It seems that the current coalition government are determined to raise the revenue that’s required to keep our roads up to scratch by arranging an elaborate private finance initiative, which will probably result in the Chinese government owning contracts for road management.
How can this possibly make sense? There must, one presumes, be an economic argument. One that shows that it will be more economically efficient – in the short term at least – to have this sort of arrangement. The same sort of economic argument that means that 90% of the pieces of lamb I looked at in a supermarket the other day had actually come from the other side of the planet.
History tells us that there will be one result here: those at the bottom of the pile will have pay and conditions eroded, while those at the top will reap handsome profits. And we’ll turn a blind eye because the roads will be smoother. In places.
However, behind the economics is are conflicting ideas about what people are like, at their core. The ethic that drives towards privatisation boils down to this: people will only be driven towards efficient work if there is a profit motive. Is it exemplified by James Murdoch’s comments relating to the media, where he said:
“The only reliable, durable, and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit.”
Sky, not the BBC, in other words. Only if there is profit, will people do good, independent work.
The alternative view is that people do their best work not when they have the chance of maximising personal financial gain, but maximising contentment through good craft, and through cooperation – principles which Richard Sennett has discussed in his two most recent books The Craftsman and Together.
These in turn relate to the stories that we tell about ourselves. Are we competitors, always on the brink of extinction by some enemy species or frightening planet? Or do we see ourselves as integrated parts of a wider system, for which we have shared responsibility? These are questions raised in a very good video doing the rounds via Adbusters at the moment: Sacred Economics:
In the end, these questions of who funds our roadworks pose deeper questions about the way we want to be as a society, and the way we want to continue to live on this planet. My worry is that what appears to make short-term financial sense for Cameron will, in the end, be another nail in the coffin of ‘the commons’ and thus another part of our shared life enclosed and privatised, meaning another part of us given over to profits, not craft and contentment. And, of course, those who will first pay for this will be the poor.
Now, if we were talking about serious investment in public transport…