Jumping the impoverished shark

December 10, 2012 by · 11 Comments
Filed under: Credit crunch, Politics, Public policy 

The phrase ‘jumping the shark’ describes the moment when a popular TV show overstretches its founding concept and begins the process of decline. I am starting to wonder whether George Osborne jumped the shark last week.

As I wrote in my last post, it has become commonplace in political communication to distinguish between the worthy (working) and unworthy (unemployed) poor. It was this that lay behind a skirmish last week between the Chancellor and Shadow Chancellor, with Ed Balls claiming that the Coalition’s cuts in the real value of benefits would predominantly fall on working households.

The backdrop to this debate is opinion polls which show a steady hardening of opinion against welfare recipients, especially the unemployed. But the world is complicated; public opinion is both reflexive and subject to substantial shifts in mood. I suspect that three things may be coinciding to produce just such a shift.

First, there have always been ebbs and flows in public opinion when it comes to a general spectrum of values relating to social justice and collective provision. While the swing against state help for the poor (which is to simplify the issue) has been long and deep, there is no reason to believe the pendulum won’t in time swing back.

Second, the longer economic problems and accompanying austerity continue, the more people there are who will be directly or indirectly affected by some combination of poverty, benefits cuts and unemployment. The number who find the striver/ shirker distinction uncomfortable may be increasing.

Thirdly – and this is where political analysts may have committed the classic error of linear thinking a complex world – it may be that the gradual build-up of social concern about the poor was just waiting for a catalyst. By seeming to be making a point of moralising the cut in welfare, rather than simply saying it was necessary for reasons of austerity, Government ministers may have inadvertently provided just that catalyst.

I have this afternoon been chairing an event on child poverty in London, being hosted by the Peabody Trust and held at John Adam Street. A question I posed the audience concerned how the poverty lobby might take advantage if there is a shift in public opinion. I can’t say the ideas were flowing thick and fast. Probably, the London Living Wage and universal free school meals for primary children – a measure already implemented by Southwark and some other London councils – were the most popular ‘transitional demands’.

My own thought centred on connection. I was very taken by a story told to me by a friend who had spent time on websites for parents of new born children. Amidst the normal lively conversation about illnesses, sleep patterns, diet, equipment and child care, some parents let slip how hard they found life on benefits. The better off parents started asking questions and pretty soon the chat rooms were full of people saying things like ‘until I had a child I never really thought about how hard life must be if you are poor’. Subsequently a great deal of charitable giving started flowing through the site – so much so that it had to be regulated by the site’s moderators.

Regardless of anyone’s political leanings and economic analysis, it is surely a good thing if more people who are fortunate in their circumstances understand more fully the lives of those who rely on state help, whether in or out of work. My hunch is that some clever way of providing such insight and of connecting people across the social divide could go viral at this moment of inflection in public opinion, especially with Christmas almost upon us.

The Autumn Statement and the unappealing politics around it may have marked the beginning of the end of one long running narrative;the opportunity may now be there for some campaigning brilliance to provoke a very different and more unifying public discourse.

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Dangerous striving

December 6, 2012 by · 15 Comments
Filed under: Politics 

Today’s blog probably makes me sound like Dave Spart, so apologies in advance to those of a tender or neo-liberal persuasion….

Ed Balls and George Osborne are having a row over whether the Autumn Statement measures hit ‘strivers’.  According to the commentariat this is because the Chancellor sought in his statement to trap Labour into having to choose between backing welfare cuts (which would appal its activists) or opposing them (which would appal an electorate polls show to be ever more hostile to those on benefits). But Labour now thinks it can turn Osborne’s punt into an own goal by pointing out that most of the welfare cuts will actually impact on the working poor, a group which gets a lot more sympathetic attention.

Many people will find the whole deserving versus undeserving poor thing unpleasant, but there are three other reasons why the distinction is highly problematic:

1. Notwithstanding the point about in-work benefits, many people are continuously moving between being ‘strivers’ and benefit dependents. People on the lowest wages and who have experienced recent unemployment are precisely those most at threat of future joblessness. Not only do they face penury and many other social economic and social risks if they lose their job, but they will suddenly move from the sunshine of Mr Balls’ and Mr Osborne’s admiration to the darkness of their admonishment.

2. It is a lot easier to be a ‘striver’ in some places than in others. Given that the unemployment rate in Darlington is three and half times that of Reigate, does this mean the people of the commuter belt are inherently more striving than those in the North East? In fairness, perhaps we should have a regionally adjusted striving index which reflects local labour markets. So anyone who has had a job in the last three years in Darlington can get a ‘striver’ badge but anyone in Surrey with a job on less than, say, £20k should be labelled a feckless loser.

3. Is striving restricted to paid employment? How about those on benefits who provide 24 hour care to loved ones, or who volunteer in the local community or who are coping with severe physical and mental illness. As, apparently, none of this counts as striving perhaps they should just leave their relative in a wheelchair outside the town hall, stop helping out around the neighbourhood and perhaps do the decent thing and stop being a burden to us all.

I am no political innocent. I worked for a politician who was fond of the morally freighted phrase ‘ a hand up, not a hand out’. But whilst this kind of stuff is tolerable at the margins and when things are going well and there is a reasonable supply of jobs that pay a living wage, right now it feels like the worst kind of reactionary, intelligence-sapping populism.

Or perhaps I just don’t get it. I must strive harder.

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The epistemological failings of the state

December 14, 2011 by · 7 Comments
Filed under: Public policy, The RSA 

A couple of weeks ago the RSA was contacted by Rohan Silva, a senior Downing Street special advisor and asked at short notice to hold an event featuring Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The event was packed out and Rohan as chair was at pains to emphasise the powerful influence of Taleb’s ideas on Government thinking. In essence Taleb’s argument – based on a fascinating, but occasionally somewhat opaque, mixture of philosophy, statistics and metaphors – is that big systems are much more prone to catastrophic failure (or in some cases sensational success) than small devolved ones. From bankers to planners to politicians, a combination of ignorance, complacency and self-interest leads to a systematic underestimation of the inherent risk of large complex systems.   

On Monday the RSA jointly hosted an event with OFSTED to discuss our report on satisfactory schools.  In the course of the conversation a different Government special advisor was asked about the idea that a national agency – perhaps OFSTED, perhaps the National College for School Leadership –  might be tasked with helping schools that were finding it difficult to move above satisfactory status.  In expressing opposition he said he had very little faith in national strategies overseen by national agencies. Instead, he said, we should rely on a combination of devolved governance and greater public accountability to drive improvement. Yes, there would be some schools which would fail to improve but this was also true of a top-down national strategy and the latter approach had many other adverse externalities ranging from cost to stifling innovation.

In interpreting Government policy it is important to understand the right’s epistemological critique of the state. From this perspective the size, complexity and reflexivity of the modern world make it impossible for state planners to be able to predict accurately how their interventions will impact. Unintended consequences are inevitable but instead of planners learning from their mistakes, these consequences simply provide the pretext for more interventions leading to an ever more intrusive state and an ever less free society.

Taleb applies this idea to the modern financial system arguing that its size and complexity makes it inevitable that it will be subject to extreme events (black swans).  Corporate bankers and state regulators, who have a vested interest in maintaining the system fundamentally as it is, connive to pretend that risk can be abolished.

Scepticism and hostility towards big state planning goes way back in right of centre thinking and has had powerful exponents including Hayek and Oakeshott. Team Cameron see Taleb as the Oakeshott of the twenty first century.

These ideas are commonplace among right of centre thinkers, but Conservative politicians tend not to put so much emphasis on them in public, perhaps because they are seen as overly intellectual or vulnerable to being portrayed as extreme. I sense this is changing.

There are two obvious reasons why ministers might feel more empowered to reveal that their scepticism towards the state is philosophical as well as pragmatic. First, while the emerging data on Labour’s record in improving economic and social outcomes is more positive than the current public view, there is no doubting that most votors think the New Labour’s statist experiment failed. Second, austerity gives philosophical predisposition the impetus of practical necessity. Many of the public entitlements which Labour used the state to guarantee are simply unaffordable.

But regardless of the economic cycle, the right’s theory of social knowledge is also strengthened by the ever greater complexity of the modern world. If Oakeshott thought national planning was bound to fail in the more ordered, slower moving, more deferential world of the late 1940s imagine how futile he would see it as being today.

If the right does become more intellectually explicit it will face some challenging questions. Here are just two: why is a democratically accountable and relatively weak organisation like a local education authority portrayed by ministers as the kind of overbearing power that needs to be broken up while Tesco (to take just one example) is left free to grow even more powerful and major Academy chains, massive welfare to work providers and various other large scale private sector providers are encouraged? Second, given that Government has to govern, how can we distinguish between national policy which reflects an understanding of the limits of state knowledge and efficacy and that which doesn’t? I heard this morning that the Autumn Statement contained twenty announcements on policy in the FE sector alone; were these all about lifting the burden of state interference?

In the immediate context of austerity much debate is about what welfare and which public services can be afforded. But the gap between what we aspire to and what we can afford is likely to grow over the long term as is the complexity of society. So we should also welcome the right’s invitation to a more fundamental debate about the kinds of things the central state can and can’t do (should and shouldn’t) do.

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A new crossroads at 14?

December 5, 2011 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Public policy, The RSA 

Ahead of a speech on the subject I am making tonight (I will do anything to avoid celebrating my birthday), a few thoughts about the implicit direction of Coalition schools policy…. 

One of the less heralded parts of the Autumn Statement was the announcement by the Chancellor that the Government will now be supporting the creation of at least twenty five University Technical Colleges. These colleges (only one is so far up and running) offer an education which is broad and demanding (40 week year, seven hour days for example) with an overall emphasis on technical skills.

It is interesting to put this announcement together with the thrust of Government policy on the academic curriculum and examinations. Promoting the eBac along with reducing modularity and retakes is part of an explicit policy of raising the academic bar. Unless the Government can achieve an unprecedented improvement in attainment, this suggests an abandonment of the goal of every child reaching the headline grade for academic attainment.

Together these policies can be seen to be inching the English system towards a more explicit selection/choice at fourteen.

As a self-styled educational progressive, it might be assumed that I would oppose such a drift. In fact I have no problem with the principle; it is the practice which concerns me.

If only a minority (say 35-40%) of school pupils pursue a primarily academic route (aiming towards degrees in top universities) perhaps the rest could be liberated from the often joyless ‘teaching to the test’ that is involved in schools trying to raise their headline figure for ’5 A-Cs  including English and Maths’. A strong technical route ranging in ability from those aspiring to STEM subject degrees in HE to those aiming for good vocational qualifications and skilled apprenticeships could make technical education more accessible and higher status.

But notwithstanding the massive organisational issues involved in clearer post 14 routes, it isn’t hard to identify the dangers. If from the start the academic route is seen as the best, then it will be even more fully colonised by the middle class than is good schooling already (see today’s excellent RSA report on satisfactory schools for further evidence of school disadvantage heaping on social disadvantage).  Indeed this will mean post 14 selection would actually be post 11 selection as schools marketed themselves as guaranteeing pupils the higher route.

Even if the technical route could grow in size status and popularity it still leaves the question of those who are neither suited to academic nor advanced technical education.  It could be that there are only two strands post 14 (many parts of Germany are now merging the technical and vocational streams of their much vaunted tripartite system) but the danger here is that the idea of ‘technical’ education becomes devalued. Partly because it is not yet explicit about the post 14 choice the Government has not yet even begun to address this issue.

However, it is worth exploring.  A new secondary schooling system should be based on universal access to four basics:

  • Every pupil to get the core knowledge they need and beyond this for curricula and examinations to be fit for purpose and stretching.
  • An education which attends to the fuller development of young people as confident, rounded 21st century citizens.
  • A system which is committed to exploring, finding and developing the educational enthusiasm of every child.
  • A system which as far as possible offers personalised education with flexibility for children to move onto different routes in line with developing preferences and aptitudes.

It might be possible for a system with three more differentiated routes post 14 to deliver this. But only if policy is from the outset committed to promoting genuine meritocracy (meaning extra support for the disadvantaged which goes beyond the pupil premium), parity of esteem between different routes and a robust and compelling account of the offer for the third leg of the tripartite division.

The Coalition has many policies and ideas about schooling and the system is changing fast around us. But beyond the usual platitudes, ministers are very cloudy about its final destination. This is partly deliberate in that it is by definition hard to predict the future when the key institutions (schools) are more diverse and autonomous. But an idea as radical and far reaching as more differentiated post 14 routes needs to be explored in a broader context. For unless it is accompanied by other shifts in policy, public assumptions and expectations, it could simply reinforce educational inequality and exclusion.

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A couple of thoughts on entitlement

November 30, 2011 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Credit crunch, Politics, Public policy 

The British sociologist TH Marshall famously argued that the three centuries since the enlightenment had seen the respective advance of three levels of rights: civil, political and social. These levels roughly equate to the spread of the rule of law, the widening of suffrage and the creation of the welfare state. Until very recently it was the general assumption that growing entitlements were a good thing and that national progress is measured by a combination of rising disposable incomes, growing social entitlements and enhanced public goods (infrastructure, public spaces, environment).

From the beginning, and particularly since the 1970s, the free market right has opposed this view on grounds of affordability, economic efficiency and moral hazard. The cost of growing state entitlements is seen to be a drag on enterprise, to penalise wealth creation and to foster dependency among welfare recipients. The current crisis gives this critique an extra twist. As the cuts get deeper, the economy languishes and we look with envy at the growth rates and apparent entrepreneurial drive of many developing countries (with much more limited social entitlements), the sense grows that the problem is not that there are too few entitlements but that there are too many.     

One difficulty here is distinguishing arguments of expediency and principle. For example, is the reduction in public sector pension entitlements simply an unfortunate necessity to balance the books, or is it also objectionable that workers funded by tax payers should enjoy retirement benefits not available to most of those tax payers? Are cuts in benefits justified merely by austerity or also by the need to tackle dependency? Does pulling the state out of the provision of services like libraries represent a sad loss or a great opportunity for community self–help? The lazy answer in each case is ‘both’, but as I have argued before, different arguments for the same course of action must be independently valid or else the whole case gets damaged.   

It is easy to avoid all hard questions if one simply reverts to attacking the privileges of the rich and implying that if only we taxed them more we could pay for everything. But even as someone who personally supports the fifty pence tax rate and abhors the way some bankers and business leaders have exploited their position to create obscene wealth, I don’t think it is realistic or honest to argue that squeezing the rich will, any time soon, enable us to return to a path of rising entitlements.

I have no easy answers or startling new perspectives (which is a bit of a problem given that I am discussing these issues on Moral Maze in a couple of hours), but two half formed lines of thought have occurred to me.

The first might be called ‘the entitlement paradox’. Rising entitlements are a sign of social progress but their maintenance and growth depends on us not treating them merely as entitlements. In other words the sustainability and social value of welfare benefits depends on the existence of a strong work ethic and the sustainability and social value of public services depends on them being seen as collaborations which involve responsibilities for citizens and communities as well as the state. 

The second is the need for public debate to acknowledge the contested framing of notions of fairness. Take today’s strike: many critics on the right argue that it is both unfair and corrosive to national solidarity that many public sector workers get a better deal than most private sector workers. Fine; but once the issue of fairness is opened such critics have to answer the question: isn’t it equally unfair and socially corrosive for useless bankers to get paid a hundred times more than hard working care assistants? To which an economic liberal may reply that we should distinguish between things that happen because the state interferes (public sector pensions) and things which are the result of free choices in a free market (income differentials).

However, at the same time as the case for state entitlement has been eroded by changes in the world around us, so has the credibility of this kind of free market fundamentalism. To take one line of criticism: it might very reasonably be argued that every child – born free of sin and error – should have broadly the same life chances (indeed some measures of public opinion suggest this view is widely endorsed), yet the state uses the power of law to defend the right of the privileged to pass on their advantages to their offspring and thereby – in the context of limited absolute social mobility – generate a reduction in the comparative life chances of the offspring of the less privileged. Those who talk about fairness to try to win a specific argument are likely to find themselves embroiled in a much bigger debate.

Crises can easily become times of fear, anger and resentment but they can also act as an imperative for reflection and new ways of thinking. Yesterday’s Autumn Statement did point to a few rather random principles behind the Government’s management of these difficult times, but missing from the Coalition narrative (not to mention that of the Opposition) are deeper reflections on what austerity means for our idea of ourselves of a nation and our collective norms and aspirations. However hard, it is a debate we should choose to enter rather than avoid.

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