The cost of efficiency 1 – Our food turns to crap

Nutrition: That's not ice cream... that's 'pink slime'

Nutrition: That's not ice cream... that's 'pink slime'

Efficiency savings. Every time a new government gets in they claim they will make efficiency savings. One of my first jobs was as a computer operator. In those days computer time was so expensive that work would be “batched up” and done in a big chunk. One guy said to me that we are the slowest things in the computer room and he meant that if a batch job stopped and needed another tape loaded then we needed to change it immediately.

I was young and I got into this efficiency stuff. I worked to maximise the time that the computer was doing work. Since then I have noticed efficiency is a driving force behind capitalism. The way it’s sold is that efficiency will mean we get quicker service, that our products and services will be cheaper and so overall our lives wil be better.

I have started to question this.

It seems to me that efficiency these days is a way to squeeze more profits from a process or organisation. Computers have been introduced everywhere and most organisations now provide a web interface for front ending their services. The idea is that we as “consumers” will be given a better service but often this is not the case.

Take the sale of car insurance for example. In the old days you would meet with some salesman in an office and he would ask you a few questions and get you to fill out a form and hand him a cheque. That would be it. The salesman would have done much of the work. In my case he would have realised that I was over 21 and so not asked me this idiotic question. He would have noticed my gender. He would see that I did not have a wooden leg. etc etc.

A corporate fashion of recent years has been outsourcing and this is usually taken to mean a company getting it’s non-core work done by a third party company. However, in the case of many interactions with consumers, companies are outsourcing work to you. In the case of car insurance we are forced to wade through endless pages of forms and tick boxes on the web. Am I over 18? Am I male? Have I  ever been involved in an accident? Did I claim? How much did I claim? Along with this outsourcing, computerisation has meant that is easy for the corporations to throw in extra questions. The risk department will be telling the software designers to ask more and more questions and as the  time wasted  is not their own they just throw them in.

What race am I? What is my previous address? What is my national insurance number? We are forced to answer hundreds of impertinent questions and then, when we’re done, we are forced to read their bloody agreement. Pages and pages of clauses and caveats that get the company out of paying claims.

We are doing their work for them.

The end result is that all this efficiencies has worked in favour of the organisation but not in the favour of the consumer. Service may be cheaper but they are also crapper.

More and more our society has been reduced to two actors: The global corporation and the individual and this relationship is decidedly unequal. When did you last play any part in creating the contract which you signed for a service? You probably never have. The corporation creates the contract and presents it to you. You either sign it or they refuse to do business with you.

Efficiency means squeezing more people onto aeroplanes so that many of the seats don’t tilt back. Efficiency means cramming more and more homes into smaller and smaller areas of land so that interior walls are now made of chipboard. Efficiency means there is never any slack in the system. Efficiency means that when you call the  bank they read from a menu and are incapable of dealing with non-standard requests. Efficiency means that when you go to buy petrol, the few seconds that you have to chat with the guy behind the counter is taken up by him asking if you would  like two fucking chocolate bars for the price of one and you drearily replying no. Efficiency means we drink out of paper cups and the food in Indian restaurants consists of microwaves meat covered in bulk order sauce.

The picture at the top of this article is of a product known as Pink Slime. It’s seems that, in an effort to squeeze even more value out of the consumer , American food “manufacturers” have taken to collecting the offal that is normally thrown to animals after a cow has been slaughtered, mixing it up with a lot of chemicals (including Ammonia), sticking it in a spin dryer and then putting it into hamburgers and feeding it to Americans.

Bollocks to efficiency!

hove station

hove station

Ich bin ein Osbaldwicker (NIMBYs are good)

Just one more tree

Just one more tree

This morning on the BBC Radio 4 Today program Sanchia Berg reported on a building project that took nine years to “work it’s way through the process” and I thought of Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi:

“You don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone,
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot”

It seems that the government are about to publish a revised National Planning Policy Framework which will replace 44 existing planning statements numbering over 1,200 pages with a 49-page document.

The Today program reported that in 1999 plans were published to build 540 modern houses near the village of Osbaldwick east of York. Local people objected and, with the help of a local MP and the parish council, were able to delay the project until work finally started in 2011.

An interesting story but what struck me was that the whole stance of the BBC piece was that the objections of the local people were merely an inconvenient obstacle which had delayed a legitimate project. This was epitomised by Nigel Ingram, of the Joseph Rountree Foundation, who was reported as saying that “the planning system was primarily to blame” and the foundation thought that the battle cost it £5 million. Even Osbaldwick Parish Councilor, Wendy. Madocks, confessed that she found it “incredible” that the local people had managed to hold off the developers for ten years.

From this BBC report it seemed that the battle had beeb merely a waste of time and money and an encumbrance to the developers who were considered in the right by default.

It may have been fairer to portray this as a failure of democracy under pressure from a large well funded organisation.

One reason that we we assume that local people’s objections are an obstacle is that we brand them as NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard). We consider that these people want all the conveniences of modern living such as housing, electricity and sanitation without taking their share of the irritations which, in this instance, was to have an area of natural beauty demolished to make way for new houses.

I believe that condemning NIMBYs is short sighted and that, on the contrary, we should cheer NIMBYs in their battles to protect their corner of the natural environment.

Yes, it’s true that we need more housing, power stations and whatnot. However it will always be possible to make the argument that a handful of local people must sacrifice their little corner of planet Earth to pay for the necessities of modern life. And if we continually override the objections of NIMBYs then we shall eventually have all areas of natural beauty demolished.

It works like this:

Suppose that the stubborn people of Osbaldwick had won their battle. Suppose that whatever bureaucracy which rules on these things had come down 100% in their favour and the Rountree Foundation had been told, in no uncertain terms, that they could forget the idea of getting approval for the planning application near Osbaldwick. What then?

The pressure for housing would still exist and so the Foundation would have found another site and let us say, for the sake of argument, that the other site they had found was near Middlethorpe. Let us say that the foundation won approval there and the houses were built.

That would not have been the end of it.

The next time that it was necessary to build more houses or a power station or a sewage works then the planners would search around and the excellent site near Middlethorpe would have gone but they would be thinking, “…well, there is always that site up near Osbaldwick”. And this time when the planners came back they would claim the moral high ground. “Consider the honest people of Middlethorpe”, they would argue, “You cannot seriously expect them to put up with more houses when they allowed the development last time. The people of Osbaldwick must take there share of development”.

And even if Osbaldwick fought off this second assault there would be a third and a fourth until the area of natural beauty was eventually demolished.

That is how things work.

England used to be covered in forest but the great and the good always insisted that just a few more trees should be chopped down. Just a few more because the great and good always have enough money to live in the few remaining areas where there are trees.

Yesterday I was looking at my old secondary school from the air on Google Earth and it struck me how, when the school was built in the 1950s or 60s, there had been a great deal of space around the building. Some space for sports but also some just for kids to run around in. The school has changed over the years as the town has expanded and more buildings have sprung up on the green spaces where I used to run around. We all have grown used to living more densely packed.

Last year I went walking in The Peak District. I thought it would be good to get away from the city and walk around in the wilderness. Hah! Walking around in the hills I occasionally stopped to peer around and I observed scores of other bastards also standing on their fucking hind legs like bloody meerkats also looking around and trying to enjoy the wilderness. The English “wilderness” is crawling with tourists and it will not be long before they install sandwich dispensing machines.

England is too crowded and there is pressure for more housing and I guess it must be built but if we continue like this we will all be living in shoe boxes. Already I can see that my parents lived in a smaller home than my grand parents and I live in a smaller home than my parents.

Just a few more houses, just a few more. Just one more terminal at Heathrow Airport. Then, once it is built, just on more runway at Heathrow Airport. The argument for the Heathrow Airport is that England must maintain its position as a global hub but for who’s benefit? If our environment is gradually eroded by development then in who’s benefit is this development?  Just when are we going to stop hankering after more and more stuff and start valuing the stuff we have?

Thus far an no further! Ich bin ein Osbaldwicker and all that.

Star House

Star House