Wednesday 19 March 2014

On the 'undeserving poor'

I often hear people speaking out in indignation about the phrase 'the undeserving poor'. I struggle to share their indignation. It seems to me that the phrase expresses at least one general principle that I find entirely reasonable to be applied in the welfare state: merit.

It is mainly the left that seems to be deeply agitated by the use of the phrase but their arguments against it are far from clear to me. There are at least two aspects that move me to find their indignation either motivated by unacceptable paternalism or by a confusion of values.

Let's examine paternalism first. Saying that everyone deserves what he or she needs regardless of merit, seems to me to undermine the principle of equality and fairness. In essence, those who dislike the term 'undeserving' appear to say that there are some people who are not subject to the principle of merit which is applied to everyone else, clearly flouting the principle of equality and fairness.

So why is this patronising? To me, the phrase 'deserving' or 'undeserving' articulates a fundamental principle that whatever we gain in life should be based on our merits. To negate the possibility that some are deserving and others not, means nothing else but that, in contrast to anybody else, some do not have to contribute to their own wellbeing. To me, this smacks of infantilising and patronising impulses.

But denying that there are people 'undeserving' of welfare is not just patronising. It is also a symptom of confusion within the leftist terminological universe. There is no other political movement that loves more to talk about merit and 'desert' than the left when it comes to those on the top of the income scale. The left is often aghast at how 'undeserving' the salaries and bonuses of the bankers or CEOs of companies are. So, whilst they base their argument on the principle of merit when it comes to highlight the alleged discrepancy between personal achievements and income for the top earners, they would like to banish all talk about merit when it comes to the poor. This sounds like a confusion of values to me.

So far from being a disreputable phrase, I believe that 'undeserving' and its related term 'merit' is one of the sharpest weapons in the armoury of social criticism.

Monday 17 March 2014

The demise of the Co-op movement

I once strolled into a Co-op shop in Cardiff, more by accident than by purpose and my instant reaction was one of horror. I have never seen a shop that offered so little of value yet excelled in drabness. It's shelves seemed to be filled with lots of apples of indistinct age (and taste, no doubt) and rows and rows of sugary lemonade. I made a mental note never to enter a Co-op shop again.

In a way, its food retail section is the least of the worries for the Co-op movement, given a 2 billion pound hole in its books and a former Labour minister (of all people!) declaring the company to be unwilling to reform. Oh, and yes, it also just lost its CEO, for good measure, probably driven out by vicious (and wrongful) briefing from its own board members about his (alleged) bonus take .

So, what does this mean for the Co-op movement? And why has it all gone so horribly wrong? The Co-op is closely aligned with Labour, sponsoring several MPs (and their re-election campaigns) to the tune of £50k each and giving to the Labour Party itself close to 1 million pounds per annum.

But it's main motto, to be the last bastion of mutualism, seems to be a figleaf for fiendish levels of incompetence amongst its non-executive directors (drawn from 'ordinary people') and shocking tales of morals in free fall, with the crystal meth snorting former director Paul Flowers only the tip of the iceberg.

The Rev Paul Flowers - A preference for rentboys and crystal meth when he is not in a suit

The cause of the problem however seems to lie in a useful conceit that lies at the core of the Co-op movement philosophy, that 'ordinary people' can and should run diversified companies operating in a highly complex market place. In a sense, this philosophy always lacked credibility ever since Marx  wrote several thousand pages in an attempt to analyse something that is thought to boil down to simple supply and demand by the popularisers of market economics. Yet, this 'ordinary people should run it' philosophy extends right across public services as well, including health care.

The Labour Government under Tony Blair invested heavily in so-called partnership boards that were supposed to have a say in the decision making of health boards (now disbanded in England). This was not a way of increasing shared decision making for patients with their own GP but was a way of getting communities involved in large scale decisions such as commissioning of services in an area the size of several counties. Naturally, it never worked, but the reason why it did not deliver more involvement is interesting to note. In essence, the professional classes in healthcare had enough authority (based on their training and knowledge) to swat away any serious attempt by ordinary people to keep a check on their decision making. Eventually, there were always just two players of any clout in health: the professionals and the government in Whitehall.

This raises an interesting question about the Co-op. Just like highly complex healthcare facilities, it operates in fast moving markets that require specialist knowledge. It appears that we still have not found a meaningful way of involving ordinary people in the economic and social affairs that are shaped to a large degree by the companies and services supposedly serving them. The reason the Co-op is in dire straits is that it had artificially fostered an environment where 'ordinary people' were put in charge, to the detriment of those who had the competences to run the place and to the loss of the wider public.

Sunday 9 March 2014

The religious republicans

Historical narratives prefer the clear vistas and straight avenues. Or so it seems when thinking about the rise of rationalism in the Western world. The favourite narrative topos is the enlightened hero fighting (and dying) for what he knows is right, such as the planets going round the sun. Yet, sometimes there are glimpses in history of how enmeshed the rational is with the irrational, the enlightened with the mystical.

In politics, the epitome of rationalism seemed to be reached by those who argued for a republic in the 17th century in Britain. To somebody looking back at them from today, their values seem to reveal a desire for rational order, logically flowing from the rejection of mysticism and ritualistic politics legitimised solely by the lapse of time. To contemporaries, the monarchy surely must have appeared as a relic of unenlightened thinking, royalism a sign of clinging to old times.

Reading C.V. Wedgewood's Trial of Charles I I rediscovered a sense of the fuzziness of historical reality, and how history defies clear cut interpretations. What is most impressive in her account are the direct quotes from Cromwell who preferred obscure mythological terminology at the best of times. Even more so, Wedgewood reveals how Cromwell's republicanism was steeped in religious fanaticism, often to such a degree that his cause lost support amongst many.

Oliver Cromwell - A republic by the will of God

Cromwell also had a way of intimating a course of action whilst not spelling out exactly what it was. He seemed to think that the 'right action' could be inferred from introspection with God through prayer, something that would strike us as a curious way to formulate public policy to say the least.

Wedgewood quotes a letter by Cromwell to Fairfax (Lord General) just before the start of the trial. This is what he wrote to his friend in arms:

'I verily think and am persuaded they [putting the Kind on trial] are things which God puts into our hearts. I shall not need to offer anything to your Excellency: I know God teaches you ... The good Lord work his will upon your heart enabling you to it; and the presence of the Almighty God go along with you.' (p37: C.V.Wedgewood, The Trial of Charles I, London 1964)

What is fascinating about this quote is not only that this hardly amounted to any concrete advice in the delicate matter of whether or not to put the King on trial. It also shows what Cromwell thought would legitimise their actions: God's will.

This can hardly count as a rational debate, since once God's will is invoked, any discussion is pretty much over. It is striking how similar these 'justifications' are to those by religious fanatics today, where God's will is the ultimate source of the course of history.

If anything, this demonstrates how intertwined rational thought was with deeply religious thinking and that it was by no means clear that it would extricate itself from it in the long run.

And it also means of course that the monarchy is still with us, with or without God's will.

The benefits of coalition government

As a German I have always been quite comfortable with coalition government, unlike most people in this country. Indignation about broken electoral promises never resonated with me, given that the main  benefit of coalition government seems to be a need for compromise that often weeds out the nuttier promises made in the heat of the electoral battle.

As the present coalition government edges to its final days in the UK, the 'play fights', as Andrew Rawnsley from The Observer calls them, increase. They are in essence the separation rituals of two partners that need to differentiate themselves from each other whilst at the same time trying to celebrate what they achieved.

Whatever its accomplishments, there is one advantage of coalition government that is rarely discussed. It's the fact that both partners are in a learning experience, coming into direct contact with other opinions and views on how to run the economy (and the country) without having the privilege to reject other perspectives out of hand. In other words, coalition government has a disciplining effect on all partners, forcing them to listen and to learn.

One area which demonstrates this increased capacity to learn under the conditions of a coalition government is taxation. In 2010, the Conservatives were steadfast against increasing the personal tax allowance whilst Lib Dems made it one of their most prominent electoral pledges. Two years into the coalition government and Chancellor George Osborne publicly commented that he wished this had been a Tory pledge all along. The Tory support for the increase of the personal tax allowance became so strong that Lib Dems felt miffed about it and kept pointing out to anybody who wanted to hear it that this was originally their idea.

There may be some disadvantages about lifting more than 5 million people out of tax altogether, mainly relating to the fact that modern societies are based on the contributory principle, for which taxation is the main conduit. But overall, there is now only one party that does not support a further increase in the personal tax allowance, the Labour Party. How Labour politicians square this with their avowed ambition to do good for the lowest paid is beyond me, but it seems that the two coalition partners have got it. Sometimes it may be a good thing if you are forced to share power.

Saturday 8 March 2014

The ironies of US foreign policy

Secretary of State John Kerry is reported to be a man with little humour so it does not surprise me that the manifest irony of what he recently announced completely escaped him. Here is what he said about Russia's intervention in the Crimea:

'You just don’t invade another country on phony pretext in order to assert your interests'

Errmmm, yes you do! The US has time and again proven that she does and gets away with it. The list of  countries invaded by the US (note: only invasions without UN mandate) is long. I remember vividly the reports on a small Caribbean island that had just freely and fairly elected a government which displeased the US. It is called Grenada and it only took the US a few weeks to find a ham fisted pretext, or shall we call it the pretext of all pretexts? Allegedly, Grenada had to be invaded because there were a couple of hundred students from the US on the island who felt threatened by the new government. It was never quite clear what the nature of the threat was (sit an exam? read a book?), yet the US did not just invade to repatriate her students from there but toppled the elected government too, just for good measure.

The next exhibit is of course Iraq, for which the likes of Kerry and Clinton (Hilary Rodham) bear direct responsibility since they voted for the war in Iraq on the even grander lie that Saddam Hussein would have weapons of mass destruction. Yes, those WMDs again. Naturally, Saddam never had any, but that did not concern Kerry much since he voted for the war and never apologised for this illegal adventure which cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. But never mind the collateral damage...

This does not complete the story of pretexts yet. The last exhibit is a tiny autonomous enclave in Serbia, called Kosovo. In 2008, the local commander of the Kosovoan Liberation Army declared the need for a referendum on the secession of Kosovo from Serbia. A sham referendum was held and Kosovo declared itself independent in violation of all international treaties that have ever been looked at by an incumbent of the US State Department. Yet, the US government promptly recognised the Serbian province and urged the European Union to open membership negotiations with Kosovo. Never mind, that the Kosovo government was composed of people for whom arrest warrants by the International Court of Justice (Den Haag) were pending for extortion, money laundering, and all the other niceties that people happen to do when they are part of a mafia.

So, where does this leave Ukraine and Russia? Well, not in too bad a place. I might misremember but I think there was a treaty signed by all parties in Ukraine that anticipated free and fair elections in December. If I recall correctly, there were even the foreign ministers and various representatives in the room from France, Germany, Poland and Russia. Twenty four hours later, the Western foreign ministers feigned ignorance and the legitimate Ukrainian government takes flight. What we are left with now is a medley crew of 'opposition leaders' that claim to be the Ukrainian government (some of them positively obnoxious people who can only be called Neo-Nazis, displaying openly SS insignia). Nothing strikes me as 'legitimate' about this government so unless everyone returns to the negotiating table, I cant see why Russia shouldn't cash in on the ironies of US policy and organise a referendum in the Crimea. It would only be a further exhibit in the long list of might over right.