Tuesday 27 September 2011

You know things are really bad when politicians start saying "sorry"

One of the few things I remember about school physics lessons is being invited to laugh at the discredited belief in an invisible substance called phlogiston, supposedly released during burning.

It stuck in my mind chiefly because it actually sounded more plausible than many of the things I was told to believe as undisputed facts.

The man behind the phlogiston theory: was it really balls?

So I was delighted last week when some apparently reputable scientists came up with data that appear to challenge Einstein’s theory of relativity, even though I haven’t got the slightest clue what any of it means.

Does this man look relatively trustworthy?

It’s just that my spirits instinctively soar at even the faint possibility of experts, who nearly always have a greatly inflated sense of their own importance, being proved wrong.

So I suppose I should be positively ecstatic at seeing the financial geniuses who held such sway in the Thatcher, Major and Blair/Brown eras being so comprehensively discredited. And I would, but for the fact that their uncontrolled mishandling of the financial system looks certain to plunge all of us into a decade or two of relative poverty – which is particularly disappointing for those of us who only have a couple of decades left.

There is also the niggling sense that this setback will seem altogether more bearable from the comfort of a private island, luxury yacht, Swiss Alpine lodge or Cotswold mansion bought with the bonuses dished out for brilliance in conjuring up entirely illusory profits.

These people were not mere bankers, they were alchemists. The priestly caste of our age who could perform magic so powerful that no one dared to say “Hang on, this is total cobblers” when they invented supposedly AAA super-safe investments out of the mortgages insanely and aggressively marketed to crazed optimists and congenital liars living on the margins of society.

You know that things are really, really bad when a senior politician pops up on the media and says “Sorry,” as Ed Balls did yesterday morning, doubtless hoping that the electorate will react with a friendly slap on the back and a “Don’t worry about it, mate, it could have happened to anyone.”

Spot the Balls

I devoutly hope not, though my confidence in the alternative is not increased by hearing Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander attack his Eurosceptic Conservative colleagues in the coalition as “enemies of growth”.

Mr Alexander, you may care to recall, wasted five years of his life as head of communications for Britain in Europe, the expert-rich movement campaigning for the abolition of the pound, which was all too inclined to dismiss its opposition as barmy xenophobes and simpletons who did not understand the complex issues involved.

It would be rather satisfying to sit back and watch our euro-adopting neighbours trapped, as William Hague vividly and accurately warned, in a burning building with no exits, but for the certainty that the collapsing structure will almost certainly land on our own heads. Such are the perils of schadenfreude.

So instead let us focus on the sane way forward, based on a massive increase in scepticism about anyone pretending to expertise or presenting painless solutions to the gigantic hole in which we find ourselves.

As our living standards decline, remember also that material things in themselves never bring happiness. They merely fuel the appetite for that next material thing which, if only we could get it, would make us truly happy. Only it never does.

But why listen to me? I’m not an expert. In fact, I have been repeatedly told that I am fool. Notably when I turned down a series of fantastic opportunities to make me richer, from taking out an endowment mortgage to investing my meagre pension fund in dot.com bubble stocks or complex derivatives I did not understand. Luckily for me no one ever offered me shares in a phlogiston factory. I would probably have snapped them up.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

1 comment:

Keef said...

The one compliment I ever had at RGS was from a Science teacher named 'Creep' George.
He as a cadaverous man . taken to having the odd Woodbine while sitting in a fume cupboard.
I was invited to comment on the Phlogiston theory and disproved it, I got a well done, the only one I can ever remember from the strange and motley crew of 'Masters' at that time.