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November 14, 2011 8:29 am

Not Yet the Age of Austerity

avatar by Gabriel Martindale

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Interior of the British Library. Photo: Andrew Dunn.

For the past few weeks I’ve been doing research at the British Library, the United Kingdom’s august national library. Since it’s a creature of the state, funded by confiscatory taxation, one might expect it to be subject to the general symptoms of depressing decline evident in areas like healthcare, education or policing, nationalized by the benevolent British state with its prodigious reverse Midas’s touch. However, I really have nothing but praise for the institution.

Whenever I order up a book or manuscript from its vast archives it’s there on time when I want it. As well as being mercifully well lit, the reading rooms are so spacious that not only can I always find a seat, but I can always find one isolated enough to allow me to continue with my antisocial personal habits in peace. The staff are helpful and there are always several assistants around. Though the vast building, finished in 1997, is not to my architectural tastes, it’s in perfect condition and always clean. The chairs are comfortable, both in the reading rooms and in the large areas where people can congregate and have lunch. These capacious halls often have mildly diverting exhibitions in which one can wile away a short study break. There are plenty of lockers, all in typically good nick, though, if you prefer, two chaps are on hand to supervise your bag and coats free of charge. Each reading room has two security guards on hand at all times, which is nice since having someone to chat to all day means they’re not bored grumps like many of their peers elsewhere. Inside, row upon row of perpetually-on computers await any theoretical horde of students wanting to look something up or order another book. If it’s not too vulgar, I should also add that the library boasts perhaps the cleanest public toilets I have ever seen, in abundant supply. This is in keeping with the general lack of grottiness throughout the building; indeed the walls are currently being given a fresh coat of white paint despite the apparent lack of even a tiny chink or, indeed, anything in the way of discoloration.

In short the British library is a very nice place to work.

A lot of ink is spilled explaining why the public sector is generally inferior to the private, but it essentially boils down to this: in the private sector if you consistently provide a rubbish service you go broke; in the public sector you get more funding. However, on those occasions when, by luck or planning, a public institution is placed in the hands of competent people there’s no reason it can’t be well run. From what I can tell the British Library is just such an institution and it should serve as a model for other government run enterprises.

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As ever, though, there’s a snag. The BL, as it is affectionately known, is a sort of Mecca for the chattering classes. A great portion of these are currently at university, either undergraduates or part of the ever expanding array of post-grads and post-docs and post-post-post-docs, and others have a post at one of Britain’s 120 “universities.” Lots of other people seem to go to do some filing, to relax with a nice novel, or simply to sit on one of the cosy leather armchairs with a cup of coffee. It’s a nice place where the educated (or semi-educated) liberal middle classes can go to meet like-minded people who dress like them, talk like them, think like them and shop like them and have a good chat about the plight of the working classes, safe in the knowledge that no actual working class people will ever come in to bother them with their strange mores and uncouth views about the European Union or prison sentencing (the staff, of course, are pleasantly multicultural). More than just a library, it’s a sort of cultural hub.

But not one of these hordes of enlightened bright young things who walk through the pristine glass doors of the BL into its pleasant, bustling halls ever seems to take the most obvious lesson from it, because number one on their conversation list is always “Austerity Britain“, riven by “savage cuts” in which a radical ultra-Thatcherite government is taking a hacksaw to the state, leaving a trail of destruction in its midst.

This is the story you will find pumped out endlessly in the Bible of the chattering classes, The Guardian (copies of which are invariably strewn throughout the British Library) and I, can only conclude that these people don’t have the foggiest idea what austerity is going to look like when it hits them … and it will.

Aside from the terrifying and still steeply rising national debt, Britons have also managed to run up an equally astounding burden of private debt, which at some point they, or someone else, are going to have to take the hit for. The economy, after two decades of boom economics, is a basket case. The magic of the competitive free market is that it is a constantly self-correcting mechanism in which bad business decisions are quickly punished with bankruptcy allowing for the most efficient organization of resources in any system known to man. However, if a government uses a central bank to create a decade-long boom by flooding the economy with cheap credit, bad business decisions go unpunished until a long postponed day of reckoning and myriad resources are tied up in inefficient and unproductive businesses. The upshot is that instead of a thousand daily corrections keeping the economy on track, you get one great big correction, clearing all the bad investments, freeing up the resources for better ones. A lot of people think that this happened in 2008, but in fact that was only about 10% of what is in store, with all the bailouts, quantitative easing and effectively negative interest rates pushing off the other 90% for the future (and making it even worse.) The coming mega-recession should, in a sense, be welcomed because it’s a necessary condition for Britain and the Western world ever returning to real economic growth, but it will entail a lot of misery and, crucially for what we’re talking about here, the government can forget about the upswing in tax revenues it hopes will follow the ‘green shoots of recovery’ and wipe out the yawning budget deficit.

There’s no hope that any government that can ever hope to be elected will balance the budget, so real austerity is going to come in one of two ways: either a) the government will run out cash and its cheques will bounce or b) the government will try to wipe out its debts by hyper-inflating the currency, causing socio-economic collapse (and then the government will run out of cash and its cheques will bounce anyway.)

After that, Britons (like the rest of the western world) will find out what real austerity looks like. If a national library survives at all it will be one where students sit on rusty chairs waiting for the over-worked and harassed staff to bring their books and for the shared computer to become available, whilst staring at paint peeling on the wall and trying to block out the annoying drip, drip, drip sound coming from the leaking roof, especially if it brings on a desire to visit the not very sanitary toilets. I’m not saying that currently the managers of the British Library are profligate spendthrifts: for all I know they provide their excellent service on a shoestring. But that won’t help them when reality bites, because, in the bitter struggle for the last scraps of pie, any government agency that does a good job with a modest budget will just have it cut back further until they can’t, and then even more than that. Right now the denizens of the British library think the curtailment of an alcohol and clothes grant (the EMA) for seventeen years olds is a fiendish assault on education and equality, carried out by nefarious right-wing zealots. Pretty soon even the most committed of progressive governments will be forced to make cuts that exceed their wildest dreams – and they haven’t got even the teensiest clue it’s coming.

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