Sunday, October 12, 2008

Airstrip One

If America responds to the current economic shakeout by turning total power over to the Democrats what will it be like to live under the new policies? Most Americans have never lived in a socialist country and don't have any experience with what its like.

I was living in San Francisco in 1976. The animation industry was slow in LA so I had moved up to live on unemployment and the occasional Sesame Street or commercial that would become available up there. I had an MG Midget that I had kept in pretty good shape. Being a straight single guy in the mid seventies in SF was like being a sailor in Tahiti in the 1790's with a keg of nails; we can say it was a good place to meet women.

But one day I was reading in the newspaper that you could get round-trip tickets to London for $350. Sounded cool. I sold the MG and got the address of a friend of a friend who said I could crash on her sofa in Fulham. I said goodbye to my redheaded roommate Zina and away I went.

I was completely ignorant of where I was going. An English acquaintance told me that London's climate was similar to San Francisco in the winter; she forgot to tell me that London's climate in the summer was similar to San Francisco's in the worst winter it ever had. I was underclad as I arrived at Gatwick. I took the train to Victoria and then grabbed a cab to Charlotte's flat near parson's Green in Fulham. That was where I got my first shock. In America it can be cold outside. Its true. I've even walked outside in LA in the winter and you can see your breath when you breathe, so I know about cold! But I've never walked into a house where you could also see your breath. Charlotte's roommate Roz explained that they couldn't afford to turn the heat on and only had a little space-heater that they took from room-to-room in their Victorian era flat.
That was a common story. This was February. It was cold! Nobody I knew could afford to keep their heat on in those old, draughty, high-ceilinged old flats, built in more prosperous times when people could afford to turn on the heat.

I went to a party in Knightsbridge put on by some friends of Charlotte's who were impoverished children of former aristocrats who were all semi-employed and living in flats inherited from their families' former success. I met a guy who ran an animation studio. He asked me if I ever worked on piecework for cash. Duh! Of course. In LA I preferred working piecework for cash. Regular employment destroyed your incentive to work and screwed up your unemployment. But I learned that here being an illegal alien made me a hot property. Most film crews are ad hoc groups that dissolve at the end of each job. Of course the regulars get hired back whenever work pops up, but there are always gaps. But in a socialist country you can't just lay people off. You have to go before a government board, dominated by Trotsyite trade union types and pay compensation to each worker for throwing him out of the job he's entitled to have. An expensive process if your business is the production of television commercials. So a floating crew of illegal aliens, mostly Argentinians and Chileans fleeing the generals, Spaniards and Italians fleeing their own bad economies and refugees from the real commies in Poland and Czechoslovakia.

"I can make you legal but then I can't use you." One employer told me. They couldn't afford to hire English people. There were some old hands, of course. You can't have an entire company running with just free-lancers, but the staff was kept to a minimum. No new kids were being trained or hired. Too expensive and risky.

I encountered the Union. A very scary Cockney union rep confronted me at one studio. Even though I was standing there holding a pile of scene folders under my arm I insisted that I was here on vacation just checking out the scene. My alarmed employer took the union guy aside. Money changed hands and the little bloke walked up to me smiling and said, " 'ave a nice olly-day.' Britain had become like Mexico. Petty bribery was everywhere. The powerful got their little bite (mordida) for ignoring the stupid, insane laws that made life impossible. Another time I was in a studio where four of the staff came in from a two-hour lunch visibly drunk. The boss complained. The shop steward walked up to him and said, "One more word out of you mate, and we all walk. Right lads?" There was hearty agreement from the staff. Me and the Chilean guy who was picking up work with me at the same time were the only reliable employees this guy had.

We were also the cheapest employees that this guy had. He was paying his staff animators 300-400 pounds a week for sitting in their chairs, no matter what they did, while they were there. Firing someone was next to impossible and involved another trip to the labor board, an expensive deal even if the dismissal stuck. He was paying us undocumented types cash for what we did. We had every incentive to work like dogs whereas our British colleagues had every incentive not to. The marginal tax rates, on top of the normal 60% that was taken from the average paycheck, were near 100%. Why should people work overtime for nothing? Piecework was taxed so heavily for Brits that it wasn't thinkable. So even though these dudes were paying us a low rate compared to what I got in LA we were getting 100% of it in cash, which made me relatively wealthy in this tax-strapped impoverished, cash-poor society.

I needed a place to live. I thought it would be a problem in a densely-packed city like London but here the laws again conspired to make my life easy. This was the age of the squatter. Any unoccupied house could find itself invaded by a pack of filthy hippies during its owner's absence, with the true ownership to be decided at some future date by The Housing Board which had a definite tilt against the petty-bourgeois and in favor of the lumpenproletariat. People who had business abroad were looking for people like me to flat-sit. I got to live in some pretty nice digs in Nottinghill Gate, Maida Vale, Fulham, and Clapham. In between I rented rooms near Marble Arch and in a commune in Wandsworth run by a Welsh warlock named Brynn. I had cash and was not likely to declare myself a sitting tenant and go down to the housing board and achieve unevictable 'sitting tenant' status-- which made paying rent a voluntary activity. Paying property taxes 9Or 'rates' as they cal them there) was never voluntary for a landlord. This forced more and more landlords to sell out to the local 'housing trusts' which were run by and for the local pols.

There was an air of doom in the country. Everything went on strike all the time. Nobody had any money. Men who invested in buying a woman a dinner in a restaurant expected to sleep with the recipient of the free meal. At first I didn't get it. Women in LA or SF expected to be taken out for a no-strings-attached feed during the getting-to-know-you process but didn't feel any obligation to do anything in return; if sparks flew fine, if not, too bad. Money was so tight in London in those times that a woman had to respect that a guy fancied her enough to spend a good portion of the few pennies the state and his bills left him on her. Going out to dinner and to a rock concert or a club was a real treat and it was understood that it would end up back at your place unless you were a complete muppet. Women decided whether they liked you enough to sleep with you before they said yes to a date, not after a couple of dates. Again I was the sailor in Tahiti with the keg of nails. In a socialist society cash rules.

The coal miners went on strike so there were rolling blackouts. The air traffic controllers went on strike so the airports were closed. The bakers went on strike so I couldn't get my Cornish Pasty for lunch. The firemen went on strike and when they called in the Army they refused to cross the picket line. The nurses and then the doctors went on strike. The tubes went on strike. British Leyland went on strike. More and more industries were grinding to a halt. There was a bleak air of desperation and defeat. Young people were leaving the country for contract jobs in the oil-wealthy Middle East or in Hong Kong. America, also having economic problems under the leftish Carter administration was looked on as the land of plenty. I had an exotic accent from the land of plenty.

So thats what we're in for. Tax rates that confiscate your entire paycheck. The middle and lower classes which under the current system are paying very little income taxes are in for a BIG surprise. The sunny days of Bush-Clinton-Bush are over. Inflation will push the unindexed earnings of even the most lowly-paid helots into the 'truly wealthy' brackets. 'Free' health care will come with a price tag that will shock the 'deserving poor' and everyone else. As will the decline and chaos in the health care system as the Feds do to it what they've done to the financial and banking systems. Property rights will be non-existent and property taxes will be confiscatory. Young people will be unemployed and bereft of the most basic opportunities. There will be no investment capital available and more and more of the private sector will be absorbed into a state-corporate economy that will have no interest in efficiency or innovation. The average person will not be able to afford to drive a car. Thats the Change We Can Believe In. Believe it, its coming.

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