The Time Traveller: Against the axe

25 January 2019
Author   Hugh Ellis
I might have been 10 years old when the British Conservative government decided to close my school/community library. It fell to one of Margaret Thatcher’s numerous public sector expenditure-reducing programmes.
It was argued that there was a perfectly good one in the centre of the Borough - or suburb - of London where we lived.
I remember the small community library as a hub of learning, as a gateway, through books, to other worlds. And I only had to walk to the end of my street. I remember the staff as being helpful, getting young me books on everything from How Money Is Made to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia fantasies. By contrast, the main Central Waltham Forest Public Library was old and stuffy, and a long walk away.
I should state at the outset that I’ve never been employed as an economist. For what it’s worth, I did economics as my second major, along with journalism, in my undergraduate degree at Rhodes.
 
Except for a few modules such as economic history, I found much of it boring, out of touch with how everyday flesh-and-blood humans conduct themselves, obsessed with the idea of the ‘rational economic man’ and how numerical analysis can predict his decision-making. I did get flat-out distinctions, though.
Later, I also served as a business reporter at The Namibian newspaper, and didn’t like that much either. By then I was finding my true passions in photojournalism and in reporting the arts.
Anyway, by your typical economist’s calculation, the closure of Henry Maynard Community Library in the UK made sense. It was a time of recession, and something had to be cut. (Not the British army or VIP protection, but I digress!)
As someone who actually lived through it, I’m not so sure. In any case, the library was just one casualty. One thing after another was being cut at the time.
Worst-case result: Many of my classmates from the ‘old neighbourhood’ never got much education and today live on so-called ‘zero-hours’ contacts. In which you may or may not work for pay in any given week, depending on whether the business needs you, but you can’t work for your boss’s competitors either.
Even a cut-back UK school system may seem paradise to your typical learner from the deep south of Namibia or rural Owamboland, but nevertheless the whole episode always comes to mind when I hear public people arguing for either more state involvement in the economy or more reliance on market forces.
My studies of economic history at Rhodes left me admiring not necessarily those countries that had risen to dominate the global economy ‘by any means necessary’ like the US, but those that had also ensured a measure of equity for their citizens: Sweden, Norway, Holland and Canada.
None of these places are perfect, but what they have in common is the idea that market forces by themselves should not dictate who eats and who starves, whose health gets taken care of and who dies of preventable disease, who participates fully in society and who is always at its margins.
Two years of business reporting in Namibia was also enough to show me that many Namibian firms, far from being the dynamic engine of growth that some see them as, are often secretive and risk-averse, and a significant minority of them treat their staff with a pathological level of contempt.
Not that the Namibian government and its bureaucracy helps much, of course. Just ask anyone who has applied for a study permit or a trading name.
Nevertheless, when there are debates that pitch market forces against their democratic regulation, I am firmly in the middle.
We should start with Government becoming more efficient in their existing commitments – tax collection, education, health, social grants. But we also can’t have an apartheid-style economy that excludes 90 percent of Namibians, and somehow expect continual growth out of it.
It is important also that we craft Namibian and African solutions to these issues. We are not China or an ‘Asian tiger economy’. But neither, at least not yet, thank God, are we Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s Britain.
Hugh Ellis is currently reading Thomas Piketty and NK Jemisin, and is still a member of his local library. He is a lecturer in journalism at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. The views expressed here are personal. Follow him on Twitter @ellis_hugh

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