Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Suppose a man has two cows (cont.)

The intrinsic dignity of labour (as opposed to Labour)

I am not convinced by the theory which says that it is better or righter for children to be supported by wages that their parents earn from work rather than in some other way.

If I won the lottery, or discovered an oil well at the bottom of my garden, or was a member of the House of Lords, then I would stop working and spend more time with my children. I don't think that they would necessarily be worse off because they had a father was independently wealthy / one of the idle rich.

I can conceive of happy children raised in a hippy commune where no-one does much work, and unhappy ones raised by a horny handed son of toil.

Granted that there are useful jobs which need doing, the best way for them to get done is for someone to do them. Our present system, in which a person goes and exchanges his skills and labour for wages, seems to be a pretty good one, although not necessarily the best possible.

I tend to agree with Oscar that the human race would be much happier if machines became so efficient that hardly anyone would have to do any work.

Welfare dependency

As long as there are jobs which need doing, it is a Bad Thing for the state to pay someone to stay at home and do nothing.

If there are no jobs which need doing -- if supply exceeds demand in the labour market -- then I don't necessarily think that it is a Good Thing to artificially create jobs for the unemployed. You could create a million new jobs tomorrow by saying "Self-service petrol stations are henceforth banned: every petrol pump must have an attendant." But I see no advantage of that compared with paying people dole cheques.

It follows that any welfare system under which the unemployed are financially better off than the employed is a Bad Thing, since it creates a financial dis-incentive to find a job.

If, in a given system, you find that unemployment benefit pays better than some salaried work, your options are, pretty clearly, decrease unemployment benefit, or increase the pay of some salaried employment.

Unemployment benefit, would, on my system, amount to the absolute minimum you need to live and participate in society. (Well above subsidence, but not much left over for luxuries. TV, books (*) and a newspaper are, on my view, not luxuries.) Any company paying its staff less than this amount should (and, I think, probably is) be regarded as committing a criminal offence.
Welfare dependency can therefore be solved by the simple expedient of "slightly increasing the national minimum wage to a level of about 25% more than unemployment benefit."

That's that one sorted out. God, I'm good.

Benefit fraud
I am not convinced by the theory that it is easy for individuals to generate huge incomes for themselves by defrauding the unemployment benefit services. The most serious large scale benefit fraud is perpetrated by organised criminals, who have run scams where landlords manage to claim housing benefit from fictitious tenants living in fictitious property. This is a Bad Thing, but nothing to do with the poor becoming dependent on welfare. And, by the way, it won't be solved by charging me £40 for a compulsory I.D card.

The most common kind of benefit fraud that private individuals are accused of is continuing to claim benefit while they are, in fact, in work. This is only possible if you are doing casual, cash in hand type work, but it must be relatively common. It is obviously Very Naughty but doesn't quite fit into the "people who have never worked" model.

£45 is the basic benefit for a single person. You can also, by an extremely convoluted system, get your council tax paid as well. (One office in the town hall sends out cheques so that citizens can send them back to other offices in the same town hall!) You can also get your rent paid, if you are living in a reasonably sized flat, or a contribution to your mortgage interest.

I am trying to think what else I claimed while out of work.
Cheap spectacles.
Reduced dental fees.
Free train fares to job interviews out of town (very useful)
One-off "hardship payments" if you can make out a case that you need, say, a new pair of shoes. (I never claimed that, myself.)

If I was going to do a scam, the best I can think of is getting someone to send fake job-offers from Scotland in order to get a free train ride. But they don't give you the money, just a little note that says "This person can travel free between these stations." Maybe you could somehow sell the warrants on the black-market.

I am genuinely interested to know what kind of frauds people are supposed to be doing to get very high payments out of the system.

The £45 is for a single person. If you have dependents, then you can get very much higher sums of money -- X pounds for each wife, and Y pounds for each child. You might be able to claim for imaginary children, but social services would catch up with you very quickly.

The tabloids occasionally get excited by the existence of someone (often a dark-skinned someone) who has 17 children and is therefore getting a huge amount of money out of the state. They conclude that the evil working classes are all dropping litters of babies all over the place simply in order to claim increased benefit. I have never been convinced. The alternative is to cut off the offender's benefit, whereupon his children either starve to death or get taken into state children's homes. Which sounds a lot like "Using an intercontinental ballistic missile to crack a nut."

Incidentally, did you ever see "Cathy Come Home"?

The Undeserving Poor
Ebenezer often pretends to believe that there are plenty of jobs for everyone, and the unemployed are simply lazy people who refuse to work. This is very unlikely to be true.In the 80s, when Mad Norman made his famous "on yer bike" remark, there simply were not very many jobs in some areas. Mrs. Thatcher was keeping unemployment artificially high as part of her policy to destroy the Trades Unions and therefore depower the Labour Party (a policy which largely succeeded.)

After Gordon Brown's first budgie, the Daily Mail got a massive stiffy because it thought that Brown was going to "force" lazy unemployed people to work whether they wanted to or not. But nothing appeared to come of this, presumably because most unemployed people want a job, but can't find one.

I have had periods out of work under Thatcher, Major, and Blair, and each time, you had to demonstrate that you were making a reasonable effort to look for work. Under Thatcher, you had to bring copies of job applications with you each week when you "signed on". Blair has introduced a radical new scheme called "the New Deal" where you have to bring a folder of job applications to a special interview you attend every three months. If you are unemployed long term, they hassle you (or help you, depending on your view point) in other ways. The idea that the unemployed are encouraged to remain unemployed is simply one of Ebenezer's fantasies.

But. Let us suppose we found an example of the a lazy person who really doesn't want to work. Are we saying that we would be prepared to cut off his benefit and put him on the streets selling Big Issue? Would this, in fact, be preferable to letting his rip us all off for £45 a week? More to the point, are we going to say to the genuinely poor person who is genuinely looking for a job "Sorry. You can't have any help, because there is a lazy hippy up the road?"

I agree that the best way of helping the undeserving poor is to address the conditions which made them poor and undeserving. This probably involves educating them, improving their health care, improving their standard of housing, giving them better mobility so they can look for jobs out of town. The best way of doing this is, er, through the welfare state.

(*) It makes no difference whether the unemployed have money to buy books, or access to really good free libraries.


Anonymous said...

You forget, however, that Ebenezer's beliefs are based on personal experience, and therefore must be absolutely correct...

Anonymous said...

I think there are many reasons for people to be unemployed.

Education need not be a factor. It could just be someone whose psycology means that they really struggle with the concept of work. They could just be not very good at finding a job (as in my period of unemployment). They could (as Charles says) be in an situation where work is not part of their environment.

I don't think these problems are necessarily easily solvable however, unless we re-introduce workhouses (or in a more modern variant, get them into uniforms and get them to pick litter).

Hmm, perhaps benefits & evidence-of-seeking-work is the least bad option after all.

However, the government should ensure that a route out exists.

P.S. Don't really believe the Thatcher created unemployment to break the unions thing. I think the unemployment was a consequence and not an aim of her policies.

Anonymous said...

Yes, absolutely. The wellfare state is a good way to handle many of these issues, but not in the way they are handled in the US. (I am not really sure about Britain.)

Interestingly, from what I was told about the US benefits system on the other thread, it sounds to me like a lot of the problems in the US actually come from the lack of a welfare state. As far as I understand, long-term unemployed Americans get things like free health care, which is extremely valuable, but available to everybody in England through the NHS.

Anonymous said...

Do we really need quite so many people working in quite so many McDonalds, making sure I don't have to wait more than two minutes for my Happy Meal?

In a sense, we do. If you had to wait more than two minutes for your Happy Meal, the entire concept of "fast food" would be pointless, and McDonalds would go down the tubes.

Now, of course, you could argue that we don't really need McDonalds either, but at the risk of playing the patronising middle class white boy, it does bring a certain amount of simple happiness to a lot of people. I personally hate it, and wouldn't care if it vanished tomorrow. Not everybody feels the same way.

The sad truth (I always feel uncomfortable declaring something to be "the sad truth", since what I essentially mean is "this is my opinion, but because my opinion is a little bit cynical, I am going to employ a cheap rhetorical trick and imply that disagreeing with me is just naive") is that most people aren't going to follow their dreams, much less fulfil them. The world simply does not need more than a handful of writers, actors, and game designers. Most people will wind up peddling whatever useful skills they have for whatever they can get, and use the money they make to do the things they actually want to do.

Anonymous said...

or discovered an oil well at the bottom of my garden

Actually I very much doubt that Andrew has ever been anywhere near the bottom of his garden: a lost opportunity perhaps.

Anonymous said...

or discovered an oil well at the bottom of my garden

Actually I very much doubt that Andrew has ever been anywhere near the bottom of his garden; a lost opportunity, perhaps.

Anonymous said...

So "preview" and the posting page shows text in bold but not if it's in italics and the identity buttons keep reverting to anonymous. Mmmm - please excuse me while I fall off my learning curve.

Anonymous said...


You may well be right. I think many people would benefit from actual experience of working.

However, I have reservations about obliging people to work (eg, if they have dependents they can't easily care for if they work, or if they have some sort of significant problem that would make it destructive).

Anonymous said...

or discovered an oil well at the bottom of my garden

I'm fairly sure that you don't own the rights to any natural resources found on your property. I'm sure I read this when having to pay out for a survey to buy a house.

I can't remember if it's the government or a private company (for some reason the local water company rings a bell) but I don't think you'd profit from it.

Man-made though, is okay. So you can profit from finding gold Roman coins on your land, but not from finding a gold seam.

Anonymous said...

So you can profit from finding gold Roman coins on your land, but not from finding a gold seam.

Unless, of course, you're an archaeologist. Chiz.

Anonymous said...

"sigh" Others dwell on the philosophy of Molesworth (you said "chiz"- what pages that recalls).

Anonymous said...

I used to believe that people benefited from the actual experience of working even tedious and menial jobs.

Then I got a job in fast food. *g*.

(No doubt there are people out there for whom the opposite is true; still...however dehumanizing being on the dole is, it was more so).

Anonymous said...

I vote that Andúril-Stone lay off the politics and hurry up and post at least the first of his seven reviews of The Sith, Revenge They Take, Hmmm, yes, Terrible Revenge.

If you had told me in 1995 that "By 2005, Star Trek will have collapsed into extinction and the best science-fiction on screen will be Dr Who, Battlestar Galactica and a prequel to Star Wars"... I would have laughed.

Anonymous said...

Intersting comparing US and UK attitudes. I feel though that one of the biggest cultural differences has not been addressed- that of movement.
The US was founded by people on the move- seeking land, fortune, or just an escape from persecution. Once they arrived many continued to move westwards, still looking for a better life. The mass movement of the people also forms a strong part of the USA's historical identity.
In the UK we had, as you pointed out, a feudal society; however, it was also a relatively stable society where little changed, in terms of technology and working practices, for many centuries. Quite recently a close analysis of the records has revealed a surprising amount of social and geographical mobility, despte the apparent stability, suggesting that people were in fact trying to better their lot, but, contrary to the US this mobility does not form part of our historical self-identity; our ideology. We see ourselves living in the same small village for generation upon generation, paying fealty to the Lord of the Manor and his heirs, and doing much the same job as our grandparents did.
All this changed with the industrial revolution, of course. Except it didn't; not really. Yes there were new jobs in the mills and coal mines to replace the old ones lost on the land following the enclosures and changing farming systems, and the workforce had to move to the towns and cities; but the old stability soon reasserted itself with the Lord of the Manor replaced by the mill/mine/factory owner. The evidence for this is the very marked regional differences in dialect, diet, and custom that can be found throughout the UK, not only between the much older rural regions, but also between the much more recent industrial regions. It's hard to believe that these marked differences could have developed and survived if people had been on the move.

OK- enough history. What this means in the modern UK is twofold, so far as getting a job is concerned.

1. Our historical identity is based on stability. Thus, when our local jobs suddenly go, be it the coal mine, the ship-yard, or very recently, the car plant, we are stunned (note; these are often very macho idustries). Not only have I lost my job, but so have all my friends, and my son has lost the job I expected would be his. An entire region has suddenly lost its economic underpinning, and with it part of its cultural identity. Almost invariably there is then a call for the government to act. To bail out the old industry with subsidies or to provide new jobs to replace it(often a problem then arises because the new jobs are wimpish light assembly/service sector jobs which conflict with the macho culture of the old jobs.)

The government, of course, is just the Lord of the Manor's Lord.

2. Even if you accept the economic neccesity of moving to seek work there is a huge problem in doing so- accepting that you, in part; your children, mostly; and their children, totally; will lose their cultural identity is very difficult. The people you work with (assuming you get a job) or share a street with, won't talk like you, eat like you, dress like you, or perhaps even think like you. And they, in turn, quite possibly won't even understand what you're saying (I used to work with a guy from Glasgow) In short, you are not just moving to a new area you are giving up who you are, and must come to terms with being an outsider.(from experience a south-east English accent can experience xenophobia a mere 100 or so miles north-west of London!) Difficult for many, and unendurable for a few.

From my limited first-hand experience of the US I'd say the situation is rather different over there. Your regionalisation of dialect and culture is, even at its extremes (say: The Bronx, Alabama, and LA) less marked than in the UK, and the vast majority of you all share much the same dialect and way of life. This makes it much easier to be mobile as the local culture you are giving up, and the local culture you are moving to are reasonably close. You will feel more comfortable in your new surroundings and your new neighbours will be more accpeting of you. This, along with your historical identity as "fortune-seekers", makes your labour force much more flexible than the UK's, and so what might work in the way of re-training, benefits, etc when the US deals with mass unemployment (like in the rust belt) may not be directly applicable to similar situations in the UK.
We are, in many ways, profoundly different in our attitudes.


Anonymous said...

I am not 100% convinced by the mobility issue, as I understand (someone who actually knows about this might correct me here) that people in the US are relatively immobile, with most remaining in their state of birth.

I also think people in the UK are (now) fairly mobile (this may well be personal bias, as I and most of the people I know at my current employer have moved there from all around the UK). This is noticeable in general as well, as most of the accent differences seem to be reducing, apart from those between the large urban areas.

I think, as Charles says, that this is to do with the historical background of our governmental systems and the differences in the philosophy of government.

I think the pioneer background is also relevant, as a pioneer that did not work would starve.