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2014年8月30日 星期六

德 國人怎麼換「人孔蓋」


路不平哪裡有問題?看看德國人怎麼換「人孔蓋」吧...
http://www.setnews.net/News.aspx?PageGroupID=1&NewsID=37630&PageType=2

2014/08/31 14:03:00  

生活中心/綜合報導
 
在台灣,路面坑坑洞洞的樣貌,已經成為國人熟悉的「風景」,但這樣的道路坑洞問題,除了變成「騎士殺手」外,近日也廣被許多網友討論。不久前,就有網友將台灣的人孔蓋與日本的相比,兩國的鋪法大致相同,但是平整度卻相差甚遠;現在,也有網友拿德國更換人孔蓋的影片來「檢討」台灣:「台灣換人孔蓋比德國多4、5個工人,但卻比他們隨便上4、5倍」,看完德國的「搞剛」影片,與台灣相較下來,不少人直呼「太誇張」!
 
德國人孔蓋修補/youtub
 
▲德國人修補人孔蓋。(圖/翻攝自YouTube)
 
近日,網路上一支德國修補人孔蓋的短片引起許多人熱烈討論,影片中德國工人只是換個人孔蓋,但過程卻像化工廠的18段工法一樣精細,每個步驟、工具都相當講究,絲毫不敢有任何馬虎,讓台灣網友看了都覺得誇張,甚至開玩笑說「台灣3秒就完工!有效率~」。不過,不少人開始反思台灣人孔蓋的修補工程相較之下似乎好像有很大的落差。
 
德國人孔蓋修補/youtub
(圖/翻攝自YouTube)
 
許多人都覺得台灣在這點上「太隨便」,也有人語重心長的說,認真做一個可以用很久,不必三不五時就亂挖,反觀台灣真的「不意外」!但也有民眾認為這是因為「國情不同」,在德國,他們可以接受封路換人孔蓋,但在台灣,只要遇到封路、施工等,就會民怨四起,難怪工人寧可省略一些步驟,快速完工;因此網友認為,不論是哪一方都該學習和思考,讓路真的可以「平」一點。
 
▼台灣人修補人孔蓋一景。(圖/翻攝自YouTube)
台灣人孔蓋修補/youtube
 
台灣人孔蓋修補/youtube
(圖/翻攝自YouTube,照片經處理。)
 
不過,也有網友提供台灣更換人孔蓋的影片,替這些工人喊話,事實上台灣的步驟與德國是差不多的,而且還請到日本技師專業指導。對此,網友看完紛紛大嘆可惜,有技術但恐怕是「態度有問題」,許多人覺得就是因為沒有確實執行每個步驟,才會導致平整度不一致、道路充滿「補丁」的狀況。
 
▼點選看影片,德國人「搞剛」的修補人孔蓋。
(影片取自YouTube,若遭刪除請見諒!)

▼台灣版修人孔蓋。(影片取自YouTube,若遭刪除請見諒!)


Show很大: 台商鮭魚返鄉專案 擬年底停辦。


鮭魚返鄉專案 擬年底停辦

人力土地常卡住 台商:基本工資漲吸引力更弱





經濟部「加強推動台商回台投資方案」,自2012年11月施行至今,邊際效益逐漸減,年底專案到期後可能會停辦。資料照片

功成身退
【黃馨儀╱台北報導】2年前經濟部高喊「鮭魚返鄉」,推出「加強推動台商回台投資方案」,上路至今年8月初為止,總計46件回台投資案,投資總額雖達2000億元目標,但今年來無論是金額、件數,都如溜滑梯般驟減,首季僅3件、74億元,第2季更落至1件、12億元。該方案將在年底屆滿,官員坦言,由於成效不如預期,專案到期後擬停辦。
為鼓勵台商回流,經濟部自2012年11月實施台商回台方案,祭出協助解決人力問題、土地資訊取得、設備進口、強化輔導服務、加速完成ECFA後續協議與提供專案貸款等6大措施,希望用租稅優惠、土地專區、增加勞工上限等誘因,鼓勵台商將關鍵供應鏈移回台灣,並在台設立研發中心或營運總部。 

創造3萬多本勞就業

根據工業局統計,至今年8月初為止,46件投資案累計投資額逾2000億元,已達今年設定目標,創造3萬多名本國勞工就業機會,其中以電子零組件製造業13件投資案最多,投資總額1408億元,創造1.8萬個就業機會也最多,包括建大(2106)、可成(2474)、大立光(3008)、日月光(2311)、萬國通路(3054)、樂陞(3662)等企業都積極響應。
但官員坦承,台商回台高峰集中在方案實施前期,2012年第4季共5件投資案,投資額高達1017億元,2013年第1季有21件投資案,投資額723億元。但自今年起無論是投資金額、還是件數,都如溜滑梯般驟減,如首季僅3件、74億元,年減9成;第2季更僅剩1件、12億元的投資案,成效似乎不如預期。 

客觀條件比不上國外

許多台商私下反映,台灣無論在投資環境還是市場方面,還是相對不容易,現在隨基本工資再漲,吸引力愈趨薄弱,即使有心響應政府政策,但國內的客觀條件還是比不上國外。
如今方案即將屆滿,經濟部官員透露,雖已設法協助解決人力與土地問題,但仍有為數不少的投資案「卡住」,加上適用該方案的台商早已回台,如今邊際效益遞減,「行政院續推機率不高。」 

投資金額落實更重要

經濟部官員表示,雖然還在檢討中,但未來更該思考,如何讓這些台商投資金額能落實較重要。
而已在東南亞、中國大陸布局多年的相關業者則認為,如今兩岸服貿協議仍卡關,進而影響到兩岸後續貨貿談判。隨著中韓FTA(Free Trade Agreement,自由貿易協定)即將在年底完成,未來台灣若不加緊腳步,將可能在國際角力中逐漸失去競爭力。 

加強推動台商 回台投資方案簡介

◎實施期間:行政院核定自2012年11月1 日至2014年12月31日止,至今年8月初共有46件投資案適用、累計投資金額已逾2000億元,創造逾3萬本勞就業機會
◎實質內容:透過協助解決人力問題、協助土地資訊取得、協助設備進口、強化輔導服務、加速完成ECFA後續協議及提供專案貸款6大措施加強回台投資
◎響應廠商:包括建大輪胎、可成、大立光、日月光、萬國通路、台勵福、樂陞、台鉅都積極響應
◎是否續辦:今年申請金額、件數驟減,成效不如預期,年底專案到期後擬停辦
資料來源:經濟部、記者整理 
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聚亨老董:協助海外拓銷較實在

 
 
黃文松感慨,在台土地難尋、環評標準嚴苛,加上人力成本貴等諸多原因下,10年前才出走赴東協創業。資料照片
【黃馨儀╱台北報導】吸引台商返鄉政策成效不彰,未來傾向不續辦。螺絲、盤元線材大廠聚亨(2022)董事長黃文松感慨,在台灣土地難尋、環評標準嚴苛,加上人力成本貴等諸多原因下,10年前才會出走赴東協創業,政府現在與其鼓勵台商回流,不如協助台廠海外拓銷,真正提升競爭力。
聚亨集團數年前重砸30億泰銖在泰國設立電弧爐煉鋼,日前剛盛大啟用,正式完成從上游煉鋼到下游軋延、盤元、線材、螺絲等一貫化鋼鐵廠生產規模,奠定在泰國鋼鐵產業的地位。

市場潛力是勝敗關鍵

黃文松感慨,10餘年前就非常想往上游發展,但在台灣難尋適當工業用地,環保標準日益嚴苛,加上近年來不斷調漲基本薪資,考量主客觀環境趨於艱困,為取得接近市場優勢,才決定在泰國設置電弧爐廠。
以產業前景來說,由於東協基礎建設量龐大,例如泰國未來7年還有3兆泰銖的基礎建設,龐大市場潛力就是招商勝敗關鍵。不僅如此,東協區域經濟整合愈來愈成熟,許多競爭對手國例如韓國、日本等,均積極與其他國家洽簽經濟貿易協定,就是要避免被排拒在區域經濟機制外。
例如從台灣出口鋼鐵產品到越南須課3%關稅,但製造業利潤已經有限,高關稅更會侵蝕利潤,考量成本,根本不划算。黃文松直言,即使有心響應政府鮭魚返鄉政策,但面對現實考量,還是選擇遠赴異鄉打拼。他建議政府,與其鼓勵台商回流,不如協助台廠海外拓銷,真正提升競爭力。 

勞力成本太高難獲利

在東南亞布局多年的成衣大廠聚陽,最大原因就是台灣勞力成本太高、壓縮利潤,聚陽主管表示,在東南亞設廠,可掌握進入東協市場契機,雖然很想在台灣紮根,但許多現實因素要考量。 

2014年8月29日 星期五

翁啟惠談台灣生技的瑞士路線


【特別企畫】生技教父翁啟惠談台灣生技的瑞士路線
採訪、整理/黃琴雅
美國《科學人》雜誌對全球生技發展潛力排名,台灣已從二○一三年的二十多名前進到今年的十七名,翁啟惠認為這代表台灣生技業在國際上有發展優勢,是台灣值得走的路!以下是本刊的專訪內容:
新藥發展是一門高風險產業
問:生技業在基亞第三期臨床試驗期中報告「解盲」結果未如預期後,市場開始對生技業出現質疑的聲音,您如何看待這次結果?
答:新藥的發展本來失敗機率就很高,這是非常高風險的產業。一般來說,新藥發展每一道程序都充滿挑戰,在進入臨床前,要先進行動物實驗,證明藥物是安全且有效,就可以進入第一期臨床試驗,一期是看在人體是否安全,成功機率七○%。
進入第二期時,就看有效性多少,成功率四○%,接著,就會進入比較大規模的臨床試驗,也就是第三期,收的病人數較多,成功機率約在五○%。一個藥物要成功,從開發、動物試驗到三期臨床全都做完,成功機率不到一○%,失敗機率高達九○%。但台灣這波生技熱潮還沒有失敗過的例子,基亞現在是期中分析不如預期而已,等到期末分析才知道結果,台灣對新藥開發的過程經驗不夠,媒體也沒有很瞭解。
生技公司公布會影響股價的重要資訊時,包括臨床實驗結果、重大人事異動,或與其他公司合作、併購或技術轉移等要有規範,最好在一定時間前後,公司內知道消息的人應停止股票交易,國際上都是這麼做,以保障投資人。但有些像是把專利申請或通過IND(試驗用新藥,臨床試驗前向主管機關申請)也當作重大訊息發布,這就有點誇大。
不能接受失敗,就別走創新這條路
問:基亞事件是否會引發投資人對新藥不信任的效應?
答:台灣新藥發展需要經驗,把基亞事件當作經驗,我們就會慢慢成熟,現在還有二十幾顆新藥正在進行第三期臨床試驗,若從或然率來看,有一半的機率,機會很大。
但生技業是創新的產業,新藥試驗失敗是必然,我們要的是正當性的失敗,一路從一期、二期走到三期,經過所有正常程序,失敗了我們就要接受,不要太苛責。
我們台灣要能夠創新,就要容忍失敗、接受改變,才會成功。不然,不能接受失敗,就不能走創新這條路,且要容忍不同意見、腦力激盪,從裡頭找出共識。而且投入資金失敗了,就是學到經驗,可能再一次就成功了,成功是累積的結果,產業發展需要各方的鼓勵。怎麼看待失敗,是很重要的事。
問:新藥投資的資金與時間似乎都相當高?
答:若仔細比較,電子業蓋一座廠都要上千億元,新藥開發不需要花到這麼多錢,花比較多錢的製藥之後是行銷,要打入市場不容易,除非你的藥是獨門獨市,但若開發的新藥是市場已經有的,競爭就比較激烈。
不過,投機式的投資,對生技業沒有幫助,對生技來講,資金需求不是很大,但卻是需要長期且穩定的投資,投機性資金太多,對生技業反而不好。
問:對於近幾年台灣生技的熱潮,您如何看待?
答:基亞事件反而給台灣生技業一種經驗,在美國很多新藥公司只要三期沒過,公司無法繼續經營比比皆是,但之後還是會有很多新藥公司出現。
新藥公司需要長期投資者
生技業中途一定會有波折,台灣不可能沒有失敗的例子。台灣沒失敗的原因,可能是沒找很大挑戰的產品;或是從熟悉的開始,比較有信心;也可能台灣的經營太細心,規畫比較好。但若從現在二十多個進入第三期的新藥來看,台灣還沒有掌握非常關鍵的技術,而且新藥研發要從經驗上去提升。
台灣確實有優勢,這次BIOUSA(美國生技)評估,台灣研究條件最好,在法規、資金、人才、環境與選題上,我們的環境是滿好的,成功是遲早的事。
在環境上,台灣人口密集度全世界第二,且有發展生技的園區;法規面又跟國際接軌,我們有和美國一樣的法規,鼓勵發展生技業;在人才上,不只是生命科學,化學、醫學、製造工程、管理、法律與行銷人才,生技所需要的人才全部都有。能夠發展生技的國家,各方面的發展都是具備的,台灣就是這樣。
台灣資金更是非常充裕,去年美國生技業投資資金約三十至四十億美元,台灣則有十五億美元,今年也是一樣,我們比美國小很多,但對生技產業的投資卻相當高,表示台灣人對這產業是有信心與熱情的,這是好現象。
在選題上,台灣生技業都是以華人的疾病為主,華人占全球四分之一的人口,市場夠大,過去我們用西方的藥,劑量與反應可能會不同,基因也有差異,所以光是對華人特有的疾病我們就有優勢。從各方面條件來看,台灣有發展生技產業的優勢,但我們過去不重視。
太注重中國市場不切實際
問:政府應該在生技產業扮演的角色?
答:台灣對生技產業沒有很深入的瞭解,因為生技業風險非常高,完全依靠智慧財產(IP),跟電子業製造代工太不一樣,但三十多年前,台灣生技與電子業一起出現,政府當時卻用同一種思維在看待,因此,一個成功,一個失敗,這兩個是很不一樣的產業。
二○○三年我回台時,經常聽到台灣有一個規定:一家公司兩、三年沒有產品,就不能貸款或增資。這用在有營收的代工業適合,但新藥研發可能長達十年以上沒營收,導致大家才會去發展保健食品,製造溫度計、血糖機等快速有營收的產品,不敢去碰高風險的高階醫材或新藥,所以生技業一直都沒有好發展,等到○七年有《生技發展條例》、《科技基本法》等法規鼓勵,及投資有稅賦優惠等,才有大進展,所以並不是台灣沒有能力做,是因為沒有膽量去投資,也缺乏鼓勵。
政府的角色,就是不要干預太多,從法規與環境面去鬆綁,遊戲規則做好,建構適合的好環境,不要擔心太多,不要害怕失敗,否則會綁手綁腳。新藥的廠房不需要太大,高附加價值的量不需要太大。
問:台灣生技還有很長的路要走?
答:從生技條例○七年通過至今七年,就有二十幾個藥走到第三期,真的不簡單,要樂觀看待,媒體要正面看待,多鼓勵。
這一、兩年是生技業的關鍵,我們有二十幾顆藥進入第三期,接著就是進入製造的階段,一定會有一些通過,通過後就是製造、行銷,就會增加就業機會,會帶動產業發展。真的有一兩顆是成功的話,我們就知道未來怎麼走了。
台灣太注重中國市場是不切實際的想法,因為生技市場最大是美國,占四○%、接著是歐洲,日本也有一八%,中國不到四%,但台灣太期待中國市場,中國人口太多、貧富差距太大,一般人用不起新藥,學名藥比較有機會。
一顆藥每年帶來四億美元權利金
問:有學者認為台灣中研院應該學習以色列魏茲曼科學院,引領台灣找出下一個產業的方向,帶領台灣產業升級,您認為呢?
答:魏茲曼是重基礎研究,他們研發多發性硬化症的治療名藥,為他們每年帶來四億美元的營收,但是只有這一例,要看運氣。
以色列整個國家都鼓勵創新,政府會無條件補助新創公司,不要求股權,因為成功了就會有稅收,以色列也不得不創新,因為他們沒有資源,又有鄰國要消滅他們人種的壓力。
中研院也是,我們若有重要研究成果技轉給業界,收入就歸中研院,依照《科技基本法》的分配,四○%給發明人,六○%給政府,在美國是史丹佛收入最高,以色列是魏茲曼。
像醣基這家公司,是由中研院技轉,這些專利是屬於中研院三十位研究人員所有,不是我個人,開發結果也是屬於中研院的。
問:台灣沒有產業政策,在電子業衰退後,失去了重心?
答:過去幾十年,我們太著重在一個產業,忽略掉其他,假如我們可以分散一點風險,電子產業外,也應扶植生技、文創、綠色科技,觀光等六大新興產業,這是因為台灣可能的方向與潛力。
像能源的政策,再生能源鼓勵不夠,火力發電與核能都是依靠外來的,惟有再生能源能夠自主,我們卻又不夠重視:太陽能、LED製造,台灣也是全世界數一數二,卻大多只出口,台灣自己不用;生技、文創與觀光也是,都需要產業政策。
台灣的教育體系是多元、完整的,不是只有教電子業,我們的人才也是多元的,所以就業機會也要多元,不然會有社會問題,我們必須給他們舞台,最大的機會在產業,若產業太單一,人才出路就會有問題,現在就出現了。
我們太重視學位,像以色列高中畢業二○%上大學,瑞士德國也是,只有台灣是百分之百,高中畢業二十萬,大學招生二十四萬人,招生不足,滿街都是大學生,台灣不是只需要大學生,各種人才都要。
產業政策要多元 年輕人才有機會
問:台灣新藥從研發,要走到品牌之路還要多久?
答:這是階段性的問題,或是資金問題,但遲早都要面對品牌,掌握品牌才有高附加價值。要看研發成功的東西,在世界市場占有的分量多大,但不要小看這個,瑞士也是小國,但重要的藥廠Roche(羅氏)、Novartis(諾華)都在瑞士,都在全世界設研發中心與製造工廠,台灣當然也可以走這個模式。

2014年8月27日 星期三

台商可獨資經營中國醫院

政策大鬆綁 大陸台商可獨資經營中醫院

 產生縮網址 
亓樂義 2014年08月27日 13:58406 點擊數
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政策大鬆綁 大陸台商可獨資經營中醫院
中國大陸的中醫院如雨後春筍,規模驚人。(取自網路)
為擴大醫療服務品質,北京、天津、上海、江蘇、福建、廣東、海南等7省市,從今年7月25日起實施外資獨資經營中醫院的試點工作,目前僅對台、港、澳資開放,且審批權下放至省級。這是中國大陸在醫療改革方面的一次政策大鬆綁,台港澳商躍躍欲試。

據中國商務部官網顯示,7月25日國家衛生計生委與商務部聯合發布《關於開展設立外資獨資醫院試點工作的通知》,首度允許境外投資者通過新設或併購等方式,在北京、天津、上海、江蘇、福建、廣東、海南等省市設立外資獨資醫院。《通知》就試點範圍、設置要求與實施做出以下規定。

一、試點範圍:

從本通知印發之日(7月25日)起,允許境外投資者通過新設或併購等方式,在北京、天津、上海、江蘇、福建、廣東、海南等省市設立外資獨資醫院。除香港、澳門和台灣投資者外,其他境外投資者不得在上述省(市)設置中醫類醫院。

二、設置要求:

(一)申請設立外資獨資醫院的境外投資者,應是能夠獨立承擔民事責任的法人,具有直接或間接從事醫療衛生投資與管理的經驗,並符合下列要求之一:

1. 能夠提供國際先進的醫院管理理念、管理模式和服務模式;
2. 能夠提供具有國際領先水準的醫學技術和設備;
3. 可以補充或改善當地在醫療服務能力、醫療技術、資金和醫療設施方面的不足。

(二)擬申請設立的外資獨資醫院,應當符合國家制定的醫療機構基本標準。沒有國家標準的,執行《衛生部關於專科醫院設置審批管理有關規定的通知》(衛醫政發〔2011〕87號)。

(三)外資獨資醫院的設置審批許可權下放到省級。申請設置外資獨資醫院的境外投資者,應向擬設置外資獨資醫院所在地設區的市級衛生計生行政部門(含中醫藥管理部門,下同)提出申請,設區的市級衛生計生行政部門提出初審意見,報省級衛生計生行政部門審批。省級商務主管部門憑省級衛生計生行政部門的行政許可,依據外商投資法律法規進行外資獨資醫院設立的審批工作。

(四)外資獨資醫院的設立和變更應按照《醫療機構管理條例》、《醫療機構管理條例實施細則》和《外商投資商業領域管理辦法》規定的程式和要求辦理。

(五)設立外資獨資醫院還應符合試點省(市)省級衛生計生行政部門及商務主管部門規定的其他條件和要求。

三、組織實施:

省級衛生計生行政部門和商務主管部門要按照逐步開放、風險可控的原則,自行制訂本省(市)設立外資獨資醫院的試點實施方案,並在各自職責範圍內負責本行政區域內外資獨資醫院的審批和日常監督管理工作。試點實施方案在執行前需抄報國家衛生計生委和商務部。試點中遇到的問題,請及時聯繫國家衛生計生委和商務部。

據《騰訊新聞》綜合報導,目前外資在中國大陸獨資經營醫院仍面臨多重門檻,如融資問題,大陸銀行無明文規定要求政府為外資獨資醫院的投資提供擔保,故而增加外商融資風險;在稅務方面,由於外資獨資醫院只能註冊為營利性醫院,無法進入中國的社會醫療保險體系,無法享受國家財政補貼和賦稅減免。除此,在各種項目或購置申請方面,審批也比公立醫院更為複雜。

在華工廠怎樣生產筆記本電腦?


視頻:蘋果在華代工廠積極擴大自動化生產線
近幾年來,以和碩聯合(Pegatron Co.)和富士康(Foxconn)為首的一些零部件加工廠開始加大對自動化生產線的投入。據統計,中國每一萬人的工廠僅擁有23個工業機器人,而韓國和日本則有300個。視頻中,《華爾街日報》駐台記者Eva Dou分析了中國自動化生產落後的原因。
2014年 08月 25日 14:56

如果你最近購買了筆記本電腦,它很有可能是來自中國眾多電子產品合約制造商之一的生產線。
其中一家制造商和碩聯合科技股份有限公司(Pegatron Co.,簡稱:和碩)不久前讓《華爾街日報》了解了其在中國西部重慶一家工廠的筆記本電腦生產過程。

總部位于台灣的和碩最近因其身為蘋果(Apple) iPhone供應商而受到媒體關注。但在很久之前,這家公司已經是惠普(Hewlett-Packard)和東芝(Toshiba)等品牌的筆記本電腦供應商。

和碩的工廠與其他電子產品生產商都位于重慶的一個工業園區。大約5,000名工人在這里工作和生活。這個剛剛建成幾年的工廠明亮干凈——而且日夜運轉不停。身穿針織工作服、戴著布手套和淺藍色帽子的工人輪班工作,保證筆記本電腦不間斷地生產。

筆記本電腦的生產從工廠四樓開始,這里生產的是印刷電路板,這是電腦的“大腦”和“心臟”。這一工序一直以來都是高度自動化的。房間里排滿了由白色機器組成的長長的隧道。空白的藍板從隧道一頭進去,從另外一頭出來時就已經完成了。電路首先被機器蝕刻在板上,最后一台機器則將電路焊接成形。整個工序幾乎完全是自動化的,只有少數工人站在旁邊監控。

然后,印刷電路板會被送到樓下,來到組裝中心,而這里又是另一番天地。極為開闊的房間里擠滿了在生產線上工作的工人,其中每人執行一項特定任務。

筆記本電腦和其他電子設備的組裝仍主要靠人工完成,因為這方面要實現自動化成本會非常高,而且也極具難度。但和碩高管很熱情地指出,近月來組裝線上添加了幾只機械臂,且全由和碩自己的工程師設計。一只機械臂負責將屏幕按壓到筆記本電腦上,另一只機械臂負責檢查所有組裝完畢的筆記本的攝像功能。

所有電腦檢查完畢后便被裝箱,箱子疊放在大貨盤上等待入庫,最終將運至全球各個貨架。

和碩首席財務長林秋炭(Charles Lin)說,自動化是該公司給未來設定的一個很重要的方向。不過組裝過程的大多數步驟仍需要人力完成。

EVA DOU 

2014年8月25日 星期一

知與行: Top Managers Make Decisions Easily, but Struggle to Act on Them





Top Managers Make Decisions Easily, but Struggle to Act on Them

2014年8月24日 星期日

rail renationalisation; 英國國營事業的世紀大拍賣好處落到那? (書介) Sale of the century: the privatisation scam



"British rail fares, the highest per passenger mile of any country in Europe, are set to become higher still. This is a poll tax on wheels, to many, an unavoidable impost that must be paid at the same rate by rich and poor alike, even though rail transport is an indispensable public service. Small wonder that rail renationalisation is emerging as one of the most popular policies with voters."




英國國營事業的世紀大拍賣好處落到那? (書介)

Sale of the century: the privatisation scam

Privatisation promised to turn the UK into an island of small shareholders. It failed: the faceless state bureaucrats have been replaced by faceless (better-paid) private bureaucrats – and big foreign corporations. How did we get to this point?
London Bridge train station
London Bridge train station. Photograph: Alex Segre/FlickrVision
Train fares are going up. We learned that last week, although "learn" is putting it strongly. We knew they would. It's not as if they would go down: train fares go up, like electricity bills, gas bills, water bills, rent and chief executives' salaries. To the loyalists of the Thatcher-Blair-Cameron succession, higher train fares are a positive, because they mean lower subsidies: another incremental step in a 35-year programme to shift the burden of paying for infrastructure from the well-off to the strugglers. To most of us, it's another sign of the folly of selling off the railways. But amid the dismal annual round of fare rises, it's easy to miss another, stranger, more gradual sign of the failure of the vast social and economic experiment conducted on the British people since 1979: privatisation.
A trio of awkward synthetic words has begun to appear among the owners of private train companies that looks as if a computer has been asked to name the new musketeers: Abellio; Govia; Keolis. What these bland corporate signifiers mask is state-owned but commercialised European rail firms. Collectively, European state railways now own more than a quarter of Britain's passenger train system.
I imagine they will do a decent job. And that's the trouble. If competition shows that the best companies to run Britain's privatised railways are state-owned railways from other countries, what does that say about the justification of privatisation? And what does it say about what privatisation has done to Britain? How did we get to the point where this country's railways, power stations and postal service were ready to be taken over by foreign versions of British organisations that our own government, claiming patriotism, systematically took to pieces?
One winter's morning in 1991 I loaded a guitar, a condensed edition of theOxford English Dictionary and a Teach Yourself Russian course into an old Volkswagen, left the house near Edinburgh where I had been staying and drove to Kiev. Five days passed on the road. I left the familiarity, order and prosperity of Britain, the island where I had grown up, and travelled east to wait for the Soviet Union to dissolve. I didn't have to wait long. A few weeks after I arrived, it ceased to be. Russia and Ukraine went their separate ways. The Kiev traffic policeman waving down my foreign-plated car had time to utter the words, "What are you doing in the Soviet Union?" before the colour left his face, his mouth went dry, and he turned away, lost, a bully orphaned of his corporate father.
A 70-year experiment to test whether the ethos of the commune could be imposed on a transcontinental empire of hundreds of millions of people was over, long after the answer was in (it couldn't). I wasn't sorry to see Soviet communism go. Despite all that's happened since, I still don't mourn it. There was hope in the beginning that something fine would grow in the gap that was left. It was a while before I realised the cynical, grasping figures who moved in to take possession of the ruins were not, as I had hoped, transitional symptoms of change, but the essence of that change.
Watching the vultures come to feast on the carcass of the world's largest state-owned, planned economy, I began to find the terms to question what had been done by politicians, economic theorists, lobbyists and business people in my own country. I had thought, when I left Scotland, in the unconscious way certainties are stowed in one's mind, that I knew Britain; that some essential way of being would be resilient to Margaret Thatcher's rearrangements, which must, as transient policies, be superficial. I had to go home by way of Kiev and Moscow to see that I was wrong, to begin to see how, and how deeply, she and her followers altered Britain.
With hindsight, 1991 was a pivotal year. When it began, the free market economic belief system, with its lead proselytisers Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, had been pushing back for more than a decade against various attempts to impose levelling communitarianism around the world. TheBerlin Wall had fallen, as had communist regimes in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. The market belief system, which holds that government is incompetent by default, that state taxation is oppressive, that the desire for wealth is the right and principal motivator of achievement and that virtually all human wants can best be met by competing private firms, was becoming entrenched in the non-communist world, from Chile to New Zealand. Made bold by a popular public perception that government overspending and selfish organised labour were to blame for economic stagnation and high inflation in the 1970s, Thatcher and Reagan had taken on powerful trade unions, and won. Barriers to the international movement of goods and money had fallen; the European Union was, on paper, a single marketplace. In Britain, restrictions on how much ordinary people could borrow to finance their everyday needs had been scrapped, and millions had acquired credit cards. Volumes of regulations controlling how banks were allowed to use people's deposits had been torn up, and unimaginably vast sums were being moved privately from country to country. Government spending had been cut, as had income tax and corporation tax. Sales tax and fees for everyday services had been raised. Council houses and big state enterprises had been privatised, with more on the way, leading to hundreds of thousands of redundancies. Thatcher's programme in Britain was an inspiration for the IMF and the World Bank as they experimented with the conditions they attached to bail-out loans to developing countries.
Privatisation'Margaret Thatcher promoted the notion that greed on the part of a private executive elite is the chief and sufficient engine of prosperity for all.' Photograph: Nils Jorgensen/Rex
But at the end of 1990, the triumph of marketism seemed to hang in the balance. Reagan and Thatcher had relinquished the stage to less fervent, less charismatic successors. The man who'd introduced the market economy to China, Deng Xiaoping, had been blamed by traditional communists for fostering the Tiananmen Square protests, and was in disgrace. In the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev, the great hope of free marketeers, was facing a similar backlash from hardliners, and the Baltic countries' hopes of escape from the USSR looked bleak. Saddam Hussein, dictator of semi-socialist Iraq, had invaded semi-capitalist Kuwait.
Yet the following year conviction began to grow among the marketeers that the final defeat of centrally planned, communitarian government was at hand, the sense that seemed to confirm such ideas as America having "won" the Cold War, and the "end of history". Early in 1991 it became clear that the Soviet leadership had lost the necessary unanimity and ruthlessness to keep Lithuania within the USSR. The humiliating collapse of the coup against Gorbachev that summer presaged recognition of Baltic independence, Ukraine's vote to go the same way, and the end of the Soviet Union. In Kuwait at the beginning of the year I saw experienced British war correspondents squabble for reporting billets among the frontline troops with the ferocity of those who believe something is being offered for the last time; we thought British and American armies might never fight another war. Few doubted Saddam would be beaten, and he was. That November, as I drove off the ferry at Ostend, heading east, it seemed a racing, expanding tide of victorious free marketism glimmered at my wheels, a tide that has gone by many names – consumer capitalism, Reaganism, Thatcherism, neoliberalism, the Washington Consensus. Though the watchtowers still stood at the old border between two Germanys, the border was gone. In eastern Germany, the narrow cobbled streets of medieval towns had jammed solid with second-hand cars. I passed a field where an impatient western German DIY chain, unwilling to wait for steel and breeze blocks, had erected a vast, circular retail marquee, blazing with lights. The canvas superstore seemed to have landed, like a spacecraft from a flashier civilisation, come down to offer shrink-wrapped packs of rawl plugs and a choice of bathroom fittings. In Poland, I got lost in fog near Wrocław, and saw how small shops had sprung up everywhere, even in the tiniest villages. In the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, in damp, coal-scented murk so thick I wasn't sure which way my car was pointing, I came across an entrepreneur hawking coffee from a roadside kiosk; the best coffee I ever tasted. He was like a champion of Thatcherite values, the small businessman standing ready to serve at all hours, in all weathers, making up for lost time under communism, silently mocking the market-questioning scepticisms I had brought with me from Scotland.
The effect on me of witnessing the unplanned collapse of a planned economy, where there'd been virtually no private property or private enterprise, was a series of viscerally direct lessons in economics. I saw how badly the Soviet communist system had failed on economic grounds alone, quite apart from its denial of personal freedoms. Long before the end, there was a hopeless housing shortage. Multiple households were sharing two-roomed flats; families were living in dormitories. Apartments seized from their bourgeois owners after the 1917 revolution were still unrepaired more than 70 years later. The infrastructure was rotten; there were cities and suburbs built around factories in the 1960s and 1970s where homes only had mains water for a few hours a day. Surpluses of goods nobody wanted (copies of the complete works of Soviet politicians, busts of Lenin) prevailed beside shortages of goods everybody wanted (cheese, coffee, sausage) because the element sticking together demand for a thing and the amount of trouble it took to produce and deliver it – the price – had been scraped out of transactions and replaced with a made-up figure concocted by planners in Moscow. Inequality was rampant, reflected not just in monetary wealth or property but in the degree to which you actually had access to the cheap goods everyone was supposed to have access to. One consequence of food and drink being allocated by civil servants according to central decrees, rather than by price, was that the restaurant business became an incubator for the black market and organised crime. Airports and railway stations looked like refugee camps because tickets cost virtually nothing, yet there weren't enough flights or trains to move the people who wanted to take them. The first response of the Russian and Ukrainian authorities after independence was to massively increase the production of a single essential item that people were chronically short of: money. Hyperinflation resulted, and millions of people had their savings wiped out.
The other side of the collapse of communism, along with the post-Soviet boons of freedom of movement, freedom of expression and freedom of initiative, was the flourishing of enterprise. Armies of tough middle-aged women made epic journeys to the bazaars of Poland, Turkey and China and returned to Ukraine and Russia with clothes to dress a handsome people as they'd yearned to dress, in jeans, leather and gold. Shops, restaurants, bars, cafés and night clubs opened up; book and music stalls were everywhere. Foreign firms brought wonders: a tampon factory, international direct dialling. Kiev went from a place where you couldn't buy anything to a place where you could buy anything, if you had the means.
Contempt for the planned economy, a new appreciation of the danger of printing excess money, gratitude to the entrepreneurs – there were times, in those early months in Kiev, that I asked myself whether I was becoming a Thatcherite. I can't pinpoint the moment when it soured for me. It might have been the sight of a solid rank of impoverished pensioners, some several hundred respectable old ladies, standing shoulder to shoulder in the freezing winter darkness outside Belarus station in Moscow, each holding a single sausage for sale – the free market as desperation. Or a visit to the Arctic mining city of Vorkuta, where miners were being paid in sandwiches while their bosses pocketed the money from the coal for which they were earning free-market prices.
NHS privatisationPhotograph: Andrew Matthews/PA
In the first stages of disillusionment, it didn't seem obvious to me to make connections between the extremes of marketisation and privatisation in the former Soviet Union and the partial privatisation of a British economy that had always been mainly private anyway. After all, where Britain had a series of regulators to set rules for the privatised industries – Ofcom, Ofwat and so on – the principal regulator of privatisation in Ukraine and Russia, at least in the early days, was murder. In Russia in particular, a small number of individuals quickly became fantastically rich when they took private control of state producers of petrochemicals and metals. They were grotesquely rewarded, or grotesquely undertaxed, and money that should have gone to rebuild roads or hospitals or schools went instead towards yachts, property in London and foreign football teams. But that had nothing in common with privatisation in Britain – did it?I began to notice something odd about the British and American business people and financial advisers I met in Ukraine and Russia in the 1990s. It was no surprise, I suppose, that they cared more about businesses being overtaxed than undertaxed, more about protection of private property than about protection of pensioners; that they didn't care how weak and bullied the local trades unions were. Besides, their Russian interlocutors kept being assassinated. What was revealing was how many of these emissaries of the capitalist way seemed to believe the myth that all that was good in the British and American economies had been constructed by the free market. They seemed to believe, or talked, made speeches, wrote papers as if they believed, that the entire structure of their own wealthy modern societies – the roads, the electricity grids, the railways, the water and sewage systems, the universal postal services, the telecoms networks, housing, education and health care – had been brought into being by individual entrepreneurs driven by desire for gain, with the occasional lump of charity thrown in, and that a bloated, parasitical state had come shambling onto the scene, seizing assets and demanding free stuff for its shirker buddies. I don't want to absolve the Russians or Ukrainians of responsibility for their handling of the aftermath of communism, but the template they were handed by the fraternity of the Washington Consensus was based on fake history. If this is what the triumphalists of Wall Street and the City of London told the Russians about the way of the capitalist world, I thought when I moved back to Britain in 1999, what have they been telling us? And what came of it?
When Thatcher's Conservatives came to power in Britain in 1979, much of the economy, and almost all its infrastructure, was in state hands. Exactly what gloss you put on "in state hands" depends on your political point of view. For traditional socialists, it meant "the people's hands". For traditional Tories, it meant "in British hands". For Thatcher and her allies, it meant "in the hands of meddling bureaucrats and selfish, greedy trade unionists". How much of the economy? A third of all homes were rented from the state. The health service, most schools, the armed forces, prisons, roads, bridges and streets, water, sewers, the National Grid, power stations, the phone and postal system, gas supply, coal mines, the railways, refuse collection, the airports, many of the ports, local and long-distance buses, freight lorries, nuclear-fuel reprocessing, air traffic control, much of the car-, ship- and aircraft-building industries, most of the steel factories, British Airways, oil companies, Cable & Wireless, the aircraft engine makers Rolls-Royce, the arms makers Royal Ordnance, the ferry company Sealink, the Trustee Savings Bank, Girobank, technology companies Ferranti and Inmos, medical technology firm Amersham International and many others.
In the past 35 years, this commonly owned economy, this people's portion of the island, has to a greater or lesser degree become private. Millions of council houses have been sold to their owners or to housing associations. Most roads and streets are still under public control, but privatisation has reached deep into the NHS, state schools, the prison service and the military. The remainder was privatised by Thatcher and her successors. By the time she left office, she boasted, 60% of the old state industries had private owners – and that was before the railways and electricity system went under the hammer.
The original background to Thatcher's privatisation revolution was stagflation, a sense of national failure, and a widespread feeling, spreading even to some regular Labour voters, that the unions had become too powerful, and were holding the country back. Labour, and Thatcher's centrist predecessors among the Conservatives, had tried to control inflation administratively, through various deals with unions and employers to hold down wages and prices; Labour had, under pressure from the IMF, cut spending. But Thatcher and her inner circle planned to go further, horrifying moderates in their party with the radicalism of their intentions.
The late Alan Walters, her chief economic adviser, believed a key source of inflation and the weak economy was the amount of taxpayers' money being poured into overmanned, old-fashioned, government-owned industry. Just as in the Soviet Union, he thought, Britain's state industries concealed their subsidy-sucking inefficiency through opaque, idiosyncratic accounting techniques that took little account of how much time and effort were required to do and make things, or what people actually wanted to buy, or how much they were prepared to pay for it. As long as the subsidies kept coming, neither managers nor workers had much incentive to come up with smarter working methods or accept new technology, because that would mean fewer jobs, which would mean less power for the bosses and a smaller union. Yes, Walters knew, his protégée would slash spending on steel and coal and power and all the rest, yes, hundreds of thousands of workers would be sacked, but that wasn't enough. As many state-owned companies as possible must be privatised – be divided up into shares and sold to the public. They'd no longer be subsidised; they'd have to borrow money like any private company, account meticulously to shareholders for every penny they spent or earned, and strive to make a profit. The bigger the profit, the more efficiently the firm would be doing its job, and the more management would be rewarded. Most importantly, they'd have to compete with other firms. If they fell behind their competitors, they'd risk bankruptcy. Managers would face incentives for success and penalties for failure. British industry would become more competitive internationally. It would serve citizens better. Government would save the taxpayer money. The sacked workers would get redundancy payments; they'd go off and start businesses, or find other, more useful jobs once the economy was working properly. Everyone would win, except the lazy, and Arthur Scargill.
Millions did buy shares. Most Britons, bemused by the process, assumed the main reason for privatisation was to raise cash for a desperate government. Harold Macmillan, who before his death provided a snarky Wodehousian commentary from the wings on the work of the grocer's daughter, observed in an often paraphrased line: "The sale of assets is common with individuals and states when they run into financial difficulties. First, all the Georgian silver goes, and then all that nice furniture that used to be in the saloon. Then the Canalettos go."
Another leal privatiser, Nigel Lawson, a minister in the Thatcher government from the beginning almost to the end, dismissed the idea that the government cared about the price it was getting for selling off the family silver. Having many ordinary people owning shares, he writes in his memoirs, was the point. "The prime motives for privatisation were not Exchequer gain," he declares, "but an ideological belief in free markets and a wider distribution of private ownership of property."
Neither Walters nor Lawson, nor other allies like Keith Joseph, the ex-communist Alfred Sherman or Nicholas Ridley, would have been able to implement their ideas without Thatcher herself, her extraordinary sense of the way the political wind was blowing, her conviction of her own rectitude, and the stamina and persistence with which she was able to go on insisting on something until her opponents in government gave in. Hers was a different emphasis to Walters, who saw the curbing of "bloody-minded trades unions" as a useful side effect of privatisation. For Thatcher, privatisation, in the beginning at least, was simply one of many weapons to use in her battle against the unions, which was, in turn, a single episode in her war to exterminate socialism, to be fought in one unbroken front from Orgreave Colliery to Andrei Sakharov's place of exile in Gorky. Her great political inspiration, apart from her father, was the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek's 1944 book, The Road to Serfdom, written in Cambridge during the war. Hayek was regarded as an able economist; he eventually won a Nobel prize for it. But The Road to Serfdom isn't an economics book. It's a book about society, the recent past and human nature that bears the same relation to sociology, history and psychology as Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged bears to literature. It is devoted to the idea that Winston Churchill later nodded to, catastrophically for him, in the 1945 election campaign, when he said Labour would have to fall back on "some form of Gestapo" to implement its welfare and nationalisation programme. Churchill was thrown out of office, and Labour won a huge majority.
The Road to Serfdom claims that socialism inevitably leads to communism, and that communism and Nazi-style fascism are one and the same. The tie that links Stalin's USSR and Hitler's Germany, in Hayek's view, is the centrally planned economy – as he portrays it, the attempt by a single central bureaucracy to direct all human life, to determine all human needs in advance and organise provision, limiting each to their rationed dole and their allotted task. Such a bureaucracy will no more tolerate dissent and deviation than the engineers tending a vast production line will accept a pebble jamming the gears. Confusingly, Hayek denies he is a pure libertarian, and declares the free market must have rules; he also says it is acceptable for government to "provide an extensive system of social services". Yet this is in contradiction to his main message, which is that there can be no mixture of state planning and free market competition. To him they are mutually exclusive. "By the time Hitler came to power, liberalism was dead in Germany," he writes. "And it was socialism that had killed it." Even to try to make socialism work, according to Hayek, is dangerous: "in the democracies the majority of people still believe that socialism and freedom can be combined. They do not realise that democratic socialism, the great utopia of the last few generations, is not only unachievable, but that to strive for it produces something utterly different – the very destruction of freedom itself."
Hayek was proven wrong. As in other western European countries, socialists came and went from power in Britain, introduced a welfare state and took control of large swathes of the economy without democracy and individual freedoms being threatened. The NHS was set up, council houses were built, social security was established, state education was expanded, coal, rail and steel nationalised, yet despite all the planning this required, millions of private businesses, small, medium and large, carried on merrily competing (or co-operating) with each other, flourishing or going to the wall as the market determined. Private doctors kept their clinics on Harley Street, young aristos still ruggered their way across the playing fields of Eton, the private shop windows of Harrods still blazed forth at Christmas time. Bankers and stockbrokers thronged the City, and the farmers owned their land. No one was forced by the government to live in a particular place or do a particular job. There was an argument to be made about how much tax people and businesses paid, and how much of that money government would have been better letting them choose for themselves how to spend. The argument was made, and will always be made; in the end, neither the Gestapo, nor the English Hitler, nor the English Politburo appeared, or looked like appearing.
Hayek's work, that of a frightened refugee in wartime, in the blackouts and shortages of a besieged island, had been superseded by the 1970s. A better framework for understanding the Britain of the time would have been the American Daniel Bell's masterful introduction to his 1976 bookThe Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, where, though he spoke in general terms, he seemed to capture the actual contemporary problems of the UK: "A system of state capitalism could easily be transformed into a corporate state … a cumbersome, bureaucratic monstrosity, wrenched in all directions by the clamour for subsidies and entitlements by various corporate and communal groups, yet gorging itself on increased governmental appropriations to become a Leviathan in its own right." Thatcher, however, never stopped seeing the world through a Hayekian prism. After she defeated the attempt by Britain's coal miners to stave off mass redundancies and pit closures by downing tools, she wrote: "What the strike's defeat established was that Britain could not be made ungovernable by the Fascist Left."
About 10 years ago, I began to investigate what happened after the early Thatcherite zeal took effect. I was sceptical when I began my inquiries, but I was prepared to be convinced that privatisation in these half-dozen cases had been a success. I learned that it has not. Privatisation failed to turn Britain into a nation of small shareholders. Before Thatcher came to power, almost 40% of the shares in British companies were held by individuals. By 1981, it was less than 30%. By the time she died in 2013, it had slumped to under 12%. What is significant about this is not only that Thatcher and her chancellor Nigel Lawson's vision of a shareholding democracy failed to come to pass through privatisation, but that it undermines the justification for the way the companies were taken out of public ownership.
There's no doubt that since privatisation the old nationalised industries have sacked colossal numbers of workers and brought in new technology. If efficiency is doing the same job or better with fewer workers, many of the privatised firms are more efficient. But this simply suggests some or all of the nationalised industries should have been commercialised – that is, had their subsidies shrunk and been removed from direct government control, obliging them to borrow money at commercial rates and operate in a world of market prices without making a loss. Apart from the failed attempt to encourage wider share ownership, there was no obvious reason to privatise them by floating them on the stock market and selling them to shareholders. There are many forms of private ownership. The department store chain John Lewis, an unsubsidised commercial firm in a fiercely competitive market, is owned by its employees. The Nationwide Building Society, an unsubsidised commercial firm in a fiercely competitive market, is owned by its members. The Guardian Media Group, an unsubsidised commercial firm in a fiercely competitive market, is owned by a trust set up to support its journalistic values and protect it from hostile takeover. And so on. None of the many alternatives to stock market flotation were put up for discussion by either side: it was either shareholder capitalism or the nationalised status quo.
Privatisation failed to demonstrate the case made by the privatisers that private companies are always more competent than state-owned ones – that private bosses, chasing the carrot of bonuses and dodging the stick of bankruptcy, will always do better than their state-employed counterparts. Through euphemisms such as "wealth creation" and "enjoying the rewards of success" Thatcher and her allies have promoted the notion that greed on the part of a private executive elite is the chief and sufficient engine of prosperity for all. The result has been 35 years of denigration of the concept of duty and public service, as well as a squalid ideal of all work as something that shouldn't be cared about for its own sake, but only for the money it brings. The magic dust of the market was of little use to the bosses of the newly privatised Railtrack in the mid-1990s. They thought they could sack people with impunity – not just signalling and maintenance staff but expert engineers and researchers – and carry out a massive line-upgrade cheaply with the most advanced new technology. Unfortunately the people who could have told them that the new technology didn't exist were the people they had sacked. As a result, the company went bust in 2002, and had to be renationalised.
Privatisation failed to make firms compete or give customers more choice – said to be the canonical virtues of privatisation. Pretty hard, you would think, to privatise water companies, when they are all monopolies, with nobody to compete with, and can't offer customers a choice – neither the choice of which supplier to use nor the choice of whether to take a service or not. And yet the English water companies were privatised, and in such a way that customers have been overcharged ever since. The privatisers loved competition, but the actual privatised competitors hate it. The competitive vision of those who designed Britain's electricity privatisation – a rumbustious, referee-supervised free-for-all between sellers and makers of electricity old and new, large and small – has degenerated into an opaque oligopoly of a handful of giant players.
Royal Mail privatisationPhotograph: Rui Vieira/PA
The impression grows, on reading Thatcher's autobiography, that she believed the transformational effect of privatisation was such as to turn executives into self-consciously moral, patriotic, civically minded entrepreneurs like her father; as if a monopoly on water supply for several million people were a local grocery shop in a small English town in the 1940s. Privatisation, she claimed, was "the greatest shift of ownership and power away from the state to individuals and their families in any country outside the former communist bloc". The reality is that the faceless state bureaucrats of the old electricity boards have been replaced by the faceless (and better paid) private bureaucrats of the electricity companies. Not only are the privatised utilities big, remote corporations; most of them are no longer British, and no longer owned by small shareholders. Indeed electricity and water privatisation could not have failed more absolutely to foster the emergence of world-beating, innovative British companies. Most of the electricity made and sold in England is now owned by dynamic, tech-savvy companies from western Europe, a region doomed, Thatcher thought, by creeping socialism. As a direct result of the way electricity was privatised, much of it has now been renationalised – but by France, not Britain. Of the nine big English water and sewerage firms, six have achieved the seemingly impossible feat of being privatised a second time, delisted from the stock market by east Asian conglomerates or by private equity consortia. Today much of England's water industry is, it is true, in the hands of individuals and their families, but they don't use English water; they are millions of former civil servants in Canada, Australia and the Netherlands, investing, unwittingly, through their pension funds. The National Health Service is a special case. It hasn't been privatised, and the political parties vie with each other to show that it's safest in their hands. Yet it has been commercialised and repeatedly reorganised, with competition introduced, in such a way as to create a kind of shadowing of an as-yet-unrealised private health insurance system. The story of the transformation of the NHS is part of the wider story of the inheritance of the Thatcher legacy by a Blairite Labour administration over-filled with politicians who struggled to separate their ambitions for Britain from their ambitions for their own and their families' ascent into the six-figure-income class. After their Sisyphean struggles with the Tories and the conservative socialists in their own party, New Labour in power yielded with all too apparent relief to the charms of the business world. It wasn't the creation of foundation trusts for hospitals – or academy schools, or support for housing associations – that was the mistake, rather a lack of awareness that without elaborate safeguards these structures might prove mere waypoints to the next set of privatisations.
What the story of the latter years of the NHS shows is that the most powerful market force eating away at the core of the welfare state is not so much capitalism as consumer capitalism – the convergence of desires between the users of a public service and the private companies providing it when the companies use the skills of marketing to give users a sense of dissatisfaction and peer disadvantage. "If consumption represents the psychological competition for status," writes Daniel Bell, "then one can say that bourgeois society is the institutionalisation of envy." Hip replacement, a procedure invented within the NHS by John Charnley, began as a blessed relief from pain for which patients were, as Charnley said, pathetically grateful. It rapidly progressed to a rationed entitlement. It has now become a competitive market.
This points to a difficulty for anti-marketeers. Since 1945, even if privatisation had never happened, socialism would have struggled with the move from a world of unsatisfied needs to a more complex world of unsatisfied wants.
The selling off of Britain's municipal housing without replacing it was supposed to be a triumphant coming together of the individual and free market principles. It actually ended up as one of the most glaring examples of market failure in postwar history. It wasn't like the other privatisations; its justification as anything other than an electoral bribe to its relatively well-off beneficiaries always rang false. It certainly did to Thatcher in the beginning. She was, she wrote, "wary of alienating the already hard-pressed families who had scrimped to buy a house on one of the new private estates at the market price … They would, I feared, strongly object to council house tenants who had made none of their sacrifices suddenly receiving what was in effect a large capital sum from the Government".
In the end, she came round, and made the policy her own. But the gap where the economic rationale for privatising council houses should be becomes a window through which it becomes possible to see beyond the individual privatisations to the meta-privatisation, and its one indisputable success: that it put more money into the hands of a small number of the very wealthiest people, at the expense of the elderly, the sick, the jobless and the working poor.
What do we think we know about taxes since the Thatcher revolution? Government spending has been cut, we know that. Income tax is lower than it used to be, we know that. And we might remember that the one time Thatcher tried to change the principle of progressive taxation, where the amount of tax you pay depends on your income, to a flat fee, where everyone pays the same – when the Conservatives tried to introduce the infamous "poll tax" on council services – it was the catalyst for her downfall. Low tax was her mantra. Her core political message was this, in her own words: "I believe the person who is prepared to work hardest should get the greatest rewards and keep them after tax. That we should back the workers and not the shirkers: that it is not only permissible but praiseworthy to want to benefit your own family by your own efforts."
What we think we know is wrong. Yes, government spending was cut, and it is being cut again, by Thatcher's coalition successors. When the Conservatives came to power in 1979 the top rate of tax was 83%, the basic rate 33. The top rate is now 45% and the basic rate 20%. The message seems clear enough. The Conservatives cut public spending and cut taxes, they kept their promises to working people, and Labour went along with it. But that is not all that happened. At the same time as they cut income tax and public spending, the first Thatcher administration hiked the sales tax, VAT – a flat-rate tax far more remorselessly regressive than the poll tax. When they came to power, the main VAT rate was 8%. It is now 20%. And the poorer you are, the harder VAT hits you. A study by the Office of National Statistics in 2010 showed that, for the richest fifth of the population, VAT added an extra 4 per cent to their tax bill. But the poorest fifth, often thought by the better off to pay no tax at all, actually pay 8.7 per cent of their income to the Treasury in VAT. When the Coalition came to power that year, its first chancellor George Osborne raised VAT by 14 per cent.
Where privatisation comes into this is that VAT isn't the only flat-rate tax on the poor. There are others, and they are onerous; they just aren't called taxes, though they should be – private taxes. One of the other ways the Thatcherites tried to balance the books in their first budgets was by hiking the price of gas, electricity and council rents, then all still under state control. After privatisation, above-inflation price rises have continued, in the private sector. A tax is generally thought of as something that only a government can levy, but this is a semantic distortion that favours the free market belief system. If a payment to an authority, public or private, is compulsory, it's a tax. We can't do without electricity; the electricity bill is an electricity tax. We can't do without water; the water bill is a water tax. Some people can get by without railways, and some can't; they pay the rail tax. Students pay the university tax. The meta-privatisation is the privatisation of the tax system itself; even, it could be said, the privatisation of us, the former citizens of Britain. By packaging British citizens up and selling them, sector by sector, to investors, the government makes it possible to keep traditional taxes low or even cut them. By moving from a system where public services are supported by progressive general taxation to a system where they are supported exclusively by the flat fees people pay to use them, they move from a system where the rich are obliged to help the poor to a system where the less well-off enable services that the rich get for what is, to them, a trifling sum. The commodity that makes water and power cables and airports valuable to an investor, foreign or otherwise, is the people who have no choice but to use them. We have no choice but to pay the price the toll-keepers charge. We are a human revenue stream; we are being made tenants in our own land, defined by the string of private fees we pay to exist here.
It is not racism that makes the foreign identity of some of the owners of our privatised infrastructure objectionable. It's the selling of taxation powers to foreign governments over whom we have even less democratic control than our own. It is the hypocrisy, in particular, of a party that claims to loathe nothing more than communism and totalitarianism obliging Londoners to pay a tithe to the Chinese government just for turning on the tap.
• Private Island: Why Britain Now Belongs to Someone Else is published next month by Verso. James Meek will be in conversation with Zoe Williams at Southbank Centre on 11 October.

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