Saturday, 25 September 2010

Man has kids, can't pay for same.

Tony Parsons on scintillating form.

'Go on my son, you get stuck in to the next fat bird you meet at the bus stop. The benefit cheque is in the post.'

I admit I haven't followed the background details of the Keith MacDonald story particularly closely. Are all eight of his conquests noticeably larger than the average woman? Is it a matter of public record that he spends most of his time playing on his XBox? Does he really put lager on his cornflakes every morning? I hope that all of these things are really true, otherwise TP has spent the entire article fighting himself - landing vicious, bruising blows on a product of his imagination.

Yes, you've got the casually contemptuous language - 'fat birds' three times, 'fat ladies,' 'obese women,' and 'porky harem' once each in what is a very short article, not to mention 'rat faced sperm' and 'a bunch of beady-eyed spongers' - and the whole Theresa May breadknife castration thing. The implication there seems to be that we ought to castrate deadbeat dads with rusty kitchen implements, but that those namby-pamby Liberal Democrats wouldn't be man enough to do it. Never mind, though, I'm pretty sure TP's tongue was firmly in his cheek the whole time

And, of course, there's the small point that Keith MacDonald hasn't made a penny from fathering all of these children - in fact, money will be deducted from his 'benefit cheque in the post' - a point well made at Liberal Conspiracy (who called him 'the world's worst benefits scrounger') among other places. Still, eh? Why let facts get in the way of some good old-fashioned resentment?

Putting aaallllll of the above aside, the actual argument of the piece runs thus: the welfare state was a noble idea, but now it's being abused by Keith MacDonald and his ilk, and we can't afford to subsidise them, so we ought to do something (TP remains heroically vague about exactly what).
He calls the welfare state 'the noblest idea in the history of this country', which is nice, but even at that stage you can sense an almighty iceberg-like 'BUT' about to loom out of the fog.

What the piece amounts to is a piece of drab austerity-realism, a fillip for the right ("Oh, the welfare state was such a nice idea, but we can't afford it anymore, let's be realistic"). Naturally, TP takes pains to maintain his credibility as a liberal by putting in a jab at the Tories (not unlike the times Littlejohn breaks off from a stream of xenophobic abuse to say 'the BNP are loonies,' then switches seamlessly back). He says that the MacDonald case can't be put down to some Tory idea of Broken Britain, because KM grew up in a loving family, with a hardworking binman Dad and siblings who all turned out okay. Again, I don't know the details of KM's history. Are his siblings all okay, or are they only 'okay' in that they haven't fathered a load of children? Was his family really loving? Are the kids of binmen generally known for their education, social mobility, and lifestyles?

So go on, Tony, if we can't put it down to his upbringing (and predictably there's no thought of social factors beyond the immediate family), why is KM like this? Well, obviously, because of the welfare state. Having the safety net in place makes people dependent on it - the mothers were 'too certain that the taxpayer will play Big Daddy when Keith goes to play on his Xbox'. We're all growing up weak, unlike the working class in the good old days. 'All the virtues of the old working class - pride, dignity, self reliance, work ethic, knowing enough to never mix your cornflakes with your lager - are inverted by KM and all those pregnant fat birds holding out their hands for more of our money'.

It's a popular idea these days - Ian Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling certainly see 'benefit dependency' (rather than, say, poverty, or limited opportunities) as the greatest scourge of the working classes today. The way to combat benefit dependency is (apparently) to stop paying benefits. This will discourage the next generation from leaning on benefits and make them more self-reliant. The logical conclusion of this argument is that it would be a good thing to stop benefits completely, indefinitely - after the unemployed, the fatherless kids, the various other ne'er-do-wells have all died off (which would naturally happen completely peacefully and without incident, like the characters quietly accepting their fate in 'On The Beach'), Britain would be able to restabilise with a manageable, morally superior population.

A caricature? Well, how else is the disincentive supposed to work? Hand out benefits on a lottery basis, perhaps, so only 50% of applicants get money (Chris Grayling could flip the official coin), and repeat every year so that nobody will be able to take their benefits for granted?
Getting benefits is already a tedious, drawn-out, humiliating process and benefit-based lifestyles are already shite. Granted, we haven't pushed this as far as is humanly possible. Nobody has yet implemented Digby Jones' ace idea of putting the long term unemployed in hostel rooms on starvation rations, for example. But being on the dole isn't fun. We'll know when the cushy benefit lifestyle has become a 'disincentive to succeed' when we see hedge fund managers jacking it all in to go and sign on at their local Jobcentre. I daresay that the lack of leisure options (possible Xbox notwithstanding), the narrow horizons, are among the causes of the whole sorry MacDonald saga.

What's interesting is that TP very nearly stumbles across this idea himself. He affects (then shamefacedly apologises for) an iota of pity for the "lost girls" and mentions that they are "too uneducated, too devoid of hope" - you think, just for a moment, that he might go on to say something relevant or incisive about Britain's underclass - but no, he makes a sharp u-turn and goes back to making fat jokes. Again, he comes within a heartbeat of insight on the issue of benefit cuts - "when those in genuine need see their benefits slashed, we simply can't afford to keep Keith and his army of fatherless brats on the payroll" - he almost realises that the whole reason people in genuine need are facing benefit cuts is because of the moral panic about benefit spongers, and that his own article will doubtless (in the long run) make the situation worse for people in real need. But he can't quite make the connection.

More to the point, is 'benefit dependency' really making us morally weak? I once read a couple of comments from an American concern troll on an article about our welfare state. He wanted to express his sympathy for what his poor gullible cousins in the UK had done to themselves. He went into some length unveiling a theory that all of Europe's strong, self-reliant gene stock had been spent on the battlefields of two world wars, and that the only Europeans left are the descendents of mewling runts, hence the weak-willed welfare state dependency and racial mixing that's taken place ever since. Other forms of this 'bloodline theory' (which always puts me in mind of something from Lord of the Rings - "Arnor is not the kingdom it once was, their blood has been much mixed since their glory days" etc) can be found across the internet. Needless to say, it's not only racist lunacy, but also based on a cringe-inducingly poor understanding of science, so it's surprising to see a variant on the theme rolled out in a progressive newspaper.

If nothing else, the timing of this purported moral shift doesn't fit. The welfare state as we understand it was cooked up in the 1930s and unveiled in the 1940s and 1950s. The great moral decline of Britain, the reduction of us all to deadbeat fathers and pram-pushing teenage mothers at bus stops, didn't become a ubiquitous right-wing talking point until the 1980s. Why assume that one was a product of the other? The very last people who worked in a country without a welfare state are in their eighties now, and people who grew up with this morally corrosive safety net in place are now retiring after long and fruitful careers. Even if we accept the line that there has been a sea change in the character of the working class, we're going to have to search a little harder to find the cause. In terms of chronology, it would coincide not with the establishment of the welfare state, but with the the neoliberal assault on the same (beginning at the end of the seventies...)

Which is, of course, the answer. There has been no moral decline. The spread of the myth of one is a product of the perpetual war on welfare that's been fought by both parties over the last thirty years. Today's underclass are the old working class. The majority of the population haven't suddenly developed defective moralities en masse and lost their once-unassailable work ethic. They're the same people, just living in a very different society. The endlessly-praised hard-working parents and grandparents (case in point here) had the good fortune to grow up in a time when employment was higher, when industry was still the country's largest employer, and even people with little or nothing in the way of education could reasonably expect to find work for life. It was regimented, dull, badly-regulated work with precious little chance of advancement, true, but it was there.

In today's environment, the work ethic has been elevated to a virtue standing above all others. Taken literally - ie, as the powerful desire to contribute labour regardless of need or circumstances - it could equally easily be construed as a waste, or even a pathology. Owen spent some time on the subject here. The work ethic is in vogue because it's a handy (and very difficult to disprove) criticism to throw at the unemployed, at a time when more of them than ever are essentially blameless. Structural unemployment is with us to stay, and as the processes of mechanisation and outsourcing continue, the number of jobs in this country is going to continue to decrease. The blame for this situation is being privatised, dumped on the shoulders of the individual. Out of work? Your fault. You're not trying hard enough. You've applied for twenty jobs this week? Well, why not twenty-one, eh? You're worthless. You're capable of anything, but you're too lazy to do it. You beady-eyed sponger. For my part, I'd say that large-scale unemployment isn't going anywhere, and will probably get worse in the decades to come (it'll affect millions more people, regardless of their individual merit), so we might as well treat the unemployed halfway humanely, and let them live something aproaching normal lives. Perhaps we should even let them breed?

(The objection here is that it would all have to be funded with taxpayer money. The correct response is that if you baulk at contributing a few pennies in the pound to help other people raise their kids, you would probably make an even worse parent than Keith MacDonald).

Finally, I'm not entirely sure that putting lager on cornflakes (mentioned by TP three times) quite amounts to the ultimate symbol of the decline of western society. It seems more like the kind of hi-lar-ious jape students would get up to inbetween running off with shopping trolleys. I've never tried it myself, but it sounds... okay. I think I can recall a character doing it in an episode of 'MASH', so, y'know. Nothing new under the sun. I don't think a questionnaire along the lines of 'would you pour beer on your cereal?' is the best way to sort out the deserving poor from the undeserving.

Monday, 13 September 2010


Zone Styx suggested that it was time for someone to write a series of posts demolishing the old canard that the private sector does things more efficiently. This would normally be a daunting prospect requiring weeks of painstaking work, but if we limit the discussion to the privatised welfare sector, hey, the piece practically writes itself.


Today's news: the Public Accounts Committee have delivered their report on four years of the Pathways to Work programme for people on ESA/IB. It’s, to say the least, damning. You can read the text here, but the sentence most indicative of the whole is:

“Private providers have seriously underperformed against their contracts and their success rates worse than Jobcentre Plus even though private contractors work in easier areas with fewer incapacity claimants and higher demand for labour.”

Yes - even when carefully assigned the lowest hanging fruit, they couldn't get much picking done. The data of the report shows that the two providers involved with the scheme around the country managed to achieve between a third and a half of their target outcomes. As some 70% of their payments are determined by results, the poor dears have been struggling to get by financially. Still, five years on, with the benefit of good ol’ 20.20 hindsight, the powers that be have managed to identify the crux of the problem:

“Providers started from a low knowledge base with little direct experience of working with incapacity benefits claimants.”

Well, fuck, who could have guessed that that might turn out to be an issue? Could it be that maybe, just maybe, carrying out public sector services is a little more difficult than it looked when you were slagging off the public sector for not delivering them cheaply enough? Could it be that getting results in this area requires people with actual skills, and not the bunch of desperate, untrained, badly paid, couldn’t-get-jobs-as-recruitment-consultants chancers that comprise your staff at the moment?

“In 2008-09, £94 million (38% of Pathways expenditure) was spent on employment support that did not deliver additional jobs.”

Yeah, no fucking shit.

This shocking realisation that difficult jobs are difficult is obviously having repercussions up and down the country. CDG and A4e, two of the largest providers, find themselves in a bind - as long as they get paid by results, they won’t make profits, and so won’t be able to hire decent staff. They’ve attempted to square the circle by advertising for highly skilled volunteers. Perhaps you’re wondering why highly skilled people would volunteer for companies like this when they could, eg, earn a wage. Well - there are going to be a whole lot of DWP and local authority employees heading for the dole queue soon, with a whole wealth of knowledge and experience to share, and nobody left in the country (private or public sector) who’s able or willing to pay for it…

One press release (hat tip) begins:
“Ensuring Britain continues to be a civilised and harmonious society means attracting 50,000 expert volunteers to sign up to the fight in supporting the unemployed back into work, according to the charity Careers Development Group’s (CDG) position paper launched today.”

See? This is about the future of the civilised world. Not about a bunch of mean, thieving bastards realising that the pie has almost run out and guarding their remaining slices with murderously paranoid zeal. No sir. Anyone thinking that they could have saved time by writing a press release along the lines of ‘Darling Dave, we really love the Big Society idea, please renew our contracts, luv CDG xxx’ had best keep their dangerous Bolshevik ideas to themselves.

If you’re having trouble following all of this, it’s really quite simple. We can’t afford to pay teachers, carers, mentors, and social workers to do their jobs anymore. Instead, they’re going to do their jobs for free, and pass everything they know onto the next generation while scraping by on the dole. Half of Britain as unpaid tutors for the other half. Once the lucky young ‘uns have drunk deep of the well of knowledge, they’ll be more employable, and employers will suddenly have enough money to hire them after all, and will naturally choose the less experienced people with no work history over the people who have a lifetime's experience doing real work, and have recently been busy volunteering (which always looks good on a CV).

Meanwhile, there aren't going to be any substantial consequences for the providers' failures - for fans of throwing good money after bad, Ian Duncan Smith is all over a European A4e scheme for ‘strengthening families’. He’s ‘examining a German approach where long-term unemployed families have been encouraged to create a "household culture" with trips to the cinema and evening classes.’

In other words, IDS spends time sitting at his desk, chewing on his pencil, wondering ‘Why don’t these workless households ever take trips together? Why don’t they go to the cinema? Why don’t they go to Center Parcs? Or Umbria? Don’t they realise they could have valuable family bonding experiences that way?,’ before clapping his hands together in a businesslike manner and forging ahead with plans to cut benefits.

He's certainly the finest mind in the Department since we all enjoyed the paradigm-altering thought of James Purnell. Is it something particular about DWP that attracts people of this calibre? I can’t think of a word that fits better than gormlessness.