Monday, October 25, 2010

Cracks and craters

These days I don't go travelling very much although I used to when I was younger. The reason I haven't travelled much in recent times was initially because of having a young family and then because of the sheer inconvenience of travel in these terrorism blighted times - but back in more carefree times I travelled extensively.

Everywhere I went was different and distinctive - but there was always one thing that was the same. The fact that you could tell how each country was doing economically by the state of the roads. The immaculate blacktop roads of northern Norway suggested a modern, prosperous nation while the crater strewn, crumbling surfaces I encountered in southern Spain pointed to a nation in decline and suffering severe problems in the early eighties.

It was a reliable, if somewhat informal, economic barometer back then and I still think it is the case today - and nowhere is this more apparent than in the roads of Britain. Today it is our roads that are crumbling and crater strewn. In many cases (and particularly around my way in Slough) the ravages of last winter have still not been repaired even as we prepare for winter a year later. Of course, dodging potholes along the Costa Brava on a 500cc motorcycle in the early eighties was actually life threatening while these days it's more of a case of the damage inflicted on my cars suspension - but the principle is the same.

So when I hear the Prime Minister talking about "growth and prosperity" I know he isn't inhabiting the same world as the rest of us. The reality is that any growth seen over the last few months is primarily inflation driven (i.e. unsustainable and potentially dangerous) and that the growth in GDP is not translating into real prosperity for ordinary people. In real terms, the vast majority of us are worse off than we were nine, six or even three months ago and there is no indication that this is likely to change in the short, medium or long term.

Sustainability is going to be the watchword of the early decades of this century. It is over applied to the issue of environmentalism where much money is being given over to expensive and ill-conceived projects with little thought given to the actual long term viability of such adventures. It's such a shame that no thought whatsoever is being given to a sustainable economic policy - because one built on GDP growth fuelled by inflation and immigration and paid for by debt is not a sustainable policy. It wasn't sustainable during the nineteen nineties and the early years of the 21st century and it will not be sustainable in the future either.

But it is all our government can offer us because they don't know any other way. Yes, they will fluff it out with buzz words and vague, vacuous phrases such as "technology led" and "entrepreneurs", but that is all just pie in the sky. The truth is that the great global economic shift from west to east is in full swing and nothing this government - or any of our current political parties - come up with is likely to stop this. It is far easier for any entrepreneur to set up their business in Asia now and it is the east which is producing a steady, growing and considerable stream of highly educated graduates in the fields which will create future growth against which our university system is an insignificant trifle.

While China and India churn out untold thousands of engineering and technology graduates year after year, Britain leads the world in producing social workers, nutritionists and crisis counsellors. The irony is that we are likely to need these in the coming decades - but we won't, as a nation be able to afford them.

So when you've finished listening to our esteemed leaders and policy makers telling you their grand plans for our economy, just take a little drive around your local area and make a note of the state your roads are in. And, if you can afford it, repeat this in a years time. My bet is that your roads will be no better and probably considerably worse even if we are theoretically in "growth". You see, papering over the cracks of a crumbling economy is relatively easy statistically, but the reality is harder to conceal - and the reality is that we're now more of a crater strewn southern Spain than a smooth northern Norway.

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