Lost in the stupid market

I cannot tell a lie. I chanced upon this blog entry, originally written in August 2011 at the cusp of the UK’s “double-dip” recession, and realised that it is all still true, and all still relevant, which is quite depressing after 18 months of the world turning and money coming in and going out, so please forgive me if I republish it for anyone who missed it, or remembers it. I’m glad I wrote it. (If, at the end of it, you wish to read the 20 or so comments left under it at the time, they’re here.)

This is a picture of a market. I understand it. On this market, people sell things to other people and the people who sell the things make sure that they sell them for a bit more than they paid for them, so that they can make a profit by which to pay for the opportunity to have a stall on the market and with enough left over to pay for things that they need to buy at other markets. What could be simpler?

All the newspapers today are reporting meltdown in the market. But it is a more complicated market. It is the stock market. It is not based upon things being sold, it is based upon the idea of things being sold. It is based upon selling the idea of something. The people who sell these ideas do not meet the people that they sell them to. In fact, most of the selling of ideas is done by third parties, who buy and sell the things that do not exist on behalf of the people who actually own the things, and are paid to do so. Already, this is a more complicated market than the market in the picture.

I am not very good at economics. I understand how much money I’ve got, which is a minus figure, as I owe money to a bank who foolishly lent it to me to buy a house I cannot afford, on the understanding that I will pay the money back to them by a certain date. Unfortunately, I have to pay them back more than the sum they lent me. This is how they make money. I make money by rearranging the English language, mostly by hand, occasionally by mouth, and every month I hope that enough people pay me to do this for me to pay the bank what I owe it for lending me a sum of money. Any money I have left over after paying the bank, I am free to spend on whatever I like, although because I have a house, and a car, there are certain things I have to pay first, to insurance companies and to the council, for instance. It sounds pretty stupid when you lay it out, but I do at least understand it. Once I have bought food and household goods, I might have enough left over to go to the market and buy something nice for myself.

Because I am self-employed, I do not have a boss, and cannot be sacked, but neither do I have any security. Those who pay me today are under no obligation whatsoever to pay me tomorrow, or ever again. Because of this, I tend not to go to the market to buy nice things as often as I’d like. Why? Because there is a recession on.

The recession started in 2007 and really started to get serious in 2008, when house prices fell and people who had been lent more money than they could pay back defaulted on their mortgages, meaning that the whole house of cards came crashing down. The banks and building societies had been lending money for years to people who couldn’t pay it back based upon the idea – another idea – that house prices would just keep going up. They stopped going up and started going down. It turned out that all the countries that thought they were rich and doing well, were only rich and doing well because they expected house prices to keep going up, thereby making everybody richer without actually doing anything. If you watched Property Ladder with Sarah Beeny in the mid-2000s, one thing you knew was that the amateur developers who tried to increase the value of a property but spent too much in doing so by buying stupid taps could have made money by just doing nothing for three months. Because the market went up anyway while they were mucking about with taps.

There was a banking crisis, which I understood, because it was to do with the banks having lent money that wasn’t theirs to people who couldn’t pay it back, so they ran out of money, and the money wasn’t even theirs. It was our money that they had lent to other people. Some people tried to get their money out of the banks but many banks had to be lent money by the government, who used the money we had given them through tax to help the banks. I’m not stupid, but I couldn’t really work this one out. Since 2008-2009, the best thing I could think of doing to beat the recession was spend less of my money. So I did.

Now, we read the news and find that America, the richest country in the world, cannot afford to pay money back to the people who lend it money. Why is America rich if all its money is borrowed? It is rich because of an idea. The idea is: if everybody works really hard, especially the poor, and if we allow the rich to keep all their money, they will create more money. The stock market deals in ideas. Wealth is an idea. If you do not own the house you live in, your house is an idea. You might own some of it, in that if you ran out of money, you could sell it to pay off the money you still owe, but it’s not yours. Because Greece and Spain and Portugal and Cyprus and Ireland are all in financial trouble based upon an idea – the idea being: all the money we have is borrowed but we might carry on making more money if house prices continue to go up – there are fears that the Eurozone will collapse.

As I believe I’ve mentioned, I’m not very good at economics, but I know that the single currency for some but not all European nations was introduced so that money could be simpler. Instead of lots of currencies which have to be exchanged all the time, some but not all European countries would have the same currency, which would make trading between some but not all European countries easier, and fairer. However, this Utopian ideal seems to be in trouble. Because Greece, which doesn’t really make anything, or Ireland, which doesn’t really make anything, or Spain, which doesn’t really make anything, built the idea of their wealth upon the idea that house prices would continue to go up, and they have gone down, almost an entire continent using the same currency seems to be in more trouble than it might have been if it still had lots of different currencies.

I love Ireland. It is my favourite country. I have been there a lot, and regularly, over the past 20 years. It used to be a small, modest, rural economy, self-sufficient, surrounded by water, and with enough tourism to give it a bit of spare money to buy nice things at a market. It joined the EU, became eligible for all sorts of grants and funding, and built better roads. These were really good roads, and they joined the place up a bit. Having joined the Euro, Ireland started advertising itself as a great place for foreign businesses to move to. So lots of foreign businesses did indeed move there, as rent was low, tax was low, services were almost free, and labour was cheap. And money came in. And Ireland started building houses, which people who couldn’t afford them borrowed money to buy. And people from other countries moved to Ireland to work for the businesses, and rented houses from landlords who had bought too many houses. Then, when it stopped being a good place for foreign businesses to be based in, the employers and many of the employees moved out again, to find a cheaper place to work and be based in, and Ireland’s wealth, based on an idea, disappeared. This is how quickly ideas can disappear. Now the people of Ireland are moving out, which means less tax, and tax is not an idea, it is real. This is why U2 moved their business to Holland. This is what happens if you have actual money. You move it to where people can’t get at it. (This involves not caring about the country you are moving it from, which U2 clearly don’t.)

If the current “whichever-dip” recession tells us anything about wealth is that it is only real for the wealthy. The rest of us might feel wealthy because we have credit cards and big tellies, but we are just as poor as we were when we didn’t have them. Men in stock markets are moving money that doesn’t exist around a huge, global market, and it’s not our money, and yet the success or failure of the men who move it around affects us all. Why? Because global meltdown affects the amount of extra tax we are expected to pay on goods, and the amount of interest we have to pay the institutions who lent us money we can’t afford to pay back.

The previous government in this country ran it on the basis of an idea, and that idea turned out to be a bad idea. They spent all our money, which was not even money we had in the first place, and then borrowed against money we had not yet paid them to save the banks which had lost all of our money. Luckily, this money didn’t exist, so in a way, we had lost nothing, but we had lost nothing twice. Does that sound ridiculous? It should do. The current government didn’t actually lose our money as they weren’t in power when it was lost, but they have decided that the best way to pay it off is to put quite a lot of us out of work, so that employers won’t have to pay us. But when we are out of work, other people who are in work have to pay us not to be in work, and it’s not very much money, so we can’t afford to go to the market and buy nice things, which cost more because the government have put up tax on nice things in order to pay themselves back for losing all our money, twice.

The bad thing about our government is that is that it is run by men who are rich. They were rich before they went into politics and don’t know what it is like to be poor. (Poor being what nearly all of us are, in reality.) So they have come up with a Plan A that protects people who are rich, but hurts people who are poor. It is a shit plan.

If you are actually rich – in other words, you own the house you live in, something only the rich actually do – you can pay people to prevent you from having to pay the government what you owe them in tax. This is a luxury only the rich can afford. So the rich, the very people who should be paying tax, don’t pay it. While the poor, which is nearly everybody else, pays tax that it can’t afford, but can’t afford not to pay. This is also an idea. This idea is called capitalism.

So all these sweaty men in coloured jackets and on phones we keep seeing on the news – who are, at the end of the day, just men with jobs they could lose as quickly as you could lose yours – are the most powerful men in the world, but unlike the people who work on the market in the picture above, they don’t have anything to sell. They don’t even have a stall. If you went up to the desk and tried to pay for the idea that they trade in with cash, they wouldn’t have anywhere to put the cash, and you wouldn’t have anything to show for it.

I wish the cakes weren’t so pricy in the British Library. But the British Library, which is a public service, pays a private company to make and sell its cakes. This is not a market, as there is only one place to buy cakes inside the Library.

Fool Britannia

DayBritainChangedApril1

I’m alright, Jack. Most of the tax and welfare cuts in what today’s Guardian calls “a new social order” do not directly affect me. Hooray! The “bedroom tax”, introduced today, robs 14% of housing benefit from those in social housing with one spare room, and 25% for two or more spare rooms. Not me. Nor am I among the two-thirds of those hit by the tax who are disabled. I am not affected by the lowering of the household income cut-off for eligibility for Legal Aid. I do not claim Council Tax benefit, so will not be affected by the system that administers it being transferred from the Government to the already financially strapped local councils.

Not being disabled, I am not affected by the disability living allowance being scrapped next Monday, and nor will it affect me that written applications for the benefit are replaced by face-to-face interviews. As I am not currently receiving benefits, or tax credits, I will not notice when, next Monday, they do not rise in line with inflation for the first time in history. Nor do I live in the London boroughs that, from 15 April, will cap welfare benefit. (The other boroughs will follow in July and September, by which time I do not expect to be a welfare claimant, but you never know in this economy, do you?)

The changes to the regulation of the financial industry do not affect me directly today. Nor does today’s unpopular handing over of NHS budgets to “local commissioning groups” made up of doctors, nurses and other practitioners affect me directly today.

So, it would be easy for me to be smug – my life goes on as normal. But I’m not smug. I’m f—ing furious, and deeply worried. These latest changes, particularly to benefits, and much more broadly to the NHS, are on the face of it designed by the nasty ideologues in the Conservative government (I think we should stop calling it a Coalition) to save money. Simple as that. The “under-occupancy penalty” (the Bedroom Tax), which some are optimistically and wishfully calling this government’s Poll Tax, will – we’re told – save £465m a year. Even if this is true – and I tend to disbelieve anything that comes out of George Osbourne’s mouth – that doesn’t count the cost. The cost to lives, to dignity, to pride, to social cohesion, and, if I may be airy-fairy for a moment, to the general mood of the nation.

Attacks on benefit claimants, the poor, the out of work, the disabled, the sick, are easy to tot up as net gains. But – and here’s where every single one of these cuts affects us all, even people who live in gated communities and have second homes in the country – I don’t personally want to live in a society where the worst-off are treated with corner-cutting contempt. This is the seventh richest nation in the world. In the world. And yet a report commissioned by the TUC predicted that by 2015, almost 7.1m of the nation’s 13m youngsters will be in “homes with incomes judged to be less than the minimum necessary for a decent standard of living”. This report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation about poverty makes depressing reading, too.

The National Housing Federation – the independent body representing 1,200 English housing associations – calculates that the Bedroom Tax risks pushing up the £23bn annual housing benefit bill. Its chief executive said the tax would “harm the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.” (It will hit 660,000 households with each losing an estimated average of £14 a week. And if you think that £14 isn’t much, then you have no empathy, or have lived a charmed life. Hey, maybe you’re among the cherished 310,000 who will gain today because of the scrapping of the 50p tax rate.)

There are simple social equations here. Either you believe in society or you do not. Either you link the experience of the poor to the experience of everybody else, or you do not. If you do not live in one of the 3.7 million low-income households whose council tax benefit is cut as of today, then you do indeed seem to be alright, Jack. And if you can step back from the bigger picture – from “breadline Britain” as it’s been branded – and still not care, as it doesn’t affect you directly, then you are a better person than I am. I don’t want to live in a country where new food banks are being opened every week. Caroline Spelman, when she was Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, described food banks as an “excellent example” of active citizenship. I describe them as a crying shame.

5206523594_60805d4fae

The amazing Trussell Trust, the charity which runs the UK’s main food bank network, now have 325 running across Britain. They say that in 2011-12 food banks fed 128,687 people nationwide; n 2012-13 they anticipate that this number will rise to over 290,000. God bless them. But their good works should not be necessary. Charity should be a safety net, not part of our social infrastructure.

So, take a look around you, at your immediate circumstances, on this most unfunny of April Fools Days. If, like me, you are unaffected, directly, today, by the latest cuts, then slap yourself on the back, and hope that you are not affected by them, directly, tomorrow, or the next day.

Then walk out of your front door, and look down your street; look at the streets you walk past tomorrow on your way to work, if you have a job, and wonder about the people who live in the houses you pass. Are they affected, directly? Some of them will be. Even more of them will be affected indirectly. We are all affected indirectly, right now.

This government is run by people who do not think about or care about how other people are getting on. They truly believe, as if it were a religious creed, that if you fall by the wayside, it’s your own, lazy fault. If you’re not an “entrepreneur”, if you don’t do three jobs, if you haven’t saved, then you’re a shirker, or a sponger, or a waste of space. If you agree with this creed, sleep well. If you don’t, then you’re alright by me, Jack.

Drinking outside the Bucks

Starbuckswindow

If I was less busy trying to earn a living, I’d blog every time I had a passing thought that I wanted to solidify, get down and expand upon. Because I don’t have the luxury of spare time at the moment, I often take to the immediate medium of Twitter and type sentences that, at best, come out as pithy aphorisms and, at worst, cheap slogans. I wrote this about Starbucks and the corporation’s notorious UK tax-avoidance doctrine on Monday morning. I enjoyed typing it.

StarbucksTweetDec3

As you can see, its deft combination of jokey tone and serious message struck a chord with 99 people, who passed it on. (Like Oscar Wilde in a donkey jacket, I cooked it up while walking past a Starbucks that morning and wondering what the patrons inside it thought about the economy they were in.) However, once you’ve dropped a pith-bomb and you are followed by more than a manageable number people, you must expect a percentage of antagonistic responses from people you have never met and will never meet, most of them reasoned and fair, one or two of them simply patronising, insulting, or borne of what seems like misunderstanding for furious effect. I sincerely believe in the power of the consumer. It is the predominant power we have as individuals when there’s not an election taking place.

If we accept – without prejudice – the reality that big business runs the world, because it does, and that politicians largely do the bidding of big business, whether by oiling the wheels, relaxing regulation or, more fundamentally, running an economy based on “growth”, which naturally favours more business and never less, then unless we are on the board of a large global corporation, we live in a world shaped by large global corporations.

Starbucks, which began as a local store in Seattle in the early 70s, arrived in this country in 1998 and, through a successful programme of aggressive expansion, it quickly made a mark on our high streets. A Starbucks coffee was probably the first takeaway coffee I’d ever gone out of my way to buy, not really being a coffee drinker at that point, and certainly no connoisseur.  I enjoyed the drink, albeit mostly the fluffed-up milk, and the relatively new experience (“experience” being the key to the brand’s success, of course). The proliferation of Starbucks, followed by the others that bloomed in its wake, did indeed change the way a nation of tea drinkers viewed coffee. You have to hand that to them. But this soon went sour.

starbucks

Before I could settle into a new routine of buying lattes on my way to Broadcasting House, for instance, I read Naomi Klein’s No Logo and my head was turned. Overnight, I despised Starbucks for the way it did business, along with what had become the new usual suspects of corporate greed, sharp practice, exploitation, non-unionisation and bullying: Nike, Gap, Coca Cola, Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, you know the drill. I have, in my adult life, given money to some if not all of these corporations. I am not a saint.

But when I feel a boycott is called for, I only have my own conscience to deal with. And the recent exposé of Starbucks’ tax affairs in the UK, the payment of which has been deftly avoided by sleight of hand involving licences, the Netherlands and declaring losses, has put the chain in a lot of people’s sights. It may be that pressure from the MPs – led by Margaret Hodge – who sat on the select committee flicked the switch, and forced the corporate hand into face-saving reparationary action, but it was surely the fear of loss of custom and attendant share price threat that sealed the case.

Give or take the odd exception since 1999, I’ve hardly given any money to Starbucks, so they won’t have noticed my total blanket boycott since the Reuters report into their UK tax-avoidance, but as I always say, if enough people make what seems like a futile gesture, it might just amount to a meaningful one. I once read an interview with Klein, in which, admirably, she admitted to occasionally grabbing a Starbucks if it was the only concession in an airport, say, and she really wanted a coffee.

I admired her candour. It’s easy to avoid Starbucks in any UK high street, as there’s usually another chain nearby, if not an independent outlet. (I understand that Whitbread, the UK hotel and restaurant firm, which owns Costa, pay their full UK corporation tax, so if you must use one of them … ) However, that’s not what I intended to blog about. I was more interested in the nature of the way Twitter extends a dialogue, and why it’s foolhardy to do as I do, which is type in cheap slogans.

starbucksdrive

Having published my call-to-arms on Twitter on Monday, I spent way too much of the following days counter-arguing my case with nitpickers and, in some cases, outright apologists for corporate tax-dodging. (There was also one rude bastard who began his reply, “FFS, wake up, man …”, which guaranteed him a blocking. As Billy Bragg says, freedom of speech comes with the freedom not to have to listen.) Most people hit back along the lines of, “Don’t boycott Starbucks; pressure government to close tax loopholes and force HMRC to hit the corporations harder.” This rather assumed that in being angry with a corporation, I was fine with HMRC’s timidity and failure to act, and with the government’s protectionism with regards tax loopholes. I’m not fine with it. (Oh, and I’m not angry with the people who work at HMRC, like the wife of one affable plaintiff on Twitter – “she’s lovely” – I’m angry with the management.)

So, that’s that argument dealt with. Others reckoned my boycott will only harm individual franchises who do pay tax, and throw ordinary, hard-working UK baristas out on the street. Nobody actively wants this. But in the same way, let’s say boycotting a bank because it invests in murderous regimes might ultimately affect those blameless individuals working in the bank who have no control over what their corporate employer does with its money. This kind of joined-up thinking is always enough to push you to the conclusion that it’s better to do nothing. Most people, after all, do nothing. (Except in Syria. And Egypt. And Palestine. And Greece. And so on.)

Other people – nigglers, really – said that if you’re going to boycott one corporation you have to follow through and boycott all corporations who avoid tax, and then they list the other offenders. Hey, the BBC have been caught out encouraging their contracted stars to set up limited companies, through which they are paid, thus reducing tax on both sides, so surely, if I’m so bloody righteous, I should boycott the BBC, too! (And my friends who are contracted BBC employees! Presumably by altering my Christmas card list?) Again, if you tie yourself up in knots, you will end up doing nothing. “They” would much rather you did nothing. We got into this recession by running up credit, and “they” seem to wish us to spend out way out of it by running up even more credit. Where will it all end?

I do not believe in criminal damage, so will not be smashing Starbucks’ windows in. I think UK Uncut’s planned series of civil disobedience sounds admirable, and witty and clever – turning coffee outlets into refuges for women, and creches, which are the worst hit by the cuts, which are linked to our failing economy, which is linked to the very rich not paying their fair share and being given a tacit blessing to Carry On Avoiding, so I’ll be interested to see how that works out tomorrow.

Having just spent a couple of days with Billy Bragg, researching a new chapter for his official biography, I am dangerously fired up with progressive left-wing ardour. His message these days is simple: it’s all about accountability. I’m cutting down on caffeine anyway.

Save £££££££££££s!

I had a realisation yesterday, and it may be a sign of the times, but it hit me like a diamond bullet in the forehead all the same: I get much more of a kick out of saving money than I do from spending money. I made the vanilla and almond biscotti that I have very badly photographed above, and, on carving out around 48 biscuits from one baking tray and popping them into Tupperware tubs, I decided to calculate exactly how much they cost to make. (It was fun to cook them, by the way, and took just over an hour.)

In a possibly over-forensic manner, I worked out how much I’d spent on flour, sugar, eggs, butter etc. (this is easy to do if you know the price of the food you buy), and the grand total, discounting the electricity I’d used to bake the biscotti for a total of 40 minutes, was £3.88. Now, I could have reduced this total sharply by not using organic eggs, organic almonds, organic butter and – added ingredient! – about eight squares of Green & Black’s chocolate. (I had to buy the flour round the corner, having spontaneously decided to make the biscotti, and they only had non-organic.) Although I saved on vanilla pods by using a drop of essence, I used flaked almonds instead of whole, as I had some in the cupboard; next time, it would be much cheaper to smash up whole almonds bought in big bags. In other words, I reckon it could be done for closer to £2. Even at my organic price, that’s about 8p a biscuit, but at £2 it would be more like 4p. I sometimes treat myself (those words) to a shop-bought box of biscotti and they cost £2.19 for about 20 biscuits – the rest is packaging – which is almost 11p a biscuit. Over 40 biscuits, that’s a saving of £1.20, which would rocket to £2.80 if you spent less on the ingredients, as I will do next time. If you buy a single biscotti in a high street coffee shop, it’s 99p. You don’t need to do the maths (which is lucky, as I am shit at maths). The maths does itself.

In yesterday’s Observer, the ever-reliable David Mitchell was writing about Michael Gove, chiefly, but had this enlightening thing to say about saving money.

In my life, the money I would otherwise spend on shampoo is very dear to me: I buy the cheapest possible shampoo. When I can steal it from hotels, I do. I use every last squirt from every bottle, eking out days’ more use from each one when most people would have thrown it away. I dote on the thought of that saved money. It may amount to as much as £14 over my lifetime. Meanwhile, the money I waste because I’m perpetually on the wrong mobile phone tariff is sent out into the world neglected and unloved.

Now, Mitchell is a well-recompensed TV personality and broadsheet columnist; he has less need to scrimp and save and worry about money than most. But unless you’re actually in the 1%, we really are all in this recession – or these recessions – together, and if Mitchell instinctively squeezes shampoo bottles, so should we all. And if we’re not squeezing them, we should ask ourselves why not. It may be the vilified “bankers” who got us into this mess – or more rightly, the governments that let them get us into it, or even more rightly, the free market that so dazzled the governments in the first place that they turned two blind eyes to the deregulated sleight-of-greed that was going on in their name – but we were happy to spend, on credit, when the going was good, and it’s up to us, I think, to put the brakes on and adjust to the new world order.

In the past couple of weeks, as you can see, I have made beetroot soup, a banana cake, and a radish and mint soup (which tastes a lot nicer than it looks). My imperative for doing this has been to use up what we’ve got. My fruit and vegetables are delivered, in a box, and that means you don’t know exactly what you’re going to get. One week, you might get 700g of beetroots, which is exactly the amount required for Delia’s beetroot soup recipe, which is free online [see: Factsheet at bottom]. Rather than see the beetroots going wrinkly and unloved in a drawer, I used them, and it serves four, which means it serves me, four times, over four days. The banana cake was, like the biscotti, a cunning method of giving myself a sweet treat in my packed lunch which obviates the need for me to buy expensive cakes and biscuits in coffee shops, or the overpriced British Library café.

I used to work in a rented office, but that had to go come the crash of 2008, when all but the most affluent belts were tightened. I have been working in the Library ever since, as it’s free once you have a Reader’s Pass. But in those early days, I used to buy my lunch, and a mid-morning snack, and even sometimes breakfast, in the cafeteria or café. Even though I was cutting back on expenditure by letting the office go, and cancelling my gym membership, and picking up my newspaper rather than having it delivered, it’s amazing how much I found myself spending per day on food. So the packed lunch became my creed. I cook up something meaty and long-lasting on a Sunday, and apportion it out Monday to Friday. I add to that something sweet, and maybe a Tupperware tub of plain yoghurt with dried fruit or stewed apple in it. Lovely! Although, yes, some days I wish I didn’t have quite so much in my bag, I always relish getting it all out for my lunch. (And to sneak out a couple of biscuits, especially homemade ones, in a coffee shop, feels like a moral victory.)

I have, it seems, turned into a 1950s austerity housewife. And that suits me fine. It takes time to make your own food, but as long as you enjoy cooking, as I do, it’s a surefire way of de-leveraging. We are all feeling the pinch to varying degrees, but it feels good not to throw your money away, doesn’t it? Capitalism requires us all to feel constantly dissatisfied, and to want to own more goods, and better goods. I have had my car for 11 years. By now, according to capitalism, I should have replaced it, or, at the very least, started to envy the better, newer cars of those around me. I don’t. I just don’t. (I am lucky enough to live in London, with its excellent public transport links, so I really don’t use the car much. I feel sorry for those who don’t have that luxury and can’t get about without a car.) I remember reading Will Hutton’s excellent The World We’re In a few years ago and being struck by the observation that the middle classes are the engine of free market capitalism, as, according to the rules, they own some stuff, and it’s the people who own some stuff who are in a constant state of anxiety about their stuff not being enough, or good enough, so they thrive to work harder and earn more money, so they can spend it, and thus, they motor the economy. This, one assumes, is why right-wing politicians are keen to convince us that we’re all middle class now. If we are, then we are the suckers.

This is a horrible period to be living through. I am personally not on my knees, but that’s mainly because I’m self-employed and cannot lose all my clients overnight in the same way that someone who is employed can lose their job overnight. Even in the media, budgets are being cut everywhere, and the BBC, one of my main employers, is public sector. And we all know how much love the Tories have for the public sector. It’s hard to imagine that, a few years ago, I had a gym membership. That seems so wasteful now. (Walking, I have discovered, is free.) Surely it’s better to bake your own biscuits than to buy them?

Oh, and my biscuits taste better. They’re not as sweet as the Arden & Amici ones, but the money I’ve saved is sweet enough.

 

Factsheet: the recipes mentioned are here, although I have customised them freely, as I often do, to accommodate what’s in the cupboard and fridge, which is a frugal way of doing it.

The almond and vanilla biscotti came from a Waitrose recipe. I used plain four instead of self-raising, so added bicarb and baking powder. I also added choc chips. The beetroot soup, Polish apparently, is a Delia recipe; again, adapted – I added red chilli for kick, and have tried both bacon for the stock, and the giblets from a chicken. The radish and mint soup was Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s, although it’s designed to be eaten cold and I warmed mine up and used yoghurt instead of creme fraiche, and paprika for cayenne pepper (again, through necessity), which may have changed it for the worse. The beautiful banana cake – which lasted me for a week and a half, rationed to one slice a day – is by Dan Lepard, from the Guardian magazine. (I must admit, I was so exited by the outcome, I sent him the photo on Twitter, and he replied and everything.)

Incidentally, my food photography is rubbish because I don’t have a mobile phone with a camera, and instead use the rudimentary and awkward PhotoBooth application on my laptop. I don’t have a posh phone for the same reasons that I don’t belong to a gym or pay 99p for a biscotti in a coffee shop.

A Christmas miracle

Boring, but true: two Saturdays ago, I lost my 2011 diary. It was my favoured model, the really tiny WHSmith “Week to View” with a little pencil in the spine, in black. (One year I went nuts and opted for the silver one.) It costs £4.49. It is not through abject Luddism that I choose to enter my appointments in a book, made of paper, which you cannot “tether” or “sync” without laboriously copying information from it into another document using the pencil. It was Saturday 19 November.

I had noted down a couple of online booking references in my diary, with the pencil, and for that reason I took it out of my bag when I was picking the tickets up at the Curzon in Soho, on my way home from 6 Music. I know I put the diary back in my bag, in a zip-up compartment, but that was the last time I could swear that I still had it.

I noticed on the following Monday morning that my diary was not in its normal pocket. I panicked. I don’t lose things very often, and I know where all my things are. I don’t much like the shoulder bag I am using currently. The strap broke on my last one, which was a promotional item given to me by the kind people at FX, so, rather than fork out for a new one, I put an old one given to me many years ago by the kind people at record label V2 back into service. It’s a bit bulky and badly designed, and I can’t say I like the zip-up pockets on it. I occasionally think to myself, “I’m going to lose something out of the bag at some stage.” Well, it had happened.

Here’s the weird part about losing a diary – that is, a physical diary, and one that is not backed up electronically – even one that only has about five weeks left to run on it: you suddenly become insecure about your life. I had a lot of fairly detailed appointments and reminders pencilled into it – Radio Times schedule changes in the run-up to Christmas, some moved Guardian recording dates, one Christmas lunch and a number of cinema bookings. By checking back through emails, I was able to recover most of them but, for instance, on Thursday, which I spent all day in the British Library, writing Mr Blue Sky, I could have sworn I had something in the diary. All day I imagined my phone vibrating and somebody asking those dread words, “Where are you?”

Thankfully, I survived the week. Last Saturday I bought a brand new diary for 2012 – yes, a tiny black one from WHSmith for £4.49, “Week to View” – and planned to use the frankly lumpy iCal program on my MacBook to see me through to the end of 2011. I don’t much like it, I’ll be honest. I like to write things down. In pencil. In a book. And carry the book around with me at all times. And lose it. I knew all this already, and I didn’t need to lose a diary to discover these self-evident truths about myself. I felt stupid and careless for losing it. I’d had a pretty grumpy week, and this simple material loss seemed to sum up my self-pity.

And then …

On Sunday – that’s eight days after losing my diary – I found it. Where? In another pocket of my bag? No. Under my bedside table? No. Beneath something on my desk at Radio Times? No. I was walking down my street on Sunday afternoon, and, by glancing down at precisely the right moment, I caught sight of a small black book just sitting on the pavement, in the shadow of a wall, in a patch of moss. It’s black. It hides in shadows. But I saw the “2011″ picked out in traditional silver. For a split second, I thought it was somebody else’s diary, and then, in the next split second, it dawned on me that I was a very lucky man.

Oddly, my street had been swept by the council only last week, but they had missed this little black book in the mossy shadows. And I got it back. It sort of doesn’t matter in the broader scheme of things, but, you know, in the current economic gloom, it’s good to find something that you lost. It’s uplifting to experience some good fortune. I could easily have walked past the diary and never seen it. It was a tiny bit damp but I’ve dried it out and it’s back in service until the end of 2011. Hooray.

I don’t believe in miracles. But this was one.

Buy! Buy!

This is a picture of a market. I understand it. On this market, people sell things to other people and the people who sell the things make sure that they sell them for a bit more than they paid for them, so that they can make a profit by which to pay for the opportunity to have a stall on the market and with enough left over to pay for things that they need to buy at other markets. What could be simpler?

All the newspapers today are reporting meltdown in the market. But it is a more complicated market. It is the stock market. It is not based upon things being sold, it is based upon the idea of things being sold. It is based upon selling the idea of something. The people who sell these ideas do not meet the people that they sell them to. In fact, most of the selling of ideas is done by third parties, who buy and sell the things that do not exist on behalf of the people who actually own the things, and are paid to do so. Already, this is a more complicated market than the market in the picture.

I am not very good at economics. I understand how much money I’ve got, which is a minus figure, as I owe money to a bank who foolishly lent it to me to buy a house I cannot afford, on the understanding that I will pay the money back to them by a certain date. Unfortunately, I have to pay them back more than the sum they lent me. This is how they make money. I make money by rearranging the English language, either by hand, or with my mouth, and every month, I hope that enough people pay me to do this for me to pay the bank what I owe it for lending me a sum of money. Any money I have left over after paying the bank, I am free to spend on whatever I like, although because I have a house, and a car, there are certain things I have to pay first, to insurance companies and to the council, for instance. It sounds pretty stupid when you lay it out, but I do at least understand it. Once I have bought food and household goods, I might have enough left over to go to the market and buy something nice for myself. Because I am self-employed, I do not have a boss, and cannot be sacked, but neither do I have any security. Those who pay me today are under no obligation whatsoeer to pay me tomorrow, or ever again. Because of this, I tend not to go the  market to buy nice things as often as I’d like. Why? Because there is a recession on.

The recession started in 2007 and really started to get serious in 2008, when house prices fell and people who had been lent more money than they could pay back defaulted on their mortgages, meaning that the whole house of cards came crashing down. The banks and building societies had been lending money for years to people who couldn’t pay it back based upon the idea – another idea – that house prices would just keep going up. They stopped going up and started going down. It turned out that all the countries that thought they were rich and doing well, were only rich and doing well because they expected house prices to keep going up, thereby making everybody richer without actually doing anything. If you watched Property Ladder with Sarah Beeny in the mid-2000s, one thing you knew was that the amateur developers who tried to increase the value of a property but spent too much in doing so by buying stupid taps could have made money by just doing nothing for three months. Because the market went up anyway while they were mucking about with taps.

There was a banking crisis, which I understood, because it was to do with the banks having lent money that wasn’t theirs to people who couldn’t pay it back, so they ran out of money, and the money wasn’t even theirs. It was our money that they had lent to other people. Some people tried to get their money out of the banks but many banks had to be lent money by the government, who used the money we had given them by paying tax to help the banks. I’m not stupid, but I couldn’t really work this one out. Since 2008-2009, the best thing I could think of doing to beat the recession was spend less of my money. So I did.

Now, we read the news and find that America, the richest country in the world, cannot afford to pay money back to the people who lend it money. Why is America rich if all its money is borrowed? It is rich because of an idea. The idea is: if everybody works really hard, especially the poor, and we allow the rich to keep all their money, they will create more money. The stock market deals in ideas. Wealth is an idea. If you do not own the house you live in, your house is an idea. You might own some of it, in that if you ran out of money, you could sell it to pay off the money you still owe, but it’s not yours. Because Greece and possibly Spain and Portugal and Ireland are all in financial trouble based upon an idea – the idea being: all the money we have is borrowed but we might carry on making more money if house prices continue to go up – there are fears that the Eurozone will collapse.

As I believe I’ve mentioned, I’m not very good at economics, but I know that the single currency for some but not all European nations was introduced so that money could be simpler. Instead of lots of currencies which have to be exchanged all the time, some but not all European countries would have the same currency, which would make trading between some but not all European countries easier, and fairer. However, this Utopian ideal seems to be in trouble. Because Greece, which doesn’t really make anything, or Ireland, which doesn’t really make anything, or Spain, which doesn’t really make anything, built the idea of their wealth upon the idea that house prices would continue to go up, and they have gone down, almost an entire continent using the same currency seems to be in more trouble than it might have been if it still had lots of different currencies.

I love Ireland. It is my favourite country. I have been there a lot, and regularly, over the past 20 years. It used to be a small, modest, rural economy, self-sufficient, surrounded by water, and with enough tourism to give it a bit of spare money to buy nice things at a market. It joined the EU, became eligible for all sorts of grants and funding, and built better roads. These were really good roads, and they joined the place up a bit. Having joined the Euro, Ireland started advertising itself as a great place for foreign businesses to move to. So lots of foreign businesses did indeed move there, as rent was low, tax was low, services were almost free, and labour was cheap. And money came in. And Ireland started building houses, which people who couldn’t afford them borrowed money to buy. And people from other countries moved to Ireland to work for the businesses, and rented houses from landlords who had bought too many houses. Then, when it stopped being a good place for foreign businesses to be based in, the employers and many of the employees moved out again, to find a cheaper place to work and be based in, and Ireland’s wealth, based on an idea, disappeared. This is how quickly ideas can disappear. Now the people of Ireland are moving out, which means less tax, and tax is not an idea, it is real. This is why U2 moved their business to Holland. This is what happens if you have actual money. You move it to where people can’t get at it. (This involves not caring about the country you are moving it from, which U2 clearly don’t.)

If the current recession, and the predicted next one, which I refuse to call a “double dip” as it makes it sound like fun, tells us anything about wealth is that it is only real for the wealthy. The rest of us might feel wealthy because we have credit cards and big tellies, but we are just as poor as we were when we didn’t have them. Men in stock markets are moving money that doesn’t exist around a huge, global market, and it’s not our money, and yet the success or failure of the men who move it around affects us all. Why? Because global meltdown affects the amount of extra tax we are expected to pay on goods, and the amount of interest we have to pay the institutions who lent us money we can’t afford to pay back.

The previous government in this country ran it on the basis of an idea, and that idea turned out to be a bad idea. They spent all our money, which was not even money we had in the first place, and then borrowed against money we had not yet paid them to save the banks which had lost all of our money. Luckily, this money didn’t exist, so in a way, we had lost nothing, but we had lost nothing twice. Does that sound ridiculous? It should do. The current government didn’t actually lose our money as they weren’t in power when it was lost, but they have decided that the best way to pay it off is to put quite a lot of us out of work, so that employers won’t have to pay us. But when we are out of work, other people who are in work have to pay us not to be in work, and it’s not very much money, so we can’t afford to go to the market and buy nice things, which cost more because the government have put up tax on nice things in order to pay themselves back for losing all our money, twice.

The bad thing about our government is that is that it is run by men who are rich. They were rich before they went into politics and don’t know what it is like to be poor. (Poor being what nearly all of us are, in reality.) So they have come up with a Plan A that protects people who are rich, but hurts people who are poor. It is a shit plan.

If you are actually rich – in other words, you own the house you live in, something only the rich actually do – you can pay people to prevent you from having to pay the government what you owe them in tax. This is a luxury only the rich can afford. So the rich, the very people who should be paying tax, don’t pay it. While the poor, which is nearly everybody else, pays tax that it can’t afford, but can’t afford not to pay. This is also an idea. This idea is called capitalism.

So all these sweaty men in coloured jackets and on phones we keep seeing on the news – who are, at the end of the day, just men with jobs they could lose as quickly as you could lose yours – are the most powerful men in the world, but unlike the people who work on the market in the picture above, they don’t have anything to sell. They don’t even have a stall. If you went up to the desk and tried to pay for the idea that they trade in with cash, they wouldn’t have anywhere to put the cash, and you wouldn’t have anything to show for it.

I wish the cakes weren’t so pricy in the British Library. But the British Library, which is a public service, pays a private company to make and sell its cakes. This is not a market, as there is only one place to buy cakes inside the Library.