Sunday, 12 August 2012

Out to lunch

I often observe that once you get into your forties, it becomes hard to tell the difference between satire and reality. I've said so, in fact, ever since I got into my forties. In Spain, today, though, it is difficult to tell the difference between reality and madness.

This week the Telegraph had a story to the effect that parents who have withdrawn their children from school meals, because they can't afford them, are liable to be charged anyway, an amount "up to 3€" according to the Telegraph. (Although they actually say €3, I have always been taught to put the symbol on the other side of the figure, thus 3€. In news stories they tend to omit the symbol altogether in favour of writing "euros". But I pedantically digress.)

As is probably true of all news stories, you find it is more complicated when you have some knowledge of the field. Which I have, because I presently work in schools, and more so, because my wife R. has worked in Spanish schools for about fifteen years. The levy will not be 3€ everywhere, partly because education is under the control of the various Spanish regions ("communidades") who have different financial positions, as well as political and economic philosophies, and partly because the levy will at any rate be up to school councils to impose, or not, as they choose. Of course those who choose otherwise will have less money than those who do.

One also assumes that this doesn't apply to children already in receipt of free school meals, though this can be assumed to be a shrinking category, at precisely the time when more children are in need of help. The Telegraph also reports:
In Madrid alone, the regional education board has cut €26 million in grants for school dinners and text books for the new school year.
Those are compulsory text books, by the way, not text books that schools and pupils will simply be without. Parents are obliged to buy them. And now it appears that they are obliged to buy lunch too, even when they have provided it themselves.

So it's possible that many parents will not in fact have to pay this levy, that many schools may choose not to charge it, and that it may in many plces be rather less than 3€ per child per day. All right. Nevertheless, as so often, you can hack away at the complicating detail of a story to find an obvious truth within it. Which, in this instance, is that this is insane.

It is insane in all sorts of ways. It is insane to suddenly decide that people should have to pay for their children to sit in a room and eat, which has never occurred to anybody before. It wouldn't, because it is insane.

It is insane to charge people for bringing in food who are only doing so in the first place because they can no longer afford to pay for hot meals. Of course not everybody who brings in a packed lunch come in that category. School meals vary drastically in quality - some schools in which I've worked are very good, but in some schools, virtually no teachers, tellingly, choose to eat in school. But the whole point here is to replace revenue caused by parents who used to buy their children school meals deciding they can no longer afford it. Insane. They have already told you they can't afford to pay. They have told you by withdrawing their children from school lunches. So how, rationally, does anybody decide that this means they can afford to pay?

It is insane because, even if we decide that the charge will be less than 3€ a day, it is still a monstrous amount of money. Calculate over a month. Bear in mind that there will usually be more than one child in the family. Two kids, more than twenty schooldays a month - how much is that going to be, for a family that you already know can't afford school meals?

It is insane because the more you loot people's pockets, the less they have to spend, and the more you guarantee that the economy continues its plummet to destruction. Everybody knows this. The people who are making this orders know it. The people in the so-called "markets" know it. The people in the IMF and and the ECB and in Brussels and Helsinki and Berlin know it. But they are not going to suffer for what they know.

You also know it, I must add, if your living consists of selling books in Spanish schools, as does mine. A living not likely to be made easier - I put it more gently than I might - by a deliberate and callous policy of impoverishing the public who are the market - a real market - for our books. I believe that in the theology of free-market economics, recessions are supposed to drive inefficiencies and impurities out of the economy. In real life, it feels rather different. This is because it is rather different. What it feels like is madness.

There are all kinds of madness going on. There is an epidemic of failure to pay employees. Earlier this year we were working in Alcorcón, on the western edge of Madrid, where the school cleaners were on strike. They were on strike because they hadn't been paid for three months. What else are people to do? But while we were working, strikebreakers came in to the schools to clear the rubbish. The ayuntamiento was actually paying people to come and break a strike which was only taking place because employees weren't beeing paid. This is madness.

Last week a friend came round, and during the evening he mentioned a colleague of his who is on the point of losing his house. Unemployed, as are so many of the people being thrown onto the street? Not at all. But he hasn't been paid for six months. Six months. You hear of companies being paid late by ayuntamientos, which is often the case, and is quite wrong. (Schools, by contrast, pay us with a swiftness that we much appreciate.) People, however, being paid late by hear much less of. Except by word of mouth. And by word of mouth, you hear it all the time.

I seem to remember this happening in Russia, during the time in which the IMF was saving that country by wreaking destruction upon it. What do you do, when you are not paid the money on which you depend? What happens, when you are desperate? What do you do? One answer is that you loot the shops, as is happening in Andalucía. Presumably when they put a stop to that, the desperate will start robbing people, instead. And then there will have to be money found for prisons and policemen, and this will only be found by making more people homeless and poor.

Madness. Madness of all kinds. Madness on top of madness. And it is only just beginning.

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