31 May 2015, 12:17pm
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  • Briefcase and The Hardest Grafter – spectacles pitching the poor against each other

    Ah, the taste of bread and circuses, harbingers of decadence in the declining imperium bereft of leadership, vision and ideas. The ermine is not a bleeding-heart liberal. I even believe in making the distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor which is beyond the pale in right-thinking circles these days, because I believe Britain is probably rich enough to assist the former whereas the latter will expand to consume all resources – witness the bizarre goal of eliminating relative child poverty of the Labour administrations, which is going to lead to serious misery in this.


    I am out of touch with pop culture, and loathed the concept of ‘reality TV’ ever since DxGF tried to make out there was some merit in the original Big Brother that she was addicted to – I stuck about 10 minutes before deciding this was shite robbing me of minutes I’d never live again. The description of two current/proposed ‘reality’ TV shows gives me a chilling feeling that we are going back to the days of cockfighting and circuses having dwarves and other sorts of gawpery that I’d thought we’d left behind decades ago. There’s nothing wrong with reality TV exploiting people who are compos mentis and who have other choices when they sign on the dotted line. Violating the latter condition for spectacle makes me queasy for what it says about our respect for others.

    I know part of the point of art is meant to hold up a mirror to us, so that the ideas and thoughts can resonate with the messages locked behind the firewall of our subconscious, transforming unvoiced fears into safe signals so we can know ourselves better. One of the drivers behind the search for financial independence is the fear of becoming poor. It pushed me to go through a period of elective privation to escape the Man, and underlying many of the tradeoffs in FI/RE is elective privation now against unelective privation later.

    It’s not surprising that after a period of economic retrenchment mining this seam of fear is rewarding for story pitchers. Take the American CBS show The Briefcase, where two families short of cash are given a briefcase of ~$100,000 and instructed to share it with the other, as sort of financial version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Over on this side of The Pond the BBC is looking for Britain’s Hardest Worker – to pitch a bunch of these against each other and the winner gets £15k. At least our American friends are both more generous and in theory every participant can win!

    According to the Beeb

    The series will tackle some of the most pressing issues of our time: why is British productivity low? Is the benefits system providing many with a reason not to work or hindering their working opportunity? Is the hidden truth about immigrants simply that they work harder than Brits – and we need them as much as they need us – or are they simply prepared to work for a lower wage? And have the young simply not inherited the work ethic of older generations or have working conditions just got too hard? Who in Britain still knows how to graft? It’s time to find out.

    The Ermine Bullshit-athon failed scanning this because it isn’t designed to process a signal more than half ordure so I had to take it in manual

    “You lot on the couch out there – you know that jobs are getting worse and many of you fear in falling out of a comfortable living in this generation or the next. Projecting your fears upon others is an easy way to relieve the pressure. Let’s take your mind off the fact with this exploitative drivel where we pretend hard unskilled work is the route out of poverty, because as we all know that is so true these days 1.”

    Now the PR release does raise some interesting questions. As Merryn Somerset-Webb describes in the FT (h/t Monevator for the link)

    The 16 hours bit is because that is the number of hours our system insists that you work in order to claim in-work benefits, something that has nasty implications for UK productivity


    If you incentivise people to work part time you get a lot of part time workers with unsatisfactory careers (and low productivity). And if you use the tax system to show that you favour housing above all else you get very expensive houses and as a knock on, possibly lower levels of productive investment than you would like.

    so the BBC’s thesis that the tax credits in-work benefits system that helped Gordon Brown get unemployment down might have pole-axed UK productivity has friends in other places. It may even be true – the endless special cases and indeed the historic pro-natalism of the tax and benefits system creates some strange distortions in what types of lifestyles it promotes – witness the truly bizarre spectacle of comfortably off people bitching ‘S’not fair’ 2  to Osborne’s removal of child benefit from higher-rate taxpayers some five years ago.

    I’m not at risk of being subjected to either programme, and I’m very happy to say that I’m not paying for the BBC version of it, but I feel uncomfortable with the divisive image that’s being held up to me by these programmes and the popularity of other poor-shaming TV shows like Benefits Street. One of the changes that I see in British society is an increasing stratification by income, though in other ways we have become far more tolerant and accepting of diversity.The most egregious example of this stratification is shown in the proposal for the city-state of London, where an Ermine was born and raised. This  is a place where people figure you need an income more than 10 times the UK average income to live. I grew up in an (admittedly south of the river) part of the city in Zone 2. Although I could buy a flat in the area I’d struggle to buy a house.

    These programmes feed on the fear of falling down the financial pecking order, as some of the distortions we have enjoyed relative to the rest of the world are being flushed out by globalisation and automation. We need insight, analysis and leadership to navigate these changes as best we can. Not bread and circuses to distract us from it. Yes, I’ve taken the piss at length from the middle class who have been acting dumb selling off their house for school fees and holidays, and carping they can’t afford Silly Bandz for their children. That’s because one can live perfectly well without school fees and Silly Bandz. But I draw the line against going further in the line of entertainment. In an increasingly financially stratified society I suspect that many well off people never come across people who are really poor, because we live increasingly separate lives. That’s fair enough, but to gawp at such fellow humans on TV without having the humility to remember that there but for the grace of God you go seems to be a retrograde step. The poor may always be with us, and I don’t know the answers – mindlessly throwing money at the problem doesn’t work, but taking the piss by gladiatorially setting some against others in the name of entertainment demeans both the watchers and the watched IMO. A respectful philosophy is good – NoMo PoMo.  Merryn Somerset-Webb’s analyisis and the positing of questions, yes. Cheap TV, er, no. Nietzsche has some sage advice for prospective viewers

    when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you

    It’s always good to be open to alternative points of view, so here is a Torygraph article telling us that this is an excellent insight into the heart of darkness that is the feckless poor that we should ogle not because it says something about us but because it says something about the reality of the human condition in Britain. Maybe a couple of hours with the Trussell Trust would be a better way to get the inside skinny rather than sitting on one’s backside being ‘entertained’ by other people’s desperation. And since everybody else writing about this sticks up a picture of the Jennifer Lawrence I am going to too, even though I haven’t read/seen Hunger Games 🙂


    Rupert Myers of the torygraph doesn’t seem to understand the role of having choice in whether something is exploitative when he compares this with other reality TV. If The Hardest Grafter rings me up offering a place they will be met by a long string of the finest Anglo-Saxon cursing them and the horse they rode in on. If they ring up someone poor enough for it to be an attractive option then that someone doesn’t really have a choice. The reason all those Lefties draw the analogy with Hunger Games is not that the participants of this show have to kill each other. It’s that they don’t really have any ‘king choice as to whether to volunteer for the spectacle, because the chance of an upside win compared to a zero is worth shooting for. Compared to that, all the other reality TV bozos who ended up eating kangaroo testicles electively chose to do it among other good options of spending their time. I presume that when Rupe read Law at Emmanuel College Cambridge he was introduced to the role of metaphor and allegory in a narrative. Heck, as a decent writer he’s been known to indulge. Don’t be a punk, Rupert.


    1. The JRF indicate (PDF) that work is a route out of poverty for about half of households – low skilled work and having dependent children don’t seem to be conducive to that
    2. to save anybody the bother, yes, ‘snot fair to SAHM households. In a similar way that finding myself subsidising my well-off colleagues’ family holidays through their universal child benefit across 28 years of my 30 year working life wasn’t fair.
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