Thursday 2 February 2012

Give Me the Blame – Just Give Me the Boy

So Fred 'The Shred' Goodwin has been stripped of his knighthood, and we all feel better for it. At least, I'm presuming we all feel better, otherwise the whole debacle would have been a bit of a waste of time and effort, wouldn't it? And the really nice thing is that while we all feel better, the ci-devant himself is probably weeping few tears at once again being plain old Mr Goodwin. He was after all, a banker, and thus his public humiliation might count for little in comparison with pert pieces of copper coinage that he can still thrust without cease into his trouser pockets. Though maybe that's not such a good thing after all. Maybe as we all come to appreciate just how little he has been saddened by these events, we will ourselves realize how little we have been made happier.

Fortunately the former knight is not the only person who is having his life made deliberately worse in these times of trouble. There are calls to reduce the salaries and bonuses of rich bankers and there are plans to cap the maximum benefits that a family can receive. Now there may be good reasons for this, both in the case of bonuses (the money could be better spent on recapitalization; incentives should be restructured to promote long term growth) and benefits (intergenerational unemployment impoverishes both the nation and the individual). There also arguments against them (more money to bankers means more tax the exchequer; cutting benefits may actually cost more if families have to be rehomed). But that's not the main thrust of the debate. In both cases the argument at the forefront is that the people in question do not deserve this money, therefore they should not get it. It is not fair. And for the rest of us the advantage is not that we become richer, but that we feel happier to see others made poorer.

And why not? The government has recently been looking into what makes people happy, and it seems that being happy is not the same as being rich. Perhaps this is the alternative to capitalism that is being suggested – a world where happiness is maximized instead of wealth. And how better to be happy than to watch others made poor? As Gore Vidal put it, it is not enough to succeed – others must fail. In reality, I'm not sure that most people really want an alternative capitalism – we just want a return to that good old fashioned capitalism that used to work, before it stopped laying its golden eggs a few years ago.

Which talk of golden eggs brings us to Jack, and the beanstalk, and the giant. The title of this blog comes from Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's magnificent Into the Woods. Towards the end of act 2, our heroes are menaced by the giantess who threatens to destroy their village unless they hand the boy, Jack, over to her, whom she blames for the death of her husband. As is to be expected, there follows a round (and indeed a song) of blame allocation, where the characters attempt not to solve their problem, but to determine whose fault it is. To which the witch counters:

No, of course what really matters
Is the blame,
Somebody to blame.
Fine, if that's the thing you enjoy,
Placing the blame,
If that's the aim,
Give me the blame-
Just give me the boy.

Now I'm not saying that handing over Jack is the right thing to do (I'm reminded of those utilitarian questions about pushing a fat man into the path of a runaway train full of passengers), but at least the witch is addressing ways to solve the problem. And perhaps the government, and the opposition, and the press and all of use might do better look for policies that might improve the lot of us all, rather than make things worse for a few – be they a rich few or a poor few.

So there we are. I've allocated the blame, and that's made me feel a little bit happier. Now I'm off to do some work, and make myself a little bit richer.

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