With the media’s short attention span winding away from Ukraine now that wild speculation about the possibility of a world war is over, it was almost inevitable that foreign policy wonkery would give way to tabloid storms-in-teacups at some point. This was signified by the Sun’s bizarre apparent coming out in favour of Russian imperialism, its front page adorned with a topless Vladimir Putin and the headline ‘Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough.’ Perhaps they’ll stick Putin on Page 3 next. The story this time is a 20-year old beautician from Blackpool, Gemma Worrall, who tweeted her worries about ‘our president barraco barner’ getting involved with Russia. (What is far more concerning than misspellings of Barack Obama’s name is the fully-informed academics who will justify his drone strikes against civilians. ) Worrall’s tweet promptly sparked a Twitter furore and a Daily Mirror warning about ‘dumb Britain’ alongside the Daily Mail’s implication that GCSEs are getting easier. (Save it for the results day stock articles, please…)
One thing that has to be acknowledged is the horrifically gendered dimension to the case- a young woman misspells the name of the President of the United States, and instantly Twitter and newspaper comment pages are clogged with sexist abuse. More worrying even than that is the explosion of death threats that followed the tweet- sure, people using online anonymity to be extremely unpleasant is hardly news, but one has to question a society that sees perceived ignorance as warranting threats of violence. It hardly needs to be said that if you need to derive satisfaction by asserting your own ‘intelligence’ aggressively in regards to others then you are probably not all that intelligent. There is a sinister undertone of class hatred here as well- the fact that the tweet came from a beautician in Blackpool has resulted in the dredging up of worn-out Jeremy Kyle-esque stereotypes. The articulation of the abuse Ms Worrall has received is not simply in response to what she said, but to her gender and background.
Fraser Nelson wrote an interesting article in The Spectator where he argued that Worrall’s comment was actually a sign of ‘something going right’ in Britain, making the point that we shouldn’t have to know who our representatives are, that irreverence towards politics is a good thing and being politically uneducated is not a problem. I partially agree. We certainly should not revere our politicians, or feel any particular need to follow the parlour games of Westminster. It is worth adding here, however, that it is concerning that the concept of ‘politics’ in the public psyche is reduced to parliament, prime ministers and presidents. The 1970s feminists had it right with the slogan ‘the personal is political’, and the sooner we adopt a definition of politics that is broader than who your MP is, that recognises the essence of our interactions with one another, our culture and the freedoms and constraints upon us in our daily lives as political, the better. Nelson’s piece, though, is based on a libertarian catechism of ‘he who governs least, governs best.’ This is not to say that an overbearing, many-tentacled government is a good thing, but that if we are to accept the existence of the state then we must charge it with responsibilities and duties. His argument that Worrall’s comment is indicative of something positive because it proves that people are content enough not to engage in politics is predicated upon the notion that everything is fine. It isn’t. Recovery is shallow, the ‘cost of living crisis’ that has been appropriated for soundbites by Ed Miliband is in fact a crippling blight upon the lives of millions, and there are many, many things that are not right about our system, our politics and our government.
Gemma Worrall has said that she now intends to read more on Ukraine, Russia and politics in general. Good. Not because she would be ‘stupid’ not to, or is under some obligation to do so, but because the politically-uninformed citizen is a gift to the corrupt, and particularly to neoliberalism. It is fair to say that under any system the default position is to be ‘apolitical’ (a fiction that actually simply means endorsing the status quo), but the lie we have been sold in the post-Thatcher world is that we live in a post-political society. Part of the development of the last decades has not been all negative- far more people are involved in grassroots issue-based movements as compared to party-political campaigning. There have been two discourses that have led to similar results. One is a growing (and justified) sense of disenfranchisement, of all the parties being similar and similarly unrepresentative. Voter turnout has fallen, and parties govern with smaller mandates every term. The other is the neoliberal condemnation of ideology, encapsulated in Fukuyama’s pre-millennium comment about ‘the end of history.’ It goes something like this, ‘all parties now believe in liberal democracy and govern according to the public interest, and so to be ‘political’ is to be a throwback.’ Oxford might have got its student union elections out the way last year, but the rest of the country is in SU election season now, and the wealth of candidates based on cheap puns and promises to ‘represent everyone’ demonstrates a worrying aversion to policies and political ideas. It is interesting to watch how parties attack one another- a recent example was when the Tories were accused of ‘economic illiteracy’ by Labour over their plans to cut student grants. Of course they’re not- they’re university-educated with years of experience of economic management. If you believe they are wrong, it is because you are ideologically opposed to them. And yet even a political party remains afraid to admit that it is, well, political.
The education system is a further point to consider. Ms Worrall has hit back at critics, claiming that she has 17 GCSEs. This should not lead to another tired argument about GCSEs getting easier, but about the devaluing of the political in our curriculum. One can come out of secondary school able to solve a quadratic equation, have the rudiments of a foreign language, explain the basics of particle physics, and yet not know what their rights are, how to vote, or the difference between socialism and capitalism. When teaching is devoid, for instance, of economics, is it any surprise that so many voters are fooled by the myth that national economic management is governed by the same rules as managing a household budget? Gemma Worrall is not ‘stupid.’ The entire notion of ‘stupidity’ is a damaging one- firstly, it is constructed on an ableist view of the world. It dismisses anyone with learning difficulties, special educational needs or disabilities as of less worth than an able-bodied neurotypical person. Secondly, it fails to recognise educational and social privilege, sidestepping the reality that we still live in a society where your academic success and even your life expectancy remains heavily influenced by the area you were born in, the school you went to and the amount of money your family have.
The infamous tweet should not be used to victimise an individual, but the storm that has developed does shine a timely light on issues of discrimination, education and the place of politics in modern Britain.
IMAGE/’Discovering My World’
The announcement by the Director-General of the BBC that BBC3 will be cut from our screens met with instant Twitter campaign, celebrity backlash and a petition with over 50,000 signatures. Lord Hall confirmed this week that Snog, Marry, Avoid, Ja’mie: Private School Girl and other programmes adored by students everywhere will soon only be available on iPlayer as part of the BBC’s cost-cutting drive.
On one hand, the move makes perfect sense. Constantly scrutinised as the renewal of the BBC Charter in 2016 looms closer, Lord Hall is under pressure to save an extra £100 million. With BBC3’s annual budget stretching to £85 million and commanding only 1.4% of total monthly TV audiences, it’s easy to see how the channel seemed ripe for the chop.
The decision also reflects the ever-changing nature of TV. The BBC is often accused for being out of touch, as if the license fee detaches it from the popular awareness brought about by reliance on advertising. However, in this case, they are demonstrating that they have their fingers on the pulse of new trends in broadcasting.
TV is moving away from a fixed schedule and towards on-demand viewing – when was the last time you postponed pre-drinks to catch a programme in the JCR? Radio 1 has just announced it will launch a channel on iPlayer in an attempt to entice the Internet generation with exclusive performances and interviews. Transferring BBC3’s combination of comedy, documentaries and reality to online is just another step to capture the youth audience.
However, as Lord Hall recognised in a speech in Oxford last week, 90% of all television is still watched live. Removing BBC3 from the air will play straight into the hands of other broadcasters. Last month ITV launched ITVBe, a new channel catering to the predominately young female audience clamouring for TOWIE and other entertainment series. The youth market that BBC3 serves is highly lucrative – Joey Essex has his fragrance, for goodness sake – and closing one avenue of attracting young people as other channels expand their live viewing is a risky strategy.
I’m not saying that the BBC should just copy its rivals. What makes the Corporation so special is that it is different from commercial stations, and the commitment to documentaries that strike a chord with its 16-34 year old audience means that BBC3 was never the direct competitor of ITV2 or E4.
However, the BBC does need to think of the wider consequences, not least the fact that, in the wise words of Whitney Huston, ‘children are the future’. To create a devoted viewing base in an age where brand loyalty matters and consumers are fickle, the BBC needs to appeal to and represent the youth audience. After drawing in children through CBeebies and CBBC, moving teenage viewers to Internet could exclude a chunk of young people raised on BBC content.
The power of TV as a cultural force comes from the fact that, unlike a high-speed broadband connection, it is present in all our homes. TV provokes conversations and can create stereotypes because it is so available. Rather than scrolling through the swathes of catch-up options and making a choice, we only have to press a button to see people just like us instantly represented on the screen. Moving a chunk of BBC programming to the Internet will dent this power and potentially marginalise many groups of viewers.
Of course, it is not true that Lord Hall’s announcement will eradicate the BBC youth’s audience. As a generation, we are adaptable and will sniff out good telly wherever it is available. However, it is clear that TV has moved on far more quickly than we could ever appreciate; power is rapidly slipping from the channel controllers and into the hands of the viewers.
About a month ago, current President of OUCA Jack Matthews wrote a very interesting and informative article about his considerable experience of being a Conservative and involved with OUSU and the NUS. If, like me, you are a libertarian or you identify with the political Right, it makes very disturbing reading. At first, he describes the shock of other members present when he declared his political affiliation at hustings. This is fair enough; there are not many committed Conservatives involved with the student union. However, he then goes on to list a shocking number of occasions on which members of the NUS have behaved disgracefully to those that they disagree with politically. You can read the full article here; I strongly suggest you do so. Note that one of the worst things that NUS delegates have done is not even listed; in the OxStu released that same week, it was revealed that one unnamed member told another right-wing delegate that they “hoped she would be the next Tory to die”. Amazingly, despite knowing an awful lot of people who I will never see eye-to-eye with politically, I have somehow never found it necessary to express the sentiment that their life is worthless because of this. I was disgusted by all of this, but not surprised in the slightest. Anyone who has had the misfortune to be under the age of 30, regularly active on social media, and even the slightest bit right-wing will have undoubtedly have seen various Facebook groups directing a level of venom at anyone associated with the Conservatives that I have rarely, if ever, seen directed at the Left even by the most committed Tories.
This might not seem like that much of a problem. People do stupid things at university, and then they grow up and enter the real world and realise that people have different beliefs about things and that’s actually okay, and not a sign that they’re the metaphorical (and quite possibly the literal) spawn of Satan. At least, that’s how it should work out. Unfortunately, in practice it doesn’t quite work like that. Those who are most involved in NUS politics are, if OUSU is anything to go by, likely to be heavily involved in the Labour Club at their respective universities. These are the people who are most likely to be swept up for a party internship, or work as a special adviser, or whatever it is people do when like me they’ve done a PPE degree without giving a moment’s thought to what on earth they’re meant to do when they graduate. Until now I had dismissed people who accuse MPs of “never having worked a proper job” as not being sure what sort of proper job they actually wanted their MPs to have done. However, I’m starting to realise why these jobs are actually important. They force you to go out into the world and get on with people who don’t wear a red rose in party conference season during some of your most crucial formative years.
It is possible to go from the Labour Club to your university Student Union, and then the NUS more nationally, and then to work after graduation with the Labour Party, and then possibly into a parliamentary seat without ever having left a left-wing (well, as far as you can call the Labour Party left-wing these days instead of just hating the Conservatives) echo chamber for the best part of a decade or so. This is not a good thing. We saw Jack Matthew’s tale of NUS conferences where they threatened to “build a bonfire and put the Tories on the top”. If you go through the developing phases of your political career considering it acceptable to joke about murdering political opponents, or else dehumanising them in whatever manner takes your fancy, by the time you actually get to Parliament you are not likely to be able to approach your job with the requisite maturity. Although what is televised (i.e. Prime Minister’s Questions and the major parliamentary debates) appears highly combative, most of the work behind the scenes is done by cross-party select committees where cooperation is necessary. Is it possible to cooperate and negotiate to implement policies for the benefit of the whole British public- yes, some of whom are Tories- if you consider the people on the other side of the table to be something close to subhuman? I don’t think so.
I’ll be honest- I’m not sure what can be done about this. Human tribalism is a very primal instinct, and we all need our causes and identities to rally around. However, the self-perceived moral superiority by not all but a significant minority of the modern Left is not conducive to healthy political discourse. For now, there are two things I can suggest. The first is to follow Jack Matthews in saying we need more right wingers in the NUS. If you started ranting in your workplace about executing political dissidents, it is safe to say you would not keep your job for very long. We need a shift in the political balance of the NUS in order to make sure that it is not an environment where these sorts of remarks are tolerated either. Remember, it stands for National Union of Students, not National Union of Socialists; and plenty of students are right wing too. The second suggestion is my plea to those within the NUS who do think that it’s okay to marginalise people that they disagree with. A sizeable number of people in this country are Conservatives; it’s one thing to say that they’re wrong, another thing to say that they’re evil, and another bloody thing entirely to threaten to put them on a bonfire. The Labour Party has managed throughout its history to retain a reputation for being compassionate- deservedly so, given that they gave us the Welfare State and led us through periods of social reform. However, if the sense of pride in that legacy leads to open contempt for those who think differently, their reputation as the “nice party” may be impossible to keep.
As someone involved in the workings of OUSU, I am starting to get slightly tired of the latest trend in the student press, which involves reeling off ranting comment pieces, slamming OUSU, OUSU Council, OUSU members, OUSU’s campaigns – or in fact, anything else within reach. A recent example of this came in Alexander Rankine’s rant in the Cherwell last week, addressing what he believed to be ‘the failure of OUSU Council to provide a meaningful democratic connection between students and OUSU.’ As current Chair of Council, and former Chair of the Scrutiny Committee, I am well placed to address some of the points raised and can hopefully provide a more nuanced take on OUSU Council.
Firstly, I would like to make the distinction between OUSU – the organisation made up of full-time and part-time officers, office staff, campaigns and committees – and OUSU Council, the democratic arm of the organisation. Council exists to provide devolved democracy, where common rooms have elected representatives to speak on their behalf. They should be consulting the students they represent, but in reality, this doesn’t often happen. Sitting at the front of the room as Chair, I am often dismayed at the attendance, or lack thereof, particularly amongst those who aren’t OUSU reps (especially the ‘3rd vote’ that all colleges have). OUSU Sabbatical Officers do their best to make agendas available, highlight important issues and encourage people to bring motions to Council, but they cannot physically force people to do so. In his piece, Alexander laments at the lack of motions being brought to Council – but these are open to all students to bring forward and in recent meetings, most of the motions have not been brought by Sabbaticals Officers, but by students with an interest in a particular issue. On his criticism that OUSU Council only meets every two weeks, I don’t think that it is realistic to expect students to turn up every week, during terms that only last eight weeks as it is. Perhaps he doesn’t have a lot of work to do, but I certainly do. It is also worth noting that is usually how often JCR meetings take place.
Regarding accountability of the officers, it is not their fault if nobody asks them any questions in Council. Every time we get to that part of Council, I deliberately pause, look round the room and remind people that this is their opportunity to directly scrutinise those who represent them. And I am usually met with silence for my efforts. I also take issue with the derisive remark that ‘the Scrutiny reports read like interviews with the officers.’ Well, they are based partially on interviews with the officers (how else would we conduct the process?), so of course they are going to sound a bit like the interviews that provided their source material! What is important is that whatever ends up in that report does so after careful consideration, feedback from other people working with the officers being scrutinized and a weighing-up of the ‘evidence’, as it were. The Scrutiny Committee’s job is to check that elected OUSU officers are fulfilling the political aspects of their role i.e. carrying out their election manifesto promises, representing students in a proactive and positive manner and interacting well with them. If the Scrutiny Report is broadly positive, then this is because the officers are doing a good job! In the past, I have never held back when I felt someone was not fulfilling their role, and concerns that have been raised in past reports are now actively being taken on board. A good example of this is Part-Time Executive written reports to Council, whose appearance has increased thanks to successive Scrutiny recommendations. When I stood up to present the report to Council last term, I did not mince my words about some of the more unacceptable findings we had, and would reject the idea that we are not holding officers to account.
Finally, I would like to deal with the issue surrounding the ‘atmosphere at Council’, which has become more prominent since OUSU stalwart Jack Matthews’ blog post about his time in student politics. I notice that his quote taken from a Council meeting in 2008 seems to keep being used as though this were the current state of affairs. Yes, it is true that OUSU has a tendency towards left-wing thinking and policy, but this is only a reflection on the fact that most of its members, being students, do tend statistically to veer towards the left. As someone with few party political convictions myself, I have never felt threatened or intimidated by the party politics from either side at OUSU – in fact, they rarely come up or enter the debate, as it’s often more about a clash of beliefs, political or otherwise. I have actually found that it has produced lively debates on all sides, a recent example being of the debate surrounding financing the Oxford Left Review (a motion which fell). As Chair, it is my duty to maintain the atmosphere in Council so that everyone feels able to speak. When I have felt debates have become intimidating or contributions irrelevant, I have said so, as have many of my predecessors (including Jack Matthews).
OUSU, like any democratic institution, has its failings, but this does not lie solely with its Officers. JCR and MCR reps need to step up to the plate, actually attend Council, ask their Common Rooms what they think and make points in the debate. If OUSU appears like a club or a clique, it’s because there are some people who are more passionate about certain issues than others, but the idea is that anyone can contribute to any debate in any way they chose, provided their remarks are not offensive. Sabbatical Officers cannot win – they are criticised for not engaging enough with students or letting them know what they’ve been doing, but are then lambasted for sending ‘self-congratulatory emails’ when they do tell you what they’ve been up to! Every student member is entitled to attend OUSU Council, so here is my invitation to you: come along, propose motions, take part in the debates, ask questions of your elected officers, rather than reeling off comments in the student press.
PHOTO/Nele van Hout
Over the weekend, the Vietnamese creator of Flappy Birds removed the app from the iTunes store to the dismay of the general public, epitomized in the modern day, by the general smart phone user with a particular affinity for mindless, aimless, time-wasting entertainment.
The app, which rose to worldwide fame and adoration during the last months of last year, peaked at an almost unprecedented level of popularity in mid-January, and was estimated to be making around $50,000 in ad revenue a day. Announcing its removal the creator used a range of superfluous hyperboles like “I cannot take this anymore” or “it has ruined my simple life.”
What continues to amuse and bemuse, however, is the sheer scope of the game’s popularity. Since its removal from the iTunes and Android store users have begun to sell handsets with the app installed on eBay. These currently number almost 10,000 sale-listings in some way related to Flappy Bird. Their price reaches the $10,000 to $50,000 bracket. Both Google Play and App Store have seen a surge in apps using the word Flappy seeking to steal some of the glory before it dwindles and burns out somewhere in the giga-distance with the remaining bytes of Angry Birds and Temple Run.
The app’s popularity may not be that difficult to decipher. In fact, it appears to be a symptom of a much wider syndrome of technological development and its immersion in modern society. Back when post-modernism was still in the grip of its own self-confidence, Baudrillard, in his ‘The Ecstasy of Communication’, declared the death of the intimate universe of the imaginary and the productive, with the birth of the television. He saw the 1980s as an era which killed the whole psychological dimension of interacting with the objects around us and projecting our fantasies of possession or loss, or jealousy on those objects. With the television, he morbidly concluded, we become passive sponges.
What Baudrillard could not have imagined, however, is the true extent of consumption which would be achieved by the smart phone app. In its transportable size, slick design and (now-assured) fashion value, the smart phone has distorted not only our private, but also our public interactions. The over-saturation of pressure, anxiety and a deadline-driven approach to both work and education makes time spent in transit or any form of waiting, time which is wasted.
Where, in Baudrillard’s romanticised view of it, staring into the distance and projecting our psychological passions onto the objects with which we interact would have done in the 80s, we now immediately turn to our phones. To escape from more work, anxiety and overtly optimistic ‘to-do-lists’ we turn to the world of apps.
It is here, however, that we must part ways with Baudrillard’s fatalism. It is true the escapism of smart phone entertainment demands simplicity. It is usually short term, no commitment, with little effort demanded. But Flappy Bird, Temple Run and Angry Birds epitomise something other than human desire to receive information, in some sponge-like manner. They demonstrate our inherent need to project in equal measure. The success of Flappy Bird therefore lies in the fact it is demanding of several of our senses. In this way it justifies sole consumption; not doing something else alongside. But it is also a very particular level of demand that must be perfected, before turning people away.
It must be a demand on our attention span or concentration, which allows for a lapse of focus. A universe where failure is regular and immanent, but also meaningless, makes the world of smart phone games a place where it is okay to slack, and not succeed. This is a refreshing change to student life or work, where lapses of focus are not allowed, where failure does not follow endless reincarnation and where the stakes are not the collection of some imaginary coin, or destruction of some bizarre looking construction via a catapulting bird-head.
The success of Flappy Bird therefore should not necessarily be condemned. Games of its kind work in a as therapeutic outlets of a social order which demands constant productivity and engagement. Flappy bird is selling wasting time under some façade of a goal or end of success. Rather than complain we should commend Flappy Bird and its kind for keeping us sane where idleness alone would not do.
There’s a scene in Fawlty Towers where Sybil catches Basil singing and dancing to himself.
“You seem very jolly, Basil.”
“Yes, jolly. Sort of happy.”
“Oh, happy. Yes, I remember that. No, not that I noticed, dear. Well, I’ll report it if it happens, though.”
I sometimes feel as though this might be what it feels like to be an immigrant in Britain in 2014, tethered to a spouse who you allegedly chose to be with at some point or another, and have spent the rest of your life wondering whether it was worth it.
First there’s the family. Old Granny Europe – the one who keeps losing her twenty-pound notes down the back of the sofa – is always very keen for you two to stay together. In fact, it was her who got you together in the first place, back in 2007. The wife didn’t seem all that keen on you back then; in fact, she made you wait seven years before you could even meet for the first time, but you just thought she was playing hard-to-get. She’d been having difficulties with her ex, a bloke named Poland who apparently kept inviting his kids over and making her cook their favourite soup even though they never said thank you. Even so, when you finally met she made an effort, putting on her best Keith Vaz for the occasion. “This could be OK,” you thought. How wrong you were.
First, there was all that nagging about needing to get a job, even though none of her brothers had one and she didn’t seem to care – you even caught her giving them extra helpings of custard with dessert when you hadn’t had any yet. Then she started threatening to hide the paracetamols if you didn’t stop hogging the duvet in bed, and said she’d stop letting you watch the football if you didn’t start supporting her team.
You tried to complain to Granny EU, but she was too busy looking down the back of the sofa for the tenner she’d promised to lend Cousin Greece, while the Syria twins were arguing again.
And then there came Uncle Nigel, who wasn’t really her Uncle but kept coming round uninvited like he was. You were sure he was trying to split you up, with his sniping and barbed comments about how you always took the last roast potato without asking. But even though she laughed about him behind his back, whenever he came round she always made sure he got the comfiest sofa and you had to sit on the wooden chair with the wobbly leg.
And the more often Uncle Nigel came round, the more unreasonable she became. It seemed that you couldn’t do anything right. On the one hand whenever you tried to help her with the cooking she’d complain that you were just trying to replace her, but whenever you let her do it herself she’d moan that you did nothing round the house to help.
Now you’re starting to think that the relationship may just be over. For your last birthday she bought you a card asking you to fix the shed or “go home,” (although you thought the handwriting looked suspiciously like Uncle Nigel’s). Granny Europe’s still too busy trying to get Great-Uncle Russia to stop the Syrian twins from slapping each other, while she’s started saying that if you don’t stop biting your nails at the dinner table she’ll kick you out the house.
Maybe you will go, you think, leave her with Uncle Nigel. The two seem like a nice pair. And Nigel has always had a thing for your wife. Even her half-brother Scotland is thinking of moving. You might go and stay with her half-brother Australia. At least he’s got a decent cricket team.
At first glance, the news that on a street in a wealthy area of North London, there are a series of empty or derelict houses worth an estimated £350m, seems irrelevant to most people. Sure, it’s a chronic waste of land, but since owning such a property is the preserve of the super-rich, they are the only ones who would seem to lose out from them not being on the market. Even if you take the view that it’s a sign of a wider problem of ‘house hoarding’, the impact would still seem to be pretty limited – the average UK house is not generally the target of the multi-millionaire property portfolio owner.
However, the reason that these houses are being held unoccupied for years on end is just as relevant to the first-time buyer as to the foreign oligarch. In recent years, the UK’s house prices have continued to rise to astronomical levels – since last year, they’ve risen nearly 9 per cent. In London, the rise is closer to 12 per cent, and this means that property in the capital is becoming a very desirable investment. The owners don’t even have to renovate the properties to make a profit – because property prices seem to rise in the long-term, the returns on their investment are, quite literally, safe as houses.
By holding onto these houses, and the land which they sit on, the property owners put pressure on the rest of the UK’s housing stock. They stop first-time buyers being able to get onto the property ladder, because as house prices rise, so does the amount you need to borrow from the bank, along with the amount you need to put down as a deposit. If people are priced out of London, they will begin to look elsewhere, including to Oxford, and this puts pressure on rents – rent is already higher here than in most of the rest of the country. More importantly, every house that is occupied by a commuter into London is a house that is not available for students who have to live out, or people who want to settle down in the local community.
So what can be done about it? Boris Johnson’s suggestion that taxes on unoccupied homes is a good idea in theory, but it misses the point. We have a housing crisis in this country, and dealing with foreign house-hoarders is but a drop in the ocean when it comes to solving the problem. Instead, the government needs to take action on a wider level – supporting building firms, or even doing the building itself via the public sector, to ensure that the UK has enough affordable housing.
The major obstacle in the past has been questions about the environmental impact of house-building, especially on flood plains and ‘Green Belt’ land. But to view the situation as a trade-off between house-building and preservation of the environment is wrong – instead, we should find ways to make the two compatible. Making sure that new properties are energy efficient, that there’s sufficient drainage so roads do not become flooded and drains don’t overflow, even spending money on turning previously unsuitable land into areas that can be built on – all are ways of stopping the current housing crisis becoming more serious.
They might seem like drastic and expensive solutions, but without action, a more severe crisis across the country is almost inevitable.
Ed Miliband’s suggestion that developers should face the threat of having their land confiscated if they don’t build on it (‘use it or lose it’) is perhaps a step too far, and unworkable in practice; cooperation with housebuilders is the way forward, and this government, and future governments, must show they are willing to act to solve what is rapidly becoming one of the greatest threats to the economic recovery.
Recently it has been revealed that a group of mansions on Bishops Avenue in London, worth hundreds of millions of pounds, have been sitting empty and rotting for years. Their owners include several Saudi billionaires, who have seized on the opportunity granted by London’s booming real estate market to buy property and earn tax-free returns.
For those of you living under a news-proof rock, Bitcoin is an anonymous and secure digital “currency” introduced by an anonymous mathematician in 2009. Anyone can run software that “mines” the fixed supply of coins. As the stock is depleted mining becomes more costly. Coins can then be exchanged using a secure, private, and anonymous transaction. The currency has been in the news recently following its ridiculous gains in trading prices and high volatility.The issue has caused controversy over several factors, namely exorbitant housing costs in London and the influence of foreigners in the UK. It seems a waste to let extremely valuable houses rot in one of the worlds’ highest priced housing markets. However, I was more fascinated by the situation’s economics. The empty houses are a wonderful example of an asset bubble, and reminded me of another of today’s prominent bubbles: the digital currency Bitcoin.
Six months ago 1 Bitcoin was trading at $100, and now you can get one for a little under $900 (depending on the time of day), down from a peak of nearly $1200. A small but not insignificant group of stores and websites have begun to accept payment in Bitcoin. The currency continues to grow in popularity and has attracted news coverage, along with prominent advocates such the Oxford-educated Winklevoss twins. As Andrew Ross Sorkin of Dealbook puts it: “[bitcoin] aspires to be a universal electronic currency. On that score, it is unlikely to succeed.” I suggest that it is more than unlikely to succeed; success is impossible under current circumstances.
To see why, we can look back to the empty Bishops Avenue mansions. Their owners have registered them to companies in offshore tax havens in order to avoid paying taxes. They haven’t purchased the homes in order to use them; there is little or no expectation to directly receive any utility from them. Rather, the mansions are a speculative investment, and a rather good one at that. The same is true of Bitcoin. Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss own millions in Bitcoin, and are working to create a Bitcoin ETF to track prices on the market. Their interests are clearly speculative. Cameron posits, “I have yet to sell a single Bitcoin.”
These speculative interests in both markets, however, will prevent their functionality. In the housing market, the paradox lies in the fact that the more people want to buy or live in the mansions, the faster the market value will rise, and the less incentive any of the owners will have to sell their tax-free money makers. In the case of Bitcoin, the same is true. The more people demand it as a viable currency, the faster the price will rise. This, and the inflexible supply of Bitcoins, will cause the price to rise even higher.
If Bitcoin is trying to be a currency, however, a skyrocketing market value is the equivalent of deflation. This means that your Bitcoin will have more purchasing power tomorrow than it will today, or next year than this year. Thus, you’re better off if you keep waiting to spend it rather than use it as a currency. For now, the more people want to use Bitcoin, the higher prices will rise, and the less it will be used.
The properties on Bishops Avenue will not be sold as long as they remain a strong speculative asset for their owners, and neither will Bitcoins. The houses will continue to rot, and the bits will sit still on investors’ hard drives as demand rises. Both represent failures of assets to achieve their intended goals, and both bubbles will likely pop. In the meantime, I’ll be encouraging you all to invest in the real currency of the future: Pez® dispensers.