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The Bonfire of the Vanities

"German Manufacturers Break Rules." What a great headline. Has Germany finally moved on in evolutionary terms? Have the laws of Darwin finally made it across the Rhine? Will they be making jokes next, funny ones even? It is a little sad that just when the Germans learn the pleasure of breaking the rules, rule breaking, at least by business, should be going out of fashion.

The trouble is that many of the things which we thought had been achieved over the last twenty years seem to be coming unravelled either because they turn out not to be affordable or because they were just bubbles in the first place. The abolition of boom and bust - Pop! A triumph announced a little too early. Britain's enviable system of final salary pension schemes - Pop! Unaffordable as lives get longer and annuity rates drop. The financial services sector, the driver of the British economy - Pop! Much of the growth generated by mis-selling and dangerous risk taking. Renewable energy - Pop! Now being abandoned as too expensive and collapsing as tax breaks are withdrawn. Now it's the extraordinarily improved performance and environmental efficiency of motor cars - Pop! Greatly exaggerated by a fiddling of the figures - and probably not just in Germany.

It is easy to write the narrative to fit one's own political prejudices. Aha! say those on the left, it's the fault of the wicked capitalist system with corners being cut and figures being massaged in the pursuit of profit. Take that out of the equation and all would be well. Unfortunately for that argument it is not just the bastions of capitalism which are in disarray. What about the national health service - its administrative sclerosis causing it to fall steadily further behind ever increasing demand? What about the police, caught napping on the job in relation to paedophilia and now trying to make up for it by throwing suspicion around like confetti? What about the politicians, hands in the till over expenses, or the journalists, hacking their way into private calls. What about the BBC, that most politically correct of organisations, discovering that what lurked under the surface made political correctness irrelevant?

The apologists for the right don't have it too easy either. Markets have turned out to be manipulated rather than free. The regulators who were charged with overseeing them have veered from dilatory to over enthusiastic. Recent experience with lightly regulated capitalism has not been good and as the authorities struggle to salvage their reputations with public displays of toughness they will stifle much of the economic activity which they should be protecting.

It is all a little depressing but we have been here before. Look at the 17th century Dutch Vanitas paintings, their name drawn from the passage in Ecclesiastes whose Latin translates in the authorised version to "Vanity of vanities; all is vanity," (the word "Vanity" here indicating futility rather than pride) and what do you see? Bubbles bursting, tapers burning out, flowers fading, skulls, an evening sky, all earthly glory fading and you realise that the painter lived in a society which had seen its disappointments too. Perhaps then, watching what we thought were bankable achievements crumble is just a part of the human condition and perhaps society goes through a cycle of alternating hubris and nemesis of which we are currently near the bottom and which we shouldn't take too seriously. That certainly seems to have been the view of Rudyard Kipling who included in his iconic poem "If" the words :

"If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same;"

We need to keep it in proportion too. Much of what has been achieved still stands. The health service is overstretched because of the longevity associated with a healthier population. People eat too much because there is food there to eat. Leisure time is misused because it is widely available. Cars may not be as efficient as we had thought but there are a great deal better than they were twenty years ago. And for those achievements which turn out to be hollow we should turn to what Kipling says later in his description of what becomes a man:

"Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build 'em up with worn out tools"

So let's keep the blamestorming in proportion. Let us eschew those who try to use all failure as a recruiting ground for their own preconceptions. Let us rebuild, drawing on the best tools we can lay our hands on from whichever part of the political spectrum they come. Above all we need to recognise that our efforts will fail, that our towers, however well we think we have constructed them, will fall down- like the banks, the motor industry, the press, the politicians and the BBC. That is how it is and that is how it should be. Since we are in poetical mode today, perhaps a quote from Robert Browning:

"Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what is a heaven for?"

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