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Posts Tagged ‘socialism’

I lack the time, energy, will, calm, poise, rationality, and overall mental composure to talk much about the condition of the welfare state in this country and the Conservatives’ attitudes toward those who benefit from it (or seek to benefit from it, or are systematically exploited by it).

However, apropos of something that came up on one of several blogs that regularly make me angry and sad about this subject, I’d like to post a brief reminder.

Whatever the heck conservative think-tank Policy Exchange are doing appears confused and misguided, at least from this reporting. But one representative phrase leapt out at me, a statement they apparently believe is supported by a majority of the public according to a recent poll:

Everyone should be made to work for their benefits except mothers with young children.

Given the prevalence of this kind of thinking, its deliberate exacerbation by many current politicians, and the extent to which the despicable repackaging of slavery for the 21st century known as workfare is still being falsely heralded as a boon for the underclasses, something apparently needs to be strongly reiterated.

If you’re doing work, you should get paid for it. If other people value the output of your labour, they should remunerate you directly for that.

Benefits, on the other hand, are what people get which doesn’t directly correspond to their own ability to pay, either in toil or coin. If you’re not working, or you’re trying to find work, or you’re ill or disabled, or if you just don’t fancy any of the shitty jobs going (yep, fuck it, basic income for everyone), then you get benefits. They’re things you just get, because we’re a social species and we give a fuck about each other. We understand that none of us can look after ourselves in total isolation, that sometimes some folk need some help, and that the rest of us have the capacity to provide that help.

What follows from these ideas, then, is that you don’t make people work for their fucking benefits.

Benefits are what people get without having to prove themselves to you.

And you especially don’t make people work for their benefits by forcing them into a full-time job, and then not actually paying them a salary, but making their benefits the only thing conditional on their labour, thus making them massively worse off than if you’d kept your grubby, sanction-hungry fingers out of the whole deal.

Seriously.

With all the effort some people put in to making sure none of these feckless scroungers gets a goddamn penny more than you’ve decided they’re entitled to, we could feed the fucking planet.

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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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The discussion about big corporations paying surprisingly little tax keeps coming back around, and rarely changes in its substance. Every time, a significant part of the discourse is devoted to reminding us that, so long as what they’re doing is legal, companies like Starbucks are simply engaging in good business practice by minimising their tax liabilities.

Regular Joes in the street like you and me, we don’t go paying more tax than we legally have to, after all, and if we had the chance to save a few quid we obviously would. Why would we expect companies earning billions, and with expert accountants on their payroll to find and make use of clever loopholes, to be any different?

In other news which might not seem to be connected at first glance, Education Secretary Michael Gove has called for the docking of teachers’ pay if they engage in industrial action by “working to rule”, and has called the unions organising such action “highly irresponsible”.

Working to rule, if you’re not familiar with the phrase, essentially means doing your job up to the limits of what’s legally required of you, and not going an inch further. If you’re contracted to work until 5pm, you go home at 5pm on the dot. If you’re entitled to an hour’s lunch-break, you drop everything and take not an instant less than three thousand six hundred seconds of leisure in the middle of the day.

The reason that “only doing the work you’re paid for” can, in some cases, constitute significant industrial action – let alone the fact that there’s even a term for it – speaks to how normalised it is for many workers to do more than their job description as part of a regular work-day. If everybody doing no more than the job they’re paid for would do as much damage as Gove would have you believe, you’d think someone might want to look into finding a way of remunerating public sector employees in a way that’s less calamitously broken. Possibly this should even be within the Education Secretary’s remit to look into.

The comparison and contrast, I hope, is clear. Doing the bare minimum legally required of you: When billionaires and global corporations do it to avoid contributing any more to the public purse, they’re savvy investors wisely managing their finances to maximise growth and increase shareholder return. When teachers, nurses, doctors, and other workers contributing their labour for the public good and regularly doing more than they’re paid for do it, they’re irresponsible and should be fined.

It’s a term you only seem to hear from serious politicians when the little guy is fighting back for a change, but “class warfare” doesn’t get much more naked and shameless than that.

It shouldn’t be surprising, of course, because government ministers and people distanced from the level of actual service provision have an innate upper hand. Someone from the National Association of Head Teachers is quoted in that BBC article:

We understand the position of our colleagues in the teaching unions, but our duty to pupils overrides all political or industrial considerations.

And he has a point – obviously the well-being and care of pupils (or those needing medical attention, etc.) should always be kept in mind. But the extent to which we consider these publicly funded jobs vital and necessary means the people doing those jobs can effectively be held to ransom.

If you’re in a union of, say, steelworkers (they still have those, right? We must still use steel, even though it’s the future now?), and you’re not happy with your pay or working conditions, you can go on strike. The company management might not be happy, but that’s kinda the point – and who else is going to care? The public at large isn’t going to give a crap if some steel doesn’t get worked by one particular company. Collective bargaining for the win.

But if you’re directly responsible for providing a public service, then any kind of industrial action risks disrupting that service. A service which could be much needed, even life-saving, and which could be made unavailable to some people in need of it.

The simplest, most headline- and soundbite-friendly way (which, let’s face it, is the way a lot of media outlets are most likely to bother with) to frame any industrial action by public sector workers boils down to: “They’re letting people suffer because they want more money”. Children are going untaught, wounds are going untreated, vital operations are (it’s presumed by extrapolation) going unperformed, because teachers and nurses and doctors are refusing to do the work we pay for with our taxes.

It’s the easiest perspective to take, because the workers are the ones immediately responsible for providing the service – but an instinct to see things this way renders every public sector utterly powerless to preserve their own financial security and their rights as employees, in ways that aren’t similarly threatened for private employees.

If the government made the money-saving decision to abruptly cut the salary of every firefighter in the country by half, those firefighters might not feel inclined to put out many fires until that bullshit was sorted out. The implications could be horrifying – fire is very unhealthy if you eat too much of it, I’ve read – but you’d have to be insane not to support their call for the government to reverse their policy decision, and absolve the firefighters themselves of the bulk of the responsibility for any consequences. What’s the alternative? How far below a living wage would you have to give them, before firefighters stop just being selfish for not doing their job simply because they’re the ones sitting in the truck with the massive hose?

Whether or not public sector workers are driven more by a sense of duty and desire to do good than others, they’re also trying to earn a living, and deserve a chance to do so. If their attempts to fight for that chance are having a negative impact, look a little further up the chain of command before deciding where to place the blame. Look at the cuts to education spending, and the way the NHS is being squeezed and privatised, and think about how much of the blame for disrupted services really lies with individuals trying to support their families and pay their mortgages under increasingly tight and antagonistic conditions.

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Someone asked Amanda Palmer recently about her health insurance situation. She then asked the rest of the world.

#InsurancePoll is trending! EVERYBODY ANSWER & RT! 1) country? 2) occupation? 3) have health insurance? 4) why/not? (cost to you/employer?)

This post is a summary of my ensuing twitrant.

#insurancepoll 1) UK, 2 & 3) doesn’t matter and nope, because 4) thank Loki for the NHS

There presumably already exists more and better quality data than is emerging on that hashtag, but not more human stories.

It was a long while before I really got the conversations on American TV shows about health insurance. Because I’ve never had or needed any.

Because I’ve always just gone to the hospital and gotten anything sorted that needed sorting. Because we have an NHS.

Because some bloke called Nye Bevan had this crazy idea about treating people based on medical need rather than how rich they are.

I only slowly came to understand the American situation through the gradual absorption of pop culture. It got scarier the more I learned.

I still don’t get it. You have Medicare, so, what? Old people can’t be expected to provide for all their health needs but poor people can?

When did a profit-driven health service start seeming like a *good* idea to anyone, anyway?

Seriously, if your infrastructure for dealing with medical emergencies is driven by a compulsion to make money, what the fuck do you expect?

“But government’s so incompetent and inefficient!” Sure, let’s let rich people make our decisions for us instead. No way that’ll backfire.

Government *does* suck, so don’t just nationalise healthcare, socialise it. Let doctors et al. run things and let’s all of us support them.

A poorly formed, un-nuanced, tweet-length soundbite of an idea? Yes. And I wish anything else being said made any more sense.

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This is interesting. A quote from Atlas Shrugged shows how objectivists – or one objectivist, at least – kinda sorta get it, before completely failing to get it.

When you live in a rational society, where men are free [to think and] to trade, you receive an incalculable bonus: the material value of your work is determined not only by your effort, but by the effort of the best productive minds who exist in the world around you.

When you work in a modern factory, you are paid, not only for your labor, but for all the productive genius which has made that factory possible: for the work of the industrialist who built it, for the work of the investor who saved the money to risk on the untried and the new, for the work of the engineer who designed the machines of which you are pushing the levers, for the work of the inventor who created the product which you spend your time on making, for the work of the scientist who discovered the laws that went into the making of that product, for the work of the philosopher who taught men how to think and whom you spend your time denouncing.

The machine, the frozen form of a living intelligence, is the power that expands the potential of your life by raising the productivity of your time. If you worked as a blacksmith in the mystics’ Middle Ages, the whole of your earning capacity would consist of an iron bar produced by your hands in days and days of effort. How many tons of rail do you produce per day if you work for [a thinker]? Would you dare to claim that the size of your pay check was created solely by your physical labor and that those rails were the product of your muscles? The standard of living of that blacksmith is all that your muscles are worth; the rest is a gift from [those who choose not to sweat, but to think].

So, there’s a valid observation in there. People’s marginal productivity can, indeed, be greatly influenced by other people. How much I can get done in an hour, and what that output is worth to anyone, is hugely boosted by the inventions, creations, ideas, and hard work of my colleagues, other workers, managers, and numerous people who’ve been dead for centuries.

A labourer can produce much greater output when assisted by the ideas and creativity of a “thinker”. This seems trivially true. But what exactly would be the productive output of a thinker if there weren’t any labourers to do the actual, y’know, labour?

Innovation’s great and all, but without thousands of pairs of nimble Chinese hands working round the clock for years actually making things, Steve Jobs is just a nerd in a garage.

So why does Ayn Rand stop at lauding the miraculous contributions of her thinkers, without recognising any comparable virtue in back-breaking labour? I mean, she’s half there. People can do much more in collaboration than working on their own. We are more than the sum of our parts. So why doesn’t she get that it’s a two-way street? Is it just a contempt for anything so vulgar as doing work, which leads someone to hold those who manage to avoid it in such high esteem?

I mean, all that the millions of people in the working class do is toil really hard getting stuff done for forty hours a week or more. The CEOs and entrepreneurs and “thinkers”, though – they had a neat idea one time. (And then got the government to force everyone else not to use their idea without giving them money.)

Who are the real heroes we can’t do without?

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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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