Wednesday, 11 December 2013

The Cost of Kindness

From 2008 to 2009 the world's economies suffered an unprecedented recession whose effects are still being keenly felt in most countries. The shock-waves of this recession have informed and dominated the political debate for half a decade, and will likely do so for a decade or two more.

In the UK, and in many other countries, a prominent response to the contraction of growth has been to introduce massive cuts in public spending - a fiscal strategy known as austerity. In the UK, the ruling coalition government aims to reduce public spending to its lowest level for 70 years, primarily by decimating welfare spending for the country's poorest and most vulnerable.

The argument runs that welfare spending has for many years been extravagant, it was and is unsupportable, and has been a (if not the) primary cause of the economic recession. Austerity is given as the self-evident remedy for this situation.

If this argument were sound, you'd expect to find that countries with higher welfare spending would generally have suffered worse recessions than those with smaller welfare spending. However, if you compare the welfare spending of countries in the year before the recession (2007) with the change in GDP those countries suffered as a consequence of the recession (2009 vs 2008), you find that there is no such association.

Estonia had about half the welfare burden of the UK in 2007, but suffered a recession almost three times greater, while Poland's welfare burden was almost equivalent to the UK but their economy continued to grow.

The welfare bill was not, and is not the problem. Austerity is a con - a political and an ideological cipher. The failings of capitalism have been hijacked to attack social security, and the poison of this lie has already run deep into the national psyche.


There is also no association between a country's financial liabilities (government debt) in 2007 and the depth of recession in 2009, even including the outlying case of Japan. Without Japan included, the correlation is essentially zero.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

The myth of the individual.

I have some shocking news; we are not alone ...

This may come as a surprise to many, who having lived in a nation that champions grasping self-centered individual success above pretty much all else, have little or no concept of the role of society in their lives. People are of course trivially aware that they live in a nation with some 60 million other people, but the dominant view is that the majority of their compatriots are little more than competitors for jobs, wealth, housing, fame, and so on. It's a popular and attractive idea, and it's easy to understand why - the potential rewards for clambering over everyone else are enormous. 'Success', in these terms, is measured only in pounds sterling.

The consequences of this view are profound, and colour much of our political and public conversation. The political right have always valued this philosophy, since it bolsters their position of individual privilege. Once you have money, it's untouchable, unexamined, the result of your own hard work and merit alone. This is one of the central views of the libertarian.

The other view has a name that has been poisoned by the libertarian bloc for decades, but is nothing more than a recognition of the reality of living in a society - that is, socialism. The poison is deep, and artfully delivered, and includes the repeated conflation of socialism with the horrors of Stalinism. Marx, however, never advocate the murderous suppression of the populace by a ruling elite - in fact, he argued for precisely the opposite, saying that for too much of history, this had been the reality. Unfortunately, the consensus is that all economic philosophies beyond free-market capitalism have been tested and have failed, often with horrifying results.

David Cameron in his 2013 Tory party conference speech, gave these themes another airing, much to the delight of his wealthy, ageing voter base. While attacking Labour's extremely moderate socialism, he vowed to build a "land of opportunity for all", by freeing businesses to make as much profit as possible. 

The fundamental problem with this philosophy is that you might end up with opportunity for all, but success only ever comes to a few.

The Tangled Web we Weave

We can't all be CEOs of FTSE 100 companies, we can't all be consultants and lawyers; we need cleaners, secretaries, nurses, nursery staff, binmen, builders, engineers, and the rich tapestry of skills and jobs that are essential for our society to function. While we're encouraged every day to think as individuals, it's worth taking a moment to consider just how interdependent we are.

Think about your education. Beyond the teachers and support staff in the classroom, a team of builders, electricians and plumbers formed the building. The chairs and tables were made in their own factories, staffed by their own workers, using materials such as plastics that came from oil refineries, using oil drilled out in dangerous seas or harsh deserts. All of the workers, goods and materials that built and ran the school got there using roads laid by another set of workers, to designs by civil engineers, and funded by money collected from taxes and assigned by civil servants. Everyone was kept healthy by doctors and nurses, and fed by food grown in farmers' fields collected by labourers, and sold by grocers.

Death and Taxes

And so we all benefit from the roads, rail, schools, sewers, power stations, healthcare and emergency services paid for with taxpayer's money. Tax isn't an evil threat to liberty - it's the investment we make that gives us the return of a prosperous society. After all, a safe, healthy, educated workforce is going to be far more productive than a sickly, unskilled one. Indeed, Nordic nations which have high taxes and much more generous welfare states than our own consistently have better health and lower crime rates, but they certainly don't have a crippled business sector - IKEA anyone?

Income inequality is growing - the richest 1% now have a staggering 40% of our nation's wealth. To more evenly distribute the wealth we ALL help create, we could wait for the wealthiest to become noble philanthropists like Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, but we'll wait a long time. Alternatively, we can actively redistribute wealth using taxation - after all, the wealthiest have benefited the most from society, and owe it a greater debt.

When the wealthiest in our society block any attempts at more progressive taxation, they're 'forgetting' that they could not have become as wealthy as they are without the help of the rest of society. Could Centrica's boss, Sam Laidlaw have hoped to make his £10m income in 2011 without the combined effort of thousands of other workers of this and other countries? Could his company have functioned without transport links, a national grid to power their offices, and workers educated in our schools? Of course not! Tax-averse billionaires are having their cake and eating it, and we're hungrily watching them get fatter by the day.

Socialism for a Society

Beyond the every-man-for-himself view of the free-market liberal, what other views are there?

Socialism recognises our humanity first and foremost, and champions the basic, shared needs of every person that lives in a society. It recognises certain realities of societies: the reality that if you allow people to become as wealthy as possible at the expense of others, they'll do just that; the reality of our society that some will be weaker than others through no fault of their own; the reality that we can all contribute something to the prosperity of our nation.

Don't be fooled by the wealthy champions of austerity - there is room and money enough for every one of us to have a dignified existence; in fact, it's absolutely essential we all do.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

The Royals and the Right's Money Lust

And so the new heir has been anointed by his mother's amniotic fluid, and all around this happy, constitutionally significant, and above all, deeply human event has been the suffocating royalist craziness that in recent years has enjoyed a phenomenal resurgence in the UK. Dewy-eyed folk from all kinds of social backgrounds have merrily joined in the fuzzy zeitgeist that accompanies most births - though usually on a far smaller scale. Of course, as royalty is the grandest tradition of the UK, those arch-traditionalists on the right of the political spectrum have been the most vociferous in their praise of Prince William and his rags-to-riches fairytale wife, Kate.

The Daily Mail, Tele(Tory)graph and Express are well known for their adulation of the monarchy, with Princess Diana (for example) having been repeatedly sainted as a martyr to the cruel vagaries of the Windsors and the hounding of the press. No; the irony is not lost on me either. 

A little reflection on the behaviour of the Right does shine a stark light on the hypocrisy of the campaign against an over-generous welfare state and the vitriol that is directed towards immigrants and immigration.

Immigrant family

The heredity of the Royal family is one of its defining features, and is consequently very well detailed, and widely known. Queen Elizabeth II is descended from the union between English Queen Victoria, and German Prince Albert. The family carried its patrilineal surname of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha until the First World War, when George V adopted Windsor as the family name, against a backdrop of anti-German sentiment. Our present Queen Elizabeth II is, of course, married to Greek Prince Phillip. 

Immigration is thus at the centre of our monarchy, but anti-immigrant sentiment is at a 3-year high, with 57% of respondents to a recent YouGov poll saying that immigration is one of the most important issues facing the country [1]. The right-wing press carry scare stories about immigration on a daily basis, and the Tories have had their support heavily dented by the stronger anti-immigration rhetoric of UKIP (though this is now fading). It is unsurprising then that the public are grossly misinformed about immigration, believing, for example, that 1 in 4 Britons are Muslim [2]. Political affiliation with the right, royal approval and opposition to immigration are well-aligned [3], with royal support far greater among Tory voters.

Welfare scroungers

What then about the public money that the Queen enjoys as part of her Sovereign Support Grant of around £35 million? Quite why a woman who has a net worth of around £350 million should need a 'support grant' is unclear, but the money comes from the Crown Estates, whose earnings from various properties and vast tracts of the countryside are paid directly to the Treasury. It is clear that the role of head of state doesn't require such enormous sums of money - the Presidency of Ireland costs a mere 100th of the cost of the UK's monarchy. Could there then be a more undeserving recipient of millions of pounds of the nation's money than an already fantastically wealthy woman who carries out a largely ceremonial function which, in the main, consists of the hardship of hosting delegations of foreign leaders at exquisitely catered dinners?

With 500,000 people depending on food banks, with tens of thousands forced out of their homes due to the withdrawal of housing benefits, with the slashing of income support for the disabled and unemployed, it is disheartening to find that support for the retraction of the welfare state in such a strong position. But strong it is, and while not confined to the political right, it is the monarchy-loving right that most strongly support it [4].


What about their academic merit? Well, the Windsors are hardly high academic achievers, with the Queen having no formal qualifications. Harry has only grades B and D at A level, and Anne shares this achievement with two A level grades. Charles at least studied at Trinity College Cambridge, and managed a 2:2 Bachelor of Arts, while Prince William seems the most capable of them all, holding a 2:1 in Geography from St Andrews. Most have had undistinguished military careers, with the exception of Anne and Edward, who quit his military training early and has filled his time dabbling in the entertainment industry since.

The Right preach a meritocracy - that success is the product of industry, and that financial security is not a right, but the fruit of productive endeavour. These, as you can see, are hardly attributes of the Royal family, but the Right daren't admit that success might come from anything other than the individual's honest effort.


Why then are the Royals so popular? The fact appears to be that many in this country worship money; have enough of it, and you can be forgiven all sorts of morally dubious things. Those pesky bankers are generally forgiven for having betted and lost with the public's savings, but if you dare have a spare bedroom in your council house, be prepared to run for cover.

To the monarchist Right, it seems that you can be forgiven for being a work-shy, underachieving welfare-scrounger from immigrant stock, just as long as you're fabulously wealthy. 


Monday, 1 July 2013

Britain PLC

What am I? A minority of highly-paid, well-connected, highly-privileged and well educated bosses at the top; a middle-tier supporting and maintaining the hierarchy; and a mass of low-paid, underprivileged, workers, working long hours with little or no hope of promotion. I am not only a picture of many businesses, but also the right-wing’s dominant vision of Britain PLC.

The cultural war in America is well documented – that bloody battle between the socially-liberal Democratic (barely) left, and the deeply religious socially-conservative Republican right. But the economic strife racking Britain is engendering a similar, if not more subtle fight about the role and character of our government.

To the avaricious right, the nation is primarily a tool for generating wealth - a corporation guided by an elected board of directors sitting in Parliament. The country’s model of governance ought to follow the model set out by capitalist principles; slavish deference to the bottom line, and just enough investment in the workforce to keep them working. As Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office Minister said recently about the cuts to government spending:

"There's more to come. Frankly, even if it was the most efficient organisation in the world there would be more to come. The best organisations find efficiency savings every single year because that's just what you do. The best companies do this every year so there's definitely more to come and we are nowhere near the most efficient organisation in the world.”

In this view, human dignity is subservient to the finance department’s calculations. There is no basic, universal quality of life that can’t be eroded by the demands of the ledger. It is merely good fortune for the lowest-paid, sick and disabled, unskilled and underprivileged that Britain PLC is the seventh biggest corporation in the world. They enjoy the grace of a generous benefits scheme, but don’t really merit any of it, as those at the top do. The value of a life is inextricably tied to the contribution it makes to the coffers; the more you bring, the more you can take away.

We need another view.

It is an absurdly naive notion that poverty is merely a product of idleness, but listen for long enough to the right-wing’s mouthpieces and this is the only theory that is ever extended. The implication is that all you need to do to lift yourself from penury is to knuckle down and exert more effort. Never mind that there aren’t enough jobs - work harder! Never mind that you don’t have the requisite skills and training for most of the jobs available - work harder! Never mind that you’re chronically ill, disabled or a carer for one or more dependents - work harder!

Our nation – like any nation – will always, and must always have a workforce composed of workers that cover the entire spectrum of skilfulness. We can’t have a nation of 30 million doctors, lawyers and bankers; we need teachers, cleaners, factory workers, builders and road sweepers, and a good case could be made that the latter are more essential than the former! The idea that you are a more deserving citizen as a lawyer than a cleaner is pervasive, but should be discarded as an idea from a less civilized history of our nation. Not only that, but our nation – like any nation – will always and must always have citizens who aren’t able to work, through age, disability, sickness or responsibilities as carers. This mustn’t be seen as a consequence of some feebleness of spirit, but recognised as a basic fact of our humanity.

But more fundamentally than that, why should your job influence your entitlement to a dignified existence at all? Our government, as a democratically elected council of the populace – rather than merely arch patricians of our finances - should be defending and maintaining the right of every single citizen to a fair and dignified existence, irrespective of birth-right or job title. It is expensive to do so, but there is most certainly more than enough to go around. Our nation’s fabled wealth-creators will certainly need cajoling to loosen their grip, but their fists are filled with the capital that the real wealth-creators – the workers – have given over their lives to generating.

We are not a commodity, and in the search for the character of our nation we must give as strong a voice as we can to the idea that the demands of our humanity come before the health of our balance sheet. Compassion, dignity and respect can, and ought to be extended to every man, woman and child living on our shores.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

A right Royal pay-rise

If there’s something that brings out the bonkers in large swathes of the British public, it’s not the four days of feeble sunshine we like to call summer, but Her Majesty the Queen and her expanding clan. The institution’s popularity is like a particularly stubborn dose of syphilis; a recurring fever that’s highly infectious, with a creeping madness that doesn’t shift in the face of the antibiotic of reason. Express any faintly treasonous sentiment or criticism, and you can expect a nation of beef eaters to come and drag you off to the tower.

Why on earth should anyone have any objection to handing over around £35 million of government money to a single family who already have a net worth of £359 million? What possible problem could someone have with Her Royal Highness being handed a pay-rise of 5%, while around 500,000 of her subjects are suffering the indignity of needing the services of food banks? After all, the most convincing reason to keep any constitutional arrangement must be the boost to tourism that it provides. The Presidency of the United States only survives because of the impressive sales of commemorative bumper stickers and gun holsters it engenders. The Irish Presidency costs a meagre 112 times less than our head of state, and clearly no-one flocks to Ireland to see His Excellency, opting instead to visit irrelevant gewgaws like Dublin, or enjoy the Republic’s fatuous natural beauty.

So let’s not forget the enormous magnets to foreign metal that the Royals provide to attractions like Buckingham Palace, even if it isn’t itself in the top 10 most visited historic sites in the UK, and the number one historic attraction – the Tower of London - only has historic associations with the Royals. Still, without the fabulously slim chance of catching a glimpse of the Queen in one of her regal pastel uniforms, clearly no tourist would ever dream of booking a train, plane or boat to visit our shores. And let’s also not forget, half of those shores and the seabed out to 12 miles is owned by the Crown Estates.

Besides being the lynchpin to the UK’s tourism industry, the Queen is also an essential rallying point for our armed forces, unlike the United States who have the largest and best equipped armed forces in the world. Meddle with the Windsors and watch our borders dissolve!

And what about all the good work this family does? Imagine those vast, unpopulated wastelands, filled with newly built shopping centres and other publicly funded projects made impassable by reams of uncut red ribbon. No sycophantic grins and snapping shutters there to justify the expense of chartered jets and Royal trains, for the sake of pulling back the curtains shielding commemorative plaques.

If you forget the cost of round the clock security, Royal travel and official visits - as the official figures do - then the Monarchy costs us a mere 53p each. This is 'good value for money', since none of us could hope to rattle around in over 21 palatial residences without being significantly inconvenienced by all those spare bedrooms. Thankfully, our notoriously frugal monarch has just enough company to stave off loneliness by keeping a slim household staff of 250.

The government is clear; the State needs to save money. It is therefore the apogee of sensibility to retract the Welfare State, freeze public pay-rises while inflation soars, and hand over more money to a single woman who already earns 1,362 times the average national wage. You may be struggling to buy bread, but at least you can fill your belly with the warming knowledge that an iniquitous tradition of inequality is being maintained for the good of the nation.

Sunday, 31 March 2013

The evil of the government’s ‘hard-work’ trope.

In his 2013 budget speech on March the 20th, George Osborne said “It's a historic achievement for this government and for hard working families across the country.” He was speaking of the government’s proud pledge to raise the personal allowance to £10,000, but his singling out of ‘hard working families’ was odd in that the allowance is, and has always been bestowed on any worker, irrespective of whether they are part of a family, and independently of how hard they work.

In an article written exclusively for the Daily Mail at the start of September in 2012 titled 'Hard work, moral good and no more dumbing down... It is time to stop the dithering that's holding Britain back', David Cameron was even more explicit in his endorsement of that most Protestant and Victorian of sensibilities, writing:

“... and all of this means a nation where we talk about the values that matter: that families are vital; that we each have responsibilities to fulfil; that doing an honest day’s work is a moral good that should be rewarded.”

These are of course fine examples of a political rhetoric that has been vigorously adopted by the Conservative party in recent years, but it is a monumental cipher and a distraction that is expertly designed to appeal to the Tory’s ageing and financially comfortable voter base. The essential evil of this tack – and I won’t shy away from that assessment – is that it aims to shift the moral responsibility of the economic downturn from those in government, to the populace. The implication is that if you disagree with the government’s economic stewardship, or if you find yourself worse-off financially as a consequence, you only have yourself to blame for not being industrious enough.

This is iniquitous nonsense.

Firstly, working harder will make little or no difference to the earnings of most of the population; salaries are simply not calculated that way. People are employed on the basis of the kind of skill that the employer requires, and in nearly all cases, a salary is decided before an employee has lifted a finger. Once employed, there may be a degree of opportunity for promotion with a concomitant increase in earnings, but in the majority of cases this involves taking on different responsibilities, rather than simply increasing how intensely a person works.

Secondly, ministers imply in a fabulously patronising way that socioeconomic status is directly and exclusively related to how hard you have worked in your life. Poor are you? Then you’ve been lazy. This is a perverse, reverse meritocracy, where wealth has become an automatic totem of a person’s moral and industrial excellence, rather than the former following from the latter. You don’t need to have much familiarity with sociological ideas to understand that some occupations are enormously demanding in a physical sense – mining, manual factory work etc. – but are paid poorly, while essentially all of the best paid jobs require no manual effort beyond pushing buttons and pulling levers. Lawyers and A&E doctors may work similar hours, but they do not command the same earnings, and it is extremely facile to find many more examples where there is a discontinuity between financial security and effort.

Finally, there are in reality only a fantastically small number of workers whose intensity of labour is directly connected to shaping the health of the economy, and these are in the main government officials and public servants – those who work at the Treasury for example, and those who work at the Bank of England. For the rest of us, we are hopelessly at the mercy of the inflation and taxation that ratchets up the prices we pay for goods and services. You can never leave your place of work if you like, but petrol prices will rocket just the same, and your salary will probably be unmoved.

This hard-work theme is another divisive PR campaign from a bulging Tory catalogue that is designed to unburden the state from the responsibility of caring for the most needy and underprivileged. If you can blame the plight of the poor on their own failings, then you can argue that they don’t deserve any help. The working classes may wither and die, Messrs. Cameron and Osborne, but the fault will be entirely yours.