Thursday 25 September 2014

Stop blaming the plasticine faced interchangeable publicity whores, and start a revolution

You will have had trouble avoiding this essay by Linda Tirado in the last few weeks, as it has been all over the place. And it is a really great piece which I wholeheartedly agree with. What surprised me about it was the backlash she received accusing her of not being qualified to write about poverty because of her background. This struck somewhat of a chord with me, as I have been known to receive similar treatment. For reference, let it be said that I was brought up very comfortably in a large house in Devon, went to a fee paying school and was afforded every opportunity available to a young white male growing up in the 1980s and 90s. I did not make good decisions, I spurned all those marvellous opportunities that were available at the time, and I found myself spending most of the 2000s living in a council house, being paid minimum wage and grabbing every gig I could play that paid a few pennies just to keep my head above water, and that was coming up a bit in the world from where I was as the millennium turned. So yes, I sympathise absolutely with Linda Tirado.

Let me be clear, I am not looking for sympathy (awwww, did the poor little rich boy fall off his silver spoon?) I am just trying to point out my fairly unusual viewpoint from the middle ground. I have worked with the proper poor working class grafters (underneath them mostly), I have been stoned with the long term unemployed who have no intention of ever working, and I have got drunk with velvet-clad fops called Rupert and Bertie at yacht clubs (no really, it was on the Isle of Wight). Many of my school mates have gone on to own small chunks of the country, and plenty of others have done even worse than me.

I have been pretty lucky really, but I can't make it much plainer, if it were not for my family I would not have done so well. Had I not inherited a not insignificant amount of money from my Grandparents, I would still be drowning in debts from ill-advised business ideas of the late 90s. Had I not had that expensive education, my employers would not have taken a chance on letting me leave the grunt work out in the warehouse and take up a better position fiddling with computers. Luck is everything in this life sadly. Unfortunately, there are others of my acquaintance who believe there success is all down to their own hard graft, and that the poor just aren't trying hard enough. Despite owing their positions entirely to the family they were born into, and the benefits that that brings (not actual benefits, you know what I mean).

Where we are all going wrong is that we are looking for scapegoats, people to blame for all our misfortunes. The idle rich, and the idle poor, one avoids paying taxes so we have to pay more, and the other takes all the taxes we are paying for doing nothing. Both are probably myths dreamed up by the media to give us something to fight about, rather than trying to actually sort out the mess and end all this inequality. The majority are still people who just want to earn a living doing something they either enjoy, or are good at, and be valued enough to get an actual living wage which does not need to be topped up by a benefit system that continually makes mistakes and scares people into paying back what is to the system, an infinitely small amount of money, but to the person who didn't realise they had been overpaid, an insurmountable and impossible amount to find. I am looking at you working tax credits. You suck.

I know of a couple who were hit with a repayment bill of over £6000 one year, due to a clerical error that they hadn't noticed, not everybody has the time or ability to scrutinise every bank statement and bit of paperwork that comes through their door. Compared to the supposed benefit frauds we read of in the Sun, and the tax dodging efforts of merchant bankers we hear of from the Guardian this is nothing. But to them, it was more than half a salary, and yes they were both working full time. If they could afford to pay it back, then they wouldn't have been claiming working tax credits in the first place.

Working tax credits should never have existed, if you're not earning enough to live on, you shouldn't be paying any tax in the first place, the whole system was nuts as soon as it came in. This is not a “friend of a friend” story, or something from a newspaper, these are real people, friends of mine, whose names I am leaving out of this from common decency, especially as they are still paying it off 6 years later and have vowed never to claim anything they are entitled to ever again, despite still having a little less than nothing left over at the end of the month to build up the debts a little more. This kind of penny pinching madness, from a department that needs to justify its own budget makes no sense at all. This article details a bit more about the unpleasantness, and I was unable to find a figure on how much it costs to run the privatised debt collectors who are contracted to collect the money.

With mountains like this to climb, how is anybody supposed to live? We are told to go out, get qualifications and improve our lot by getting a better job. But when we don't value those who serve our drinks, empty our bins, clean our hotel rooms, listen to our interminable moaning on telephone helplines and stack our shelves enough to even accept that they have real jobs. Then something is properly fucked. Most people in those careers (and they are careers) have to work more than one job to make ends meet, and are too tired after all the working to take a night course, even if they wanted to. But why should they have to? This whole “work ethic” thing is nuts, you are not valuable unless you are producing a thing that makes somebody money. This is not true, time is more important than money. The important thing is to make sure nobody is working for less money than they can live on. And why on earth does the market value footballers above barmen? Because the market has become a sentient monster out of human control perhaps? We could all work less hours, for the same money, and thus create more jobs, as more people are needed to come in and work the days that others are not any more. The more difficult your job, the less time you have to spend at it, and your team get a higher pay rate than those who have chosen to do easier and less stressful jobs. They would have to work more days as well. Then if you want more time and a little more money, you get the qualifications and improve your lot. Sadly the dividends paid to shareholders, and the gold plated CEO bonuses might have to go down a bit, but overall, this would not be a bad thing.

As to why work no longer pays, that is still down to the enormous cost of housing these days. The sky-high benefit bills you hear of are largely down to housing benefit going to commercial landlords (mostly MPs amusingly) if they are true at all, so when you have a job, and have to pay your own rent, suddenly you miss that little bit of money you didn't have to spend on rent before, and so the dole queue suddenly seems better. This is not the fault of the benefit system, this is the fault of the low paying jobs, and the madness of the property markets. We need to stop treating the laws of economics in the same way as the laws of Physics, economics is entirely made up by people and those laws can be broken and swept away as easy as you like. Really, change is possible if we all agree (although we never will).

(While I'm on economics, the other problem is that nobody seems to understand it at all. Budgeting for an entire country, when a lot of what you spend out results in more coming in, is not the same as budgeting for your household income, where everything that goes out, stays gone. Not paying the social security budget is not going to make sure you can pay back the national debt, and the less you pay public sector workers, the less they spend, and the less tax you take, it is a system that defies logic. It would seem that even George Osborne has trouble discerning the difference between macro-economics and micro-economics if you believe this article.)

The citizen's income argument is also very good, the Green Party are advocating a monthly income for EVERY SINGLE PERSON in the country, ensuring that we all have enough to live on regardless of where we come from, or what we do. If you want to have nice things and go on holiday, then you go out and work for it. It is an excellent idea, and would probably work. We do have a society that makes us need to buy things, and go to places. We are constantly bombarded with adverts for gadgets, cars, clothes, perfumes, aspirational slippers and emotion inducing foodstuffs that we simply must have. You are nobody without a mobile phone, a computer of some description, a TV, DVD player, a car and a cupboard filled with essential fennel and cracked black peppercorns these days. And a fortnight away somewhere sunny is a human right now isn't it? So people are going to do those zero hour contract minimum wage jobs to get the extra cash. Particularly when it will no longer affect their benefit payments.

Our current problem is that we are all looking to work out exactly what the problem is, and who we can blame for it, rather than just accepting that everything is not alright, and trying to redesign the whole system from the ground up. Everybody likes to blame the government, and shout that all the politicians are lying bastards, and they're all the same as each other. But nobody (except the incredibly wealthy, and casually racist Nigel Farage) is getting off their arses and standing for government. We live in a democracy, anybody can stand, if you want to change things, get involved, stop blaming the plasticine faced interchangeable publicity addicts, and start a fucking revolution. We get the politicians we deserve, if you are one of those who says “sack the lot of them” and shrug, you can sack them, you put them there, this is a democracy, your vote counts, use it, and use it well.

We've all got our heads in the sand, and nobody is admitting anything is their own fault, we blame economic forces, dodgy politicians, ruthless, faceless corporations, greedy bankers, fat lazy dole scroungers, nasty racist political parties, crazy leftie do-gooding liberals, and occasionally, kittens. The rich believe that by fighting for the rights of the corporations they are saving people's jobs, while those people whose jobs that they are saving, believe they are just lining their own pockets. We need more communication, better unions, and better employers. And that's just to start with, if we all started talking, and listening to both sides, we might have a chance in hell of getting better, but if we keep shouting, and blaming each other, then nothing will change, and eventually there will just be one person sitting on all the money wondering where the next bottle of Veuve-Clicquot is coming from, and who is going to clean up afterwards.

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Electric Cigarettes, awful, irritating, ugly stupid things

I have so far remained pretty silent on the subject of e-cigarettes on both this blog, and the internet in general. Mostly because when I was using them, I didn't want to get into an argument about it, and since I have stopped using them, I have not really given them as much thought, and I still don't want to get into an argument about it either. Let it be said though, that without them I would almost certainly still be smoking twenty odd cigarettes a day (more at weekends) rather than occasionally blagging one when I am proper drunk. I am now a non-smoker, and without the electric fags, I would never have managed to quit. So they are good ok? That's my current position.

To briefly outline my story here, after turning 35, I had the chance to buy a house, and realised that my life was actually quite good, I was very happy with my wife, stepkids and menagerie of animals and prolonging my existence seemed a good idea. At which point I decided my original pension plan of drinking and smoking myself into an early grave was possibly a bit dumb, and began the process of trying to be a bit healthy. So as a smoker of some 20-something years standing, I thought I'd give the electric ones a try, as they were clearly going to be better for me than the real ones. I did, and they worked, I even preferred them to the real ones after a week or so, and stopped smoking proper fags entirely. With no willpower required, and no crazy mood swings and nicotine withdrawal symptoms. Also, I didn't have to go outside the pub anymore, so all was good. I had not given up smoking, but I had found a less deadly substitute for my addiction.

I carried on vaping (as they call it) for the next year and a bit, all the time being aware that I now had even more crap in my pockets than I had when I smoked, and half my reasoning behind wanting to give up was to have less crap in my pockets. Eventually, the irritating, dumb looking, leaky things that need constant charging and maintenance did my head in, and I thought I'd see how long I could go without taking a hit off one each day. It turned out that it was incredibly easy to not bother by this point, so I stopped. Just like that, back in march. Result. I do occasionally nick a real cigarette off somebody, or have a sneaky drag, but the odd smoke every now and then is not going to do anybody any harm is it? Well, certainly not add any new damage to that already inflicted by the aforementioned 20 odd years of 20 odd a day.

Having tried to give up the old fashioned way before, I was surprised how simple it was this time. A few years ago I cut down and stopped entirely, lasting for about 4 months of abject misery and mood swings before deciding to start smoking again anyway. So I am all in favour of the little shiny electrical vapourisers, and am sick of the awful smearing of them going on at the moment.

Let me counter the usual and obvious arguments I hear from reluctant smokers and crazy anti-everything types here.
1 – We just don't know what's in them.
Not true, they contain, propylene glycol, vegetable glycol, nicotine, and various flavourings, like you get in smoke machines, asthma inhalers, tomatoes, and cake. These are vaporised by the use of kanthal wires wrapped around silica wicks inside glass or plastic cylinders. We know exactly what is in them.

2- We don't know what the long term effects are yet
True, but on the other hand, we do know what the long term effects of cigarette smoking are. Being dead from lung cancer, heart disease or some other marvellously unpleasant smoking related illness. I think I'd rather take a punt on the unknown (up to a point, we know the effects of all the ingredients, just not what happens when inhaled regularly for a long period of time all together).

3 – It's not 100% safe
No, but then again, see above for the alternative for most people. It is categorically, definitely and very much proven to be a good deal safer than smoking cigarettes will ever be, so hoorah! A real alternative for long term nicotine addicts who don't want to give up really, but don't fancy the painful death. Nobody is claiming that they are worse than actual cigarettes, really, nobody.

4 – Kids and pets have died from drinking the liquid.
Not quite, there has apparently been just one death from liquid nicotine, in 2011, a suicide utilising injections. Also, it is sold in bottles with big orange warning labels, like bleach. Kids and pets have died from drinking that as well, but nobody's going to ban bleach. Keep your stuff away from kids and pets, they'll be fine, it's not for drinking.
Have a look at this for other comparative poisonings that weren't in the mainstream media.

Of course the utterly insane anti brigade are also claiming them to be a gateway to actual smoking, and that they normalise the act of smoking. This is proper nuts. Do diabetics normalise heroine addiction? Does drinking a whole pint of water in one go when you're thirsty normalise alcoholism/ binge drinking? No, of course not, and as to the idea that more kids will take up smoking in either form because of e-cigarettes, I put it to you that they are probably the same kids that would have taken up proper cigarettes anyway. I don't know any people of my generation that have never smoked, and I doubt it's changed much in the last twenty odd years either. Kids like to try stuff and push at the boundaries, 90% of people my age gave up when they left uni and got proper jobs. That probably won't change either. Don't check that statistic by the way, I just pulled it out of thin air and it is probably not accurate. The scare tactics are much the same as way back when dope was being called a gateway drug and everyone who smoked it would end up Oding on heroin. It is remarkable how many dope smokers I know who have never even tried the stuff, let alone shot it into their eyeballs with a cow insemination needle. See this yougov survey for actual figures and stuff it is baseless nonsense being put about by people who should know better.

The big problem here is still that much smeared and maligned thing, nicotine. Now yes, nicotine is a poison, but it is about as poisonous as caffeine, and nobody is screaming that we should ban coffee. The problem is that the original anti-smoking campaigns that we all grew up with at school used nicotine as the bad guy in tobacco products. Probably because he is easier to anthropormorphise than Carbon monoxide, benzene and cyanide. Nick O'Teen was a marvellous villain, and plants the seed that nicotine is the most dangerous part of the smoking experience. I reckon Ben Zeen might have been better, but less obvious. Nicotine is the addictive bit, but not the killer, otherwise the gums and sprays and patches would be less easily endorsed.

Now as to why the poor things are being smeared, I have no idea, the conspiracy theorists out there will tell you it is the big tobacco companies and big pharma companies worrying about lost income from smokers shifting to ecigs instead of buying the usual ineffective alternatives. It certainly sounds logical, but it is surprising how many otherwise sane and rational people are spouting the “normalising smoking” and “but they could be worse for you” lines.

To my mind, anything that saves lives, and moves people away from actual cigarettes is a good thing, and not to be sniffed at. Don't listen to the naysayers, these are good things, don't keep banning them in public, there is absolutely no danger from passive inhalation, it is water vapour, are you scared of passive fumes from your kettle? This constant banning of everything is a symptom of a society with no free choices, and makes me worry that free will is being eroded. I like to think I chose to give up smoking, but I suspect I am also a victim of the demonisation of a once acceptable habit. Though being conditioned not to slowly kill myself is not a bad thing, after all those years of being conditioned to think it was cool and brilliant by big tobacco companies and movies and rock and roll.

It is very important to understand that any effort made to free oneself from one's conditioning is another form of conditioning.” - J. Krishnamurti