Thursday, 4 February 2016

Putting the world to rights.

Almost eight years ago, at the very last "Leavers Do" (a mix of "prom" and party for the students who were moving on to work or university the following year) I went to at the college where I worked, I witnessed an odd phenomenon. A girl from my tutor group - pretty, clad in a lovely and probably very expensive dress, hair beautifully styled, make-up carefully, indeed expertly, applied - spent the first hour of the evening taking pictures of herself and her best friend - equally well prepared for the evening - on her mobile phone. This was before the term "selfie" was common parlance. My own mobile phone at that time didn't even take photos, let alone allow me to post them anywhere! I was astounded, gob-smacked even! I knew these two girls weren't the most academic the college had ever had through its doors but they were not stupid by any means, just a bit more self-centred and vain than I had previously imagined. 

Today I read that a survey carried out last year claimed that the average 16-25-year-old woman spends more than five hours a week taking selfies. Wow! Somewhere along the way the feminist message about what you do being more important than how you look has gone astray. Do young men spend a similar amount of time taking selfies? Is there not something more useful to do with your time? 

Meanwhile, on Desert Island Discs the other day, they were talking to Bill Gates, the very rich Microsoft man. Clever chap with computers, that Bill Gates, he had the good fortune to be clever at just the right time and made a phenomenal amount of money out of it. And he has given a lot of it away. A couple of friends of mine were talking about it after the Italian class the other day. One of them had very definite views about what Mr Gates does with his money. Now, as of 2014, Bill Gates and his wife Melinda have donated more than US$30 billion to charitable foundation they set up. And they still have lots to live on. 

My friend, however, was quite indignant about the work of the foundation. What, she wanted to know, gives Bill Gates, Brangelina and other such very rich philanthropists, the right to decide WHO gets financial assistance? Why do they get to play God? It's all very well for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to choose a place in Africa, for example, to receive a sum of money so that they can set up an industry of some kind. But what happens, she wondered, when the allotted time for that financial assistance runs out and perhaps the recipients haven't quite managed to become self-sufficient? Do the very rich philanthropists have the right to pull the rug out from under their feet at that point? All valid questions. 

Surely there is a better way to organise the world so that all that wealth sloshing around at the top gets distributed. It's great that there are rich people who realise that they can't actually spend it all themselves. (Even more so that some of them, like Mr Gates, recognise that just leaving it all to their children might not in the end do their children the biggest favour possible. Those children need to learn to make their own way.) But deciding who is helped by the charitable foundations is a tricky business and perhaps my friend is right to feel it should not just be left up to the very rich philanthropists, much as we appreciate their philanthropy! 

I forget which radio programme I was listening to where I heard someone suggest that monthly pay-checks should be arbitrary for everyone. Nobody would know exactly how much was going into their bank account from one month to the next, no matter whether they were road-sweepers or headteachers or nuclear physicists or prime ministers or whatever. One month they might receive a paltry amount, as if they were on benefits. The next month they could receive the top salary in the land. And, of course, sometimes they received amounts between those two. This would make everyone more circumspect and less rash in their spending. It would also make them more understanding and considerate of others who did not have as much as they did. It would even out the wealth of the world. That's the theory, anyway! 

Of course, it's all utopian! And we all know that utopias don't really exist. But sorting out a fairer world beats spending several hours a week taking pictures of yourself.

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