2012: The year of the demagogue?

It’s sad to say, but it doesn’t look like 2012 is going to be any easier that 2011, and potentially harder. Across the west, the challenge to our debt fuelled consumer lifestyle is growing, and as a society we’re kicking back. Initially, we’re voting people out (save for Canada and New Zealand), but how long will it be before populist charlatans start getting traction by targetting sections of society, like immigrants (Europe) or the poor (USA) as the source of many of our problems? Protectionism is already beginning to creep back onto the agenda (just listen to Sarko). On top of that, globalisation itself is under attack, ironically by people afraid of losing the consumer lifestyle that it has permitted. In  Europe, a gut nationalism is taking root, a feeling in individual countries that we would be better off if we had a lot less to do with our neighbours and their problems, and by extension, the European Union. It’s not true, of course, but it’s a genuine feeling.

The most uncomfortable part of all this is that the only real solution is sacrifice, and how we apportion it. The truth is, western society is now permeated by a feeling that we are all entitled to more than we create, and that has been proven to be no longer sustainable. It’s true, we must attempt to divide the burden in such a way as to ensure that “the vulnerable” get some protection, but even that is a challenge. Who are the vulnerable? The bottom 5%? 10%? 49%? Because, if we are to shield (and, in effect, subsidise) them, then it means that a heavier burden must be carried by the remainder, and that concept has not been accepted yet.

Our political systems are still populated by politicians who claim that relatively pain free solutions are on the table. The tired old adage about “the rich” is not viable, not because they don’t want to pay a cent in taxes (which tax authorities across the west will testify is not true) but because there is a fairness threshold that is hardwired into rich and poor alike about wanting to keep most of the fruit of their work. But more importantly, the rich don’t have to stay. You would be stunned at the speed in which a wealthy person can transplant a life. It’s literally less than the time between a general election count and entry into office of the new government.

Therefore, sharing the burden of sacrifice will fall on the whole of society, and that’s where the problem starts. Many people could probably accept a fall in their standard of living if they felt that such a drop would ensure them of employment and a minimum standard of living. The problem is that politicians aren’t, rightly, trusted when they make a pledge like that. Take the new Irish Fine Gael/Labour government, pushing through salaries of €127,000 for special advisor positions, claiming that they can’t find people who can do the job for less than that. How can a government ask for sacrifice after such a brazen “F**k you!” to the voters who just elected them? They can’t. Instead, they provide easy ammunition to the populists, and that’s the problem.

Anyway, thanks for reading my rants during the year. It was my best year ever in terms of reader numbers, which far exceeded anything I ever expected when I first started blogging four years ago. Happy New Year! 

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