of the eyes and pupils.
Food bank customer: a Galic shrug and a raising of the eyebrows.
Footballer: a rise of the cheeks, pushing up the corners of the orbit.
What does this tell me? Most importantly my reaction is not a response to wealth alone. The footballer has earned his money and can spend it however he wishes. The brutal competition in football is directly visible to all. Good players, through hard work, raw talent and sacrifice of non footballing education in childhood, rise to the top, in businesses that rise and fall on merit, paid for by pay TV, ticket sales and advertising. More than many other industries the value of a footballer is visible to all, and fully justified.
The banker on the other hand may be a thoroughly moral and talented person, yet I feel an antagonism I didn’t feel 7 years ago, when I would bore people with explanations of how competitive international banking efficiently allocated capital, and how banker bonuses were important to this process. Post 2008 however banking is in a position where the Darwinian process of competition has been suspended, as central bank and goverment judgements on who can access cheap money has created massive economic distortions.
In this culture of judgement rather than price signals it should not be surprising that those visiting food banks should somehow, according to some parts of the media, be required to justify their ‘need’ for food. Of course the need for free food in a country plagued by obesity tells more about broken economic systems than anything else. Thus the story of the ‘undeserving’ food bank user is entirely predictable, and should not attract scorn.
The most important observation from this is that the visceral reaction to the individuals is not due to envy, but is due to the failures of the political systems themselves. For if price signals are drowned by clumsy interventions, including free money or debt, the only response left is a moral judgement on the individuals benefitting, and this is a poor substitute that ultimately leads to social unrest, struggle and war.
I looked into the mirror one more time, but instead of thinking of individuals I thought of a place, and imagined a vast market, with traders, customers, individuals and businesses haggling, exchanging value, discovering prices and competing. My eyes narrowed again, but this time the corners of my mouth rose and my teeth came into view – I smiled.