Last week the news was full of reports of demonstrations in London, over the G20 summit conference out in the Docklands. And I, for one, was a bit puzzled. The protesters seemed to be something of a strange coalition.
Generally the demonstrators were summed up as “anti-capitalists”, as always happens at these events; probably because the Socialist Workers are always on hand to provide lots of placards in the hope of furthering the Trotskyite Revolution that they’re expecting, in true millennialist fashion, any day now. And there were plenty of such placards visible in the news reports. But that wasn’t the picture I gathered from the protesters who were actually interviewed on TV. They all seemed to be died-in-the-wool capitalists, people who truly believed in capitalism, people who were upset that their bankers had disappointed them.
These people were saying: “all our money has gone”. Because these were all people who had money, and had invested it. They had been living off their savings income,* and were protesting that the drop in interest rates has wiped that income out. Whether their capital is gone too, of course, depends where they’d invested it and how risky they were prepared to be. But risk is an inherent part of the system.
These people were well off, by any measure; at one time, at least. If they weren’t, then they wouldn’t have had money to invest to begin with. The vast majority of people, around the world, don’t have that complaint to make, because they’ve never been rich enough to save. You don’t have to worry about the return on your investment, or about the risk to your capital, if you’re in the great majority who don’t have any capital to invest. And if you’re an anti-capitalist, I’d have thought you’d be celebrating the failings of the capitalist system, trying to tell the world all about them. These people I’d class maybe as Voodoo Capitalists, people who assume that if they make an investment, they are guaranteed an income, because That’s Just How It Works. The value of their investments may go down as well as up, but that was buried in the small print, so they feel it’s their natural right that their money should keep on coming in. Not anti-capitalists, not Trotskyists, just overly-trusting people.
* A “private income”, to use the old-fashioned term
Well, no, that’s not quite true. I was never a Farepak customer. My mother, on the other hand, was at one time, so I’ve been keeping an interested eye on the slow-burning news that has followed Farepak’s collapse.
It’s more than ten years now since my mother stopped buying a hamper from the Farepak catalogue, and she did it at my persuasion. Farepak’s method of business: hard-pushed home-makers send them a small sum every week, through the year. Just before Christmas they receive several boxes of food; what seems like an impressively large amount. Its value, though, was usually rather less than the total you’d contributed through the year. I pointed out that if she opened another savings account, and paid into it a similar amount every week, then by Christmas she’d have rather more money than she’d put in, instead of rather less.* At the expense of going out and buying it herself, she could end up with a rather larger hamper.
That system relies on self-discipline, of course; my mother has rather more of it than I do, and rather more than most people. If you can afford to save at Farepak’s negative interest rate, though, you can afford to save with a bank. Much of the media commentary on Farepak’s bankruptcy seems to suggest that the company should have behaved more charitably to its customers because of their relative poverty; or that its bankers should have been more accommodating as the company was doing Good Deeds. This forgets, though, that the point of a company is usually to make money, and Farepak was no exception to that. It’s possibly unfair to say they were exploiting the poor – after all, a prepayment scheme like Farepak’s is far better for the customers than buying on credit. They were, though, making money out of the poor, by showing them how to afford something rather nicer than they thought. Moreover, they do seem to have been making money – all the news stories suggest that the collapse was due to losses elsewhere in the parent company.
Farepak, and its competitors, gave and give their customers one great benefit: they forced self-discipline onto them. If credit unions offered similar accounts – pay in an agreed amount all year, then get your balance paid out at Christmas – then it would be a great help. Never forget, though, that both Farepak and its bankers were out to make money. That’s how our system works.
* Admittedly only pence more – but still.