The great sociologist Richard Sennett has often written about how a sense of long-term commitment - to an employer, job or skill - has all but disappeared from working life. "Flexibility" is more likely to lead to success than loyalty. If that is true of employees, it is also increasingly true of consumers.
The New Year newspapers were full of advice about how to get our finances in order. The insistently repeated message was: switch your supplier. Whether it's savings, mortgages, insurance, power supplies, broadband or mobile phone, you will almost certainly benefit by moving. The savings (or gains) are not trivial: put together, they can run into hundreds, even thousands, of pounds. If, for example, you have left £10,000 of savings in the same account for the past five years, you may now be getting only 0.1 per cent interest, giving you £10 annually (before tax). Some "new products", as the banks insist on calling them, pay 3 per cent or more, giving an instant gain of £290.
Businesses once rewarded long-standing customers. Now, as my former colleague Patrick Hosking observes in the Times, "loyalty and trust are seen as customer characteristics to be exploited and punished". You can often get better deals from the same supplier, bank or insurer simply by threatening to move. Or by searching the internet. A few weeks ago, for example, hit by an enormous direct debit hike, I found my power supplier offered an alternative tariff that would save me £150. Companies deliberately avoid telling existing customers of these things. If customers don't have the time or the mathematics or, most importantly, the broadband connection, they will probably never know about lower rates.
Companies have no interest in long-term customer goodwill, only in ramping up short-term share prices. Employees' bonuses are determined by how many new customers they sign, not how they serve customers they already have. As Hosking says, "capitalism can be terribly dispiriting sometimes".
No doubt the televised election debates between party leaders will be thoroughly enlightening, as would those proposed between ministers and their shadows. The trouble is, when a government continues to its maximum term, the election campaign lasts for months, and, by
the spring, we shall all be tired of hearing from politicians. I wonder if they could agree a self-denying ordinance, whereby no front-bencher would give interviews to any TV news programme between now and April. That would also be enlightening.
If there is a God, he must be a climate-change denier. East coast Americans, the Chinese and the British - precisely the people who must be persuaded to cut carbon emissions - are now suffering what, for them, are unusually heavy snowfalls and low temperatures. If only at the subconscious level, ice and snow will make them think they shouldn't bother about a warming world.
What scientists struggle to explain is that one or two harsh winters and cool, wet summers don't invalidate the long-term warming trend. Climate and weather, they point out, are not the same thing. However, most people can't get their heads round such a counter-intuitive idea. And the Met Office adds to public confusion by setting itself up as an authority on tomorrow's weather, next year's weather and the weather in 2050.
The Met should cease making statements about global warming and also abandon its seasonal forecasts, which are rarely useful, being mainly promotional devices to support the selling of what its website calls "a variety of products and services". It should concentrate on the job it was set up to do: forecasting the weather a few days ahead.
Clip their wings
It was probably inevitable that the "wars" against two of our greatest modern enemies - terrorists and paedophiles - would eventually come into conflict. Full body scanners, to check for passengers carrying deadly explosives, cannot be used, we are told, lest they create illegal images of children. This is a marvellous example of the effects of overzealous legislation. Originally passed in 1978, following a noisy campaign by the late Mary Whitehouse, the Protection of Children Act has been gradually tightened and extended so that any image of a child's body, not just a photograph, is covered and "a child" means anybody under 18.
Nobody would dispute that tough legislation on child pornography was required, but it ought to be possible, if the matter were considered with cool heads, to distinguish between porn and photos of the naked body, thus protecting fond parents who snap their children in the bath as well as security staff trying to detect suicide bombers. Perhaps the simplest solution is to ban anybody under 25 from flying at all. That would leave everybody well in the clear under child protection laws, considerably narrow the field of likely terrorist recruits, stop inebriated young Brits vomiting all over Europe and, with luck, bankrupt Ryanair.
Teeny bit irritating
I am as bored by the debate over what to call the present decade as I was by the argument about whether the new millennium should have been celebrated on 1 January 2000 or 1 January 2001. Is anybody interested, apart from newspaper editors desperate to fill space, and a
few sad anoraks? Have you heard anybody in real life referring to the past decade as "the Noughties" or debating whether we should call the new decade the "Teenies"? If newspapers are short of money, why can't they print a few pages fewer and spare us this dreary subject?
Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005