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Every new policy this fucking government comes up with seems to be about taking money away from those who have the least of it to start with, or undermining the infrastructure of an organisation currently delivering something of value to the public. And here they’ve found themselves a great two-for-one deal.

In addition to a series of real-terms pay cuts over the last few years, public sector health workers are now going to be made to hand over a huge chunk of their earnings to the government, to pay for the training that’s no longer being funded. That is, those who even bother training any more, given the lack of support or respect they’re being told they’ll be given.

Still I suppose it’s not like healthcare is a vitally important provision to literally everyone alive or that there’s already a dangerous staff shortage in this field OH WAIT IT’S EXACTLY LIKE THAT

Oh well. At least we’ll have plenty of nuclear weapons for the next decade or so.

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Hyperbrief summary: Conservatives are disingenuous about their views on government intervention and liberals fall for it.

Recommended?: Yep, especially as it’s available free.

Dean Baker is an impressively credentialled American economist. He’s written a bunch of books, many of which are downloadable for free from his website. The subtitle of this one represents what seems a common theme in his work: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer. Its basic idea is something that’s been seeming increasingly obvious to me for a while now, as I grow incrementally less dumb and ignorant about politics and economics.

According to the popular narrative, left-wing liberals believe that there are things we can’t get done as a society without relying on government to do them for us, whereas right-wing conservatives support independence, personal autonomy, and minimising government interference in lives of citizens. The public debate is commonly framed in these terms, and both sides tend to argue as if from this premise.

In fact, this is an entirely inaccurate basis for discussion, and liberals regularly leave themselves at a massive disadvantage by capitulating to this idea, allowing conservatives to claim a monopoly on fundamental American concepts like freedom and independence. Conservatives want and demand state intervention in the “free market” as much as anyone, generally to further entrench and concentrate the money and power of the rich and powerful.

One of the book’s main strengths is the consistent recognition that the way things are right now is not the only way they could possibly be. In numerous areas of life, there are clearly major drawbacks to our current way of doing things, and it’s our responsibility to be open to the possibility of substantial change. (I mean, he could do with turning that healthy revolutionary attitude up a notch on subjects like taxes, but in general it’s pretty good, and a lot better than most mainstream conversation.) The intended purpose and substantial downsides to our current systems are examined rigorously, and it’s sensibly analytical about the positives and pitfalls of alternative approaches.

It’s efficient in its writing, more than being particularly charming or witty, or otherwise infused with the author’s personality. Which isn’t really meant as a criticism, just something I noticed in comparison with most other books I’ve encountered that attempt to do a similar job. If you aren’t expecting too much of a casual chat, but want to see someone making their point articulately and concisely, it’s a good read.

One drawback for me was the way the word “state” is almost never used throughout the book without the word “nanny” preceding it. I get that this phrase is what summarises the thesis behind each individual argument, and he’s essentially right about all of it, but referring quite so often to “nanny state conservatives” as the people supporting the policies he argues against starts to feel like unnecessary name-calling – especially when “nanny state” becomes an inappropriate metaphor for what he’s describing.

I’ve never liked it that much anyway, as a term for an over-meddling government. Nannies are people we hire to come into our homes and provide a vital service looking after our children. They might have a stereotypical image as overbearing and overprotective, but that’s not inherent to the job, and they only exist because the tiny humans they’re looking after would be in serious danger of harm or death if a nanny wasn’t around to keep them safe. I guess the idea is that children are genuinely helpless, and need someone to take basically full responsibility for their lives, which is what some people act as if they want the government to do for all of us, but it still feels a bit weak as an epithet, especially when so overused.

Most of the time it’s not so bad, because the over-bearing intervention of the state is the correctly identified problem. But there are times when it talks about the wrong sort of intervention, or even when the government refuses to meddle in ways the book thinks it should – to let rich people get away with things in ways the less privileged wouldn’t be allowed to, say – at which point the overbearing nanny allegory entirely fails.

It’s not like his criticisms of government policy are suddenly any less valid or acutely observed at these points, but the patriarchal actions of a “nanny state” aren’t a good descriptor for the problem.

I was especially interested in the section on Social Security in the US, and how it compares to other systems. According to the figures cited, the administration costs of running Social Security are around 0.5% of the tax revenue that pays for it, compared to a figure of 15-20% of revenue going toward admin costs in privatised social security systems, such as in the UK.

Embarrassingly, given that I’ve worked in the field for several years, I had to google the name of the paper in the citation to figure out that the UK’s “privatised social security system” refers to pensions, in particular the system by which insurance companies sell annuities. (My mind only went to the socialised free-at-point-of-use NHS, which was more of a given when this book was published in 2006.)

But he’s obviously right that all the costs associated with being an annuity provider, such as executive pay and advertising and whatnot, are hugely inefficient. It’d never occurred to me to make the direct comparison to the US’s government system of Social Security; I’m going to need to read up on this in order to better understand the distinctions.

The Conservative Nanny State is a free e-book available on the author’s website. If you have any kind of political investment or personal leanings as regards liberalism, libertarianism, conservatism, or any of the ways humanity attempts to get its shit together, you’ve got no excuse not to read this and learn some more about how the system you think you understand actually works.

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take time this winter to check that elderly friends or neighbours are ok – sign up to be a winter friend

So the Secretary of State for Health tweeted earlier today, adding a link to an NHS page about how awful winter is for many elderly folks and how we can all help it suck a little less.

This seemed largely in keeping with Tory policy in general, which I rather unfairly characterised thusly at the time:

Come on, poors, huddle together for warmth. What’s that? Help with your heating or food bills from the millionaires in charge? Piss off.

There’s an interesting thing, though, about the government’s regular advice on charity, and how we can all help each other out when times are tough, and other such flimsy shreds of Big Society remnants – in particular, in how much it differs from their own policies on matters of poverty and welfare.

When it comes to charity, and the idea of individuals selflessly helping others, the coalition say many of the right things. Giving some of your time to check in on your more frail neighbours, donating to food banks, volunteering with children – the kind of stuff it’s basically impossible to get wrong, so long as you have the barest understanding of how platitudes work. The emphasis is all on generosity and kindness and compassion, which are wonderful things even when right-wing politicians are giving them lip service. And the image they paint of a community looking after each other and socialising warmly is a charming one.

Pop round to visit old Mrs Beadle at number 36 and see if she’s got enough blankets, or needs some help working the thermostat, or might just appreciate some company for an hour or two now her son’s moved away for his job and can’t visit so often. Knock on the door of that grumpy chap with one leg whose name you’ve never got to know, and see if there’s anything neighbourly you can do even though he always seems to be glowering and he’s not that easy to be around. Ask if there’s anything that harried single mum would love the time for this Christmas, which an offer of an evening’s childcare might make possible. There are lots of really nice ways to make the world better and kinder, which are entirely in line with the government’s own advice.

But wait… Are we really just meant to pop round and help, no questions asked? Just, see if there’s something good to be done, and offer to do it? Give up something of our own through simple generosity, and make the world a little brighter for others? We’re meant to do all this… without interrogating all these people in our community as to whether they deserve our help?

Maybe you’re better acquainted with your own neighbours than I am with mine, but I haven’t done nearly enough background checks into these people to be sure that I’ve rooted out all the scroungers.

Why doesn’t Mrs Beadle order some warmer clothes and blankets online, or support a local small business by hiring someone to help her out with any gadgets and whatnot around the house that she might find confusing? She could offset the expense by trying Princess Whiskerbelle on an unbranded catfood for a while – there’s such a thing as responsible budgeting, you know. It may not exactly be in the spirit of charity, but until she gets her paperwork together to prove that she really is finding it tough, how can I be sure my valuable time is being well spent when I go to sit with her?

And that guy with one leg – is he really “disabled” and in need of help? There’s plenty of things you can do which you don’t need both your legs for, but he seems to be at home most of the time, so for all I know he’s not even bothered looking for ways to support himself. If I start going round and offering to help out with things he might struggle with, for free, then I may just be reinforcing the kind of habits which aren’t good for any of us in the long-term.

Obviously this is completely the wrong attitude. But the fact that the government act like it’s obvious too is actually rather odd. They’re not encouraging us, on a personal level, to be stingy, to be pernickety bean-counters, to demand evidence making sure that the old and infirm humans to whom we’re considering giving our time (and by extension money) are sufficiently deserving. We’re told to just go out and help. Be there for people. Give them your time. Donate what you can. Support the needy and less fortunate.

Whereas when they do it, the amount they end up spending on administration costs, to make sure that nobody has a chance to mooch a single penny more than they’re “entitled” to, is so vast that they could practically solve the whole problem for no more than it’s currently costing them to maintain and exacerbate it. The DWP recently wrote off over £40,000,000 on a failed IT system. That’s just one futile project with nothing to show for it, in one department, with many more examples like it. Hundreds of millions of pounds being spent elsewhere on nothing more than counter-productive penny-pinching.

And meanwhile, every time there’s a chance to avoid paying a meagre but vital weekly allowance to someone who needs it – whether it’s by inhumane and stupid sanctions or making someone with cerebral palsy check in every few months to see if they’ve got better yet – they pounce on it. According to one whistleblower, for people working in Jobcentre offices, not finding enough excuses to stop enough people’s benefits would result in disciplinary action.

It’s quite a cosy dichotomy our ruling class have set up for themselves. While it’s just the great unwashed masses offering charity to each other, free and easy is the way to go. Give generously! Spare what you can! If someone looks like they’re in need, assume they really are, and have a heart in these difficult times. But when it comes to their own funds – which they’ve legitimately earned by calling it taxes and taking it directly from us, remember – then everyone’s a thieving scrounger until proven otherwise. And quite often even then.

Come on, poors. Huddle together for warmth. And don’t be selfish with those blankets I see a few of you wrapping around yourselves. Charity’s important this time of year.

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So the Tories are cutting benefits for the poorest people struggling hardest to support the most modest lifestyles, yadda yadda tax breaks to billionaires, you know the score.

And one of the ideas Chancellor George Osborne has often used while attempting to rationalise policies which take more money away from low-income households than the richest, is that of “making work pay”.

The terrifying bogeyman he and other Tories like to conjure is that of the feckless scrounger, probably with a Northern accent, who lounges comfortably at home with their curtains drawn all day, living the high life on benefits which your taxes paid for, and who – because of the current, unjust welfare system – has no incentive to go out and work, when they can live just as cushy a life at home on benefits.

Now, leave aside for a moment that, statistically speaking, this character is so close to fictional as to make almost no difference to any of our country’s financial troubles; ignore briefly how laughable is the idea, to thousands of people who simply can’t find work, including many with disabilities or who’ve been forced into mandatory unpaid labour, that life on benefits is the “easy” choice; disregard, for the time being, the extent to which countless legitimately struggling individuals and families are cruelly stigmatised and marginalised by such characterisations as those favoured by the Conservative party.

Even without fighting any of those points, Osborne’s premise is wrong.

The Tory plan for welfare reform depends on people being bullied into doing a job, any job, no matter how low-paying or degrading, because there is no bearable alternative. They want to make life sufficiently uncomfortable, for those people they think aren’t trying hard enough, that they’ll all just jolly well try harder. Their worst nightmare is that people without savings or property or investments might somehow be comfortable in their lives, and not feel compelled by fear of starvation or homelessness to desperately look for work.

I hope my biased and provocative use of language is making it clear how I feel about this attitude. I really do.

Because aside from being heartless, it’s simply an incorrect view of humanity.

There’s this crazy wacky idea that some crazy wacky socialists seem keen on, called the guaranteed livable income. The basic proposition is to drastically simplify whatever system the country currently has in place to carefully and cautiously redistribute wealth, offering the most basic safety net it can to those who need it while making damn sure no scroungers come along and get a penny more than they deserve… and instead just give everyone enough money to live on.

No means testing. No penalties for not following the DWP’s instruction. You just all get enough money to live on. Guaranteed.

I told you it was crazy. No doubt the obvious problems and holes in this plan, and the many reasons we’re not already doing it, are clamouring to escape your furious fingers and make themselves heard in the nearest available comments section already. But it may astound you to know that the various economists and activists who’ve been investigating and exploring and testing out this idea for some decades have probably already considered many of the objections that sprung to your mind within around fifteen seconds. Whether or not they ultimately stand up, I’m not sure, but don’t be too quick to pat yourself on the back for utterly annihilating this whole worldview simply by having the blinding insight that giving money to people costs money.

Because, like I said, the Tories were wrong. A guaranteed livable income is about as far as you could possibly exaggerate their nightmare scenario. They’d have you believe that, in such a situation, the zombie feckless scrounger virus would spread inexorably across the land. Nobody would bother doing any work when they could just slob around picking up even more free money than they get now, with no risk of approbation or penalty. Without the threat of poverty to spur people into productivity, there’d be nobody actually making the money to hand out, and the whole system would collapse.

I wouldn’t put it past them to put it in similarly apocalyptic terms, too. But it’s a conclusion that depends on a cynical and inaccurate view of humanity. (The rest of humanity, anyway. Dave and George and the rest of that crowd could live comfortably without having to work another day in their lives, and would surely claim to do what they do out of a sense of duty and service, rather than being in it for the money. They just can’t imagine a similar altruism or public-spiritedness in anybody else.)

Only an unjustified contempt for other people can be the basis for thinking that they need to be threatened and browbeaten and punished into doing useful work; the relatively little amount of data that’s been allowed to exist indicates exactly the opposite.

I say “allowed to exist”, because it’s not hard to imagine the interest that governments might have in perpetuating the idea that a power structure needs to be maintained in society. In the case of the particular experiment with a guaranteed income described in that article, in Manitoba in the 1970s, the government withheld the data after the programme was scrapped, and wouldn’t let anyone gather further evidence which might have vindicated it.

What is known, though, from the data available, is that the Conservative nightmare singularly failed to come true. People didn’t just sit at home mooching off the state when there was free money to be had. In general, they kept working their jobs. There are reasons why people work beyond earning money to avoid poverty, after all. It can be rewarding, a way to socialise with people whose company one enjoys on projects one finds worthwhile. Particularly if you have the freedom to leave a work environment you don’t enjoy, and take the time to find someplace more suitable, without having to panic over paying the rent in the meantime.

And with that extra freedom, and without the stress and worry of paycheck-to-paycheck living, people were healthier. The resulting decrease in hospital visits, if similarly expanded over the whole of Canada, would save billions of dollars. And the only people who did drop out of work to live an easier life on free government money were new mothers – who spent more time with their babies – and teenagers – who graduated high school in improved numbers and had the chance to find jobs they might actually enjoy, and feel productive in, rather than whatever came along first which would allow them to pay the bills.

It’s a crazy idea. And the idea that something this crazy might actually work thrills me like little else. This right here is the shit I read about which gets me excited for a more awesome world and makes me want to share it with everyone in rambling blog posts with overly hurried endings because it’s late and I want to finish up and get it posted before I go to bed.

It might be a pipe dream. But I don’t think it has to be. And either way, it’s preferable to whatever heinous visions occupy the minds of our politicians as they sleep.

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Rick Santorum gave a speech recently in which he observed that conservatives would “never have… smart people on our side”.

It didn’t get a spontaneous round of applause, which I guess is something. But he’s someone a frightening number of people still take seriously, even now. He’s a prominent Republican politician. And he’s proudly defiant of the fact that people with intelligence actively distance themselves from him and his ideas.

A while ago, I’d have just sighed and expressed exasperation at the world, and probably declared that I give up on America as a country. The temptation to see it all as tragically futile is still strong.

I’m trying to move away from that these days. If there’s a way to actually engage with the kind of people who think this way, and bring some of them around to the idea that “smart people” – those guys who’ve studied things, learnt stuff, and have some idea what they’re talking about – might possibly be worth listening to, then I really think it’s worthwhile making the effort.

But I don’t know how to do it. At times like this, I don’t even know where to begin relating to other people’s opinions and feelings. If I had to try and guess what’s going on in their heads, I could waffle something about a resentment of intelligence and a skewed idea of what it means to be academic or intellectual being imbued from an early age somehow… and maybe something about being so committed to an idea and their familiar in-group that any cognitive dissonance about its value is resolved by rejecting outright any criticism…

…but none of this leaves me with any understanding of what the hell someone like Rick Santorum thinks he’s doing.

Here’s the rationale he gives for washing his hands of smart people:

They believe they should have the power to tell you what to do.

Except they don’t. No more than anyone else. Asserting authority over others is entirely orthogonal to intelligence.

You know what is a strong indicator of wanting the power to tell other people what to do and control their lives, Rick Santorum? Running for President.

Now that’s some megalomania right there.

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– Sean Hannity doesn’t think there’s been a single time when conservative groups have made “an attempt to silence voices” by, say, pressuring advertisers the way Democrats have done with Rush Limbaugh recently. Unsurprisingly, he’s demonstrably full of shit.

Dave Gorman turned investigative journalist when Flickr deleted his content in response to a bogus copyright claim. The amount of incompetence and systemic failure he digs up is fascinating.

– The evidence that Stanislaw Burzynski is a dangerous quack, and not just a well-meaning maverick bravely fighting the establishment, continues to mount up.

– Yes yes yes everything that David Wong says about everything yes. Yes.

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Nadine Dorries, a Conservative MP in England, wants teenagers to be taught that it’s “cool” not to have sex.

Good luck with that.

She’s proposed a bill requiring that girls (and only girls) be taught about the benefits of abstinence at school – in particular, that they should learn “how to say no”.

Of course, everyone’s completely on her side. If teenage girls’ mouths and vocal cords are truly incapable of forming the phonemes of this important syllable, it is vital that schools address this problem with urgency.

Sorry. I’m being frivolous. That’s not what she means at all, and people have been vehemently disagreeing with her.

A big part of the problem lies in Dorries’s often bizarre assumptions about the current state of sex and relationships education, and of the place of sex in society more generally.

She’s worried about the impact of teaching seven-year-olds “to apply a condom on a banana“, which as far as I can tell is something that’s not actually happening anywhere. It’s not on the typical curriculum for children that age, at any rate, and people I follow on Twitter have been retweeting numerous sex educators who deny having any such thing as part of their lesson plan.

But even putting aside those times when she departs from reality in plain matters of fact, there seems to be a lack of consistency between her concerns and how she seeks to address them.

“Saying no” is a thornier subject than she assumes, for instance. Taken literally, it leaves the door open for my silly joke earlier about morphemes and syllables. Presumably it’s actually intended to refer to a more complex social relationship, in which for a girl to persistently refuse to have sex with her boyfriend is socially unacceptable.

Dorries implies as much when she describes talking to teenage girls who “do not even think they have the option of saying no to boys”. It certainly sounds like she’s describing a serious problem. If any young people are feeling socially obliged to have sex before they really want to for themselves, there might be things they could learn in school which would help them. But the simple, single, isolated fact that “you’re allowed to say no, you know” isn’t going to be much more help when it comes to sex than it has been in the war on drugs.

It leads down a dangerous road if you hold up “saying no” as the ultimate virtue, untainted by context. If the message gets through that this is the most important thing for girls to learn how to do, then whatever would they think of girls who ever dare say yes? Particularly if they actually enjoy it?

For that matter, what would they end up thinking of a boy who doesn’t make any overt sexual demands for them to say no to? What would they think must be wrong with themselves if boys aren’t even making such requests? And what would they think of themselves if they ever consent to – or even enthusiastically engage in – what seems like a good idea at the time, but has negative repercussions down the line, either physical (disease, pregnancy) or social (scandal, shame)?

Dorries also claims that peer pressure is “a key contributor to early sexual activity”. And this is no doubt the case, but pressure comes from all kinds of directions. It’s more than just boys being full of testosterone and desperate for some of the action they’ve seen on RedTube.

Playground rumours and epithets ranging from “frigid” to “slag” can surely do a good deal to influence the inclinations of any adolescent who cares about the approval of their (her) peers, regardless of their basis in reality. For boys, I suppose the equivalent would be “virgin” or… well, there doesn’t seem to be a derogatory way of describing males as overly promiscuous. It’s not possible for them to err in that direction. The more female “conquests” they achieve, the better.

But if this state of affairs continues – which Dorries’s lack of interest in talking to them about sex won’t do anything to improve – then boys are potentially in an even more awkward dilemma than girls. While some girls don’t realise they have the option of saying no, boys might not realise they have the option of wanting to say no.

And this will surely only be exacerbated if you single-mindedly encourage girls to abstain, but decline to give boys any wider understanding of the role sex can play in social relationships. It reinforces the idea that sex is something men want to do to women, and women just have to know when not to let them have it.

Sex education deserves to be about more than just biological mechanics, but if this is as shallow as the social side of the discussion is going to be, then we might be better off leaving kids to figure it out for themselves.

This is all a bit thrown together and speculative. Other things which may be worth reading on the same subject include:

Education For Choice
Jessica Shepherd and Sarah Ditum in the Guardian
Heresy Corner
Ministry Of Truth (and they’ve also done some further fact-checking)
Dr Petra Boynton
Suzanne Moore in the Daily Mail

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