Brian Monteith: Protesters have made meal of it

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Over the weekend there was a protest about the horrible state of the world thanks to capitalism. Forgive me if I choke slightly over my breakfast croissant and coffee.

For you dear reader, the immediate reaction to such protests, be they favourable or more curmudgeonly, might be over your cornflakes (Kellogg’s or own-brand), porridge oats (easy cook or traditional hearty stuff) or bio-yoghurt with fruit (I thought all yoghurts were biological, but that’s marketing for you).

The point is that the choice offered by the free market in breakfasts, automobiles or pension plans is what capitalism is about. Why should people be complaining against it?

The reality that many people are coming to terms with is that the world is in an economic slump and it’s not pretty. It should come as no surprise that at a time when many people are losing their jobs and others can’t find one that those who are doing very well, or even relatively well (holding on to their job) are seen as a source of contempt, envy and anger.

Sometimes people have studied hard or worked even harder and, out of left-field comes an economic decision that they neither saw coming, could not have reliably expected and they are out of a job – or can’t get one.

As a young-at-heart observer old enough to remember the economic slumps of the 70s, the real and painful economic dislocation of the 80s (that was the cost of failing to deal with the 70s), as well as a number of crashes in the late 80s and early 90s that came about, in part, from the successes of at last dealing with the 70s, I have to say I find the whole protest movement quite detached from how the world works – and frankly rather self-indulgent.

The problems we are currently facing have not been caused by big capitalist corporations such as Starbucks or McDonald’s; it is not as if they lack a corporate conscience. In fact if you were to walk into either of these multinational retail outlets – or the others like them – you would find that they are bending over backwards to appeal to their customers’ charitable and ecological emotions by recycling their packaging, buying natural produce locally and helping, say, children participate in sports where our schools have given up.

The support that they give to local farmers is huge but overlooked. Hundreds of thousands of cherry tomatoes in salads? Grown in Scotland. Eggs in McMuffins? Laid in Scotland. I could go on, as it is a long list. If these businesses were to fail we would see poverty on a far grander scale.

The other thing such businesses do is create markets and raise standards. There was a time in the 50s when people met in Milk Bars – and often drank coffee, but these died out. Along came Starbucks and others like them and drinking coffee became fashionable again. Without Starbucks the small local specialists that we often prefer (because they offer that special ingredient of being personal and different) would not have been born.

Remember hamburgers BEFORE McDonald’s? They were called Wimpys and were gross. Now no self-respecting gastro pub is without a well-crafted burger made from steak – without the raising of standards that the burger-wars established the achievement of higher standards could not have happened.

The problem with the capitalism that has failed so many people is not the wrong choices made by big corporations or big capitalists – not even when they are bankers, it is the failure of politicians who have at every opportunity sought to gain electoral advantage by making capitalism work for their benefit.

The failure of the sub-prime property market that kicked off the current crisis was conceived by American politicians forcing banks to lend mortgages to people who were high risk – on the belief that such social justice made for a fairer world.

The fact that such people were more likely to default on their loans and face repossession – thus driving down property values – was well understood by bankers but never considered by politicians. That some bankers obtained bonuses from making the loans or passing on the debt is nothing but human nature but does not make all banks or bankers evil. Or baristas or burger flippers.

Airport to take off

SOME good news for us Edinburgers is that thanks to the success and hence high value of the Turnhouse operation, BAA is going to sell Edinburgh Airport to the highest bidder after being forced to break up its monopoly.

Whether the Spanish-owned company is desperate for the cash or simply wants to show a good return to its shareholders is neither here nor there – what matters is that we are now likely to get more direct long-haul flights such as Emirates or Qatar on our doorstep at lower cost instead of making that interminable journey along the M8 to be cooped-up in crowded passenger facilities.

I suspect one day those aforementioned protesters will be flying out to distant hippy-happy lands from more convenient and less expensive airports such as Edinburgh – but don’t expect them to understand or be grateful for the benefits of free and competitive markets.