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Friday, 30 March 2012

Benefits or Insurance?

In the March issue of Prospect magazine there is an interesting feature on contemporary attitudes to Welfare, for which the cover strapline is "New poll: Britain says cut benefits".

One of the big problems we now have is that people understand by "Benefits" handouts from general taxation destined to those who don't pay taxes (or not so many taxes). And many Benefits are just that - transfers from those who had (until they paid their Taxes) to those who had not (until they received their Benefits).

But in the past it was always intended that the core of Benefits provision should be funded by insurance schemes. To this day, we all have our National Insurance numbers even if we don't know them any longer and certainly don't carry our cards. This is a great loss.

Everyone at birth should be assigned a National Insurance number which enrolls them in a compulsory scheme. Either their parents or the State should start paying in for future benefits: unemployment benefit, sickness benefit,incapacity benefits, National Health insurance-based benefits. The contributions should be big enough to allow for the fact that some insurees will require Benefits from birth: the seriously disabled.

We should also start paying into Old Age Benefits funds and a certain minimum level of contribution should be compulsory and organised by the state. The aim should be to ensure that people can be self-sufficient in retirement without having to rely on endless pension top-ups or gratuitous freebies like the Bus Pass.

Both the state National Insurance scheme and (probably separately) the state Old Age Pension scheme should send us an annual statement setting out what we have contributed and to what Benefits we are currently entitled. This is not a big demand to make. After all, every time a credit card provider changes its Terms and Conditions, however trivially, it mails the changes to every card holder.

The contributions required for such schemes would be substantial. There is, after all, no such thing as a free lunch - except someone else's. But as Insurance contributions increase so general taxation should go down. Dramatically.

Politicians and bureaucrats love general taxation. It is money they can do what they like with. It's not ear marked. If they want to attack a foreign country or roll out the red carpet for the Pope or handout Benefits to those who might as a result vote for them, they have the wherewithal to do it.

This must be stopped. General taxation, along with general borrowing ("the bond market") is the core of the unaccountability of government. Money should be raised for specific purposes and spent on those purposes. In the bond market, the purpose to which the money being borrowed is going to be put should be specified.

Go down this route and you break the equation Benefits = Scrounging. And through insurance based schemes, you really do create a situation in which we are all in this together.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

The Elderly Fit and the Elderly Frail

Governments want the votes of the elderly fit and don't give a toss about those who are beyond voting, the elderly frail. The frail get some incidental protection from the knowledge of the fit that you can go from one category to another overnight. A stroke can do it. But every recent Report has told us that the elderly frail are fairly comprehensively neglected.

So-called "Universal Benefits" for the over sixties are intended as vote winners and, in the case of the Bus Pass, as subsidies for the bus companies. They were not thought through in terms of things like fitness and frailty. But all things have unintended consequences.

So one reason I don't claim my Free Bus Pass is that I know that it would be a disincentive to walking into town. I do that several times a week and every time I walk I fulfill my government-prescribed Keep Fit exercise quota. And every time I walk I save a couple of quid.

A critic of my hostility to the Bus Pass writes that "the withdrawal of the free bus pass would impact massively on the frailer elderly for whom getting out of the house is important in maintaining health".

I agree that this Comment describes one of the unintended benefits of the Pass. Local buses are often Day Care centres on wheels and cheap at the price.

But this is not a good enough reason to give everyone a Bus Pass at sixty. It might be a reason to give everyone a Pass at seventy. But it is still a blunt instrument.

One person may find it convenient and enjoyable to shop daily, finding it manageable to carry bags on the bus. Another person may prefer a weekly shop and a taxi home with all their bags. They may no longer be strong enough to cope with the stop-start jolts of the average bus. But no one suggests a Taxi Pass.

My proposal is an income adequate for retired people to make their own choices, without top-up untargetted Universal Benefits which are primarily intended to make people feel Grateful to the Government.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Mervyn King and the Diamond Jubilee

Mervyn King has been reading my old Blogs (try 27 April 2011). He is in the Daily Telegraph today forecasting that the Days Orff for the Queen's Jubilee will depress UK GDP in the second quarter of 2012 just as her grandson's marriage did in the same period of 2011.

Mr Cameron is not worried. He's not really a Growth man, he's a Bash the Argies and Let the Rich Get Richer man.

A couple of months ago we were going to have the motorway speed limit raised to 80 mph, roughly in line with Europe's 130 kmph. The idea was to "get Britain moving".

Now Mr Cameron wants Toll roads to slow it down again. I guess he went through the Dartford Tunnel one morning and realised what a cash cow for his chums the roads could be.

Speaking of slowing things down, I have been out of the country (hence the shortage of recent Blogging).

It's easy enough to get out. On a good day you can exit through the Tunnel with no checks whatsoever, French or British, as if you were in the Schengen area.

Coming back is another matter. Even on a quiet day there is a queue to be checked back in by the UK Borders Agency ( now out sourced to North Korea). Every single returning Brit is subjected to demented scanning of their passport (turn it this way, turn it that way, hold it up to the light) and, in unfortunate cases, the third degree about their temerity in leaving the country (Business or Pleasure, Sir?).

Eurotunnel is already panicking about the Jubilee and sending out Do's and Don'ts emails.So many of us are fleeing the country that they fear long queues at Calais as we return. Of course there will be long queues. The security apparatus plans to punish us for not staying home and waving our Union Jacks.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Booty, Loot, Plunder & Stolen Goods: Where would we be without them?

There are still children and grandchildren of Holocaust victims successfully claiming back goods (usually art works)stolen by the Nazis. The works have often ended up in some German museum.

Such restitution is justice done and seen to be done.

But such cases may obscure the fact that, if only we had better documentation, we would soon discover that most claims to ownership of significant assets are invalid. At some point, the chain of legitimate exchange and inheritance has been broken by force or fraud.

Of course, most things which are stolen - whether by invading armies or private individuals - have only a short shelf life. When hungry soldiers steal a peasant's crops, they do so to eat them. The peasant may later be able to claim financial compensation. But I doubt that one in a thousand - maybe one in ten thousand - peasants have ever been compensated.

A few things have a long shelf life: land, houses, jewels, art works, books and papers. Around the world, the title to most such things is bad. At some point, the line of succession and exchange was broken by force, whether the force of a common thief or that of an invading army.

But only in a few cases will it be possible to document that the title is bad and in still fewer will it be possible to say who has a better title, except generically: Native Americans and Aborigines as groups have a better claim to own the land of America and Australia than those individuals whose ownership is today upheld by the United States or the Commonwealth (!) of Australia.

In contrast, there are still plenty of Palestinians who can document individually what they have lost. And maybe even quite a few Armenians - which is one reason why Turkey is unwilling to concede the Armenian Genocide claim.

At the other end of the scale, no one living in England knows whether or not they are a descendant of the native populations who lost everything in the Norman Conquest or even in later forcible redistributions. In principle, the Roman Catholic Church could probably document fairly exactly what it lost in Henry VIIIs dissolution of the monasteries and could put together a claim for restitution or compensation, but if it did I doubt anyone would take it seriously. It was all too long ago.

Time does make a difference then. Hang on to stolen property for long enough and eventually everyone concedes that it is yours.

Sometimes there are utilitarian advantages to theft.

Paintings end up being displayed in public galleries which would otherwise gather mould in damp basements or bird shit in draughty attics.

The theft (or dubious disposal) of private or public archives often enough transfers ownership to collectors who will look after the material much better than those who had a title to it.

And then there are Robin Hoods, though not in England, Thank God.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Soldiers Kill, Deploy them with Care

"Unlike the Americans, whose occupying forces were largely disciplined, the French troops, especially it seems a minority of the feared colonial troops from North Africa, looted extensively and perpetrated numerous rapes on entering German villages and townships....In Freudenstadt, the worst instance, the raping, looting and pillaging went on for three days" (Ian Kershaw, The End. Hitler's Germany 1944 - 45)

I didn't know that until I read Kershaw's interesting new book. I just assumed that only the Russians had done such things - they did do them, simply on a larger scale.

It may have been different in 1945, as Kershaw asserts, but we have known for decades that American Army discipline isn't very good. Discipline isn't just about getting men to Charge! when they are told to Charge! but also about them doing the job they are sent in to do and only that job. Letting off frustration, lording it over locals, indulging personal viciousness are not usually part of the job.

Discipline is also about withdrawing from combat duties soldiers who appear disturbed to their comrades, who bully or boast or hate too much.

It's clear that American soldiers in Afghanistan, just as in Vietnam and Iraq, are not adequately disciplined. Nor are British soldiers. The result is that instead of defeating enemies, the Americans and the British have made new ones. If that's the best you can do, then you shouldn't deploy your "Heroes" in the first place.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Religion: Beliefs and Practices

I am quite happy to tell you what I believe, even unasked. For example, I do not expect to survive my death in any form. I don't expect to die only to wake up in some other world. Nor do I believe that I existed in some previous world. I only got one chance at life in any form and that chance shows up in the world as Trevor Pateman (1947 - ).

You wouldn't know that I believe this from walking past me in the street. I don't wear a badge which tells you what I believe and, as far as I know, there is no way of dressing which would convey to others that I don't believe in the immortality of the soul.

You can get an idea of what some people believe - or at least what they profess to believe - from the way they dress. People who dress as Orthodox Jews probably hold Orthodox beliefs, unless they are drug smugglers dressed up as Orthodox Jews (it has been known to work).

But I doubt that from the fact that someone is wearing a crucifix around their neck you can safely infer that they have any beliefs which they regard as specifically Christian, though they may have beliefs which coincide with Christian beliefs. Among the Ten Commandments there are several which are believed by shedloads of people who aren't in any sense Christians.

The crucifix may just have been a Christmas present from Granny. Maybe there is a sex difference: crucifixes are worn mainly by girls and women; unless they are priests, men rarely wear them.

Someone once remarked that if Christ had been born in the twentieth century, people would hang around their necks little electric chairs.

In my student days, I wore badges. I have a photograph taken at the end of my Final examinations in 1968 which shows me wearing the badge of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign. It was probably a bit defiant, since there was a prescribed dress code for Oxford examinations - I am wearing a dark suit, a white shirt (with unprescribed frills), a white bow tie and my scholar's gown. I have taken off my mortar board. The whole lot went by the name of sub fusc. And even though I have worn it, I have no idea what sub fusc means.

Nowadays, I couldn't bear to wear a badge. I have lots of strongly held beliefs but I don't really think I should walk around with a placard, however small, which proclaims them to every unfortunate shop assistant and waiter. It's part of civility not to intrude your beliefs in contexts where they are irrelevant.

In the same way, though I have a doctorate, I don't call myself "Dr" outside of the academic contexts to which it belongs. I was reminded of this the other day when someone called me "Dr" for the first time in years.

And when I was married, I did not wear a wedding ring. Nor did my wife.

The fly in the ointment of this line of argument is the way one dresses where it is impossible not to communicate something about oneself. I dress conservatively (I often wear a tie), and some of my clothes are expensive: in winter I wear a fedora (currently a Borsalino) and they cost. (Surprisingly, perhaps, strangers often comment on my hat, even walking past me in the street).

Maybe there is a difference between taste and belief, fashion statements and ideological statements. But I admit the boundary is not always clear: think of headscarves.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Revolution Street, Brighton

I would bet money that there isn't a Revolution Street anywhere in England.

English street names are pretty depressing. First, there are the banal: North Road, East Street. Then, there are the memorials to landowners whose fields, ploughed into pavements, made them rich. And then there are the faux rural or fawning choices of "modern" corporate housebuilders: variations on the themes of Meadow, Field and Jubilee.

Brighton does have a Jew Street which is terrific especially as it is tiny. It's probably the only street here which regularly has its street sign stolen.

Now that it has so many erotic boutiques, Brighton really deserves a Red Light Lane.

And something in Kemp Town to recognise it as England's gay capital: Humphry Berkeley Street might be a good and Conservative choice. ( There are plenty of Berkeley Streets but Humphry B. was the Conservative MP who introduced the first Parliamentary Bill in the UK to decriminalise male homosexuality).

And by way of ironic response to Private Eye (which calls the city Skidrow on Sea), it should indeed rename West Street (where the teenagers go to vomit), Skid Row.

You get the idea and I am sure you can go on to have fun wherever you live.

But most of all I would like a Revolution Street. Any revolution would do. It would just give a little critical perspective on the world of taken-for-granted street names

Friday, 9 March 2012

Bus Passes Again

It's really very odd, this idea that the over 60s have, that governments should pay their bus fares. Wherever did they get it?

They got it from governments reckoning that it would be a vote-winner with the gullible. And it would stop them thinking about proper pension provision.

Most of my uncles worked from 14 to 65, then retired and died before they were 70. They were cheap to pension off. They paid National Insurance for a very long time and drew an Old Age Pension for a very little time.

Governments and those who vote them in do have this excuse: they never saw the vast increase in life expectancy coming. It came upon us very quickly. We should have been ramping up obligatory pension contributions decades ago. Now it's too late.

The least painful solution is to encourage people to work longer. This is slowly being done through the raising of the state pension age. But, perversely, our governments still encourage people to think of themselves as old before their time. The bus pass, the bogus "Winter Fuel Payment" ( a cash handout ), free prescriptions, all kick in at 60. Sixty, for goodness sake!

The only rationale is that sixty is the sex-discriminatory female retirement age. It won't be for much longer but the damage has been done by this extraordinary bit of sex discrimination.

Now we are in a position where it will be very hard for governments to claw back the "universal benefits" handed to the over sixties. The only way I can see that it might be done is to commit to adding the savings to the National pension pot. After all, a self-respecting person would prefer to pay their own bus fares out of a decent income. Governments only gave you the Bus Pass because they wanted to see you tug your forelock.

Added 25 July 2018:  See now the chapter "Bus Passes and Benefits" in my book The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones, and other booksellers

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Cardinal Keith O'Brien - the BBCs favourite cleric

Cardinal Keith O'Brien is in the News again. He is against gay marriages. Is that a surprise? He is, after all, the Pope's representative in Scotland.

Last year, I got to know quite a bit about his views since the BBC gives this red Cardinal the red carpet treatment - prominent coverage on the News website. See my previous Blogs for details.

At the same time, the BBC News website leaves you in total ignorance of what Baptists or Congregationalists or Methodists or Quakers think about gay marriage. These organisations don't have a hotline to the News desk. Nor does the C of E seem to have much of a rapport with the Beeb: it just doesn't get the kind of coverage given to O'Brien and the Pope, which is strange when you think that the Beeb is supposed to be the voice of the Establishment and the C of E is our established Church. True, some people in high places would prefer it if we Returned to Rome. I think the glitter and the right-wing authoritarianism appeal in equal measure.

One should always remember that the Catholic Church was opposed to Modern Democracy until after 1945. Two things made it shift ground: Hitler and Mussolini went down to defeat; and the Americans (now camped in Rome) were willing to crusade against Communism. Remove the threat of Communism and the Catholic Church still does not have much taste for democracy. It so easily turns into secularism. In Italy, the Church favoured the Berlusconi regime. Berlusconi knew the way to the Church's heart. He gave them tax breaks.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Nature and Culture

"A nature can never be made to change; what has been once formed in it cannot be reformed by any sort of change. Change does not involve the nature itself; it necesssarily modifies, but does not transform the structure"

- Clement of Alexandria, Christ the Educator, cited in Jonathan Dollimore, Sexual Dissidences, page 108.

I found this quotation today (more clearing out) - I had written it down many years ago as a possible epigraph for my book, Language in Mind and Language in Society.

It expresses perfectly what happens in such language phenomena as hyper-correction or, more subtly, in the use of what Henning Andersen called "adaptive rules".

It is, however, a pessimistic doctrine: it comes close to implying things like "Once a racist, always a racist" no matter how much outward behaviour is modified.

Equally, what is "merely" adaptive for a first [teaching] generation is learnt by a second [learning] generation as part of nature itself, since the adaptive character of outward behaviour is not marked in such a way that the learner knows to discount it. A child learning a language does not parse a parent's adaptive rule as an adaptation; the child parses it as part of Nature.

Clement of Alexandria correctly recognises the generative character of "Nature" able to output a (structured) response to new situations: Nature, as structure, is for him generative in Chomsky's sense that from a finite structure infinite responses can be generated.

For more, go to the essay "Language in Mind and Language in Society" on my website