Posts Tagged ‘government’

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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Quoth Steampunk Emma Goldman:

You all know I am no fan of that “poor little State- and Church- begotten weed, marriage,” but I do love angry conservatives, and happy queer people, so today qualifies as a good one.

But as a general rule, if you want to find opinions I agree with, you are more likely to hear them voiced by someone shouting interruptions at a politician giving a speech than in a supreme court decision. Let’s keep fighting for all the LGBTQ folks whose problems aren’t solved by access to marriage.

I'm pretty much down with that. This week's marriage equality news from the US is a great sign that compassion and reason are both winning the battle at a rate of knots. It opens up opportunities for numerous families who've been waiting for acknowledgment, and bodes well for a near-future where same-sex relationships are sufficiently normalised that this isn't even a question any more.

But it's worth remembering that the government didn't itself achieve anything progressive or positive. All it did was finally got the fuck out of people's way, in this one area, once it became sufficiently politically expedient to do so. It deserves minimal credit for making a small step towards butting out of everyone's personal business, so late in the game. Love was already happening, people were already finding and creating beauty in their relationships with each other, no thanks to the government, which is just oppressing them a little less now.

A lot of prejudice and inequality is still universally pervasive, much of it built into the fabric of the state. The very fact that nine people making a 5-4 decision can have such a sweeping influence over the entire country is bizarre in itself. Ideally, there wouldn't be marriage equality because the Supreme Court declared it thus; there'd be marriage equality because what the fuck business is it of yours who we love and build our lives with, and who the hell's going to stop us?

So, you're still on notice, America. Don't start thinking you can distract us from the prison industrial complex, continuous indiscriminate killing and torture of innocent foreigners, systemic police brutality, the war on drugs, and the rest of the bullshit you’re still failing to deal with, just because you're suddenly throwing a hundred thousand or so totally fabulous parties.

Well, okay. Maybe for the rest of this weekend we’ll be distracted by the fabulous parties, and all the fabulous people who get to celebrate their love and feel more validated and accepted than they’ve been allowed to up until now. Have fun, fabulous people, and congratulations.

But then it’s back to work. There’s still a lot of shit to straighten out. Marriage equality’s a good start. Next stop: polyamory!

(Seriously, a lot of critical commentators have brought this up, as well as at least one of the dissenting Justices: if you let gay people get married, what’s to stop the same reasoning being applied to relationships with more than two people? These people are making an excellent point, entirely by accident.)

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Okay, so, if you’re going to mock Men’s Rights Activists with contempt and create Facebook pages devoted to taking the piss out of their ideas, you really have to try not to be the caricature they hate you for being.

I mean, you shouldn’t have to try very hard. But at least check once in a while. Those loons on the other side of the debate stop being so laughably wrong if you start turning into their ridiculous straw man.

Case in point: two people were recently arrested by police officers and ended up in court in front of a judge on a charge of “manspreading“. Which is that thing where a guy on a train sits with his legs unnecessarily wide apart taking up too much room. Arrested. Taken to court.

I don’t really want to bring this case up by talking about men’s rights and feminism. The abuse of authority by state agents grossly overreaching beyond any reasonable interpretation of criminal action is a far more relevant and important angle than the gendered aspect, and it was originally reported in the context of some unsettling data about numbers-driven policing. I should be putting on my anarchist hat for this one and leaving my feminist headwear on the rack.

But it was the feminist blogosphere that drew it to my attention in the first place, and the context of the way it’s been reported there doesn’t seem to go any further than “lol, men”. And this drives me crazy, not because I’m worried about being a member of the most oppressed demographic suffering at the hands of those evil feminists, but because that’s the standard dumb MRA narrative and you’re playing right into it.

The Internet provides a surfeit of wankers who claim misandry at any opportunity, no matter how ridiculous, and who absolutely do not need to be handed any more ammunition. “Feminists want me to be locked up just for sitting down in a way they don’t like” is exactly the kind of ludicrous, persecution-complex nonsense they’d have been saying months ago. And now there are sizeable feminist groups online who seem willing to abandon every other principle for the chance to score a point against those terrible MRAs – but are actually doing unprecedented work to vindicate their victimised worldview.

This isn’t about me shifting from one side toward the other in some notional “feminism vs. MRA” battle. The Men’s Rights Movement has very little to do with men’s rights and is far more interested in misogyny and disparaging feminism at any opportunity. And the people I know who’ve been most effective in actually supporting men’s rights have been strongly-identified feminists, for whom understanding and combating the way men are systematically harmed and demeaned by sexist assumptions and prejudice is an integral part of that philosophy.

But that just makes it all the more important that feminists take stories like “arrested for manspreading” seriously as an issue of government intrusion, and don’t laughingly support the same kind of coercive state power they’ve objected to before, now that they’re finally not the ones getting screwed over for once.

Otherwise what happens is: MRAs see women cheering while men are arrested for a seemingly trivial offense; they post their own pictures of women similarly guilty of taking up unnecessary space; they get mocked and accused of being creepy for taking pictures of women on public transport; they note the disparity in the way the genders are treated and conclude yet another case of sexism against men; the “evil man-hating feminists” narrative is reinforced; and this time they haven’t even had to distort reality to do it.

I’m a feminist because we’re supposed to be better than this.

Two posts in a row about standing up for people I disagree with, because ideological consistency is more important than maintaining tribal bounds. Maybe tomorrow I’ll go for the hat-trick and write about my soft spot for Peter Hitchens.

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Astonishingly enough, it turns out that, if your strategies for saving money are inhumane and uncaring, you’ll just end up making things more difficult, more painful, and more expensive for everyone.

In this particular case, spending a little less now to help people with mental health problems means we have to spend a lot more later when those mental health problems become more serious.

(See also needle exchange programmes, which demonstrably reduce harm caused by compulsive drug use in a remarkably cost-effective way, but which have an iffy history of interaction with government at best, and are rejected by many politicians on some kind of moral “principle”, regardless of how much they help.)

I guess there’s no inviolable natural law as to why, in theory, governments mightn’t be capable of rising above this kind of short-termism, and responding to a troubled economy by taking actions that would actually save money rather than making everyone’s lives worse. But it’s not how things often seem to work in practice.

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Still mostly on hiatus while existing in a state of half-packed limbo and ever-mounting impatience and bafflement at the convoluted antics of fucking mortgage underwriters. But chipping in with a quick thought.

I agree with the bulk of Alex Andreou’s latest column. I have little doubt that Jimmy Carr’s a bit of a twat, Gary Barlow’s a major bell-end, JK Rowling is fairly splendid, and David Cameron is a gammon-faced fuckbucket wankspangle with the face of a dish. This has broadly been the left’s characterisation of players in the latest celebrity tax avoidance psychodrama, and it seems largely acceptable to me.

But as a recovering liberal, I have to keep reminding myself to get the fuck over this fixation with paying your taxes as being the ultimate expression of civic duty and compassion for your fellow countryfolk.

My corner of the internet’s been all a-twitter lately with quotes from Rowling in particular – transcribed next to a picture of her in a way that apparently constitutes an inspirational piece of art – describing how obligated she feels to her home country, and how privileged she feels to be able to give something back to the land which supported her when she was going through hard times, now that she has the means to support others in the same way. This is an under-appreciated point among many rich people, and is commendable and warm and fuzzy and all that.

But if JK Rowling, driven by a desire to help those less fortunate than herself and ease the burdens of those troubled by circumstance, cannot think of any more effective way to achieve this goal than to give vast sums of money to David Cameron, George Osborne, and Iain Fucking Duncan Fucking Smith, to let them spend it doing what they think is best for the country…

…then she appears to have been stricken by a colossal and uncharacteristic lack of imagination since the last time she set pen to paper.

Look, giving something back to your fellow man is a great and important thing, and paying your taxes so that government social programmes can be funded is sometimes one way of doing that, but if it’s the best way, or the only way, then we’re all fucked. The very fact that charities exist and solicit donations directly should tell you that helping people directly without letting a bunch of politicians get involved has a lot going for it.

Which isn’t, as I can tell you’re already objecting, simply the standard right-libertarian argument in favour of letting private organisations fix all society’s ills on their own. We absolutely need to have a national and collaborative way of supporting the less well-off, and leaving it all to the presumptive benevolence of an Ayn Rand fan’s idea of the “free market” is absolutely not it. But we need to stop clinging to the notion that letting people gather thousands of lifetimes’ worth of wealth to themselves, then having the state claw half of it back again before redistributing it among its own pet projects, is a good enough solution that we can stop working on anything better.

JK Rowling is most likely a good person acting kindly toward people. And the result of her doing this is that the coalition government, which is slashing benefits and demonising the poor across the board, is now better funded to embark on whatever projects it chooses to spend taxpayer money on.

Gary Barlow’s probably a cock. But – although the double-standards of the government and the extent to which tax avoidance by the wealthy gets a free pass are serious problems which imply a need for monumental systemic change – keeping your money out of George Osborne’s coffers is something you should be aspiring to as well. And it’s not incompatible with a dedication to providing compassion and assistance for other people.

You just need to be less of a cock than Gary Barlow. How hard can that be?

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This is your not-often-enough reminder that you should all be following Charles Davis. He writes about important stuff, in a way that’s both easy to read and alarmingly effective at slapping you directly in the face with the fucked-up-ness of what he’s describing.

His latest advice is: Don’t pay your taxes.

The revolution can’t come soon enough.

And while I’m at it, Broadsnark is someone else I need in my life, because, well, sometimes I forget to be angry. And then she tells me about how many people get locked up for years without a trial in the US, and then I’m pissed off in a very focused manner all over again. Which is the only sane way to be, really.

Today I may have lived up to my screenname for the first time all month. I plan to have a go at being much more diligent once distractions like moving house have settled down. Until then, please bear with me while I continue to fail at creative discipline.

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A question often asked of libertarians – of people who think that society can and should organise itself without centralised government, or at least with much less of it than is commonly found in many Western societies – is this: “In a world without a government to collect taxes and provide public services, who will build the roads?”

Roads, after all, are an obvious example of something which can produce positive results which far outweigh the cost of producing them (otherwise we wouldn’t keep building them). But, unless every road is a toll road, their benefits can’t be hoarded by the people who put in the initial expense. No private actor in the free market would bother providing useful public services like building roads, the argument goes, if they’re not going to make a profit off of it themselves – even if building the road would provide a benefit to everyone.

In some ways, it’s a symbolic and rhetorical question, used to assert the need for some form of government in order to provide certain necessities of modern society. But it’s often posed seriously as well, and numerous responses have been offered, by more savvy political commentators than I, ranging from “nobody knows, but it’s worth finding out because we’d probably find a better solution than the current one”, to “who needs roads anyway?”

Whatever the current state of the political theory, we’re yet to enact any solution to this problem, besides establishing a government to pay for projects like road-building, and fund it by taking some of everyone’s money by force, whether those people want to pay for a road or not. In most mainstream discourse, the idea that there actually might be a better solution – or an alternative, functional solution at all – doesn’t come up a whole lot. People tend to revert to whichever standard position they’re most familiar with (libertarian/statist) and defend that against the other, without considering whether the scope of reality might be any broader than this one binary issue.

A similar dynamic plays out in discussions of any sort of an unconditional basic income. If everyone in your society were being provided with sufficient resources to get by, to live a decent life with basic amenities, regardless of their employment status, then who would do all the unpleasant jobs that we need people to do? Who would do the unpleasant jobs in sanitation, the boring jobs like directing traffic, the dangerous jobs like fighting fires – or, indeed, the necessary but perhaps unfulfilling or rather dull jobs like building roads?

I’m still slowly building up a worldview which can encapsulate some sort of satisfactory answer. But in the meantime, I want to highlight something hiding in the question.

Let’s assume that you oppose the idea of an unconditional basic income – of a comfortable minimum standard of living being provided to everyone, regardless of history or circumstances – on the grounds that people don’t deserve what they haven’t earned, and will be unmotivated to provided any useful work or contribution to society if all their basic needs are taken care of.

Implicit in that position is the following belief:

In order to keep society running smoothly, we must routinely threaten people with destitution, starvation, and homelessness, if they refuse to do what we need them to do for the greater good. These tasks are so vital to our way of life, that the best way to achieve them involves making people’s ability to feed their family, heat their homes, and live somewhere with a roof over their heads, entirely conditional on whether they’re willing to do them. I cannot conceive of a more practical or desirable way to motivate people to do the work necessary for modern life than to impose this threat on every living person by default.

Without hashing out the arguments and counter-arguments of whether this is a convincing argument or not, let’s at least be clear that this is absolutely the claim you are making, if you don’t think that an unconditional basic income is practical, or that there’s any way roads would ever get built if there wasn’t a government in charge to make it happen. At least own your position in explicit terms.

Classroom discussion questions

1. So, wait, who actually builds the roads now?

2. They must know something about how you build roads, right? Is there any other way we could structure society so that they could keep doing that?

3. No? The way we happen to do it exactly here and now is the only way it’s possible to imagine it ever being done? Okay, fair enough.

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Pointing out the inhumanity, cruelty, viciousness, and not-remotely-disguised contempt for dehumanised individuals which drives modern Tory welfare policy is always something I can get behind. But the graphic at the top of this post is entirely the wrong way to think about all of this.

It’s not a “handout”
It’s not “welfare”
It’s not “something for nothing”
It’s money from the government from a fund you have paid into, for when times are hard.
And it belongs to you.

The Irritable Duncan Syndromes and the Kate Trollkinses of the world are fixated on whether people (at least, people who start with very little) think they “deserve” anything they didn’t “earn” themselves. Within a certain unbalanced, unfair, and totally rigged framework for what constitutes “earnings”, of course. If you’re in possession of a single penny you didn’t come by through some means arbitrarily deemed acceptable to our capitalist ideals (run a bank that loses everyone else’s money: good; inheritance: good; £56.80 a week from the state to stop you starving or freezing to death and to cover the bus fare to your full-time unpaid workfare placement: fuck off, scrounger) then they’re on the attack, letting you know exactly what society thinks of you.

Obviously people deserve better than this. But arguing that people deserve to be paid back by the welfare state, because it’s something they’ve contributed to before, plays directly into the right-wingers’ game.

They point at the likes of White Dee, screech about outrageous entitlement, and deny that she deserves any of the government-provided assistance she’s getting. If your response involves pointing at the things she might have done in the past to make her worthy of her benefits – National Insurance contributions or whatever – you’re giving too much ground to the conservatives’ premise, and simply lowering the bar for how much people have to prove themselves to you.

It’s a start, don’t get me wrong. It takes compassion and a sense of perspective to lower that bar as far as I’ve been seeing a lot on the left recently, and there’s a lot of important support for people who’ve been deemed insufficiently “deserving” by many. But you can take it even further by not playing their game at all.

I don’t think White Dee deserves the financial help to live a decent, bearable life just because she’s paid some taxes in the past, or in some way “given back” to the society she’s now counting on for support.

I think she deserves that help because she’s a human being and this is the twenty-first century, for Christ’s sake.

If you want to carry on trying to filter the deserving from the undeserving poor, making your list of who really needs help and checking it twice to make sure nobody’s snuck on there looking for a free ride, you need to know that, at the moment, your way of doing things is making cancer patients go for months without a penny due to a “backlog crisis” in assessments; stopping people’s benefits for having a heart attack during a work capability assessment; oh, and costing hundreds of millions of pounds as a result of the official government policy of throwing people out of their homes if they’re taking up slightly more space than they could conceivably be crammed into.

If, alternatively, you wanted to try being humane and generous and giving everybody something resembling a fair chance at making a decent life for themselves, then the side effects would include vastly reducing the levels of indignity and suffering inflicted on the poor by the state. And on the negative side, well, some people would get enough money that they wouldn’t have to starve to death or worry about ending up homeless, even if they didn’t work for it.

Wait, I mean – some poor people will get that. That’s the only way it’s actually news.

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The system is fucked. When it’s working well, it fucks people over with maximal efficiency. We need something wholly different, not just to patch some things over in a way that’ll hopefully suck a bit less.

A caution: While you’re burning the system to the ground, be careful of the people inside it, propping it up. They’re not the enemy. In a way, they’re a victim of it just as much as you are.

Classroom discussion questions

1. In no more than twenty words, what would an acceptable replacement to the current system look like and how can it be achieved?

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