Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Odd Society

So the Tories are to remove child benefit for the rich; for they don’t need it, and it will save money…  Here is a great Tory, writing 18 years ago about the Thatcher government and their attitude to this kind of thing.

Yet only child benefit earned their puritanical disdain on the grounds, allegedly, that it helped the rich.  Great concern was expressed that the Duchess of Westminster should receive some £7 a week from the taxpayer, which one way and another she did not really need.  These improbable levellers had of course to brush aside the awkward circumstance that at the same time as they were objecting to the Duchess receiving £7 a week from child benefit they were, by cuts in income tax, showering thousands of pounds per week on her ducal husband which he, too, did not really need.  For every pound the Duchess gained in child benefit, the Duke probably gained a windfall of £1,000 in reduced tax.  Yet Thatcherites favoured a means test for the Duchess but not for the Duke. (Sir Ian Gilmour, Dancing With Dogma)

Child benefit being a universal benefit is cheap to administer, and thus actually saves money compared to those that are means tested.  If Osborne wanted to save money, and have us all in it together, nice and cosy, like in the Blitz, why not raise the income tax by 1% on this same high income tax band? Is some millionaire going to empathise with the unemployed if his wife loses twenty quid a week?  Surely he needs to make a bigger, more proportionate sacrifice.[i]

Money.  Do we need so much?  Apparently middle class support is to collapse because a single person with an income of £44,000 may lose a couple of grand. Can that be right?  What about the poor people who struggle on the minimum wage; or the East Europeans who are exploited and paid below it?  Do we need it, really?  Expensive holidays every year?  The latest widescreen TV with cinema surround sound to watch…. Strictly Come Dancing? We need it, right? We need it badly.

Not like those poor people who can’t find work, and who will have to move to where, exactly?  The North of England, where the rents are cheapest?  Its Norman Tebbit again, the poor must acquire wheels, but this time at the point of a bailiff’s warrant (although they must now travel in the opposite direction, it seems).  So the middle classes and the rich people can live in central London like their counterparts on the continent. [ii]  With their money, of course, safely invested in the City; and insured by the rest of us.

And all that time we use to earn this money… saying yes to the boss, working late to read yet one more email; even logging in on Sunday… all that wasted effort; so that what, we can buy Sainsbury’s finest ice cream?[iii]

We are slaves to money.  What a price to pay.

[i] Though I understand there is a new income tax rate for incomes over £150,000. 
[ii] One wonders.  It reminds me of the hubris of the Poll Tax; that other populist measure to attack the poor and feckless.  As in most things it will be the detail that counts: the rent arrears, the court time, the bailiffs….  For I assume people are not going to move voluntarily; but will have to be pushed out by court action (what are the costs of that going to be?).
[iii] One day after the fallout some of the comment is interesting, and is quite telling about the concerns of our society.  Thus the headline news in the Guardian is about the child benefit cuts, not the possible mass transfer of people out of London. 
            Polly Toynbee gets the priorities right, starting her article on what the benefit cap could actually mean, with about 100,000 of the poor losing their homes.  She also points out that the child benefit changes will effect the “well off top 15% - as ever described by the Mail as the ‘middle class’”.  She also, and quite rightly, points out the problems of implementation, and suggests the single benefit idea is something of a mirage.  She wonders if it will actually increase costs, rather than save them.
            Also in the Guardian Lisa Ansell, correctly in my view, attacks the “outrage” over the child benefit cuts for people who are actually rather rich.  She believes that we should make a distinction between wants and needs, and live within our needs; again correctly in my view. However, I disagree with cutting the child benefit; I would keep it, but raise the income tax – she seems to labour under the same misapprehension as the Duchess.
            Then I read our Socialist friend, David Osler, who agrees with the Daily Mail: removing child benefit is unfairly squeezing the middle classes (not a word about what is for me the most egregious decision: to cap benefits, with a purging of the poor from inner London).  Though for citizen Osler £47,000 isn’t rich; in fact it hardly makes you middle class!  They’re just ordinary middle managers and local government professionals….  One wonders what universe our Socialist friend has moved to (what does he mean my middle manager – a head of department in a large council or housing association group?)  But I had forgotten.  Mr Osler is just an ordinary chap, close to the workers, 85% of which earn less than he does.  Isn’t there something just a little wrong here?  In my last post I write extensively about middle class intellectuals (and Socialists) creating fantasies about a class they were going to emancipate.  I forgot to mention another common theme – their tendency to identify themselves with their own make-believe image of the working-man.
            The wealthy, and most of the middle class, have rarely welcomed the trade unions.  However, the middle classes have often benefited from them – think of the growth of the white-collar unions in the 1970s – and the welfare state.  Both union power and their own advocacy was one of the reasons for the growth of the public sector; and was the topic of much right wing concern in the 1970s.  However, one under-reported story is the ability of the middle classes who work inside the public sector to acquire a disproportionate share of its resources.  Thus we have the rise of the highly paid consultant, of big salaries for top managers, of well-paid project work and the vast sums spent on communications and PR; while the frontline staff, and its resources generally, are squeezed (see Polly Toynbee’s book Hard Work, on what contracting out means for the lowly paid in our public services).  This may partly explain why the money that goes into our public services is not necessarily reflected in improvements in performance. For, as in the rest of life, those in charge, and the better-off generally, make sure they needs are peculiarly well attended to (and at the expense of everyone else).

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