The death of retirement?

According to Newsnight, yes: according to the French people, no.

It’s certainly an interesting study of the contrasting approaches of the British and the French people: one apparently passively accepting of a fate of having to work longer, at last partly on the grounds of the state of the country’s finances; one prepared to get off (or on!) their backsides to do something to ensure that political decisions reflect social concerns.

The video on the BBC site is illustrative: it is concerned solely with the disruption to travel arrangements caused by the French strikes (against the background of the Tube strikes also taking place today). But that’s kind of the point – French people, 75% of whom support the strikes, according to the video, are prepared to accept the disruption to ensure their voices are heard; in this country, our approach to taking action is to make unimaginative, mean-minded and frankly depressing complaints about the short-term effects on our individual daily lives. It’s a sign of the lack of collectivism in this country, the lack of a willingness to engage to change things and, in view of the political and social agenda for much of the last thirty years, based as it has been on viewing no alternatives and on a lack of a willingness to listen to public protests, that’s actually entirely understandable. As trade unionists, it’s our job to seek to continue to change that view, both amongst the people and in politics. Are the French people set against reform? No – but fair reforms mean having a voice in what they are, and in what they eventually look like as regards their social impact.

As regards retirement, it’s not a question of people being forced to retire at a certain age – of course people should be allowed to work longer if they want to. What it is about is ensuring that people aren’t compelled to do so because they can’t afford to retire. Social progress can still be achieved where we realise that we don’t have to accept a passive fate; that we do have choices to make, both as a people and as individuals; and that social advance can be realised where we realise that this is still a rich country fully capable of making the choices which delivers progress. But it won’t just fall into our laps.

Time to Wake up the Nation, indeed …

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Ofcom 2010 Communications Market report

If it’s August, it must be Ofcom’s CMR – a regular part of my summer reading, stuffed as it is with facts and figures about the UK communications world. The 2010 version came out last week and I’ve been picking my way steadily through it: it’s the usual authoritative source of details and opinions about the changing ways in which modern communications is influencing our lives: as Ofcom’s press release points out, we now spend half of our waking hours connected to some communications device or other, be it TV, mobile or pc – often simultaneously, with the current phenomenon of social viewing – and we’re also doing a lot more networking.

All this demands increasing amounts of bandwidth, which places additional demands on communications network providers. Yet – as the press release also points out, broadband prices continue to fall, forming an unhealthy backdrop to what is an extremely costly investment and an illustration that markets occasionally produce misleading signals and are not always the efficient allocators of investment resource that they are claimed to be.

Here’s my illustration of the data contained in Figure 5.92, buried at the back of the section on Telecoms and networks, on p. 354:

From a communications provider’s point of view, it doesn’t look good: ever-increasing bandwidth at ever-decreasing prices (albeit that they are no longer falling as fast as they were). In fact, these years (set at constant 2009 prices) have seen a 33% fall in the monthly price we pay for bandwidth, while average connection headline access speeds have dramatically risen (actually, by 1,267%). Earlier in the report (Figure 5.64), Ofcom had reported that monthly household communications bills also continue to fall, with the fixed voice and broadband component (i.e. all household communications bills excluding mobile) falling in the same period by 17%, and fixed voice bills by over 26%. This is important since network providers looking to upgrade their networks and replace the old and increasingly redundant copper pairs with costly (glass-)fibre are having to do so on the back of falling prices, both in the direct market and in potential cross-subsidising ones. At the same time, the future – marked by falling broadband bills despite more and more bandwidth – is looking somewhat inauspicious from the point of view of building a convincing case around the scale of returns that can be made on that investment.

Apart, additionally, from the effects of any double dip recession in making any investment case even more uncertain.

Public policy seeking faster and better communications networks (and for all citizens) makes sense both economically and socially. Equally, however, we have to recognise that BT – the vehicle by which that public policy can most effectively be implemented – has not been in the public sector for some years and that private sector investment environments, not least of all those in regulated industries, tend to be fragile and frequently capricious things.

In this light, politicians need to recognise that carrots as well as sticks are a good tool; while regulators need to recognise that competition in the direction of achieving cheaper prices is not the be all and end all of regulatory policy – that investment is important and that it may be crowded out in circumstances where falling prices make the case for that investment harder to sustain. One reason to re-visit the dropped parts of the old Digital Economy Bill putting a new statutory requirement on Ofcom to take account of the impact of its decisions on investment, I think.

[Edit 27 August:  Analysys Mason comments this week that the average price of a fixed broadband bundle dropped by €5 per month across Europe during the past six months (despite an increase in speeds), but was still more expensive than mobile broadband. So, it looks likely that there will be further pressure on fixed broadband prices right across Europe – where all fixed line network operators are facing similar expensive investment decisions. And while mobile broadband is cheaper, it doesn’t deliver quite the same user experience, being slower, with more drop-outs and less reliability. And market forces dictate that fixed broadband prices need to drop further to compete, even though fixed network operators to invest to deliver quicker, more reliable connections. It’s a mad world out there.]

Crises of capitalism

One of a series of interesting animations produced by the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, and intended to ‘bring discourse to life’, looks at the crises of capitalism. David Harvey explores some of the origins of systemic crises before calling for discussion and debate to change our mode of thinking from his perspective as a radical political economist.

Perhaps his analysis does not shed particularly new light on the subject, but the arguments and rationale are presented in a crystal clear fashion and the animation is really quite stunning.

About the bringing about of a new social order, there’s not a great deal of sign of that – not yet, anyway – but the necessary debate and discussion is certainly taking place encouraged not just via the RSA but also right across the blogosphere, where the outlines of an alternative society are being debated daily. What is perhaps missing is a sense of ideas being taken forward in the fashion that would provide confidence that that new society is actually coming. What there is, is a sense of fragmentation: some consensus over individual initiatives, but not really the sense that things are being grasped with the cohesion, vision and political organisation required to deliver in practice the responsible, just and humane, alternative society for which Harvey articulates the need.

The ideas are out there; but a political organisation confident enough, radical enough and non-dependent enough to seize them in an ideologically integrated way continues to be lacking.