Who's afraid? The wolves are gathering, says Nick Lezard. Photo: Ronnie Macdonald/Flickr
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An email makes me cry. I pull myself together... then get another from my accountant

Down and Out with Nicholas Lezard.

Three emails, hard on each other’s heels. (I know this is the second week in a row I have used recent emails as the kick-off for a column but you know what? They’re among the few human interactions I have these days.)

Email No 1 asks me to accept a 20 per cent pay cut for something. No 2 is from a TV company, which is making a programme on a subject the producers’ would rather I was quiet about pro tem. They want to bend my ear, for reasons that do not entirely elude me. No 3 is from another organisation, which is asking me to be on a panel for something related to the London Book Fair. It can pay my travel expenses but nothing else.

The first email involves me having a little bit of a panic and a cry, followed by a period of pulling myself together and replying – mindful that a 100 per cent pay cut is never going to be entirely out of the question and too outraged a tone might be catastrophically counterproductive – that a 10 per cent pay cut might be more acceptable at this end.

Email No 2 is easier to deal with, especially after email No 1. I tell them that in my experience, being interviewed by a TV company involves having people pinch my ideas for nothing – unless you count an undistinguished cup of coffee something – and then not being on the telly. I take some satisfaction from writing this. (When in doubt, ask yourself: what would Beckett do? And as far as I know, he never appeared on telly.)

I feel a bit worse about the London Book Fair gig but by this time my dander is up and I’m full of piss and vinegar. Even though the person chairing the panel is someone for whom I not only have a lot of professional respect but whose beauty maddens me like wine, I reply curtly that I do not work for free.

Then another email. It is from my accountants. As you might have suspected, for I have hinted at this for some time, I hide from my accountants. To get charged a substantial three-figure sum to be told that I am f***ed goes against what I consider to be the life well lived. And although they did go through my books some years ago and tell me that they had never seen someone so honest quite so f***ed – and went through such rudimentary books as I had at a level of detail that means I would happily pay them to have done so, for they deserve to be paid, if I were not f***ed – I am f***ed, so I can’t quite pay them right at this moment.

But anyway, there they are in my in-box and very politely so, considering the circumstances, if I may add. One detail does not escape me and that is the HMRC officers’ take on all this, which my accountants have thoughtfully passed on. They, too, have been patient but it is along the lines of “the wheels of justice grinding slow but fine”. And if I thought I was f***ed at the end of the first paragraph of my accountants’ email, that was nothing.

When, in the relevant paragraph, I see the penalties, I go into a kind of fugue state, for they are amazing. But not unjustifiable, on their part. I can see their point of view.

Maybe if I wasn’t so f***ed, I would hire an accountant to bring the figure down a bit but at the moment what I really need is the testimony of a mental health panel and I do not have the time or non-f***ed-upness to sort that kind of thing out, which is itself a kind of testimony. After all, if my friend Professor BetterNotNameHimOrHer can, after years of trying to persuade the relevant people that HeOrShe has attention deficit disorder, somehow manage to get a teaching post at a very prestigious university, why can’t I, with my piles of books, my inability even to ask for money I am even owed and my generally disastrous circumstances, persuade them of the same thing?

The answer to email No 1 comes back. They will accept my terms, which comes as a pleasant surprise. Email No 2 is answered with an assurance that I will be paid a small, three-figure sum for my time. This, too, is acceptable. Email No 3 has not, at the time of writing, received an answer but this is understandable, for I had been very curt, what with one thing and another, and had not made a jokey comment about how the chairperson’s beauty maddened me like wine, and so on.

But the wolves are gathering around the door and, in true bohemian style, my tiny hands are frozen. I was inoculated against TB at school but it’ll be something else that gets me, I warrant.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, How Isis hijacked the revolution

Photo: Getty
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The Future of the Left: A new start requires a new economy

Creating a "sharing economy" can get the left out of its post-crunch malaise, says Stewart Lansley.

Despite the opportunity created by the 2008 crisis, British social democracy is today largely directionless. Post-2010 governments have filled this political void by imposing policies – from austerity to a shrinking state - that have been as economically damaging as they have been socially divisive.

Excessive freedom for markets has brought a society ever more divided between super-affluence and impoverishment, but also an increasingly fragile economy, and too often, as in housing, complete dysfunction.   Productivity is stagnating, undermined by a model of capitalism that can make big money for its owners and managers without the wealth creation essential for future economic health. The lessons of the meltdown have too often been ignored, with the balance of power – economic and political – even more entrenched in favour of a small, unaccountable and self-serving financial elite.

In response, the left should be building an alliance for a new political economy, with new goals and instruments that provide an alternative to austerity, that tackle the root causes of ever-growing inequality and poverty and strengthen a weakening productive base. Central to this strategy should be the idea of a “sharing economy”, one that disperses capital ownership, power and wealth, and ensures that the fruits of growth are more equally divided. This is not just a matter of fairness, it is an economic imperative. The evidence is clear: allowing the fruits of growth to be colonised by the few has weakened growth and made the economy much more prone to crisis.

To deliver a new sharing political economy, major shifts in direction are needed. First, with measures that tackle, directly, the over-dominance of private capital. This could best be achieved by the creation of one or more social wealth funds, collectively held financial funds, created from the pooling of existing resources and fully owned by the public. Such funds are a potentially powerful new tool in the progressive policy armoury and would ensure that a higher proportion of the national wealth is held in common and used for public benefit and not for the interests of the few.

Britain’s first social wealth fund should be created by pooling all publicly owned assets,  including land and property , estimated to be worth some £1.2 trillion, into a single ring-fenced fund to form a giant pool of commonly held wealth. This move - offering a compromise between nationalisation and privatization - would bring an end to today’s politically expedient sell-off of public assets, preserve what remains of the family silver and ensure that the revenue from the better management of such assets is used to boost essential economic and social investment.

A new book, A Sharing Economy, shows how such funds could reduce inequality, tackle austerity and, by strengthening the public asset base, rebalance the public finances.

Secondly, we need a new fail safe system of social security with a guaranteed income floor in an age of deepening economic and job insecurity. A universal basic income, a guaranteed weekly, unconditional income for all as a right of citizenship, would replace much of the existing and increasingly means-tested, punitive and authoritarian model of income support. . By restoring universality as a core principle, such a scheme would offer much greater security in what is set to become an increasingly fragile labour market. A basic income, buttressed by a social wealth fund, would be key instruments for ensuring that the potential productivity gains from the gathering automation revolution, with machines displacing jobs, are shared by all.  

Thirdly, a new political economy needs a radical shift in wider economic management. The mix of monetary expansion and fiscal contraction has proved a blunderbuss strategy that has missed its target while benefitting the rich and affluent at the expense of the poor. By failing to tackle the central problem  – a gaping deficit of demand (one inflamed by the long wage squeeze and sliding investment)  - the strategy has slowed recovery.  The mass printing of money (quantitative easing) may have helped prevent a second great depression, but has also  created new and unsustainable asset bubbles, while austerity has added to the drag on the economy. Meanwhile, record low interest rates have failed to boost private investment and productivity, but by hiking house prices, have handed a great bonanza to home owners at the expense of renters.

Building economic resilience will require a more central role for the state in boosting and steering investment programmes, in part through the creation of a state investment bank (which could be partially financed from the proposed new social wealth fund) aimed at steering more resources into the wealth creating activities private capital has failed to fund.

With too much private credit used for financial speculation and property, and too little to small companies and infrastructure, government needs to play a much more direct role in creating credit, while restricting the almost total freedom currently handed to private banks.  Tackling the next downturn, widely predicted to land within the next 2-3 years, will need a very different approach, including a more active fiscal policy. To ensure a speedier recovery from recessions, future rounds of quantitative easing should, within clear constraints, boost the economy directly by financing public investment programmes and cash handouts (‘helicopter money’).  Such a police mix – on investment, credit and stimulus - would be more effective in boosting the real economic base, and would be much less pro-rich and anti-poor in its consequences.

These core changes would greatly reform the existing Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism and provide the foundations for building support for a new direction for progressive politics. They would pioneer new tools for building a fairer, more dynamic and more stable economy. They could draw on experience elsewhere such as the Alaskan annual citizen’s dividend (financed by a sovereign wealth fund) and the pilot basic income schemes launching in the Netherlands, Finland and France.  Even mainstream economists, including Adair Turner, former chairman of the Financial Services Authority, are now talking up the principle of ‘helicopter money’. For these reasons, parts of the package are likely to prove publicly popular and command support across the political divide. Together they would contribute to a more stable economy, less inequality, and a more even balance of power and opportunity.

 

Stewart Lansley is the author of A Sharing Economy, published in March by Policy Press and of Breadline Britain, The Rise of Mass Impoverishment (with Joanna Mack).