Archive for April, 2013

The Tories are lying quite openly – now there is a surprise.

April 25, 2013

Commenting on the underhanded way in which the Department of Work and Pensions has gone about scrapping to the £320 million a year funding it made available to so that 20,000 severely disabled could live as independently as possible, Zoe iliiiam notes notes that  the DWP lied about the purpose of closing the independent living fund. It didn’t admit that the money wouldn’t be there after 2015 until it was legally required to.

  Whenever this government comes out with an idea that sounds, for British politics, unusually unjust or barbaric or ill-conceived, it usually has its roots in the US (free schools, food stamps, dash for gas, shares for rights, privatisation of health services). What I mind the most is the readiness with which the government will now lie: the prime minister will lie about the national debt; the secretary of state will lie about immigration, the chancellor will lie about benefit claimants, they’ll be rapped over the knuckles by the Office for National Statistics or Office for Budgetary Responsibility, take their punishment and go straight out and lie again. So, in the words of Nicholas Tomalin, talking about politicians in a (real) war: “Never forget that they lie, they lie, they lie.”

Here are some examples of the lies that are cirdulated without apology.

Ask people where that  money that the governmet spends on welfare  goes and you’ll find  the assumptions is that it’s on unemployment or incapacity benefit. Apparently 41% of people think that the entire welfare budget goes to unemployed people paying out unemployment benefits.

In fact, half of UK benefit spending actually goes on state pensions. Jobseeker’s allowance is £4.91bn in 2011-12. That is a mere  3% of the  benefits bill that the government has to foot .

A vast of the  British public reckon benefit cheats are a massive problem.  A recent opinion poll showed Brits typically believed 27% of the welfare budget is lost to fraud.

The reality is less dramatic. The DWP publishes official estimates of fraud in the welfare system. The most recent publication estimated overall fraud at 0.7% (yes,0.7% ) of the benefits bill. Mind you, if you say £1.2bn,is lost on fraud, then you haved to allow that people are going to feel understandiblyunhappy. But then we should remember benefits can be underpaid as well as overpaid,  and that last year it is  estimared underpayments (arising from errors by either officials or claimants) added up to £1.3bn.  

 

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Michael, let’s talk about Singapore.

April 23, 2013

The Education Secretary Mr Gove has  said recently that research in Hong Kong, Singapore and other East Asian nations showed that expectations of mathematical knowledge and scientific knowledge were “at every stage” more demanding than in Britain.

“In order to reach those levels of achievement a higher level of effort is expected on behalf of students, parents and teachers,” he said.

“School days are longer, school holidays are shorter. The expectation is that to succeed, hard work is at the heart of everything.”

Polly Toynbee in a piece for today’ edition of The Guardian reminds Mr. Gove that he  that it’s not just expectations that are different.

Gove, calling for payment by results, cited Singapore’s high-achieving school system, “where expectations are higher”. What he didn’t say is that Singapore, like top performer Finland, is one of the most equal of developed nations. As his government drives up inequality, his schools face an ever tougher task compensating for the society they inhabit.

Debt and what should be done about it.

April 23, 2013

For what i consider to be a few no very preposterous suggestions, read  Robert Kuttner‘s The Debt We Shouldn’t Pay which appears in the current issue of the New York Review of Books.

Public debt was not implicated in the collapse of 2008, nor is it retarding the recovery today. Enlarged government deficits were the consequence of the financial crash, not the cause.1 Indeed, there’s a strong case that government deficits are keeping a weak economy out of deeper recession. When Congress raised taxes in January at an annual rate of over $180 billion to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff, and then accepted a “sequester” of $85 billion in spending cuts in March, the combined fiscal contraction cut economic growth for 2013 about in half, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Moreover, some of the causes of public deficits, such as Medicare, reflect to a large extent inefficiency and inflation in health care rather than profligacy in public budgeting.

Here comes a point that’s now been lost sight of both in most countries tha are now been fed the austerity cure: 

It was private speculative debts—exotic mortgage bonds financed by short-term borrowing at very high costs—that produced the crisis of 2008. The burden of private debts continues to hobble the economy’s potential. In the decade prior to the collapse of 2008, private debts grew at more than triple the rate of increase of the public debt. In 22 percent of America’s homes with mortgages, the debt exceeds the value of the house. Young adults begin economic life saddled with student debt that recently reached a trillion dollars, limiting their purchasing power. Middle-class families use debt as a substitute for wages and salaries that have lagged behind the cost of living. This private debt overhang, far more than the obsessively debated question of public debt, retards the recovery.

We may think that debt – however incurred – has to be repaid: it a moral duty on us as individuals and as a society. Then again maybe there is a time when we have to think again.

In the case of a broad downturn,2 debt ceases to be purely a moral question, and becomes a pragmatic one: Will it help the overall economy for the law to demand that debts always be paid in full? Was it economically sensible to throw debtors into jail? Is it sensible now to force troubled corporations or banks to liquidate? To compel sales of millions of homes in a depressed market? To destroy the economic potential of entire nations so that they can service old debts that were incurred corruptly by previous governments or banks? Society properly discourages borrowers from taking on imprudent burdens, and the prospective loss of property or even liberty functions as a deterrent. But in a general collapse, debt forgiveness may become necessary if the economy is not to sink further.

He reminds the reader that debt relief and forgiveness has not been unknown, even in recent history. During the Great Depression and Roosevelt era

… the US government became serious about debt relief, with a series of policies that refinanced distressed home mortgages, reformed and recapitalized banks, extended relief to bankrupt consumers, financed a huge war debt at below-market interest rates, and wrote off some of the international debts of allies and enemies alike. (Britain, America’s closest ally, received near-total forgiveness of wartime Lend-Lease debt.)

Germany, today’s enforcer of Euro-austerity, was the beneficiary of one of history’s most magnanimous acts of debt amnesty in 1948. The Allies in the 1920s made the catastrophic error of helping to destroy Germany’s economy with reparations and debt collection policies. In the 1940s, after a brief flirtation with World War I–style reparations, the occupying powers agreed to behave differently: they wrote off 93 percent of the Nazi-era debt and postponed collection of other debts for nearly half a century. So Germany, whose debt-to-GDP ratio in 1939 was 675 percent, had a debt load of about 12 percent in the early 1950s—far less than that of the victorious Allies—helping to produce postwar Germany’s economic miracle. Almost every German can cite the Marshall Plan, but this larger act of macroeconomic mercy has disappeared from the political consciousness of Germany’s current austerity police.

Kuttner is wise enough to know the chances of countries such as Ireland having their debts relieved are remote.

The question of who gets debt relief reflects the distribution of political power—and power normally lies with large creditors such as banks.

 Just so.

Ken Loach on plans for Margaret Thatcher’s funeral.

April 10, 2013

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Margaret Hilda Thatcher (13 October 1925 – 8 April 2013)

April 9, 2013

A staff blogger, writing in The New Statesman just over four years ago came close to writing, a near perfect summary of what I believe Margaret Thatcher’s  legacy to be.

 Margaret Thatcher: still guilty after all these years

 It is 30 years since Margaret Thatcher entered No 10, setting in motion a revolution that would destroy the quasi-socialist political consensus of the postwar decades and, after much strife, turn Britain into the country it is today: riven, atomised, debt-stricken, hugely unequal, its prosperity excessively dependent on financial services, its public spaces degraded, and its towns, at least at night, the preserve of the binge drinker and the brawler.

Many of us may have grown more wealthy during the Thatcher and the New Labour years but, somehow, we seem as a society more spiritually bereft, more restless, unhappier even. This is not to deny that Britain, at the end of the 1970s, was dismal. We had a failing Labour government, which had already begun to experiment with monetarism and to cut public spending; a union movement that had become too complacent and too powerful, a huge obstacle to reform; a punitive taxation system that served as a disincentive to enterprise; a wider culture that was largely racist, homophobic and misogynistic. The political and social cultural consensus had to be broken, one way or another. And, in retrospect, the necessary transformation, or counter-revolution, could only have come from the right. The Labour Party was too exhausted, and soon, irresponsibly, it would split in defeat and self-hatred, opening the way for 18 years of Conservative rule.

Yet how brutal and destructive that counter-revolution proved to be, as whole communities were destroyed, especially in the industrial heartlands of northern England, Wales and Scotland, communities that have not recovered to this day. And how unbending was the doctrine that came to be known as Thatcherism.

Thatcherism, as our columnist Martin Jacques reminds us on page 10, was akin to a Bolshevik movement: a group of ideologues emerged from the margins to seize control of the very centre and effect radical change. The path was fixed. There could be no turning back. All opposition had to be crushed. The human casualties were as necessary as they were inevitable. Mrs Thatcher may have purported to believe in the High Tory, Burkean values of tradition, organic hierarchy and the accumulated wisdom of past generations, but she was no pragmatist or gradualist. “Economics are the method,” she said; “the object is to change the soul.” No Marxist would have disagreed.

And Mrs Thatcher did change the soul – of the country, of its people and of the Labour Party. New Labour was as much her creation as it was Tony Blair’s and Gordon Brown’s. Today, her shadow still looms large over British politics: it is to the fury of at least 125 Labour MPs that one of her most lasting legacies – that of privatisation – is now threatening the Post Office. Remarkably, on its return to power, not only did New Labour refuse to reverse any of the utility privatisations, it extended them with the selling of air-traffic control.

Mrs Thatcher herself was a moralist. She believed in probity, thrift, personal responsibility, the family. At the beginning of her premiership she spoke of the need to bring harmony where there was discord and of the need to heal. At the end of her premiership, however, after three general election victories and 11 years in power, she had created, with bloodshed and war, a thin-spun, debased consumer society, the engines of which were vacuous acquisition and an obsession with celebrity. That remains the case today.

Yet we should never forget that Mrs Thatcher was adored by millions, not least because of her resolution and courage. She was a conviction politician; you knew what she believed in and, because of this, she was trusted. She demonstrated that ultimate power could be gender-neutral. And encouraging working people to buy their own council homes was hugely popular, as was her brand of English nationalism.

A theme of this special issue of the New Statesman is forgiveness. Writing on page 12, Oona King asks, rhetorically, if she can forgive Mrs Thatcher for all that she did and said. For Paul Routledge, whose article begins on page 26, there is no such self-questioning. There is only certainty – Thatcher is, and always will be, the unforgiven.

Our view is more nuanced. We recognise that the Labour Party was defeated at the end of the 1970s and that a social transformation was necessary. Our final verdict, however, must be this: Margaret Thatcher is guilty as charged

 As long as her shadow looms over British Politics – and it does and will for some time to come – we must let that verdict stand.

The corruption of America’s political system – Lawrence Lessig.

April 8, 2013

In this TED* talk legal activist Lawrence Lessig says that before Americans can bring about change on any of the thousands of issues that matter to them, they must change a central corruption at the root of the American political system — that politicians must raise vast amounts of money in order to have a chance in the general election. This makes them prone to the influence of a very small percentage of the population.

After watching it, John Naughton has this to say;

Great, impassioned, supremely lucid lecture. His book — Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress – and a Plan to Stop It is terrific also.

*TED is a nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design. Since then its scope has become ever broader. Along with two annual conferences — the TED Conference on the West Coast each spring, and the TEDGlobal conference in Edinburgh UK each summer — TED includes the award-winning TED Talks video site, the Open Translation Project and TED Conversations, the inspiring TED Fellows and TEDx programs, and the annual TED Prize.

There lies Ian Duncan Smith.

April 6, 2013

This report taken from the pages of today’s issue of The Guardian  casts some doubt on the way that opinion is shaped in this country.

 The government is increasingly using value-laden and pejorative language when discussing benefits and welfare, a Guardian analysis has found, something poverty charities warn is likely to increase the stigmatisation of poor people.

The findings show that the work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, has spoken of a mass culture of welfare dependency in every speech on benefits he has made in the past 12 months.

The analysis comes after complaints that the government is using exceptional cases such as that of Mick Philpott, the unemployed man jailed this week for the manslaughter of six children, to justify its programme of changes to the benefits system.

An examination of Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) speeches and press notices connected to benefits in the year to April 1 shows a significantly increased use of terms such as “dependency”, “entrenched” and “addiction”, when compared with the end of the Labour government.

Fraud, which accounts for less than 1% of the overall benefits bill, was mentioned 85 times in the press releases, while it was not used at all in the final year of Labour, which was itself accused of sometimes using intemperate language on the issue.

In the 25 speeches by DWP ministers on welfare over the year, “dependency” was mentioned 38 times, while “addiction” occurred 41 times and “entrenched” on 15 occasions. A comparison of 25 speeches on the subject by Labour ministers saw the words used, respectively, seven times, not at all, and once.

Some charities warn that such language fuels a distorted portrayal of benefits in parts of the media, which in turn perpetuates widespread myths about the welfare system. A YouGov poll for the TUC last year found that, on average, people think 41% of the welfare budget supports the unemployed – the true amount is 3% – and believe the fraud rate is 27%, as against the government’s estimate of 0.7%.

The DWP’s language was unhelpful and appeared to be getting worse, according to Helen Barnard, policy manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. She said: “It misrepresents what poverty is about. It sets up this idea that there are poor people and people on benefits and then everybody else, and never the twain shall meet. When you look at the research, it’s very much the opposite. The majority of people in the UK will experience poverty at least once in their lifetime. The idea that poverty is experienced by another group that is fundamentally different to everyone else is completely wrong.”

Tim Nichols from the Child Poverty Action Group said his organisation believed government rhetoric on the issue was changing, having a real effect on those claiming benefits.

He said: “It’s without doubt got worse. It is very much linked to the fact they’ve got a major programme of cuts to social security under way, and are seeking a narrative to justify this. It’s becoming increasingly hard for us to find people in poverty or receiving benefits who are happy to speak about their situation in the media. They fear the effect of this stigmatisation if they put themselves in the spotlight – how it might affect them and their children. They really are scared.”

Duncan Smith appears to be the most frequent user of value-laden terminology, regularly including terms such as “entrenched and intergenerational worklessness and welfare dependency” in his speeches. Campaigners particularly challenge his regular claim of benefit dependency over generations; arecent study was unable to find any families where three generations had never worked and a only tiny number where this could be the case for two generations.

Analysis of language in the media a similar picture. In the past year, the term “benefit cheat” was used 442 times in national newspapers, an increase of almost two-thirds on the 12 months before the coalition took power.

The DWP said: “We are very clear that it is the welfare system that is failing individuals, not the other way around and our language always reflects that. Currently, people are being trapped on benefits or are missing out on the support they are rightly entitled to. Our reforms will end the benefits trap, and will also make it easier for people to claim the help they need.”

Can we say that we live in a “mature democracy” when we allow our opinions to be formed by politicians who tell us what must be tantamount to barefaced lies?  We know that the lies are working very well. In 1993, for example,  24% believed that benefits were too high and discouraged work, and  55% felt this not to be the case. Today polls show 62% hold that benefits are too high and attract the work shy.  collective  Those receiving the state’s help are stigmatised. With  37% believing that most people on the dole are  “fiddling”, it’s relatively easy for the likes of Ian Duncan Smith and the DWP to get away with all kinds of lap-trap.

In another part of the same paper   says that George Osborne linking of the case of Mick Philpott to the state of Britain’s benefits system,

 …he knew what he was doing. A student of US politics, he was deploying a favoured technique of the American right, honed during the decades-long culture wars. Dip your hands in the slime of an episode that stirs revulsion – and smear it all over your opponent. In the role of Willie Horton – the rapist notoriously used by Bush the elder to discredit Michael Dukakis – enter Mick Philpott. Message: if you hate him and what he did, then you ought to hate the “benefits culture” and the Labour party that supports it.

It may be that Osborne is not the only “student” whos’s been taking lessons from the American right.