338 Private thoughts

This page is not my own original work, but it does chime with my opinions, and the translation is mine. It originally appeared, in Esperanto, in the “British Esperantist” magazine no. 965, autumn 2008.

It is allegedly by one Mamed Madok’ba, born in Pakistan but living in Birmingham and working on a dissertation on the musicality of bees.

I don’t believe that; I think it’s a pseudonym in the time-horoured tradition of outsiders looking in at the quirks of a society, which has been a frequent literary device since at least the 18th century.

I don’t keep bees myself, but I know a man who does.

A few weeks ago I was sitting at home looking out at the street. Yes, I know what you’re thinking. Shameless layabout, just sitting around, watching the world, not working, and wasting the best days of his life. Well, yes, as I sit here I keep saying the same things to myself. But, dear reader, surely we all need a break now and then, to get our second wind (especially when work goes slowly, when the bees get awkward and refuse to behave as they are supposed to – hmm, such are the troubles, the daily hassle of a hapless bee researcher).

Sorry, I’m wandering off the subject, which is to give you the fruit of my observations (if observations can actually bear fruit; I don’t think I’ve ever seen an observation tree). Now, if you were not an Esperantist, you might accuse me of scoptophilia (lovely word, isn’t it?) or of some kind of perversion; you might think I was eyeing up girls or boys or women. But because you are an Esperantist I know you won’t think this. After all, Esperantists never misbehave or think bad thoughts, so I am sure you would not impute any such tendencies to me.

But you probably are getting impatient to know what I really was watching through the window. Let me enlighten you with the truth, the fruits of my seated window-gazing observations.

The answer is simple. I was watching postmen. Postmen, parcel delivery men, hauliers, carriers; on foot, on bicycles, in cars and in vans. In sum a whole army of deliverers, each of them carrying, on average, one item to deliver (except the postman, who has perhaps two or three items for each home, but mostly bits of useless junk mail: you can’t really count those in).

And that set me thinking (you see: I wasn’t wasting my time – thinking is always useful, unless it’s about football or other sporting nonsense). And this is what I thought: you educated intelligent British, who have given so much to world civilisation (constitutional monarchy, impeccable parliamentary democracy, an enviable transport system, and Morris dancing [apologies if this offends you; your editor always wants my opinions to be honest and sincere, so blame him]), were hugely mistaken when you accepted the idea of having so many deliverers. I mean, of course, privatisation.

Your political masters lulled you into thinking that privatisation would lead to much more efficient services than the state could deliver. For example, only business, not civil servants, could organise a successful (and profitable) postal service. “We the politicans will therefore allow anyone at all to deliver parcels, and we shall break up the bloated state monopoly”. And so it was.

At first, dear reader, you were, I think, delighted. Yes, you said: only private companies can run postal, health, railway, education, gas or electricity services. It’s the only way to keep costs down and raise the quality. And yes, the papers told you of the expected improvements, and at election times you were promised progress and prosperity. But you didn’t count the delivery men in your street.

Look; is it really efficient to have two, three, four delivery men a day, from different companies, coming down your street with one parcel each? And don’t they all (apart from the poor chap from your strangely named Royal Mail, who uses an environment-friendly bicycle) have their own lorry, or van, or car, just to carry that one parcel? Leaving aside the “green” arguments, aren’t so many men from so many companies, all doing more or less the same job, hugely inefficient?

I think the polticians who started these privatisation programmes were well aware that an adequately funded state system could do just as good a job as the private companies. But they also knew that competing private companies, all with people doing roughly the same job, would give work to people who would otherwise be unemployed. Better to give them meaningless, dull, bureaucratic jobs, and double, treble, quadruple the work with two, three, or four competing companies, than to have just one state-owned enterprise which could work much more efficiently with fewer workers. Remember, dear reader, how you laughed years ago when you heard that East Germany was inventing work for its citizens, doubling, tripling the work of factories, so that there should be no unemployment. Hmm, just like the politicians did in your country, only not in the name of socialism but of capitalism; and you didn’t even notice!

But, reader, here’s a quandary: is it better to have several competing and basically inefficient companies, or to have much more efficient monopolies, employing fewer people and creating mass unemployment? What do I know, I’m a bee researcher, not a sociologist. Or a politician. Just as well.

But as I sit in my chair and watch the street, I can imagine a time when some politician is struck with an original, radical idea. He will say, as you rapturously applaud, why not have one company to deliver letters and parcels … and have only one van coming down your road? Much better. And while we’re at it, how about a national railway company, so that we know who is responsible for what? And one single health service, and one single school system, so that everyone is treated fairly? And why not set things up so that the electricity company only does electricity, the gas company just does gas, the phone company only does telephones, and so on? Thus, says the politician, our society will be simpler and cheaper, and more efficient.

Yes, reader, that time will come. But in the meantime I must get up from my chair and my thoughts and get back to the lab. My bees are waiting for me. Maybe, maybee…

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