1% of austerity. 99% of low calculation

The British Sundays know what — pending a major disaster — next week’s stories should be.

It’s all about The Make Labour Look Like the Party for Skiving Fat Slobs bill, as Andrew Rawnsley explains:

This is the legislation that will put a 1% cap on increases in most state benefits over the next three years. Nominally, this is being done in the name of collective national belt-tightening and fairness. The country is brassic. Working people, in both the private and public sectors, will have been very fortunate if their incomes have kept pace with price rises over recent years. Many have seen their living standards badly corroded. It is therefore only just that those drawing benefits should also suffer a period of retrenchment. That was the argument rolled out by Iain Duncan Smith last week as he prepared the pitch for the vote. But there has always been a partisan purpose to this measure, which has never really been disguised since George Osborne announced it in his financial statement last month. The state pension is excluded from the squeeze, even though the elderly have generally done relatively better than any other group over recent years. But, then, there are more pensioners than there are unemployed and pensioners are much more likely to vote.

It is doubtful that legislation was actually necessary. Putting it to a parliamentary vote was a cunning device to create a dividing line – or so the chancellor hoped – that would put the Tories on the side of hard-working “strivers” and force Labour to choose between endorsing a benefits squeeze that many in its ranks would see as a betrayal of its core values or looking like the defenders of idle “scroungers”.

On the other hand, as the Observer‘s front page headline story (by Daniel Boffey) notes:

Half a million soldiers, nurses and teachers will have their income slashed under the coalition’s benefits crackdown, according to a new report. The chancellor’s sub-inflation rise in benefits and tax credits over the next three years will hit a whole range of the country’s most trusted professionals.

Up to 40,000 soldiers, 300,000 nurses and 150,000 primary and nursery school teachers will lose cash, in some cases many hundreds of pounds, according to the Children’s Society. The revelation appears to contradict the government’s stated intention to target shirkers and scroungers, and will raise the temperature of the Commons debate and vote on the plan on Tuesday.

Which suggests that Cameron and Osborne are betting the farm on casual opinions from focus groups being more viable than righteous anger among millions of ripped-off middle-class voters. Hmmm … could make 2015 tricky.

In the shrubbery, something very nasty stirs …

The Sunday Times [£] goes even further. The editorial shrieks:

2013: THE YEAR WE CRACK THE WELFARE STATE

If that seems grotesquely and Murdochian neoCon, the content equally suggests such a superficial impression is not unfair:

The coalition’s record, as it will new presented tomorrow, is not bad. Financial storm clouds have not gone away and the risk is of a loss of Britain’s triple-A credit rating, but the country has moved away from the fiscal edge. Michael Gove’s school reforms are welcome and have further to run. A different health secretary has taken the heat out of changes to the National Health Service. Crime has fallen by 10% over the past two years despite spending cuts and tension between ministers and police. Yet this is also a government prone to drift and bouts of incompetence, as we saw last year.

Fortunately the Sunday Times, even at the expense of  half-a-dozen tired  clichés and the odd very partial statistic, is ever-present to insert anally a poker alongside any missing backbone. Let’s not pause to think:

  • Have Gove’s “reforms” worked? Is education really on the up?
  • Is the “heat” out of the NHS?
  • Has real crime (and opposed to “reported crime” — reported and recorded, that is, to fewer desk-sergeants and closed police stations) actually declined by such a conveniently measurable amount?

No, let’s be swept along by the Sunday Times editorialist’s flow:

British people are not averse to change and know that the size of the state in general, and the welfare state in particular, has to be reined back. Welfare changes should be simple and fair. When the chancellor decided to take away child benefit from most higher-rate tax-payers, he thought this ticked both boxes. But while HM Revenue & Customs has made the best of a bad job, the change is anything but simple. Some of those who are losing out would also question its fairness.

Of course, had those “losing out” read Saturday’s Times, avoiding any unfairness would have been made pellucid clear (cut your hours, up your pension contributions, do a fiddle with your partner …). Note, too, no blame can — in this definition — fall on the putative 18th baronet Osborne of Ballintaylor and Ballylemon — he of the “omnishambles” budget. He was merely “ticking boxes”. The devil is in the detail, and HMRC’s implementation.

Onward and … err … upward?

The mid-term review will signal the government’s intent of implementing the Dilnot commission’s recommendation of a cap on individual liability for care costs, although Treasury worries about the long-term bill mean the cap is likely to be set at more than double the £35,000 that the commission had recommended. A white paper on pensions will pledge a new single-tier pension but is already setting hares running about big increases in the retirement age in decades to come.

Gosh: isn’t all that positive inducement to vote Tory in 2015? Particularly when the ST‘s front page (and page 2) has it that:

Elderly people will have to pay £75,000 towards their care home bills before the government steps in to provide financial help.

Lest we forget: the essential issue at stake in care of the elderly is that homes have to be sold to pay care bills. £75,000? Just lift it out of the bank? Well, perhaps not:

On average, a Brit has the grand total of just £2,205 sitting in the bank. This is peanuts – it equates to just 1.7 times the average monthly take-home pay…

There are, of course, some people who save lots. They’re called the rich. ING has a model of the distribution of savings across the UK population, and after about the 95th percentile, it starts to really take off. It was ever thus, of course, but I’d bet my cash Isa that just as income inequality has grown markedly in the past decade, so has savings inequality.

When unemployment is so high (although the jobless figures are becoming meaningless these days), when wage growth is zero or falling, when inflation is at 2%-3% (and with VAT rising), then the idea that the ordinary ­person could or will be saving more was ­always a stretch of the imagination.

We can, but naturally, skim lightly over such pinko propaganda (it was Patrick Collinson in the Guardian, and as far back as those cliff-edge days of January 2010).

For the sake of brevity, the ST‘s paragraph on Duncan Smith’s universal credit can be passed: it’s going to be a total cock-up, we all appreciate, but provided we keep the perpetrator’s name in the frame, we also know whom to blame — and it’s not going to be Dave or Ozzie if the ST can help it! And so, to a happy conclusion:

The public mood has shifted on welfare but will still become impatient with a government that displays incompetence, let alone presides over a disaster. It is important to get this right. Indeed, it must be one of the biggest priorities this year.

As opposed to a priority of government being not getting it right? And, of course, we well recognise that, this last Leveson year, the whole Murdoch Empire has been shown to be admirably competent, on the side of the angels, disaster-proof, and “right” — as here, far right. After all, across the water, the WSJ, on Rupert’s order, picked Paul Ryan as Romney’s running mate, and then spent the campaign ignoring all the polling evidence. Not to mention Fox News.

Austerity: economy, parsimony, and judgmentBurke

Malcolm doubts it one of the best-known or quoted (or, as more often, misquoted) bit of Edmund Burke, though it deserves to be. It’s Burke at his vituperative and vitriolic best.

Malcolm hat-tips Hugh Dalton’s Principles of Public Finance, all the way from 1922. And that, hardly coincidentally, from very early in the text, page 7 of volume 1: — Dalton, like most economists and moralists, like Marx and Joyce in their different spheres, being one of those many authors of whom it is easy to tire, even in the first chapter.

Therefore, a well-composed word to the wise (and a dearth of cliché) from Edmund Burke, Collected Works, volume V, page 229. Burke has it in for his Grace of Bedford, swaddled and rocked and dandled into a legislator. Bedford had criticised the payment of a state pension to Burke — and Burke had no compunction is contrasting his public service to those of the Russell family, who had become great and good by pandering to Henry VIII.

Burke saw an overgrown Duke of Bedford machinating to oppress the industry of humble men, and to limit, by the standard of his own conceptions, the justice, the bounty, or, if he pleases, the charity of the crown.

Mere parsimony is not economy. Expense and great expense may be an essential part in true economy. Economy is a distributive virtue and consists not in saving but in selection. Parsimony requires no providence, no sagacity, no powers of combination, no comparison, no judgment. Mere instinct may produce this false economy in perfection. The other economy has larger views. It demands a discriminating judgment and a firm sagacious mind.

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Filed under Conservative family values, David Cameron, economy, Edmund Burke, equality, George Osborne, History, Murdoch, Observer, social class, Sunday Times, Tories., Trinity College Dublin

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