The Gadfly reflects on how easy it is to spend other people's money
The life of a turkey reared for the Christmas table is on average a rather pleasant affair. Such is the nature of averages. We may question, and many do, the ethics of cultivating one animal species for the gratification of another and some of us may prefer not to know too much about the precise conditions in which turkeys are kept, but what do turkeys think?
If offered the choice between protected well-fed domestication and the rigours of the natural environment, how many would opt for the latter? Denied fore-knowledge of the fate that awaits them and seduced by three meals a day and a warm, dry and safe roost, who could blame a turkey for believing that it was in Poultry Paradise? If we were able to conduct a survey of turkey opinion, it's not too difficult to imagine that such a poll would produce the attention-grabbing result that an overwhelming majority of turkeys are in favour of intensive agriculture. Turkeys may not vote for Christmas, but if obliged to choose between Easy Street and Freedom Road, I suspect that most of them would unwittingly queue up to help with the stuffing. That's the problem with democracy; sometimes it produces the wrong answer.
I am writing this piece in the wee small hours and Radio 4, my constant companion when sane people are fast asleep, is feeding me the results of the local elections as they become available. Were it not so predictable, the size of the swing against the coalition government would be shocking. As it is, the fact that the Tories and LibDems seem set to lose upwards of 700 seats is not even noteworthy. After all, that's more or less how many seats the last labour government lost in the mid-term local elections when they were in power. There is a wearying inevitably about democratic politics. To secure power, politicians must make themselves popular and as anyone who has ever met a politician will tell you, that is not an easy thing. Many of them remind me of the kids who struggle to make friends at school. They stand on the edge of the playground ignored and unloved, desperate to be invited to join in, but no one ever extends to them the hand of welcome.
Isolated, lonely and friendless they plot their revenge, swearing that they will exact a dreadful price for the way we have treated them. At this point, it may help if you conjure up a mental image of the current Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow. See what I mean? This may go some way to explain why so many of their policies look more like spite than leadership.
Every four or so years our taste buds are tickled with a smorgasbord of pork-barrel policies that we should recognise for what they are, but don't. I wouldn't mind if just once someone would make a policy commitment and then promise that they will put up taxes to pay for it, à la François Hollande. At least then we can weigh up the costs and the benefits of their generosity with our money and vote accordingly. But higher taxes would make them unpopular so instead they borrow the money on the cynical but probably sensible premise that we are too stupid to know that we are living on tick and there will need to be at some time a dreadful reckoning. Either that or they promise that their policies will deliver 'growth', and 'growth' will deliver the extra tax revenue needed to pay for the vote-winning policies. Whenever a politician mentions the word 'growth' be first sceptical then afraid.
The point is that politicians are exercising their dubious arts with our money. Not as is often quoted in the media "the Government's", "the Chancellor's", or "the Treasury's" . They don't pay for hospitals, pensions, wars and bank bail-outs, we do. It's our money they are spending and when someone is spending someone else's money they are a great deal less careful than when they are spending their own. That' s why the Ministry of Defence pays £800 for a laptop you can by in PC World for £250. Profligacy is inevitable when you give your credit card to a stranger.
Consider this current economic crisis. It is by common consent the deepest and most protracted recession since the 1930s and it was initiated by a truly appalling decision that gave one set of people permission to speculate with money of another. In 1933, legislation was enacted in the USA to address the speculative excesses of the banking industry that had exacerbated the Great Depression. The Glass-Steagall Act limited the dangerous affiliation of retail and investment banks, and ensured that bankers themselves suffered most when they lost money. It was the repeal of Glass-Steagall in 1999 that opened the way for banks once again, to gamble with their investors' money, safe in the knowledge that if their bets paid off, they earned millions in bonuses but if they bombed, it was investors' money that vaporised. The result was what we now call 'casino banking' and the rest as they say is history.
It is estimated that each year we in the global learning and development industry spend in excess of $630 billion1of somebody else's money. That' s over 50 quid for every person on the planet. In a recent survey, the selection criterion most frequently used by training buyers when evaluating competitive tenders was 'quality of delivery'. Now I could be wrong but isn't that something that can only be assessed once the training has been completed? Either buyers are simply returning to the same old faces that they have always used and for whom 'quality of delivery' is a known, albeit historical, fact or there is a universally accepted objective measure of training delivery quality that I don't know about. Either way, I suggest that if they were spending their own money, they would demand and get more for it.
1 Salopek, J (2008 March), "Educating the C Class" T&D March Vol.62 No.3 20-23
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