Tag Archives: economics

Re-thinking thoughts on guns

Before I arrived in Texas, guns were bad. Those who kept guns in their home were backward, uninformed and quite possibly insecure. Those who advocated for the legalization of guns politically were dangerous, cunning and manipulative. They were obstacles in the way of law and order, not campaigners in support of it and wherever possible, it was the rest of society’s quasi-moral ‘duty’ to oppose them. We should disdain the lobbyists who blocked the intervention of proper controls and condemn state governors who failed to use their position to denounce their use. It was popular and it felt fashionable. Just as fashionable as denouncing Nigel Farage as a simple sideline looney, or hating on Katie Hopkins for moaning on GMTV. Britain doesn’t have a gun problem. We don’t border countries with a gun problem and airport security means that smuggling firearms is rarely an issue. We trust that our police will be at the end of the line when we call 999 and we believe that they’ll be powerful enough to support us, so why would we have guns, and why would we ever hope to comprehend the arguments of those who believe in them? They’re not relevant to our society, so we can get away with few skirmishes (and quite possibly some accolade) for hating on them and those that uphold them.

It was only once I got to Texas that I began to realize the extent of my naivety and oversimplification of the issue.

Don’t get me wrong- it’s not that a trip to the gun range has meant I systematically support guns. In my mind they still cause more harm than they do good. In a society where the monetary cost of a gun is virtually the only thing controlling who owns one, they’re far too easy to get hold of and far too difficult to monitor. Instead of warding off the culture of fear and self-sufficiency so prevalent in the South, they add to it- often leading ‘normal’ people into crime almost by accident, simply due to the lack of effort it takes to take a shot. Ideologically, I’m still opposed to guns. I wouldn’t dare to buy a gun. I wouldn’t vote in favor of them and I certainly wouldn’t feel any safer keeping one at home. But when you begin to understand things they’re always less clear than you first thought. Guns aren’t a black and white issue. There’s too much tied up in the mix.

I wasn’t expecting shooting at a gun range to be my new favorite activity, nor an opportunity for deep psycho-political analysis. It’s a popular weekend activity here. Most people own their own guns although rarely get an opportunity to use them. The Lone Star Gun Range offers gun hire, the purchase of ammunition and firearm classes to top up your skills. I was there largely for the novelty of holding a gun.

I was a medium sized establishment. There were a choice of four ranges to shoot from; a shotgun range, a children’s range, pistol range and rifle range. In theory the targets were different distances away, although actually they all seemed to be a bit interchangeable. Along a dusty track an ‘office’ held the guns. Bulky men with bit beards and tattoos hovered between cabinets and wall mounts, keys clanging in jean pockets as they waited patiently for the weapon to selected. Its a big moment of course (especially for the newbie), whether to fashion yourself on a Lara Croft type quick snap boom, or more of a forest hunter with the long tunnel at the end and bigger bullets. They came in black, brown, gold, grey, muddy green or Texan flag, and knowing nothing about guns I was even strangely excited to see something that resembled George Bush’s own from his mighty tour to Afghanistan in 2006. Maybe I’ll steer away from that one. Stick to Lara Croft.

I got outside and started setting up the target. It was a wooden frame, a bit like an easel that you stapled a sheet of paper with the outline of a human on. Specific areas were pointed out – the head, the heart, the lungs, the hands and feet. Hoping for balloons or colored blobs, I asked if I could use a children’s target. A guy pointed to a pile of reduced-sized silhouettes. I took a moment to think. I was choosing between shooting a bright pink paper adult or a bright pink paper child. I turned to look at the shooters. They all looked fairly normal; a day off with the family or an afternoon chilling with friends and pop tarts. No doubt they shopped at Walmart and paid their taxes. No signs of criminal records or recent prison escapees. Get on with it Holly, you’re over thinking. I went for the adult pink human. Thank God the bullet predictably spun off into the white paper behind.

Lara Croft I wasn’t, but shooting guns is exhilarating. The charging of the bullet and steps as you take aim, the pounding bang and drifts of smoke that liken you to a true woman of the Wild West all add to the strange notion of power that you come to thrive on. Its easy to forget that an onlooker from the sidelines would find it difficult to understand the fun, spending money to stand in the sweltering heat and dust loading up rounds and mutilating a static paper sheet.

I took a break to get water. A 30 something year old couple and their child were standing nearby. Hearing my non-native accent (very rare in much of rural Texas), we started talking. We went through the motions of them loving the english accent and asking what I thought of the Queen, I asked them how often they went shooting. They proudly informed me they were Lone Star members, meaning for $100 a year each they have free access to any Lone Star gun range. I tried to look like I found that impressive and  asked if they usually bring their son. The dad confirmed that 8 year old Cody had apparently been shooting since he could walk, and was well versed in the safety implications. His aim was so good, he had even won competitions in the under 10s category.

I felt myself slipping into that all too common terrain of totally disbelieving what I was hearing, but also desperately trying to comprehend it. These were friendly people. They weren’t trying to kill anyone or out to start a gun war. They weren’t training up their child in any suspicious Texan militias, nor did they have tattoos giving away allegiance to a notorious gang of outlaws. I was highly aware that to them, the idea of me opposing the use of a gun on your own personal property probably seemed just as strange as I found their enthusiasm for it. If my time in Texas has taught me anything, it’s to not make it obvious that you think a person’s crazy too soon. If you don’t hear them out, they’ll probably always seem crazy. If you go along with it for a bit sounding vaguely empathetic in your questioning, you’ve at least got a chance. These are the moments you’ve got to walk the line without giving yourself away.

As far as I understand, they explained guns in terms of two necessary functions in society. First and foremost is the social aspect; the ownership of guns forms a central part of their culture, and family gatherings are rarely complete without a hunt. Unlike in Europe, few rural Texans don’t own vast swathes of land, and with the ownership of land comes the ‘ownership’ of any creatures that inhabit it. Instead of driving to the Walmart or HEB 30 minutes down the highway, they can hunt deer, rabbits or boars to supply the barbecue, equally central to any get together. With so much land, so many animals, so few people and such a deeply ingrained sense of property rights, even for the most ardent opponent it’s not difficult to recognize that the social, geographical and economic structures that make up Texan society orientate it towards a culture of hunting.

But more important than that is the idea of protection. If us Brits had any vain hope that our Guardian columnists and Green Party campaigners could single-handedly take on the gun-crime culture of the American South, we can stop now. It’s not going to happen.

Texas is a rural place. Almost two-thirds of its landmass have less than ten residents per square mile, far from Sheriff’s offices, Town Halls, or neighbours. Even if they did live within reach of a Sheriff’s office, (effectively a police station), it may be so small an ill-funded that it would of little additional benefit in case of a home burglary. Either the homeowner uses a gun to ward off the intruder then and there, or they wait up to half an hour for the police to arrive and do the same. Furthermore, as isolated and obtuse as we may portray the state in Europe, Texans are highly aware of the issue of police brutality in their own nation. Perhaps it comes under a respect for human rights. More probably it’s a manifestation of the general skepticism of authority and idea of self-sufficiency, but images of the incompetence of the police are widespread, and who can trust someone that does’t have a vested interest in protecting you and your family? They’re just doing their job. If the criminal runs off into the plains, its another sheriff’s county office that’ll deal with them. For you, your livestock, homestead or children have been under threat and who knows if they’ll return. Under Texan law (as well as many other US states), if you kill someone in the act of defending your own property, i.e. an intruder, it is considered an act of self defense. The intruder, if not dead, is accountable to the full force of the law. If a group comes in together and one is killed, the fellow intruders can be found guilty of the murder of their friend and sentenced to life imprisonment, or in some cases execution; if they hadn’t collectively trespassed on the property, their friend wouldn’t have died. The factors of geography and the law therefore inherently favor the gun owner and encourage them to take security into their own hands.

But it doesn’t stop there. Gun ownership is as much a political as well as practical issue. An estimated 1 in 26 people in Texas are illegal immigrants, and fear of the Mexican border is very real. If people can get in undocumented, guns can too, and banning them among law-abiding Christian Americans would only leave the Texan population at the mercy of genuine criminals and criminal gangs of Central America. If guns therefore can’t be eliminated from Texas, at least they can be distributed to those who will use them for their own defense, as well as those who will use them for aggression.

And then it comes to the children. A central part of any parent’s responsibility is in ensuring your child feels safe and capable on their own. And I could totally empathize with this – the most valuable thing you can give your offspring is surely the confidence to feel they don’t have to be reliant on others. To make their own choices, believe in themselves and act on their own accord. And this holds very true in Texan culture. The parents I met at Lockhart weren’t proud of their son because he shot the pink human’s heart out of the paper it lay on; they were proud because they had succeeded as parents. They had prepared him for the world as a capable individual who didn’t have to be scared of Mexicans, or criminals, or put up with the police. He could hold his own family gatherings and source meat from his own land. He was aware of the dangers involved and how to be safe, and really, to them it would only be irresponsible not to introduce him to the culture of weaponry so essential to his heritage and surroundings.

The congressional debates surrounding gun legality are always complex and often contrived. They encompass and touch upon so much – party politics, money, political and economic goals and the interests of influential and regularly out of touch individuals. They’re messy debates that one wishes were unnecessary and we are well within our legitimacy to dismiss them as absurd. On a person to person level, however, the prevalence of guns is more difficult to refute. The arguments are too deep, thought-out and frankly relevant to downplay the way we’re used to – unsuccessfully. As I say, I’m certainly no gun supporter, but my first and last experience as a patron of the Lone Star range has undoubtedly left a mark. If our trans-atlantic struggle against guns laws are to get anywhere, we don’t have a hope or a right to focus our condemnation on the small town Americans that buy into the industry. For them, owning a gun is being responsible. It’s being patriotic, a provider and an individual. It’s looking after your family and securing your own interests- just as we seek to do in Britain and anywhere else in the world. The task is much greater than simply typecasting, condemning and blaming. It’s not just an industry to bring down; its the political, social and economic infrastructure of the state itself, and that’s no easy battle to fight and not one that should be jumped upon naively.

Advertisements

US Commercials and the Chipping of Body Confidence

I’ve been in America just less than two weeks, and already I’ve become aware of changes in myself. Some of them are good (definitely looking less pasty and discovered a deep love for tacos), but some of them edging on scary.

Being 20, I feel quite relieved in having roughly surpassed the phase of body confidence issues. I’ve stopped wanting longer legs or skinnier arms. I probably won’t ever be able to buy jeans from Zara, and that thigh-gap craze is certainly not one I can aspire to. But I’ve been size 10-12 since I stopped growing and I go in and out in around about the right places. Most importantly, I’m lucky to have been surrounded by friends who place little emphasis on image. I’m no Kim K, but there can only be one of her.

So perhaps to my surprise, yesterday I found myself in CVS studying the backs of tooth whitening kits. I had just left the gym and been staring from the treadmill up at the wide-smiled narrators on commercials that pop up every other second here. Their skin and eyes were brighter than mine. Their eyelashes longer and cheeks less chubby. Their lips a better shape and eyebrows more defined. All a thousand times better looking than me (and any other person I’ve ever seen in real life) –  presumably due to the mercy of their home teeth whitening kits.

Doing my research in one of the many pharmaceutical isles I was torn between whether I wanted a ‘multi-dimensional smile’ from Crest White Lux Supreme, or if  NiteWhite Complete‘s ‘active ingredients’ to ‘safely and effectively bleach your teeth’ were more my thing. Opalescence even offered a choice of between 10% ‘mild peroxide’ to 35% ‘maximum strength for non-sensitive teeth’, reassuring me that even ‘brown or dead’ teeth had some hope. I don’t think mine are brown. I checked them out in the mirrors on the makeup isle and they’re more a sort of light grey. But I did want it to do something. Maybe 15%?

It was $47.99 for an 8 pack in the melon flavor. I got out my currency converter app as I waited in line- just over £32, or about 3 trips to the dentist even with the dental insurance that I didn’t buy.

And then it struck me… I didn’t invest in dental health cover here, yet I’m about to pay to peroxide my own teeth….. Really??!

With North America now accounting for over 44% of the world’s pharmaceuticals revenue, much has been published to analyze, and often criticize the nature of the industry in the United States. A recent report commissioned by the World Health Organization highlighted the increasing ‘conflict of interests’ between the ‘legitimate business goals of manufacturers and the social, medical and economic needs of providers and the public to select and use drugs in the most rational way”. In short – too often Americans are being sold things that they don’t need.

Standing back, it’s not difficult to see that this is an industry the companies have pretty well worked out. As Republican platforms continue to challenge the mild but important progress of Obamacare, the huge costs associated with private insurance sets the industry on a precedent. Compared to European consumers the Americans I’ve met here are far less money-conscious when it comes to pharmaceuticals; with few other options, they’re used to personally devoting large sums to healthcare and thus inadvertently buying into it’s commercialization. And perhaps more dangerously, those without insurance are left especially susceptible as they attempt to meet their own healthcare needs at corner shop pharmacies with little guidance. Trawling through supposedly impartial advice forums on the internet can easily turn into staring at yet more advertisements. With far more relaxed laws on the advertising and distribution of medical drugs than within the European Union the law is on their side; the radio, the television, in shops and magazines, each pristine figure you see beaming through the camera that looks that much more goddess-like than the average human, persuading you – persuading ME – that I’m in need of the new ‘quick fix’. And once you’re paying for the teeth whitening and headache pills and extra protein and weight loss tablets and waist constrictors then it’s not much further down the line to botox for aiding collagen deficiency, breast implants for defeating low confidence or ritalin for the too-common menace of ADHD.

It’s easy for us British (protected by the veil of what is and isn’t covered by NHS)  to critique the american appetite for self-perfection. Yet as someone who considered myself relatively comfortable within myself, being here, surrounded by the commercial possibilities of betterment I’ve both never felt more  inadequate or sensed the need to reach further lengths for a desired outer appearance.

drugs

Austin’s Late Night bus riders: Welcome to Texas

A voice came from down the isle. ‘Don’t worry bout her lady, she trippin. She been trippin long time.’ I looked back up at the driver. Her eyes were slow and dim. Her skin was blotchy, lined and her pores stood out of her nose like pinpoints. She was making a kind of humming noise and her eyes couldn’t help darting across the highway, looking me up and down, then darting back.

I had been waiting at the bus stop outside Austin airport for about 20 mins. It was hot, dark and sticky. The insects were screaming in the long grasses either side of the highway and by then, I had been travelling for an entire 24 hours. And now the driver – this small, scatty latino woman with few teeth was in another world. It became immediately evident that a taxi to the motel would have been a far better option.

‘I’m just going past the prison. And I take a right after Walgreens and onto the Interstate. I donno after that. I follow the signs. It’s a long route. So you’re from London England? I love your accent. I been to New York 20 years back but my husband died and I haven’t left Texas since. I been driven this bus for 14 years now. I got some folks in Dallas…. ‘

My back hurt from carrying the luggage and no further progress was being made as to the route of the bus.

The man down the isle called out again. ‘Come on down, leave her.’ I looked in his direction. The dimly- lit bus was empty apart from 3 people sitting in a huddle. An overweight woman carrying a trolley of crumpled plastic bags, a broad old man in cleaning overalls and a skinny woman with a vacant expression wearing what seemed to be pyjamas.  The man held his hand out straight to shake. ‘I’m Walter and I know every bus route in the city.’ He spoke as if it were a title. An accolade to proudly show off. ‘I’ll help you miss, where you tryna go?’

I felt obliged to step on board. I put down my bags and showed him the address. Walter rode the bus each day, twice a day he said, from his home in Clear Creek to Travis County Correctional Facility in the south.  He worked as a janitor there. I didn’t realize at the time, but by car the route takes 20 minutes along two straight highways. On the bus, it’s upwards of an hour, with 30 minutes between each bus.

The bus started again and no one seemed to mind that I hadn’t paid. Following Walter’s directions were like remembering AA route planner directions from London to Edinburgh using only B roads. We went left then right then past this house and past that house and round a few roundabouts and up another highway then looped back and went the other direction on the second time and took the turning to go past this place but Walter was getting off to check on his nephew so Betty (the large woman with the trolley) would take over from here. Betty nodded as if it were a routine shift-change.

And the bus trundled on past grasses and weeds, cruising through the clear highway at the pace of little more than a jog. Apart from Walter, no one got on and no one got off. There was no urgency. The night was empty.

Betty was disabled, she told me. She had a tube that ran from her nose to a bag of fluid she kept under the crumpled bags in her trolley. I didn’t ask what it was for, but it made it difficult to understand what she was saying. Her boyfriend was disabled too, apparently. He lived near Timber Creek and they spent most days together. But he was in a wheelchair and couldn’t get out of the house much so she came on the bus to visit him in the morning and went back each night. They met at the hospital a year ago and ‘the rest is history.’ She burst into raucous laughter after she said this, her eyes glistening and stomach plunging up and down as she slapped her thighs triumphantly. I smiled.

We kept going. More grasses, weeds, street lights and empty diners. I became increasingly worried I had no idea where we were going and had been traveling for almost an hour. Betty was still chatting and the other skinny lady silently listening. They seemed to have forgotten that I would ever need to get off. My internet wasn’t working so I asked if they had a phone I could use. Betty’s was a brick. Too old for 3G and the other lady, as Betty told me, didn’t own one. The lady shook her head to confirm. Perhaps I shouldn’t have complained about my lack of connection.

Betty talked and talked. About her boyfriend, her family, her health insurance coverage and her shopping. And then about the skinny woman sitting beside her who again nodded and shook her head at the appropriate moments. She talked about Texas, and how things had changed. She talked about the Mexicans and the whites and for the first time I heard the word ‘negro’ used as a description of the self. And it was used with pride – her, Walter and the skinny woman were just as much ‘negros’ as they were bus riders, Texans and Americans. It was another title referred to with a sense of communality and understanding. I became aware that I was none of those things, and perhaps in other circumstances that would have mattered, but to them it didn’t.

The bus driver shouted something about the Interstate and opened the doors, motioning for me to leave. I had few other options. None of us seemed to know where we were going or when the bus route ended so I stepped out onto the highway with my bags. Betty shuffled over to kiss me as I left and the skinny lady looked up in recognition.

The heat struck me again. I stood amongst my bags looking out over the flat, never-ending land. So this was it. Fast food chains and gas stations lined the highway. Cars occasionally flew past, but the air was still expect for the crickets rustling the grasses. I felt a thousand miles from anywhere or anything I knew. No recognizable faces or sounds or street names. No one I could phone. No google maps I could check up on. My eyes burnt from lack of sleep. I fell down on the weeds. I couldn’t already be home sick. I had barely started.

In the distance I caught the outline of a stark red and yellow logo. I squinted through watering eyes. The Super 8 motel – so maybe the driver did know where she was going. I trudged on.

In a way, it was the worst introduction to a city. A bus driver that looked like she belonged in rehab, a bus that drifted endlessly through the night and still a fifteen minute struggle alongside the highway to the motel, leaving me covered in dust and far past exhaustion. But in reality, after all of this I couldn’t have hoped for more. People in Texas don’t use public transport, and I can understand why. But the characters of the 350 bus – individuals distinct from the mainstream though they were, for me represented so much of what I came to realize Texan culture stands for. Sure, there are guns. There are rednecks and cowboy hats. But there’s also a fierce communalism. An isolated distrust of outsiders and authority that spawns localized patriotism and self-reliance.  There’s racial tension. Economic inequality and exclusivity. And there’s a genuine kindness, openness and concern for those they encounter. Arriving at the slimy, dim motel room after the epic journey – as sticky, dirty and tired as I was, I couldn’t help but already love the place.

Fast Food and Britain’s Glass Floor

A few days ago I came across an article by Yehong Zhu that had been sent into The Thought Catalogue as a response to the question ‘What’s it like being at an elite school like Yale and working at a fast food job?’ The author used the prompt to describe her experience of working at Waffle House through the summer months before commencing her studies at Harvard University the following autumn.

Recounting her shifts and the menial jobs involved, the jargon and memorising of orders ‘akin to that of an AP biology midterm’ and the exhaustion of standing for hours on end, her account reminded me of my first few months working at Pret a Manger, a British sandwich and salad take-away food chain.

In many ways our circumstances were fairly similar; like Yehong I had left school with the idea that I was some of ‘academic breed’ of person. I had no idea what I wanted to do in later life, but had trawled through sixth form to manage good grades and secured a place at a respected university (albeit significantly less high profile that Harvard -mine being University College London). Nevertheless, I presume it had a comparable outlook among staff and students; many of my future university friends were occupied saving turtles in Madagascar and discovering the underground bars of Berlin. Or standing in on court cases and shifting papers in Goldman Sachs; that well established territory of the future-leader-of-the-world-/-eighteen-year-old-work-experience typecast. But coming to terms with the unavoidable financial burden of studying in London, I had got to July with few plans for the summer, little to no experience of work and desperately in need of a job.

I found a recruitment centre in Victoria Station. I filled in a questionnaire, answered a few questions in person and I was invited to an experience day the following week. I swept the floor, put some toasties in the machine, made a yoghurt pot as per the ‘How To Card’ and was in.

When I started, I signed a 20 hour a week contract being paid £6.95 an hour to work at the till. In less than 3 months I was working close to full time with significantly greater responsibilities and a significantly higher wage. I couldn’t have imagined that after working so hard at school to get there, university would suddenly take such a serious back seat- and that I would have wanted it to. But perhaps ironically, Pret made undergraduate classes seem empty. I came to think of ‘the day job’ as a different sort of education – one in which I was meeting people outside my usual sphere with views and experiences of the world that differed from my own – and almost every other university student I sat in classes with. Apart from the money, there was something exhilerating about the pace of life I found myself leading. I was no longer as simply a student; I had become a ‘Pret Person’ and to me, that was no bad thing.

Of course there were things I found difficult. I wasn’t used to standing on my feet for 8 hours. I wasn’t used to being managed by someone who was struggling with english and being part of a team whose preferred mode of communication was spanish or italian. I wasn’t used to working at such a high intensity; the idea of making a salad in less than a minute including time to get ingredients from the fridge, clear up after and not forget the cherry tomatoes baffled me. How was I so useless?

I was highly aware when I took on the job that hiring me was a risk. I was the only english person of 49 employees in the shop. I found it strange at first, but soon realised why there were so few of us- the english either become managers within 2-3 years or leave within the first month. Neither is necessarily good for the morale of the rest of the team, and being a bit out of my depths when it came to spanish slang and not so up to date with the latest Russian rap hits (although I did learn, of course…) it was a difficult line to walk. So to an extent, I can emphathise with Yehong’s feeling of ‘other-worldliness’. Nothing was what I expected. But at the same time, that in itself was just as much a challenge as perparing for the end of term coursework – only, to me, a far more interesting one to persue.

And that’s where I found Yehong’s account unusually sad.

I don’t want to necessarily critique her experience in any way; we were working in different companies for different lengths of time and in different continents. (Naturally, being part of the EU drastically alters the labour pool for entry level jobs in the UK and therefore the kind of co-workers you expect to find.) But personally, my own time in Pret only served to highlight a sickening realisation; that it’s rarely intellect that separates entry level/ minimum wage workers from those who can afford to aim high. It’s opportunity. For the majority of workers, the £56 they earn for 8 hours of watching the clock constitutes just as much of an ‘existence’ for them as it does for anyone else – not much, but it’s a temporary means to an end.

Of course you can expect to find people who (on the surface) seem to have few ambitions in life. Those who are happy working on the tills from 7am to 3pm five days a week, greeting customers, passing over coffees, retorting the infamous ‘eat in or take away?’ They know what to expect today, tomorrow and the day after that, and if they haven’t yet made it to team trainer, probably this time next year, too. It might be a bit boring, but if you’ve been packaging clothes into bags at a factory in Lithuania for the previous ten years and now find yourself learning english with a growing pension and paid holidays, for you at least, life certainly is stepping up a gear.

But in honestly these were a very small proportion of those I met. Most of them had stories well beyond my own. (See below.) They were ‘fast food workers’ with as much a planned path in life as the rest of us. Some know exactly where they want to go. Others are hopeful of opportunities. The reason they’re there behind the tills is not because of their character, lack of ambition or bad grades. More often than not, it’s because they’re starting without the base that we’ve been given. They have no backstop in life. No support network. Yes, they have degrees, yes they’ve had ‘good’ jobs in the past. But if your degree was in Czech law and the jobs you can find in Prague barely cover your rent, with a strand of courage you’re going to go look for something else, even if it is starting right from the bottom.

Alongside familiarising myself with which detergents are used for ovens, worktops and fridges and the proper security procedure if we ever come across a bomb under a table, what I really took away from my time in Pret was the extent of the glass floor problem we suffer from in Britain. Much is said about the need for social mobility. The need for fluidity within our social strata, so that familial background no longer inhibits personal merit and acumen in determining our position within the social system. In our capitalist, ‘protestant ethic’, western world the idea of social mobility is inescapably tied up with the undying aspiration for our children to exceed our own successes. Many of the parent’s of my colleagues at UCL undoubtedly saw their children’s education as an investment, paying for their clubs, holidays and school fees. They had prized the importance of ‘soft skills’ such as confidence and presentability – maybe even filtering their offspring through weekend drama schools and singing lessons. And now, on the eve of university they were once again financially supporting them during unpaid internships or work experience. For those without the means to subside for 3 months without student finance, such a luxury is naturally not an option.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The last decade has seen much development on the front of the glass ceiling in society. Additional rights and company quotas for women, the disabled and elderly workers have enhanced the possibilities of the aspirational (generally at the top of society) –  and rightly so.

But just as pressing an issue, and invariably a more sticky one to tackle is the plight of those in the lowest segments of society who find an equal struggle in reaching up. As the expectation and competition for graduate jobs becomes more fierce, parents will feel an even greater pressure to invest in and support the next generation; the invaluable trust fund or the distant relative who works in a big office (and let’s just hope won’t mind having a free assistant for a week) become not just an asset, but a criterion for economic success. This is the glass floor in it’s creation. We all have the merit – this is a race for the everything else. And dangerously, it’s in these everything else societies that economic inequality is the greatest – a comparison of social mobility in US and Canada will tell us that.

So its those without the parents, without the funds or without the contacts that are stuck underneath the glass floor. In the case of Britain, a significant proportion of those stuck are immigrants- in some (but not all) cases suffering from the added disadvantage of poor langauge skills. But immigrants certainly don’t represent all cases; those who have been in social care, those from poorer backgrounds, rural backgrounds etc etc… They’ve got the personal equalities, education and common sense.  But because that’s all they’ve got others are able to slip in ahead of them on the rungs of the social ladder. (And let’s face it – how often do we slide into those algebraic equations we learnt in sixth form in our average ‘graduate’ job?)

As I say, there are few easy fixes. It seems to me there are two strands to take – the broadly leftist or the broadly conservative. The ‘cutting in’ on the social ladder could be targeted – Ed Miliband momentarily took a stand against unpaid internships in the 2015 Labour Manifesto. This would inhibit them from becoming the reserve of the elite. On the other hand, the ability to cut in could made more widely available – particularly to those below much of societies’ glass floor. To varying degrees of success, the academy idea has paved the way in bringing students from poorer backgrounds closer to employers and corporations. (Still largely restricted to urban areas though.) At the same time, the present government’s emphasis on apprenticeships has highlighted the benefits of employees ‘working up the ranks’ rather than recruiting one level of worker for the entry level jobs and relying on a graduate scheme to fill the roles at the top. Realistically, no one can stop people from taking opportunities to enhance themselves. The only approach is to ensure that those opportunities reach the widest corners of our society.

We may still be a long way from resolving the problems and perceptions of inequality within Britain today. But let’s at least attempt to come to terms with it; my time in Pret gave me a small, valuable insight into one particular corner of the lives of those below many people’s glass floor. They’re not necessarily ‘poor’ – they work incredibly hard and get paid relatively well for it. But in many respects it’s a socially isolating life to lead. They work with foreigners, live with foreigners, go out with foreigners and, of course, when it comes to that all-important telephone interview for the next job? No, they didn’t understand what the person was saying on the phone. Talking too quickly. Maybe using some special terms. So they’re sticking around here for a bit….

Pret was tough, inspiring, and the best form of ‘education’ I could have hoped for at the time. I soon realised that the person pushing our cereal boxes through the checkout in Lidl, or the bored security guard at the Oxford Street Primark- they too are the protagonists of their own love stories, and probably wildly better than our own. They may have read more Dickens novels than our entire sixth form English class; they may have more certificates than us and they probably do speak more languages.  They have plans for their route to the nobel peace prize, or UK Top 40 christmas no 1. And dreams for their children and hopes for retirement. And being cynical about it, its only the rest of society jumping ahead of them that’s dragging them down.

In words of the College Dropout himself…..

PS- a few of those I worked alongside:

An Italian ex-circus clown who had toured across europe for 15 years and knew virtually every turkish restaurant in north london (no mean feat). He had almost finished his law degree when I met him, making a coffee each 30 secs, 7.5 hours a day, 5 days a week to pay for his course.

My manager Aga, left Turkmenistan with a friend when he was 24. Speaking no english, he got a job working in the kitchen in Pret where he met and married another employee, a Brazilian woman. He had an engineering degree from Ashgabat University as well as degrees in Computer Science and Finance and Accounting from Birkbeck and City Universities in London. When I met him he spoke Russian, Turkmen, Turkish, Arabic, Portuguese and understandable English. He used to joke about not having any qualifications in cleaning tables, having spent some much time ‘developing the skill.’

And a 22 year old Hungarian who had become redundant after the cinema he worked at in Budapest shut down. Having learnt english from Game of Thrones, he came to London knowing no one. He arrived at work at 8.30pm each evening, made sandwiches until 4.30am and after 3 buses got home at around 6am. He knew every word to every Jay-Z song, timed to perfection. (Yes, I was jealous.) This summer he went to Ibiza for the first time. He wants to be a DJ.

Why are we still going for gold?

First you get to the perfumes, cosmetics and toiletries. Then the chocolates. Then the shisha pipes and fancy lighters. After that it gets a bit more boring – no hand cream testers here. Just magazines, snacks and refrigerated drinks. Maybe some vacuum packed dried fruit, cheap flip flops and falafel wraps. And of course the dealers in bars of gold.

This was the scene as I walked through Oman International Airport last summer, and one that wouldn’t be much different from the many airport departure lounges scattered across the Middle East. Gold could be bought in the country of origin at internationally stated prices, transported elsewhere and sold in the local currency- thus circumventing any potential cronyism from an unknown currency exchange officer in another country, and preventing the chances of stacks of cash disappearing abroad. In an uncertain world, this seems pretty common sense. It wasn’t long ago that our own Bank of England was pegging the pound sterling to the price of gold. Still having the gold rich Americas to exploit and an unlimited supply of forced labour, until our conscience got the better of us and gold supply became more precarious the system worked alright.

But even now, the use of gold as an international medium of exchange has in no way disappeared. One of the big selling points of the airport gold dealers is that they’re duty-free. This doesn’t make much difference if the gold is staying in the country; sales tax is usually low to non-existent in most Middle Eastern countries (being sceptical, let’s remind ourselves or the reason most international businesses are there in the first place…) But undoubtedly, not all the gold is staying within its national borders. Whilst transfers of financial assets abroad would usually be taxed and recorded, gold can more easily be hidden. In effect, it’s the black market currency of the high flyers and the dubious.

Because gold is priced in dollars on international markets the price of gold is still intimately, inversely related to the dollar. This translated to a 200% increase in the price of gold between January 2008 and August 2013 over the course of the economic downturn. With the international economy seemingly on the mend, prices have since fallen 20%. So put simply, the better the US economy is doing the greater the demand for US dollars; the worse its doing, the greater the demand for gold. When interests rates remain low, at least the hope of selling on gold at inflated future prices keeps speculators on their feet.

But how long can the inverse boom and bust of gold keep going on for? As increasing emphasis is placed on ethical investing, surely the gold market will be scorned on as an archaic backwater- after all, it has few selling points; it’s an inert metal that in itself cannot accumulate in value, and one’s personal ownership of it has no collateral benefits. Buying gold doesn’t educate people, it doesn’t improve their infrastructure or healthcare, and it certainly doesn’t promote peace.

To an onlooker, the whole idea seems a bit crazy. We go to a country plagued by the ironic misfortune of being materially rich. We the already elite to exploit the labour of the already poor (invariably one of Michael Collins’ The Bottom Billion), circumvent local taxes – some of which, possibly, may have gone into the public purse, then dig another whole and pay someone else to guard it. And when the economy’s looking good we give it all up as quickly as possible (and, in america’s case, pretend we earnt it in real estate).

As the world attempts to respond to the pressures of increasing population, climate change and economic inequality we can only hope that the bubble of gold-mania will burst, and burst for good. We can’t continue to mine, process and distribute gold as is being done at the moment whilst neglecting the evermore pertinent issues we are facing. The storage of financial assets in times of uncertainty is of course understandable and sensible, but it’s high time that more equitable and environmentally friendly depositories are investigated. The expansion of government bonds are a clear suggestion. According to old- fashioned Keynesian teaching if more money is made available to a government to borrow it will become cheaper for them to do so. An increase in government spending will therefore soften the blow of economic downturn and hopefully get the economy back on the straight and narrow without such huge debts as may be accrued when borrowing from an international lender. With both genuine public investment of this kind being directed into emerging Asian and Latin American economies and the EU’s fiscal deal with Greece harbouring at least temporary financial security within Europe, let’s hope a trend is kicking off.

But this will require a sense of trust, and it probably be unwise to be too hopeful. As economic analyst Adam Forrest recently commented, ‘Gold is a mirror. It reflects our deepest fears that the people running the world don’t really know what they’re doing.’ When we loose confidence- in our governments, neighbours or investments, we turn to gold.  And as long as we turn to gold, we turn away from truly lateral development.

The Pledge

I worry about being a persistent admirer. At least, being solely a persistent admirer. It’s quite a scary thought. One of those who makes deliberate visits to the magazine shelves in the Victoria Station WHSmith to gape at Beyoncé’s ability to be vegan. Or the toned physique of the latest celebrity unveiled in their holiday snaps from a secluded Caribbean Island; sea behind them twinkling in the sunlight and hair coiffured to perfection. Maybe even a yacht or collection of palm trees in the background. Of course, this admiration comes with no intention of adopting the required diet or exercise plans. Nor going on holiday (or buying the magazine). These are the lives of the rich and famous, and we’re waiting for the train.

And its easy to brush off those who spend hours on youtube researching tracks and ‘unknown’ mixes. They play favoured consistently for 4-5 days until unable to bear it again- long after those around them have felt the same, before making the swift U-turn from 90s deep house to Chopin as the playlist of choice.

I am also that person who delves into the posts of arty instagramers (currently on @pauloctavious @thiswildidea ) and for an afternoon inspiration is found in every street lamp, shop window or park landscape. I am the unstoppable amateur artiste. The lighting, graininess and timing…. The pure depth and meaning of the shots convey so much…. to me. I then realise that I, my second hand acer (they do make phones) and admittedly poor photo editor fail to give the desired ambience. Perhaps I should stick to more generic shots.

I suppose I’ll probably always be all of the above, and that’s ok – but I’m not just all of the above. I’m also someone who wants to care. I don’t want to simply admire others caring. I don’t want to only receive. A few months ago I lost someone that I feel like I never really knew. Although I didn’t expect it to have a big effect on me, it really did. Before shock or sadness, pain or disbelief it was guilt that really struck me. Not because the death was especially my fault or I could have changed the situation, but because there was a person – a resource of thoughts, experiences, emotions and insights that I had neglected and a mind that could no longer be picked, let alone understood.

I became increasingly aware of the power of individuals, both in a personal and wider sense. The power of family bonds that I had previously not realised, and the power of greater, ‘global’ individuals that have such an impression on the lives of others- many of whom they may never come into contact with. How might the world be different if it were bereft of their particular passions and observations? What if Malcom X or Rosa Parks had played a more passive role in the fight for civil rights, sitting by and watching the progress take motion from afar? Or if Aung San Suu Kyi just wasn’t so bothered about the political potential of democracy?

Or, more to the point, the largely anonymous comedians and journalists operating from the bars and street corners of Harare who risk so much to bring to light the malpractice of the Mugabe government. If not change, at least their work brings about a collective political awareness amongst their neighbours, colleagues and friends. And those documenting the daily struggles of the people of Soweto, Johannesburg. The violence, unemployment and invisibility they endure as their elected government look on – but also the rich communal atmosphere and relatively developed informal economies that prosper from its corrugated steel huts. In a sense, the cultural wealth of its people.

These are people who really see the world. They don’t just admire it, but synthesise it, debate it within themselves and act on it. To me, this is the true power of humanity – the ability to conceptualise the world and pass on that conception.

So this is my attempt to make up for the guilt. This is a pledge to myself to both receive and ‘admire’ the world (even if it is through Heat magazine) but also to analyse and act on it. Who knows how long we’ll be here, and who knows what is contained in the minds of those around us.