Public sector bloat: only bloated because of greed

The UK now has an incredible six million people in its bloated public sector. Yet despite the predictable bleating of civil servants that for some odd reason, harsh economic times should not apply to them, there’s some small cause for hope.

The UK’s total number of employed people is 29m. That means “only” 21% of the workforce is being supported by taxpayers. (Some civil servants try to protest that “they pay taxes too”; how ridiculous. Their entire salaries and benefits are paid out of other people’s taxes; public sector workers make no contribution to the Exchequer.) 1 in 5.

1 in 5? That’s basically sustainable for a first-world economy, even prudent, if we can get public sector pensions under control.

When New Labour broke the unwritten rules of public sector salaries years back – you get somewhat lower pay in return for greater security – it set the scene for the incredible sense of entitlement felt across Britain’s public sector today. The sense that they’re special people, existing in some separate bubble protected from economics, and should never have to take the slightest bit of pain.

While anyone in the private sector long ago gave up any hope of a decent pension – even a final salary pension’s far from safe; companies and funds can make bad decisions and go bankrupt – mountains of gold await the public sector parasites, often from as young as 50. At no risk (they’re guaranteed by government) and regularly stretching beyond the worker’s lifetime, drawable by spouses.

(I wouldn’t be surprised if a large percentage of British civil servants think their pension rights should be passed on to their children.)

I’d even make a deal to this government: I’ll accept that every four taxpayers has to support one public sector worker, if you immediately switch to defined-contribution rather than defined-benefit (or worse, final salary) pensions. But you’ve got to do it right now, this second. There isn’t a moment to lose. Every day, 500 civil servants are retiring and we can’t bloody afford them.

Taking the reality of politics out of it for a moment – there are so many public sector workers that no politician wants to take them on, poor Darlings – this is something so obvious, something that’s just GOT to happen. There’s no option.

Final-salary pension practices date from a time when retirement was two years’ pottering among your roses before pushing up the daisies. Today, retirement for a public sector worker might span four fucking decades. A civil servant will cost far more in retirement than he ever cost during his entire working life.

Name me one person, anywhere, who could look at the figures and say with a straight face this situation should continue.

New Labour may have fostered a culture of not-my-fault and blame-everyone-but-me over the last decade. It may have turned Britain into a police state that watches every street you walk down and every website you visit. It may have so badly mismanaged the economy over ten years of false growth that there wasn’t a penny for the rainy days, and then spent more billions anyway.

But the UK is not – quite – a socialist economy. If the next government is genuinely prepared to do something about public sector entitlements (in its first year, so it’ll have a chance at the election after that) there may, just, be hope.

The Fountain

I’d never heard of “The Fountain” before I bought the DVD last month, except for its reputation as something less than a crowd-pleaser. It’d sat in my five-changer for six weeks. But last night I watched it, and I’m very glad I did. A terrific film, no popcorn or cotton candy here, but a gourmet meal that makes you feel it was worth the effort.

Fascinated, I’ve been reading reviews of Aronofsky’s film, and it seems there are three explanations on offer. (It’s not an easy film to follow.) Beware: spoilers ahead.

The first explanation is that both 15th century Tomas the Conquistador (trying to find the Tree of Life to sustain his Queen) and 25th century (or whenever) spaceman Tom, taking the Tree to a far-off nebula, are both literary creations of the 21st century Tom and Izzy. Tomas is the protagonist of Izzy’s novel, based on her husband Tom and herself as Queen Isabel. Spaceman Tom is the protagonist of the final chapter, written by 21C Tom after Izzy’s death. The entire narrative takes place in the present day.

A neat explanation… and supported by plenty of evidence. The way a scientist might give a sci-fi ending to a historical romance, for example. And the way the 15C narrative suddenly switches into a Buddhist yoga fantasy when Tomas reaches the top of the Mayan pyramid. (I told you it was hard to follow.) But I don’t like it.

I prefer the second explanation: that Spaceman Tom in the treeship, floating towards the nebula, is an older and balder Tom from the 21st century. His research really did lead to eternal youth (too late to save his wife) and the tattoo on his finger where he lost his ring, pricked out by the pen his wife gave him, has been added to, with a huge number of concentric rings around his arms – which would have taken a long, long time. (He’s still got the pen.) The tree in his spaceship grew over his wife’s grave (he’s seen planting the seed in the 21C) and the nebula is the last thing they saw together out on their rooftop.

That’s why I like the second explanation best: there are too many things about 25C Tom that show he’s the same man as 21C Tom. The tattoos, the old pen, the tree that grew over Izzy’s grave. To think of this as simply the last chapter of Izzy’s novel requires too many leaps: that fictional Spaceman Tom uprooted the Tree of Life, gained a pen, tattooed himself for no reason.

(There’s a third explanation, involving both 15C and 25C narratives being ‘real’, but there’s no evidence for Tomas the Conquistador being anything other than a literary creation of Izzy. I feel what the Tomas narrative adds is context and balance; the promise of eternal life, and – finally – the realisation that all things must end.)

But whichever explanation you prefer, it’s a beautiful film, and – with an explosion of opportunities opening up in my life right now and the future rushing towards me like a freight train – I was in just the right headspace to watch it.