It’s a good exercise for a writer (or, indeed, for anyone) to take two apparently unrelated things and try to find a link between them. This morning (24 February), listening to Today on Radio 4, I had no difficulty in spotting the connection between two of the main stories:
(1) the threatened part-privatisation of the Royal Mail, and
(2) the rise in hospital admissions in England for eating disorders (reported by the Daily Telegraph several days ago, the information being elicited by MP Mark Hunter). I shall discuss eating disorders first.
The cause of eating disorders
The proximate cause of the rise in hospital admissions for anorexia and bulimia may be that GPs are poor at identifying such problems, but eating disorders are certainly related to low self-esteem, depression, bullying, urbanisation and sexual abuse. Several of these factors are prevalent in the UK. An article in The Independent, titled The anxiety epidemic: Why are children so unhappy?, reported some research on the unhappiness of British children:
The inquiry, led by Professor Robin Alexander of Cambridge University, said primary schools were engulfed by a wave of “anti-social behaviour, materialism and the cult of celebrity”.
A separate report blamed this anti-social behaviour on the Government’s rigid system of testing and its constant drive to meet targets.
(Coincidentally, since I first posted this blog Aileen Campbell lodged this motion in the Scottish Parliament:
Short Title: UNICEF Highlights the Children’s Arc of Prosperity
S3M-03539 Aileen Campbell (South of Scotland) (SNP):
That the Parliament notes the publication of a report by UNICEF, Child Poverty in Perspective: An Overview of Child Well-being in Rich Countries, which provides an overview of the state of childhood in the majority of economically advanced nations of the world; notes with concern that, according to the report, the United Kingdom lags behind other highly developed countries in terms of relative poverty and deprivation, quality of children’s relationships with their parents and peers, child health and safety, behaviour and risk-taking and subjective wellbeing; further notes that, of the top 10 countries meeting the best child-wellbeing indicators, the majority are small, independent nations that are identified in the Scottish Government’s National Conversation as part of the arc of prosperity, and believes that only independence will equip Scotland with the power that it needs to vastly improve child wellbeing and end child poverty in Scotland.
I would add the comment that independence will only help if Scotland rejects the economic policies discussed below! It could do worse than emulate Venezuela.)
While Angela Bayley’s anorexia and bulimia were primarily related to physical and sexual abuse, Disruptive details the competitive perfectionism (almost nothing she did was ever considered good enough), image-consciousness and materialism of her father and stepmother that undoubtedly exacerbated things.
Materialism, competition (playing off the poor against each other) and celebrity culture suit the super-wealthy very well: they make a fortune from it, or did until recently. In reality, belief in “market forces” is misplaced because the market doesn’t measure what is really important to us, and, as we now know all too well, many of the big players were fraudsters or simply incompetent. On the first point see, for example, this article attacking the emphasis on GDP as a measure of progress, written by Bill Wilson and myself, and this essay by Richard Layard, of which these are perhaps the most relevant paragraphs:
Happiness research provides good evidence in favour of redistribution of income. […] if £1 is transferred to a poor person from someone ten times richer, the poor person gains 10 times as much happiness as the rich person loses. The scope for redistribution is of course limited by the inefficiency which results from high marginal tax rates. But happiness research is relevant here too. For if it is relative income which matters, then individuals have an excessive incentive to earn money, since their extra earnings make others feel poorer. To discourage this the efficient marginal tax rate is a lot higher than zero. So we can afford to be more egalitarian than we used to think.
Richard Wilkinson has shown the remarkable cross-sectional correlation of inequality with all kinds of bad outcomes. An example is an index of child well-being. In a recent UNICEF report, children in the U.S. and U.K. are found to do worse on a variety of indicators than children in any of the other rich countries. These countries also have more children in relative poverty. Does this mean that British and American children who are not poor do alright? It does not. They too suffer compared with other countries. It seems that an ethos which tolerates high inequality also produces other evils [my emphasis]. The characteristics of this ethos may be inadequate respect between persons.
The “ethos which tolerates high inequality” is nothing other than neoliberal capitalism, a philosophy predicated on minimising the state and radical privatisation. In fact, according to GlobalExchange.org:
The main points of neo-liberalism include:
- THE RULE OF THE MARKET. Liberating “free” enterprise or private enterprise from any bonds imposed by the government (the state) no matter how much social damage this causes. Greater openness to international trade and investment, as in NAFTA. Reduce wages by de-unionizing workers and eliminating workers’ rights that had been won over many years of struggle. No more price controls. All in all, total freedom of movement for capital, goods and services. To convince us this is good for us, they say “an unregulated market is the best way to increase economic growth, which will ultimately benefit everyone.” It’s like Reagan’s “supply-side” and “trickle-down” economics — but somehow the wealth didn’t trickle down very much.
- CUTTING PUBLIC EXPENDITURE FOR SOCIAL SERVICES like education and health care. REDUCING THE SAFETY-NET FOR THE POOR, and even maintenance of roads, bridges, water supply — again in the name of reducing government’s role. Of course, they don’t oppose government subsidies and tax benefits for business.
- DEREGULATION. Reduce government regulation of everything that could diminish profits, including protecting the environment and safety on the job.
- PRIVATIZATION. Sell state-owned enterprises, goods and services to private investors. This includes banks, key industries, railroads, toll highways, electricity, schools, hospitals and even fresh water. Although usually done in the name of greater efficiency, which is often needed, privatization has mainly had the effect of concentrating wealth even more in a few hands and making the public pay even more for its needs.
- ELIMINATING THE CONCEPT OF “THE PUBLIC GOOD” or “COMMUNITY” and replacing it with “individual responsibility.” Pressuring the poorest people in a society to find solutions to their lack of health care, education and social security all by themselves — then blaming them, if they fail, as “lazy.”
Many governments, in both the developing and developed world, have gone along with all this, “encouraged” by the likes of the IMF and the World Bank, whose policies benefited only the super-rich and contributed to the current economic crisis. (The rise of the far-right is sadly predictable, but that’s another subject.) Bringing it back to eating disorders, I hope you can see how our status-obsessed, very unequal, divided, competitive and materialistic society is related to a particularly nasty strain of capitalism, and will certainly be a contributing factor to such problems!
The cause of the Royal Mail’s woes
Here’s a quote from former Labour Minister Peter Hain, similar to what I heard him say on Radio 4, as reported by the Guardian:
Hain, a former head of research for the CWU, said the government was right to address the pension fund issue, but there were also other problems affecting the Royal Mail. He said that under “a ludicrous and unfair system of promoting competition, which I’m afraid our government has been responsible for” private operators were able to provide the profitable mail services, while the Royal Mail had to provide the expensive ones such as “delivering up a remote Welsh mountainside”.
Hain, who said he had complained about this while he was in government, said Postcomm, the postal services commission, had been “a bad regulator”.
The system had been “disastrous”, Hain said. “The private couriers have come in and taken the profitable mail, London to Birmingham to Manchester to Glasgow, that’s easy stuff – a lot of it is pre-sorted business mail – while the letter to the grandmother in a remote area is being picked up by the Royal Mail.
“So I want the government on Thursday to announce it is radically reforming that whole competition regime. It has not so far committed itself to that. That seems to me to be the really key problem.”
Is it too much to suggest that the UK Government systematically stripped the Royal Mail of its profitable services, allowing it to justify further privatisation of the consequently weakened organisation’s functions, in line with point 4 of the neoliberalism definition?
The immediate beneficiaries, of course, will be those at the top of the predatory private organisations that come in. Will they, I wonder (he said disingenously), be donating money to certain politicians or their parties, or be offering them lucrative board memberships/consultancies in the longer term?
There you have it: the sordid link between eating disorders and the privatisation of the Royal Mail!
On a cheerier note, visit this posting, go to the Photographers section, then find “Shaw and Shaw” and click on the words “this hilarious book”. It’s a postman’s quirky diary, which I highly recommend!