YOU CAN ALWAYS CLEAN SHOES


"There are always jobs. You can always clean shoes" was the spectacularly unpleasant reply I received a while back when I suggested that jobs were being destroyed faster than they could be replaced, and that there were only two  rational and decent economic futures for rich countries. One was a drastically reduced working week, in accordance with Keynes's 1930 prediction in The Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren in which he suggested that in a hundred years' time (i.e. by 2030) we'd only need to work a 15-hour week. The other was a basic income, paid unconditionally to all citizens of those rich countries.



Of course I'd made the mistake of postulating "rational and decent", and while the person to whom I was talking was rational, for a given short-term value of rational, his response shows that he was far from decent. He was (and is) a semi-retired banker and chief financial officer, with enough money that he will never have to work again, and he has the usual clutch of non-executive directorships that financial specialists hand out to their cronies. Heaven forfend that he should clean his own shoes: with enough money to pay someone else to do it, albeit for slave wages, why should he bother?

He is a part of the (justly) reviled "one per cent": those who are too rich to know, or even imagine convincingly, the situation of those for whom a replacement refrigerator is a significant expense, and a new car completely out of the question. He is still further from being able to imagine the situation of those who use food banks; for whom the choice on a given winter's day may be between eating and heating.

The conversation was prompted by my remarking that journalism is not what it was, because everyone expects everything to be free on the internet. He said, "Journalists just have to find new ways to earn money." Well, yes, but given that moving money around (which is what he did for most of his working life) is essentially an undertaking that is parasitic on people who actually make things that other people want to buy (including magazine articles, books and hairdressing), and is often based on something between smoke and mirrors on the one hand and plain dishonesty on the other, it wasn't the most tactful thing to say. 

Maybe he despises journalists as much as I despise financial parasites. The point is, though, he is never likely to be in danger of having to clean shoes for a living, so he is unable to see why someone else should not be forced to do so. As so often with the one per cent, human dignity did not enter his equations. It was one of those statements where if you can't see that you're being an arrogant idiot and a representative of an increasingly fragile ancien rĂ©gime, then sooner or later you and those like you will indeed be at or near the head of the queue for being lined up against the wall when the revolution comes. I can't say I'd like to see him cleaning shoes for the rest of his life, but equally, I can't help feeling that it might do him some good to have to clean other people's shoes for an indefinite period, until he realizes that other people have feelings and dignity too.  


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Words and pictures copyright (c) Roger Hicks 2016