Has Capitalism Gone Too Far?

ImageWhen the poorest in our society can no longer afford to heat their homes, while energy companies make large profits…

When big businesses seize all opportunities and charge high prices to consumers, in order to make money for shareholders…

When even politicians are so worried about upsetting multinational companies that they fail to take the action needed to protect the lives of their constituents…

Has capitalism gone too far?

Economy out of balance

House prices are beginning to boom again – at least in the south – which means more southerners are likely to look further north for ‘bargains’ and the wave will begin to sweep across the country again, putting properties even further out of the income-reach of many northerners.

Since privatisation energy prices have soared, and continue to rise each year as soon as the cold weather begins, leaving more and more of the poorest people shivering and frightened to turn on their heating – risking hypothermia.

High energy costs, together with other overheads mean food prices have continued to rise dramatically throughout the economic crisis of the last few years.

The cost of petrol/ diesel, which goes up fast but never drops back to the same level, affects everything that needs to be delivered to shops, and businesses that need to travel to their customers.

At the same time, government policies limit income and there are far more people either unemployed or underemployed. Household incomes have plummeted for many families over the same period as prices have rapidly increased.

The politicians of the Labour Party like to take about the ‘squeezed middle,’ but what about those at the bottom? Who represents the working class, and those who cannot even find work, these days? And for how many people was the bedroom tax the last straw?

Take this all together and add in tax cuts for the rich, benefit cuts for the poor and it is clear that there is something going drastically wrong with the economic balance in our society.

The economic indicators all show the gap between rich and poor is wider that it has been for well over a hundred years, and the north-south divide is also widening. We are supposed to be an advanced, civilised society, so why is this being allowed to happen?

Wages

Minimum wage was supposed to stop employers from paying slave wages and give employees a decent income, with which to pay their household bills, etc. But it doesn’t seem to have kept up with the cost of living, and as usual, big business felt they had to find a way around the increase in their wage bill, this time they found it by adopting zero-hours contracts.

When working tax credit was introduced to top up low wages, big business simply paid the majority of their wages minimum wage, knowing it would be topped up by the state where necessary.

The introduction of flexible working was supposed to allow employees to work around family commitments, transport problems, etc. Instead, employers use it to try and keep their employees at their beck and call, to phone them at short notice and expect them to abandon all other responsibilities and jump to their ‘master’s’ voice.

Whenever a move is made to protect/ improve the lives of workers and give them a better work/ life balance, many employers seem hell-bent on twisting the legislation and turning it back on the employees in ways that actually make their lives worse.

Big business is so keen to profit, but many of them are also keen to avoid paying tax.

Energy

There are ways of cutting energy costs to homes, but at present only those with spare money, or access to borrow, can afford to take advantage of these ways, whether it be soar panels, a small wind generator in the garden, heat-exchangers, passive homes.

What kind of society are we that those with money have access to cheaper energy – and can even be paid for producing it – while the poorest pay the higher prices on ever-decreasing incomes?

When wind-power was first developed, I remember reading about a man in Scotland who had produced a small wind-power generator which could be fixed to a rooftop, similar to a TV aerial. He envisaged that we could all have one of these on our houses and generate at least part of our own electricity, to bring down costs. He couldn’t find anyone to back him to go into full production. Why? Because big business was already seeing pound signs in the development of the technology. They began to push to build swathes of the biggest possible ‘windmills’ to make profits for their shareholders and the still become angry and upset when campaign groups fight them over these plans. Surely, a small windmill on every rooftop would be less obtrusive? But of course, big business cannot allow the little man and woman to deny them profit.

Pyramid_of_Capitalist_System

Food

What kind of society are we, when even working people are having to resort to using food banks to enable them to eat? How many more are going hungry rather than be seen to be so desperate? (And how many more are simply getting deeper and deeper into debt rather than use this last resort?) It’s obvious, if people can’t eat properly, they can’t work properly. They can’t function to solve the problems that are daily being thrust upon them. They become run down, exhausted, malnourished, ill. What kind of workforce will they be then?

Health

The more pressure that is put onto the already overstretched poor to pay higher prices/ find non-existent jobs, etc., the more their health is likely to suffer – especially in the long-term. Hypothermia, malnutrition, stress-related illnesses or even worse. This is turn, puts more pressure on the already over-burdened NHS – another national institution threatened with creeping privatisation. It could even be argued that big business, with its determination for power, and greed for more and more profits for shareholders, is gradually killing our citizens!

Even those who work for these businesses are not exempt, as employees are driven by ever-increasing targets – pressure again.

Time for debate

What’s the alternative? I’m afraid I don’t have any answers, but perhaps it’s time we all began to think about what kind of society we want to live in, in the future and come up with a new theory.

The runaway train of big business seems to be travelling faster and faster – is it out of control? How do we stop it, or at least slow it down? Is it going to take a big disaster?

Before the gap between rich and poor, south and north widens any further, it’s time we began to debate how to stop the trend and make society fairer to those at the bottom. They are running, like hamsters on a wheel, faster and faster, but still slipping further and further behind, in and effort to simply survive. Otherwise we may be returning to a time when the poor are forced to live on the streets – or in self-built shanty towns, and beg for handouts from passers-by.

A home, heat, food, health, are all basic human rights. European legislation is in place to protect us from extremes at the moment, but the Conservatives want to opt out of it. Those considering voting for UKIP should also be aware of this. I’m no great fan of the European Union, but without support from them a ruthless right-wing government coupled with big business could quite easily push us back into something like a feudal society. All in the name of profit.

What do you think?

Could this be the future for Berwick?

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I have watched and read the discussions on the future of Berwick High Street and Town Centre with interest over the last couple of years, partly to see if anyone else would venture to address the bigger picture and the natural future development of Berwick. Apart from a couple of flippant remarks, no one has done this to my knowledge. I’ve also held back from a reluctance to stick my head above the parapet but feel it is time to speak up and throw my insights into the ring of discussion.

A rudimentary knowledge of how settlements (villages, towns, etc.) develop over time, coupled with the geographical facts of Berwick’s location, suggest that the town area (Berwick, Tweedmouth, Spittal) is naturally moving towards an old town/ new town split. This is not necessarily a bad thing, in fact, if the natural developmental trend is recognised and handled in the right way, it could even be beneficial to the whole area.

ImageBerwick’s New High Street?

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Consider the facts:

  • Berwick town is hemmed in by the sea, the river and the border. This area is now almost at saturation point – certainly within the by-pass , and there are only a few fields beyond that.
  • The town centre is Grade II listed, which means it is protected against wholesale change.
  • There are many historical/ important buildings within the town area which we cannot afford to lose.
  • The historic buildings and lack of space mean that most of the shops in the town centre are of limited floor space.
  • The majority of the population of the town area (Berwick, Tweedmouth, Spittal) now live on the south side of the river.
  • Any further residential development is most likely to add to this situation – East Ord is already virtually connected, within the next century Scremerston is likely to go the same way.
  • The more the population builds up south of the Tweed, the more pressure there will be for future retail development to also be on the south side.
  • Modern retail chains require larger floor space than the town centre allows – Tweedmouth has more potential in this area.
  • Most of Tweedmouth developed much later than Berwick. Many of the buildings are Victorian and some may arguably be of less historic/architectural importance.
  • This area is highly dependent on tourism for income and this can cause conflicts between the needs of the visitors and the needs of the permanent residents. An old town/ new town split could potentially satisfy the needs of both, with less conflict.
  • Locating the larger stores on the south side would leave the present town centre for smaller businesses, specialist shops, cafes, etc., more tourist and leisure oriented.
  • Lower Tweedmouth could act as a sort of bridging area between the two predominant shopping areas.

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(At this point I can almost hear the small traders screaming at me – but if all the chain stores are in Tweedmouth, who is going to buy from us? How are we to draw our customers over the river? However, please bear with me for the moment.)

Those of us who work with the history of the area have long felt that not enough is made of it to draw in more visitors. Perhaps, in some ways, being located by the sea had blinded everyone to a potentially more lucrative form of tourism – and Berwick’s unique selling point – its history.

If Berwick had developed as an inland town, it would have had to work much harder to draw visitors and use all if its available assets. Can you imagine, for instance, a historic city like York marketing itself to the Blackpool crowd? It sometimes seems to me that this is what Berwick has done – blinded to its real potential by the glitter of the sea.

Berwick Barracks

Berwick Barracks

While I’m not suggesting that the town centre should be turned into some sort of historic theme park, the history of the town, and the area, could and should be used much more than it is in marketing the town and attracting visitors. The museums and archives also have parts to play in this, as could The Maltings, The Granary and other cultural aspects of the area. It doesn’t have to be all tacky historic souvenirs, it can be done tastefully, to attract visitors of a different calibre. With the right leadership, Berwick can also put on events – this has been proved – and events bring in tourists to spend money in the town, perhaps even all year round.

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Meanwhile, local people may buy their regular necessities mainly from chain stores and supermarkets, but there are always times when the shopper is looking for something different – perhaps for a gift – or because they are bored by massed produced goods.

Also, if more money is generated in the local economy, and kept here, to put more money in the pockets of the residents, they may be more likely to seek out specialist shops more often. Other small businesses, such as hairdressers, and boutiques may help draw footfall north – as could dentist and optician appointments, etc. These days, small specialist businesses have the option of additionally trading online too, to try and boost sales and cover slack times of year.

Of course, small businesses could only afford to move into these shops if the rents and rates are set at appropriate levels. If the upper floors were not needed for storage of stock for these smaller businesses, they could be turned into flats which would keep the area more secure in quieter times. It could also encourage an artistic/ café-style community around the current High Street.

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While not claiming that this is the answer to all of Berwick’s current problems, it could at least provide a more positive way of viewing the decline of the High Street as we have known it, and perhaps a workable vision of how the area might develop in the future.

What do you think?

Link

ImageA personal view of the changes in customer service in shops and the possible consequences.

The Old Days

Maybe I’m showing my age, but when I first worked in a shop as a Saturday girl, tills were big old-fashioned things with buttons. Electronic cash registers (tills) were in their infancy and may have been around in the cities and some other chain stores, but the one where I worked was not upgraded until later.

We used mental arithmetic to add up the customer’s bill as we served them and rang the total through the till. If they paid with a note and needed change, we put the not on the ledge of the till (to be able to check what they had given us) and beginning with the total that showed on the display, we counted the change into our own hand up to the value of the note. We may then have put the note away and counted the change back into the customer’s hand so that we both knew it was right. (Sometimes we might leave the note on the ledge until the change was paid. Counters were much wider then where I worked, and angled. It would have been almost impossible for a customer to seize the money from the till.)

Image In my first full-time shop job I graduated onto the early electronic tills with push buttons. It added up the amount for us, but still used the same principle as the last figure shown on the display was still the total.

Problems

The problems began when the shops started installing tills that calculated the change for the assistant – which seemed to grow alongside the use of calculators in schools. It makes me feel really ancient to say this, but there were no such things as electronic calculators when I was at school. I can imagine here some younger readers wondering how on earth we managed in such dark ages. The fact is that we were taught to work things out in our heads and made to practice these skills over and over until it was second nature – for homework and in class. There may be mutterings here about how hard life must have been back then, but those of us who learned this way still have those skills. We could – and did – work through power cuts when electronic tills were out of action. Now shops have to close if the power fails.

I gave up working in shops some years ago because I began to struggle with these new-fangled tills and found myself giving the wrong change because my brain still interpreted the displayed final figure as the total rather than the change due. This system also makes the double checks much harder – or impossible if the shop is busy. It’s the wrong way round to count the change to the customer.

ImageFor a time I worked alone, in a small shop, and ignored the display, by taking the total from the receipt, I was able to count the change in the old way and found the customers appreciated it because they could see it was right.

The Modern Way

The modern way of customer service seems to mean taking the change figure from the display and thrusting it at the customer – sometimes without a word and as though it’s a hot potato – then expecting them to move on straight away and make way for the next person. Change is usually wrapped up inside a five or ten-pound note and/or the receipt. It is impossible to check whether it is right and some assistants give hostile looks it you don’t immediately move on – even completing the packing up of your goods bought has to be done at a scramble sometimes.

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Most women prefer to keep their money and cards inside a purse, and the purse inside a handbag, or sometimes hidden at the bottom of a shopping bag, to keep it safe. Now, it has become almost impossible to do this, as you end up juggling. Even if you’ve managed to pack the shopping as it passed through the checkout, you take a note from your purse to pay and stand with purse in hand to put the change away. Then the assistant plonks the receipt and five/ten-pound note on your hand and puts the change on top… and suddenly you are stuck. The logical way to put the change away safely would be to put the note in its compartment and the put the coins away in theirs, but you don’t have a free hand to sort it – it can be difficult to even open your purse and then the coins are in the way of sliding the note(s) into place. (With the old counting back method, the notes ended up on top – easier to deal with.) Also, you don’t have a free hand to pick up the shopping and move. Even if you manage to put the change away, somehow there is no time to also put your purse away safely.

(From the looks on the faces of some young assistants I’ve dealt with, they don’t understand the situation they’ve created, they just expect you to disappear.)

So what usually happens these days, is that I put my purse away while the assistant finds the change and shove the change hurriedly in a pocket and as I grab my shopping and go. Then I have to either find a quiet and relatively safe place to sort it out, or more likely sort it out at the checkout of the next shop. Meanwhile, that change is in a vulnerable place.

Berwick High Street

Berwick High Street

Berwick is a place where you usually feel relatively safe from the threat of pickpockets, but thefts from pockets and handbags in busy places, in broad daylight, seem to be rising. A few days ago, a five-pound note disappeared from my cardigan pocket between Gregg’s the Bakers at the bottom of the High Street and the checkout of the Co-op, just off the top of that street. In theory, it could have potentially fallen out, but this is unlikely as it was wrapped around coins and they were all that remained when I looked for it.

To some people five pounds is chicken-feed, but to anyone on a low-income or on benefits, it could be a very big chunk of their week’s budget to lose. In fact, in the current economic climate it could mean a person having to go without food for several days.

Deterioration

My point is that if customer service in shops hadn’t deteriorated, as it has since the introduction of more sophisticated tills. If shop assistants allowed customers enough time to put their change/cards/purses away safely before expecting them to leave, there would be less notes/ cards in pockets for the opportunist thieves to take.

It is, of course, possible that the thieves are starving and desperate themselves. But if the poor are now stealing from each other, it’s a very sad reflection on the current state of our society.

What do you think?

 

See also:

https://wendybscott.wordpress.com/2013/08/23/could-this-be-the-future-for-berwick/

http://wendybellscott.hubpages.com/hub/Where-is-Berwick-upon-Tweed

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Wendy-Bell-Scott/294979647247820