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Something that often comes up, in discussions about providing financial aid for those on low incomes, is the idea of a “payment card“.

Rather than handing out cash, this would be something that looks and acts rather like a credit card, which is topped up every so often with a fixed amount of credit, but which can only be used to purchase a limited set of goods. Food and other essentials, for instance, but not booze and cigarettes and other things that simple cash money might be frittered away on.

This may, at first, seem like a worthwhile way to make sure that those we’re trying to help are actually being helped; that, if some people have naturally unreliable spending habits which have led them to a situation where they need help, those habits can be curbed by not giving them the chance to spend their funds unwisely.

It’s understandable if such a scheme doesn’t immediately strike you as unconscionably heartless, cruel, and dehumanising.

But it’s an idea that’s been tried before. A couple of years ago, for instance, the Azure card came into use in the case of some asylum seekers. The “countless horror stories” touched upon in that CiF article – kids going without clothes, parents having to walk miles to a supermarket which might accept the card because they aren’t allowed to buy a bus pass – speak for themselves, as well as highlighting the incompetence of the government’s implementation of the scheme.

Or, if individual tales of embarrassment and degradation don’t move you, just look at the stats. A majority of card users were unable to attend essential health appointments, were turned away from supermarkets they’d been told would accept it, and found the experience of using the card humiliating and a source of anxiety. These aren’t just teething issues or a handful of isolated problems; this is the standard result when you take disenfranchised people and further remove their autonomy and dignity.

Government has amply and repeatedly proven its complete lack of ability to run such an operation in any morally justifiable manner. Yet it persists in keeping huge swathes of the public under the thumb, and going to great lengths to make sure nobody gets a damned penny more than they’re deemed worthy of, for the sake of meagre financial savings, while imposing a tragic and needless oppression on those who’ve already had the most opportunity stolen from them.

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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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Serious question.

This is about the whole 47% thing, obviously. And I genuinely want to know. His thoughts: what were they?

The picture he’s painting for his audience of $50,000-a-plate party-goers is, after all, a wildly inaccurate one. Nearly half of the entire country, he tells them, are “dependent on government”, don’t pay any income tax, think they’re “entitled” to things like food and healthcare, will never “take personal responsibility” for their lives, and will vote for Obama “no matter what”.

He doesn’t use the word “moochers”, or any term so overtly provocative, but it’s clear what he’s trying to communicate. The image is one of millions of slobs and layabouts, who can’t be bothered putting down their beer and getting off the couch to do an honest day’s work, and who expect you good, hard-working people to take care of them and pay for their pampered lifestyle, which the black guy’s going to make you do if we let him stay in office.

It’s clear simply from the tone of voice what we’re meant to think about people who feel “entitled” to anything (notwithstanding the incredibly narrow definition of “entitled” within which it’s assumed to be about the worst trait a human can possess). He doesn’t call them all feckless scum, because he doesn’t need to. (In fact, a Pennsylvania legislator – unconnected to the Romney campaign, as far as I know – did recently paraphrase his speech in rather more stark language.)

And yet, it’s bullshit.

For starters, even if the 47% statistic were meaningful, the judgment he leaps to from it is ideological and severely lacking in compassion. The idea that money is a useful measure of a person’s value, or of how much they deserve to be fed and clothed and treated when they’re sick, is comical enough already – but federal income tax? Jesus wept.

But I didn’t even need to do my usual bare minimum level of research, before the internet pointed out to me that most of the 47% do pay taxes in other forms, like payroll taxes, unless they’re retired or getting paid a pittance; that these payroll-tax-payers actually contribute a greater proportion of their income than Romney does; that people who don’t pay income tax actually tend to vote Republican; that the entities most “dependent on government” in history continue to be banks and corporations; and so on, and so on.

So… does Romney just not know any of this stuff?

I mean, I’m about as connected to American politics as he is to the administration of the pension schemes of London-based multinational law firms (whee, I have a job), but even I can get my head around the evidence suggesting that every second person in the United States isn’t a good-for-nothing scrounger being courted for their vote by a socialist President while the other half effectively wait on them hand and foot. Can Mitt Romney really not have picked up any of this information himself?

I know he’s a busy man, but the internet’s even drawn him a picture:

Does he really not know this stuff? It hardly seems plausible.

And yet, if he really has ever encountered these, y’know, facts, but still chooses to use this kind of manipulative language to dismiss any concern for the well-being of 150,000,000 people as “not his job”…

…then what is it that he’s thinking, when he talks like this?

Because it looks a lot like he’s thinking that he knows the crowd he’s playing to, and they don’t much care whatever happens to those poor people so long as their own interests are being looked after, and he’s okay with that.

He’s in a room full of other rich white guys, who all seem to think they made their fortunes entirely through their own personal merits, and it’s purely a coincidence that just about every one of them happens to be white and male and had rich, well connected parents. Assuming Romney’s not entirely ignorant of basic facts, it looks like he’s thinking that he wants to keep them happy and take their money more than he wants to engage in any kind of intellectual honesty about income inequality and the injustices of capitalism.

So either he’s deeply isolated in a bubble that’s non-permeable to significant portions of reality, or he thinks lying about half of the country that he wants to rule over is worth doing to meet his own goals.

When Mitt Romney says “47% of people aren’t contributing”… does he mean “47% of people are effectively contributing to a wealthy minority, by means of not being paid the full value of their labour in the first place”?

Does he mean “47% of people find my policies completely unappealing and wouldn’t be helped by them at all, suggesting that I might not be an ideal candidate to lead the entire country as I think I should be allowed to do”?

Does he mean “47% of people’s contributions – and, by extension, their lives – seem completely worthless to the people who want to run the country”?

This turned into more of a run-of-the-mill anti-Republican rant than I was hoping for. And Obama shills for cash just as shamelessly and has murdered a lot more foreigners than Romney, so maybe this isn’t even that big a deal. Just another familiar instance of a series of systemic problems that no mainstream politician even comes close to wanting to solve. I don’t know.

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About $10,000,000,000,000 has been squirrelled away by 92,000 people.

A tiny little subsection of humanity, described appropriately by the Guardian as a “global super-rich elite”, has amassed this fortune, extracted it from various of the world’s economies, and hidden it under a metaphorical Cayman Island-shaped mattress to reduce their tax liability.

This is what happens when you encourage personal accumulation of wealth for its own sake, and sanctify those who succeed in the scramble to the top. You allow the “job-creators” to hoard unimaginably colossal piles of resources, denying their use to any of the rest of us.

What is even the point of anyone having that much money? What personal hedonistic joy are you going to derive from the second billion which you couldn’t reach with the first? It just becomes about getting a high score.

The total amount tucked away in private banks is apparently $21,000,000,000,000. And yes, it really is meant to have that many zeros. I have to keep double-checking, too. To put that in a little perspective, if you look at the cost of the NHS and scale it for population, then this off-shore stash could pay for the entire USA to have its own nationalised healthcare service, providing every single person in the country with the kind of social safety net enjoyed by every other nation in the developed world.

Twenty-six times over.

But it’s not going to. Because some successful capitalists earned that money, and now its all theirs to do what they want with it.

This is a completely fucked system.

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A recent poll reveals that “the austerity census has collapsed“: a majority of the British public apparently support a 75% top rate of income tax for those earning over £1 million.

Anyone who’s paid attention to the trend of my ravingly revolutionary political tendencies lately might be surprised to learn that I find this more frustrating than heartening.

Despite having very little to do with the dreaded spectre of socialism in particular, this idea of the super-rich being hit with correspondingly super-high tax rates is anathema to most capitalists, and the right-wing objections are predictable and well understood. It discourages the “job creators” from going about their job-creating business. It punishes success. It drives successfully industrious people out of the country. It decreases tax revenue by damaging motivation and pushing down productivity. It hurts the economy.

As to whether this is empirically true, I’ve seen arguments backed up by data and graphs that go both ways, and I’m not going to ferret out the complex truth of it here. What interests me is the way the common leftist response misses an important point.

The focus on low- and middle-income households, who are being far more troublingly squeezed even by the lower tax rates than those millionaires and billionaires, is appropriate and important. But even if the financial “hardships” of the 1% don’t exactly tug on many heart-strings, neither am I in this for retribution. If we’re going to increase the tax rate above a certain income level, it shouldn’t be because we want to punish anyone; it should be because it makes economic sense.

If these high tax rates really do demotivate the super-rich to stay in the country and/or keep doing any useful work (which many of them seem to claim is the case), this probably isn’t just down to simple petulance which needs to be beaten out of them. The salaries earned by the richest executives at the biggest companies really are obscenely huge, and it’s bizarre to think that these are jobs which nobody competent would ever be willing to do for any sum so paltry as, say, a mere £1 million a year. But it’s not just about earning a perfectly reasonable living wage. Having what seems like money that’s rightfully yours be taxed away like that, hurts.

It’s a very different experience (I imagine) to be paid £1 million for doing a job, than to be paid £4 million and then have to give £3 million away to the government. We’re a loss-averse species, for one thing, and it’s a very human trait to let the immensity of our windfall be swamped by the fact that it’s only a quarter of what we really should have had. Never mind that we’re being offered orders of magnitude more financial security than most people on the planet will ever have a chance at. We’re predictably irrational.

So it’s really not at all sociopathic for the super-rich to be a bit miffed by this idea. They earned their millions and billions of dollars legitimately, through their hard work and valuable contribution to the economy, after all. The government wasn’t involved in that, so why should all this money be forcibly taken away from them now to help people who haven’t bothered to be so entrepreneurial?

This, of course – the idea that profits are what the market does, and taxes are how government unrelatedly interferes – is where everyone is completely insane.

The idea that taxation is the point at which the government abruptly steps in and sticks its nose into what had been purely private business between free marketeers up to that point is absurd. The government is essential in supporting a framework of laws which make a massive agglomeration of wealth and capital and power possible in the first place. And you can bet it’s going to be a capitalist-friendly framework, given who’s got the assets to lobby and offer donations to politicians in order to sway their opinions. A framework including all sorts of clever off-shore schemes and work-arounds not easily available to the masses. To pick one of the more obviously egregious examples, when Vodafone owed up to £7 billion in taxes, HMRC simply decided to let them off.

More commonly, though, the problem isn’t that small pockets of businessmen aren’t handing over sufficiently huge sums of their money to the state, but that they’ve seized hold of so much in the first place. Any income that socialists might want to redistribute has already been distributed in some way they presumably deem unjust – but then why was it distributed that way in the first place?

That’s where we should be looking to change things. The system which allows some individuals to go so far above and beyond the reasonable limits of success, that they get to claim dictatorship over land and capital and just keep getting richer off the labour of others. The system which goes so far beyond simply rewarding hard work and innovation, that making 100 million dollars into 110 million is inevitable.

If the majority of the British public got their way, our government would continue enforcing a system of rules by which some individuals and small groups accrue immense wealth… and then take most of it away from them.

Who would get rich from this particular policy? The government.

Do you like the government and want to see them get richer and more powerful, majority of the British public?

I thought not.

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An interesting exercise in political framing.

The lesson seems to be that the other side are always going to be creatively dishonest and manipulative in their use of political language, so you might as well get in on that too, but do it better.

This kind of thing – knowing what hot-button terms to avoid, and what more voter-friendly turns of phrase to couch your ideas in – dominates so much of political discourse, while having nothing to do with actual policy. I think it’s another reason why democracy in general is making me bang my head against more and more walls lately.

The site linked above provides a progressive attempt at a response to a rather odious leaked Republican playbook, but I don’t think either side of the aisle is left with much moral high ground to enjoy, if these are the word games they both find themselves forced into playing.

Never say Entitlements. –Instead, say Earned Benefits.

People don’t like you as much if you’re entitled as if you’ve earned something, you see, and “entitlement” is often used by the right as some kind of smear. But this doesn’t mean that this redefinition is necessarily a more accurate one. It could be argued that somebody with a life-long disability has done nothing to earn the benefits and assistance to which simple human decency nevertheless entitles them.

Never say Government Spending. –Instead, say we Invest in America.

Does that include the trillion-dollar wars? When do those investments start paying out?

And so on.

You can see why everyone in politics wants to reframe the issues in ways such as these, of course. It’s in the nature of the system. When the world is no longer run by politicians who are powerfully motivated to be weaselly, the world will be a very different place.

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– It’s important that certain facts about US military action overseas aren’t reported in the media. Otherwise the public might get “the wrong idea” – which, in this case, means “an accurate idea”.

– As the government keep telling us, these “workfare” schemes where jobseekers often do entirely unpaid full-time work for large, profitable corporations aren’t compulsory. There’s a voluntary work experience scheme in place. It’s just that, if you refuse it, you may be put on a mandatory one.

– Apparently both passive-aggression and actual aggression are among the standard ways in which elected officials interact with the general public. How reassuring to know we have people representing us who hold us in such high regard.

Tim Harford for Chancellor.

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Spending much time examining the attitudes of, say, Fox News, on the subject of the rich and the poor, can very quickly become very illuminating.

It’s not just Fox, by any means, but they’re among the most prominent apologists for the classism and wealth gap in America. They’re among those devoting serious airtime to bewailing the nightmare of hotel housekeepers earning as much as $60,000 a year, while simultaneously complaining about the unfairness of Obama’s tax policy on those poor souls earning over $250,000, who are really struggling to get by.

What I think it illuminates is just how narrow a band of ideas people like this are actually interested in.

They don’t care to extrapolate downwards and consider, if a couple earning a quarter-million annually is having such a tough time, how much of a struggle it must be for people on one tenth of that income (which is still well above minimum wage). They don’t consider the reasons why the free market might value these housekeepers’ work at $60,000 a year, although they’re happy to assume that investment bankers earning hundreds of times that deserve every penny. They ignore how difficult and specialised a job the staff in this particular hotel might actually have, how good they might be at it, how many specific skills they might have acquired and honed. They seem oblivious to how negligible an impact this supposedly flagrant expenditure actually has on the economy as a whole, and don’t explain why we ought to be concerned that this money is somehow being misspent.

There doesn’t, in fact, seem to be a single economic consideration being given to the matter. It doesn’t even occur to them to consider it on that level.

No, they’ve just got a very clear idea of the kind of people who do this sort of work, and what sort of rewards they do and don’t deserve, based on how they feel about them.

Housekeeping is something poor people do, and should be treated as such. It’s just housework. A lowly thing for lowly people. $60,000 a year just feels like too much. More than they deserve. More than I want to see them getting for that lowly work they do. They’re only housekeepers.

But businessmen earning comfortably into six figures? Well, now, they’re more our sort of people, and you just wouldn’t believe the hard time they’re having at the moment, what with taxes and housing costs and private schools and daycare and sundry other vital expenses, and it’s so unfair the way people think they’re part of some privileged majority.

It’s not like a couple of hundred grand a year means you’re not allowed to have problems. But the way those problems are framed compared to other people’s can reveal a lot about your real priorities.

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– Yes, mandatory work activity schemes are mandatory, and no, they aren’t fair. The nonsense of “fairness” is shown up for what it is in this article, too. If fairness means making others suffer so that those who are already suffering feel better about not suffering alone, then no thanks.

– Plenty of extremist maniacs still want Salman Rushdie dead, but they’re not willing to pay so much for it nowadays.

– How is America’s attempt to cut back on spending going?

– “A second term for Obama won’t in and of itself awaken the public to the bipartisan, systemic nature of American plutocracy anymore than Bill Clinton’s second term did. A Republican in office might awaken the partisan left’s devotion to peace and freedom again, but only until the next Democrat is in power.

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Corporate tax rates are at a low, their profits are at a high, and the gap between the pay CEOs claim for themselves and what they let the workers share is growing ever wider.

Satan is much more powerful than God. Or, God is evil. One or t’other, Christians.

– Plainclothes police officer is spotted by CCTV operator – who tells the officer to pursue the man he can see “acting suspiciously”. Hilarity ensues for the next twenty minutes.

The geek social fallacies of sex.

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