Snakes and ladders

•July 29, 2008 • Leave a Comment

This post on ads without products got me thinking about the moral undertone that has always been present in media coverage of the housing market: the notion that there are some people who deserve to make a mint out of ever-escalating house prices and others who should just know their place and leave well alone. When the market was spiraling upwards, the news was full of stories showing the fresh faces of young middle-class people in full employment staring wistfully into estate agents’ windows and bemoaning the fact they were still unable to get ‘on the property ladder’. And so these hardworking, deserving people were being denied access to the untold riches on offer if only they were able to grab that bottom rung.

But now, as the sloppy stuff hits the Fan(nie Mae), the focus turns to the shortcomings of those who bought not only a house, but the whole schtick that they could have it all and the rising price of their investment would cover the cost. So the supposed moral failings of the individual become the symbol for the woes that we are all going through: it is because of people who got into debt they can’t repay that the value of everyone else’s house is melting away, that the whole economic climate becomes one of total gloom, that the banks are running out of money. So a news story about one such person features a picture of her talking on the phone with a cigarette in hand, not just as an easy signifier of the stress she is under, but also as a note of instruction as to how we are supposed to react to the story: she SMOKES, so therefore it follows that she must be utterly irresponsible and incapable of fulfilling her responsibilities as a good economic citizen. Here you go America – here’s the reason you are worse off, feel free to point and make snidey remarks…

All of which goes to hide the real culprits of the piece. Firstly, the banks who kept coming up with innovative measures to meet the circumstances of the rising market: 120% mortgages, lending to a multiplier of 4 or 5 times a buyer’s salary, self-certification mortgages. Which were of course helpful measures for first time buyers from the wonderfully altruistic banks, and not just strategies to try to prevent stagnation by allowing some new buyers into the market, hence ensuring prices would keep rising, allowing larger amounts to be lent, with bigger potential profits from interest on the repayments.

Another point worth noting whilst discussing the ways in which banks benefit from rising house prices is that such growth is largely dead money if you are an owner-occupier. The only way for you to keep profit after selling up is to move to a smaller place (as larger or similarly sized properties are likely to have gained value at an equal rate), or to return to renting (which, so long as prices keep rising, will actually make it harder to return to ownership at a later date). Therefore, whilst a homeowner may feel much richer as their home’s value continues to multiply, the only way they can get access to this cash is to borrow more money against the increased price of their home. Unless, of course, favourable conditions exist for people to own more homes than they require for living in…

Step forward culprit number two: government policies. Once houses become viewed in terms of an investment rather than as somewhere to live, you are inevitably going to cause the market to step out of line with the actual need for the population to have a roof over its head. You are also going to increase the tendency within the market for boom and bust cycles: when capital is invested in property not due to a necessity as a home, but rather due to the potential high rate of return, once that high rate of return is no longer assured such money will seek to move elsewhere, thus exacerbating the effects of a decline in values. Those that are stung by price collapses are far more likely to be the small investors, lulled into thinking they can make fortunes by the endless stream of ‘property porn’ programmes, whilst those with more significant interests will be able to ride it out. A further distortion, in terms of the UK housing market, is the non-domecile tax rules, which allow people from overseas to live here without paying tax on their interests abroad – the effect of which is to turn the most attractive residential areas within London into a billionaires’ playground, the ripple effect in terms of property values being far more significant than the supposed trickle down of the benefits of overseas investment.

The depressing thing is that, even though prices may be tumbling at the moment, the structural flaws remain. Social housing stocks are still massively depleted from the effects of Right to Buy, yet social housing providers (either Councils or housing associations) are, for the most part, no longer able to invest in developing new stock for themselves, but must instead rely upon a percentage of private developments being made available as part of the planning process. But if private housebuilding hits a slump, such percentage targets will continue to fail to yield the required quantities of new dwellings. Coupled with a labyrinthine planning system and the potential gains that are possible through speculative land holding, the obstacles to development remain significant. So overall, the prospects that housing supply will be able to catch up with the rising numbers of households look highly unlikely, meaning the current dip is almost certainly a mere hiatus, and home ownership will continue to be pushed further out of reach of large portions of the population.

It all puts you in a rather unfamiliar position as someone inclined towards leftist political viewpoints, of wishing that Winston Churchill had had his way. In 1909, as Liberal President of the Board of Trade, Churchill had been a vociferous supporter of Chancellor David Lloyd George’s People’s Budget, which had included within it the introduction of a land tax, which would have levied a tax upon the increase in value of unimproved land. Since house price gains are essentially due to the increasing value of the land upon which the property stands, such a tax could have cooled the rampant property speculation that we have seen in recent years. But, what with the House of Lords being stuffed with landowning Conservatives, the proposals were dropped after the initial budget was vetoed. The rancour between the Lords and the Commons during this period led on to the passing of the Parliament Act of 1911 – which asserted the primacy of the Commons – most recently employed in banning fox-hunting. So you may have to pay ridiculous sums for a place to live, but at least the foxes are OK (or, at least they would be if the Act that banned hunting didn’t have more holes than the plot of a Dan Brown novel…)

A Man-Eating Machine

•July 29, 2008 • Leave a Comment

I have to mention the dazzling new Grace Jones video, in which visual effects are used to transform Grace into a savage, spectral, shape-shifting figuration of Capital itself:

All of which is described and detailed far better than I could hope to do by Steven Shaviro.

A salute

•July 23, 2008 • Leave a Comment

I’ve had today’s stage of the Tour de France on the TV for much of the afternoon. Whether the much trumpeted clampdown on drug use has been successful, or whether the riders continue to maintain their prowess by illicit means, you still have to admire the sheer crazed endurance required, having already covered a couple of thousand kilometres in two and a half weeks, to then face a 200km day of winding through the Alps, topping climbs up to 2645m and 2067m, and then after five hours in the saddle coming face to face with this:

and still having enough left to manage to power up it in less than an hour.

While I’m sure of it’s of no consolation at all those riders currently in agony as they plough up the Alp D’Huez, I’m sat here on my backside raising a mug of tea to them in admiration.

Coming soon on Nintendo DS…

•July 19, 2008 • Leave a Comment

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These games don’t actually exist, I’ve just made them up. However, given the appetite amongst the general public for allowing a computer to tell them how old their brain is, what to do to lose weight or what to eat, whilst also training their eyesight, arithmetic and word-power (in a range of languages), surely things like this are right this moment being brainstormed, or plucked from the sessions of blue-sky thought of some software developer out there.

Probably the biggest success so far in the genre of the aspirational, quasi-educational training game has been Dr Kawshima’s Brain Training, which still sits at the top of Amazon’s Nintendo DS bestseller chart two years after its release. It promises, through a series of games and puzzles, to calculate the age of your brain. Now, I’m no neuroscientist, but isn’t your brain going to be, well, the same age as the rest of you? And how exactly is 20 minutes of puzzles or fucking sudoku a day likely to make a major difference?

Surely, in fact, an older brain would actually be an advantage in that having had more experience and more opportunity for learning, it might have gathered a greater range and depth of knowledge. Which makes the whole thing readily apparent as just another factor in the whole biopower construct that so much of modern society seems to revolve around: health=youth=attractiveness, all of which are within your reach if you put in the requisite hours in the gym, fork out for the latest miracle skin cream/cosmetic surgical procedure. So, therefore, it is little surprise that the brain gets treated like just another muscle that, given regular workouts, will remain in shape. In itself, this attitude is not necessarily harmful, but surely reading a book would be just as effective a mental workout. However, knowledge is not so readily ranked as performance in puzzles, and our economic system seems to have incubated a love of targets, objectives, grades, scores and the easy psychic reward they offer in completion. Therefore, just as a significant proportion of our society prefer pounding a treadmill in a shiny chrome and glass gym to a long rambling walk in terms of physical exercise, so Brain Training will be preferred by many to the act of actually thinking about something.

All of which seems to fit the whole phenomenon into the same capacity-over-content way of thinking as Infinite Thought’s fantastically ominous portrait of ‘Studies Studies’ as the future of education, keeping brains ticking over without ever attempting to fill them.

Footnote – Honourable mention in terms of horrendousness for this:

&

“There are two versions of the game – one for boys and one for girls. The two versions have a different selection of minigames designed to appeal to sons and daughters alike, with the boy version featuring games like “toy train” or “drive the car,” and the girl version offering games like “colour the animals” or “little kitchen.” I Did It Mum offers simple but fun challenges for this age group, which they can enjoy completing with a parent. Additional feature allowing a voice recording option for Mum to encourage their child when completing the minigames.”

Win your Mum’s (because Dad is no doubt out earning a wage, or watching sport or something far more important than spending time with their child) approval by conforming to gender stereotypes. Fantastic.

Question Time Schools Edition

•July 14, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Being ever-interested in what young people make of the political process, I sat through the majority of the above programme the other night. Probably with the aim of getting the Yoof reconnected with politics, they produce one of these programmes each series: the usual QT format (audience members pose questions (screened in advance by the producers) to a panel typically comprised of one figure from each of the major parties plus a couple of other vaguely relevant figures) except the audience is made up of people 18 or under and the panel is tailored to the supposed concerns of the audience. In this case, this was done by including ‘businesswoman’ (although far more likely to remembered as a gobby also-ran on a previous series of The Apprentice) Saira Khan and 18 year old Michael Heaver, who won a competition to be a ‘people’s panelist’ on the show.

For the most part, this proceeded in the manner of other QT shows: question; bland party-politicking answers from Tory, Labour and Lib Dem panelists; responses from the other panelists that, whilst more interesting due to not having to be ‘on message’, may lack intricate knowledge of the issues in question; contributions from the audience ranging from populist ranting to ultra-considered rambling from more studious types, keen to make the most of their moment in the spotlight to show how intelligent and knowledgeable they are (probably the type of people who blog on politics in their spare time…)

What caught my attention was the fact that two (of five or six in total) of the main questions, were explicitly premised upon the notion of a gulf between politicians and what is typically referred to as ‘the real world’. Firstly, whether it was acceptable for the G8 leaders to sit down to a “lavish” eight course banquet at a summit that had global food shortages at the top of its agenda. Secondly, on the topic of MP’s expenses and whether they have contributed to a loss of respect for politics. Without getting drawn into a debate on such issues, or denying that there are questions that have to be answered, what strikes me is the glee with which such points are seized upon, firstly in the media, and then in the electorate at large. We have an instinctive dislike of politicians, and regard them all as greedy, incompetent careerists keen only to line their own nests, while climbing greasy poles, riding on gravy trains and multiple other metaphorical accusations. The problem is that such sniping creates an attitude to politics as a whole whereby we prefer to rant from the sidelines rather than engage in any political issues. Therefore, in shifting the blame onto a few figures in government, we absolve ourselves completely of responsibility for the state we are in, whilst the structural factors that distort our politics go ignored: an electoral system that privileges votes in a few key swing seats; a need for politicians to cosy up to established interests in big business for party funding, and the media to try to ensure a good press.

In his answer to the question regarding MP’s expenses, Iain Duncan Smith, the Tory member of the panel, made a comparison of politicians to estate agents or journalists as the most disliked, and least trusted, professions within society. I think such a comparison is quite telling: yes, we (quite rightly) dislike and mistrust estate agents, but we don’t withdraw completely from an involvement in the housing market (far from it, in fact); similarly, for all we profess a distrust of journalists, we’re happy to keep reading and absorbing the opinions they churn out. Yet, our dislike of politicians becomes a ready-made excuse for us to abandon any sort of political involvement or engagement, creating a situation in which the self-righteous rant is one of the defining features of our political discourse, forever demanding, with a tone of wronged belligerence simmering constantly just below the surface. This was certainly the approach favoured by Saira Khan on the programme, with her high-volume input often warmly received by the assembled audience.

The problem is that once a tone of constant haranguing becomes the political norm, it makes it easier for policy to ignore legitimate concerns (of which there are many) and for the political classes to pick and choose which bits of mainstream public opinion they wish to listen to. Equally, the friction-free nature of political speech – spun so fine it can never be properly pinned down – is a direct attempt to avoid being an easy subject for attacks from press or public, as can be seen from some of the comments regarding Thursday night’s programme: the insipid pronouncements of IDS, Labour’s Douglas Alexander and Julia Goldsworthy of the Lib Dems receive nowhere near as much ire from viewers (even young viewers) as the contributions of Heaver and Khan. So it seems that, for all we dislike the slippery pronouncements of politicians and their attempts to talk without ever really saying anything, we still jump on anything that does not measure up to our expectations in terms of the manner and level of informed content within political speech.

All this is not to follow Tony Blair in suggesting the press are like feral beasts and that there is a need for us to be less demanding of politicians. We should, if anything, be more demanding of our representatives, but should refuse to accept the generalised, scattergun critique of our political figures peddled by many parts of the press. Breaking out of the viscious circle we have got ourselves into requires that we are always focussed and informed in our demands. Withdrawing from the political sphere, then moaning that it fails to meet our expectations is more likely to continue to deplete the standard of political debate.

A Brief Preamble

•July 13, 2008 • Leave a Comment

“In what is given to us as universal,necessary, obligatory, what place is occupied by whatever is singular, contingent, and the product of arbitrary constraints?” Michel Foucault, What Is Enlightenment.

In case the above quote isn’t enough of a clue, I’ll provide a confirmation: yes, this blog is going to feature plenty of academically inclined, theoretically influenced, left-leaning scribblings with the loose theme of trying to find points at which the logic of a world presented to us as natural and inevitable begins to break down (I have no doubt that, on many occasions, it will actually involve me spouting rubbish with regard to far more mundane concerns). Hopefully, as well as providing me with a reason for getting my thoughts down and organised in writing, it may also provide the odd moment of interest for anyone else looking in.