Category Archives: environment

June 30 – What does a pension mean to you?

As a young child, I remember awaking in the wee hours of the morning and listening in the dark as my father prepared to go out to work as a deckhand on ferries moving crew, cargo and passengers between various islands in cold, sleet, rain, fog, wind, and sun, too!

My father, along with thousands of other seamen, got millions of passengers, employees and employers, families, relatives, tourists, and others, travelling between various islands and the mainland, safely to and from their destinations.

While I learned to hate the idea of what work might mean for me (I was too young to realise how it might change), I knew all too well what it meant for my father: early to rise, away for five days, a week or more at a time, and sometimes also away from home at Christmas and birthdays. His family grew up and experienced life as he spent (reluctant) time away from family – and at times appeared remote from our concerns.

Yet, once he got full-time – unionised – employment, my siblings and I (there were eight of us, including foster children) benefitted from the fact that my father’s earnings during the late 1960s and 1970s ensured that my mother could stay home with the children. (Talk about a ‘family-friendly’ policy – something you won’t hear these days from Tories or Republicans!!)

My father dreamed of retiring after a life-time spent at work, helping companies make profits, ensuring passengers arrived safely at their destinations and raising a family where the children were able to become relatively socially (and financially!!) mobile: moving up and out of the working class into the middle class. A result of both my father’s and my mother’s love of education, learning and books, as well as their belief that, while they made sacrifices for us in terms of their job prospects, respect and dignity on the job (and in life generally – since so many people’s sense of their own self-worth was dependent upon their occupations in life!) and ‘creature comforts’, they could reasonably expect that we would have a better life ahead of us.

And they, at least, would be able to view that from the comfort of a small, tidy pension which would enable them – unlike their own parents and grandparents – to be free from the compulsion to work until their death, as my father’s father – my own grandfather – had done (had to do!).

A small, but decent (and well-earned) pension that rewarded them for the diligence and loyalty for working hard at unsung jobs, that recognised the work that was still necessary for the movement of goods and people, and for the personal sacrifices that people, like my father, made to do a job in the present to enable a future for their/his children.

My father, left school at 13 years of age, but was self-taught. At a time when merchant seamen had only books (rather than satellite telly) to entertain them (after gambling and/or drinking away their money!!), my father became not just an auto-didact, but a parent who wanted to teach his children to experience a real life of education, knowledge and learning. An education that would take them away from being stuck with getting up at an ungodly hour to do a thankless task for decades.

Pensions are also a recognition that when you give up a part of your life to ensure that certain tasks are carried out, you lose the opportunity to engage in other activities and (possible alternative career paths) – and it is this loss of opportunity which is part of what pensions also represent.

It’s not just the potential that their own lives might have had that people lose, when they do these thankless tasks, but that their own lives may be shortened or become otherwise less fulfilling because of a lack of opportunity to realise their own potential.

That is, pensions are not just a means to which people have contributed as part of their financial planning for life after work, but that we have to recognise that people lose out other possibilities, other potentials that remain unrealised, because – for whatever reason – they chose, or were forced to choose, a life that excluded other opportunities.

My father always talked about how much he would have loved to have been a teacher, a second-hand bookseller, a writer and so many other things. The opportunity for my father never arrived. However, he had hopes that we would not have to live the lives that he had: moving in and out of unemployment; moving from job to job; being ripped off by employers; and so  on.

Knowing that a pension would allow one enough to live on in at least minimal comfort at the end of 30, 40, 50 or 60 years of working is an expectation that should be offerred to every man, woman and child, regardless of their position or which position they have ended up in!

Everyone should be able to enjoy the fruits of their labour, shouldn’t they?

When people think that governments and politicians should just be able to rip up people’s pensions, they never consider perhaps how those people made sacrifices that enabled the economy to function, goods and people to be transported, and so on.

And, that these working people made great sacrifices during their working lives. Why shouldn’t they be able to retire?

Why do we think that only CEOs should enjoy the fruits (profits) of your labour?

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For-profit education? Capitalism – in reality – depends on subsidies from the public

A lot of discussion has been taking place lately about the role and impact of private institutions of higher education in the UK in the last couple of weeks. Is the introduction of for-profit, private universities in the UK going to be a good thing or not? Given the need to investigate complaints from students who have gone through the private for-profit colleges in the USA?

Of course, those who support the idea believe that by introducing ‘competition’, prices for undergraduate programmes will be pushed down. At least in theory. Trouble with mainstream economics is that it is always – ‘in theory’.

Little of it actually works in reality (partly because people don’t fit into economists’ conceptions of humans as ‘rational’ or ‘utility-maximizing’ actors – homo economicus is an abstraction with little basis in reality, let alone as an expression of how humans actually think and act).

Indeed, most of the experiments with privatization and de-regulation only works with heavy doses of public funds to make these experiments ‘profitable’. Whether it has been the privatization of public utilities, as Thatcher et al. did, or whether it is the Private Finance Initiatives (PFIs, UK) or Public-Private Partnerships (P-3s, Canada), these processes always involve ensuring profits and long-term subsidization of private corporations (or at least their profits and executive bonuses). Always, of course, at someone else’s expense – usually the public’s! (Although their ‘front’ or ‘astroturf’ groups always claim to have taxpayers’ concerns at the forefront but they act more as support groups for corporate marketeers.)

The various free-trade agreements are primarily about ensuring that the public has little or no control over what corporations do and act as little more than legal means to ensure that they extract yet more money from consumers and workers (via laws). They can sue governments for the latters’ attempt to exercise democratic control and so on.

And, then, if you factor into the costs all the enviromental degradation, to which it is usually left to the public (i.e. taxpayers) to pick up the costs of clean-up, you have to wonder how capitalism (as a system) pays for itself, except by transferring money from the people who work to the corporations via the state.

The idea of the huge increase in students’ fees for tuition in UK universities is also an aspect of this process of privatization.

Funny, why is it with all this ‘competition’, which was supposedly to enhance the future of the finance industry, was it de-regulated, when we found out a wee bit later that the system nearly collapsed and had to be bailed out by the state?

Of course, it didn’t stop the executive class from claiming ‘bonuses’ for nearly destroying the system from which they benefit so much. Why did we bail them out? And, if we bailed them out because they screwed up, why are we listening to them, let alone permitting them to be paid bonuses while ordinary middle- and working-class families suffer?

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