November 26, 2008
An important speech is being given about now. It’s being delivered as part of the Barnardo’s lectures by the children’s charity’s CEO Martin Narey in the Duke of Wellington hall in Westminster, and this is what he’s saying:
It saddens me that the probability is that had Baby P survived, given his own deprivation, he might have been unruly by the time he had reached the age of 13 or 14.
At which point he’d have become feral, a parasite, a yob, helping to infest our streets. The response to his criminal behavior would have been to lock him up – but we believe these children deserve better.
The point is, of course, to shock. And I hope it does. I hope (forlornly, I expect) that everyone who commented on the overloaded Lib Dem Voice thread last week gets to hear about this speech. Everyone was so sure, weren’t they. They always are in cases like Baby P. So sure they knew what the rights and wrongs of the case were. So sure the killers deserved to be tortured, executed or sterilised themselves. So completely sure that they, the outraged moral majority, were nothing like the killers that they dehumanised them into evil monsters – just to make the point. They’re not like us. It’s ok to kill them.
And these are, as a rule, the very same morally unshakeable types who talk about feral yobs, and what should be done to them – locking up, beating up, state-sponsored harrassment by the police encouraged by the Home Secretary. They’re just as sure about all that as they are about Baby P. Feral yobs are victimisers, Baby P was a victim. And never the twain shall meet. Will anyone who called for the sterilisation, torture, execution etc of Baby P’s killers be brought up even slightly short by this speech? Be made to actually think for a moment about cause and effect, about abuse and damage, the possible relationship between this feature of society and that feature of society? Or will they stay wrapped up in the cotton wool of moral righteousness and refuse to see a connection between victim and victimiser?
As it happens, the possibility that Baby P might well have grown up this way crossed my mind as soon as I saw his picture and read more about him, placed him in some kind of physical context. Tottenham, unstable family, Irish name. Anyone who has ever lived in North London can add all that together without trouble.
I have, of course, learnt not to say things like that out loud in the wrong place (LDV is rarely the wrong place for this sort of thing, but it was on that occasion). I remember, as a very small Head of State, watching some particularly harrowing news footage with my father of some children displaced by war – Sudan/Ethiopia, I imagine it would have been. My father was suitably stricken with horror when I said, “They’re just the soldiers of the future.” “How can you say that?” he said. Looking back now, I shudder at what a ghastly, unempathetic little child I must have been. How did I say that? I didn’t understand the relationship between victim and victimiser myself then, of course – what I presumably meant as some sort of judgement was actually just a statement of fact. But what’s more terrifying is, I was probably right. As a child, I could state what an adult couldn’t.
At the moment, the only concrete mass-movement outcome from the Baby P case that I’m aware of is a plan to release balloons in Downing Street on 3 December and demand “justice” for Baby P (I’ve seen odd mentions of this in internet forums but I can’t find anything official). I could have wept when I heard about it. “Something horrible has happened! YOU sort it out! Here are some balloons!” Oh hoo-bloody-ray. What in the name of arse, assuming even the limpest grasp of sub-logic, do the proponents of this plan think it’s going to achieve, apart from suffocating a few blameless small animals who will be caught in the wrong park at the wrong time? What problem is it meant to solve, what aspect of child abuse is it meant to explore? Why the hell do we tolerate this moronic morality of the emotions?
It’s rare for me, in my carefree republic, to advocate force for anything ever, particularly force of the mind. But on this occasion, I am angry, and I do think there are things people should be forced to consider – uncomfortable things that don’t involve releasing a single balloon. They need to be forced to confront the paradox of elevating Baby P to the status of the angels on the one hand, and society’s collective appetite for locking up so-called irredeemable children from similar backgrounds on the other. So well done, I say, to Martin Narey for being in a position to say the unsayable, and saying it in spite of the baying of moral certitude. A pity more politicians don’t do that.
November 18, 2008
Mary Dejevsky has a thoughtful-but-wrong piece over at the Indy. She begins by admitting a sneaking sympathy for the intentions of the Conservatives to legislate for tax breaks for married couples, but stops short of full support for such “starry-eyed” proposals:
I doubt that efforts to rebuild the institution as such, will produce more stable families. Might preparatory classes [one of IDS' new ideas] not turn people off the whole idea? Does marriage make a relationship more stable, or are those who marry predisposed to form stable relationships anyway, which is why they chose to marry? And when you make divorce harder, do you not turn back the clock in the worst possible way – simply prolonging the unhappiness.
Fairy nuff. Quite refreshing to find a sober-headed view of contemporary marriage and relationships co-existing with an honest hankering for past social mores – and no liberal should find anything wrong with people hankering for past social mores (so long as they don’t visit them on us and our transbisexual menages-a-quatre communes, obviously). But she has an alternative suggestion:
…for those squeamish about appearing judgemental, marriage need not come into it. The same effect could be achieved much more simply – by removing the disincentives to any stable relationship that are currently built into the tax and benefits system. Many parents who live together are effectively penalised if they are on a relatively low wage or, if for whatever reason, one or other does not work. It is not just right-wing apocrypha from job-centres that says so. You only have to do the calculations; housing benefit has a particularly deterrent effect to cohabitation.
This is all true so far as it goes, certainly on housing benefit, where the income of the whole household is taken into account. Council tax is another one, insofar as a single person living alone gets a 25% discount which will vanish if another adult moves in, even if they don’t work.
But I don’t think straightforward “levelling” of these benefit criteria so that two people have something closer to twice the entitlement of one person would necessarily act in the wider interests of fairness. Insofar as we accept the principle that we should be taxed, and that we are entitled to benefits when we need them, it must be on the basis that we are taxed according to ability to pay, and are entitled to benefits according to need. Two people’s ability to pay rent is often greater than one person’s. Two people’s needs can be satisfied more economically than one’s. And the financial needs attaching to the upbringing of a child do not dramatically vary according to the number of parents it has – if anything it varies downwards with two parents because the cost of childcare is less of an issue. All this is self-evident through simple household accounting. Of course, living on low wages and housing benefit is just as hard for a couple as it is for a single person, but surely their basic problem is that they’ve got no bloody money, rather than that the tax and benefits system discriminates against them. In fact, it merely fails to discriminate in favour of them.
Dejevksy’s argument is therefore somewhat weasel-tailed – she claims to be opposing discrimination, but on any detailed consideration of the current system vis-a-vis her proposals it’s clear she favours introducing it. Her reasons becomes clearer at the end (my emphasis):
Yes, I know how hard it is for single parents, I know what a terrific job they do, and I accept that the tax and benefits system should be geared, as far as possible, to shielding children from the effects of poverty. But consider this. Almost half of all births are now outside marriage; children in single-parent families are many times more likely to suffer abuse; the number of children taken into care has risen 20 per cent in 10 years. This is what the marriage – or co-habiting – penalty, British-style, has wrought.
I’ve seen (who hasn’t) this argument advanced several times in the right-wing press over the last week, but I find it truly puzzling here. A lump of plasticine stuck on the end of an exquisitely wrought matchstick model. It’s is a truly numbskulled confusion of correlation and causal link, so much so that I can’t quite believe she has done it, and secretly fear I may be missing something. Was I off school when they did the bit about how you can prove that one statistic causes another just by putting them in the same sentence?
It ought to be obvious to everyone, even Tories, that this correlation by itself proves nada. In order to prove that all single-parent families were more likely to abuse their children, you’d have to prove first that child abuse resulted from a factor – stress, for example – that could be traced specifically and solely to the fact of the relationship breakdown. But in fact, there’s no need to involve ourselves in such a nebulous argument, because the converse is far, far more likely: the kind of dysfunction that causes people to abuse children may also cause them to be bad at holding together relationships. Parents who abuse children are more likely to be single, not the other way round. So forcing child abusers – or incentivising them, in the twenty-first century version – to stay in couples is going to do nothing more than paper over some very deep cracks.
This is why the Tories’ policy on marriage and social justice generally has always reminded me of the cargo cults – that strange phenomenon of the postwar period when abandoned airstrips and quartermaster stores littered the remote islands of the world. Like the tribesmen who built air traffic control towers out of coconut leaves and straw and waited for the great metal gods to bring them cargo, the Tories think that by reproducing old rituals – on a grand, national scale – they can induce the factors that originally underlay those rituals.
Once, couples stayed together because morals, prevailing global socio-economics and a more communitarian way of life – to say nothing of the legal difficulties – told against separation. Those same factors also meant that, for example, young men were less likely to have the opportunity to turn to crime. They meant that very bright children born into poor families couldn’t stay at school past the age of 14. And that gay people either never understood their true nature or suppressed it. And yes, they probably also meant that a neighbour would come running if they heard the kind of screams that might result from a child breaking its back. But that doesn’t mean that by slipping couples an extra twenty quid a week to stay married you can resurrect all those outcomes, even supposing you decided that it was on balance desirable.
But you know all this, of course. You know about the immutable laws of space and time and the fact that no precise deployment of atoms can ever occur more than once in the life of this universe. And that trying to command their partial redeployment to your desired recipe is hopeless, not even realistic enough to be considered hubristic. Especially if you’re trying to do it with a tax break, for god’s sake. I just wonder why more people don’t know it. Maybe they don’t watch enough Dr Who.
November 14, 2008
Every so often the editorial team at LDV towers inadvertantly posts something that ordinary people actually find interesting. Unaccountably, this is never about Land Value Tax, proportional representation or Trident. The stats graph buckles and the thread concerned fills with – usually – anger of some kind.
This first happened way before my time with the thread about social workers breaking up families (which did serve a purpose, as we were able to pass along all instances of people needing help to John Hemming, whose campaign it was), then more recently came the Gurkhas and, today, there is the Baby P thread. It’s not so much the length of the comment thread – a relatively modest 59 at the time of writing; we’ve had arguments about the existence of god that have gone on twice as long. The signs are in the names on the thread – totally unfamiliar – and the way in which, at times, their jarring illiberalism intrudes on our inbred circle. This is no surprise as, for reasons of interweb magic that escape me, the LDV story is the top hit when you search for Baby P on Google at the moment.
And yes, some of the comments on there make me shudder, for all that I can see where the revenge instinct comes from. Sterilisation, execution, torture – being beaten up in prison is the mildest thing most commenters are wishing on the murderers. But reading this sort of stuff at length makes one detect patterns. It occurs to me that, for all that people claim to want “justice” in cases like this, what they really mean is that they want injustice to be perpetrated against the guilty, the kind of senseless, unexpected injustice, alarming, probably physical and beyond the rule of law, that overtook the original victim. They want something of commensurate unfairness to happen to the culprit. Of course, you can’t get much more unfair than three adults torturing a baby to death, so the unfairness required to balance it is immense. In terms of the “fairness” of the case, how can you hurt an adult as much and as indefensibly as a baby? To be as “helpless as a baby” is the most extreme definition of helplessness against injustice there is.
No wonder people hate the justice system. Justice is innately concerned with fairness. A legitimate and proportionate punishment that the state is qualified to mete out is by definition a fair one. An unfair punishment is what the victim’s family – or in this case public defenders – really want. Something out of the ordinary, something that infringes the rights of the guilty one on a personal rather than state-sanctioned level. You start to see how principles such as lopping a hand off for stealing might start to gain ground again in this country, after several hundred years of abeyance before the principle of “fairness”.
Fair is a big Liberal Democrat word, of course. And rightly so, but it probably wouldn’t hurt us to remember that it’s a relatively modern concept. The justice system is based on fairness to protect us from our own baser instincts, our instinct for revenge, for vigilanteeism and for disproportionate reaction. But it wasn’t always based on that. Our particular variety of fairness is a post-Enlightenment understanding – before that, what was known as “natural justice” held far more sway in the making of law. Many individuals secede from that post-Enlightenment understanding, historically speaking they’re not in an indefensible position and, occasionally, they turn up on LDV to remind us. I am moderately glad, I guess, that they do this, and moderately alarmed at what it means for liberalism and democracy. Can both exist? Would a democracy, fully constituted, vote against fairness?
November 13, 2008
Every time I try to write a post about the current tax shenanigans I am distracted by something unspeakably dreadful. Sometimes it’s another gem from the Osborne Boy’s Book of 1950s Economic Homilies – “He didn’t make the jam while the rug needed a stitch in time and now the house is on fire. Quick, open the ginger beer!”. (Customarily, of course, metaphors are provided by a politician so that the public can grasp what’s going on; in this case I wonder if they weren’t provided by the publicity team so that the politician can grasp what’s going on. Sooner or later, George is going to want to see this damned house he keeps having to make announcements about.)
But above all, it’s this, blogged from the Number 10 press conference on Tuesday:
Brown says that they are already seeing tax cuts, such as the £120 cut going to basic rate taxpayers as a result of the decision to raise allowances.
That’s right. The fudged solution to a problem that Brown created by axing the 10p tax band is now a “tax cut”.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the point at which you are finally sick of talking about something is the point at which you must not give up, so I crave your indulgence as, by way of a public service, I drive yet another nail into the 10p debacle. No-one anywhere in the blogosphere must be left in any doubt about what an insupportable lie the above constitutes. It’s a technocrat lying to people who don’t have the specialist knowledge to check the facts, and it is thoroughly sickening. From the top, then:
In 2007/08, someone earning £14,000 would have enjoyed their first £5,225 tax free. Then a block of £2,230 would have been taxed at 10% (£223, would you believe). The remaining £6,545 (14000 – (2230+ 5225)) was taxed at 22% (£1439.90). Their tax bill for the year would have been £1,662.90. Assuming they had no children, they would not be eligible for tax credits.
The initial 2008/09 changes raised the tax free portion to £5,435 (in line with inflation, as is usual with the tax free allowance). But the whole of our £14,000 earner’s salary above that level would now be taxed at 20%. This gives a tax bill for the year of £1,713.
Following the outcry, by way of a “solution” the tax free portion was raised by a further £600, to £6,035. Effectively this means 20% of the £600 is recovered by the taxpayer – that’s the £120 Brown keeps talking about. It brings our £14,000 earner’s tax bill back down to £1,593, below even the 2007/08 level. All well and good.
But there is a point in the salary scale below which the £120 does not make up the loss of the taxpayer when the 10p band disappeared. Consider someone earning, say, £7,455 (what was formerly the top of the 10p band – £5,225 plus £2,230). From having had most of their salary tax free and a small upper quarter taxed at 10%, they suddenly found that they were paying 20% on that upper quarter. Their tax bill almost doubled in real terms from £223 to £404 (£7,455 less the new tax free allowance of £5,435 gives £2,020, which is taxed at 20%). Getting a hundred and twenty pounds back only about halves their loss. It doesn’t commute the loss altogether.
The break-even point, the point at which the taxpayer lost more than £120 by the axing of the 10p band and so did not have their loss fully commuted, is a salary of around £10,500. Or, as it’s sometimes known, the annual equivalent of the minimum wage. On that salary, a worker who paid tax of £892.90 in 2007/08 was originally destined to pay tax of £1,013 under the initial 2008/09 arrangements. The revised arrangements bring that sum back down to £893. Below that level, even the emergency hike of the tax free allowance to £6,035 does not entirely wipe out the loss that resulted from the disappearance of the 10p tax band.
How did it happen? It still staggers me. The party of the working man, doubling the tax on some of the lowest paid people in the country, and then even when their mistake was pointed out to them, failing to make up for it. What kind of heartless, gutless cheat do you have to be to not only go through with the initial abomination, not only brazen it out when you’re discovered, but later on start referring to it as a successful tax cut.
I’m told (she said primly) that the word on the inside is that Brown knew perfectly well what he was doing when he got rid of the 10p tax rate, but reckoned that the higher earners would be sufficiently self-interested not to make a fuss about the poor low-paid losers. His original aim was to bring in the package in March, become Prime Minister in the summer and call an election in the autumn at which the grateful beneficiaries of the 2p tax cut would sweep him to a mandate of his very own. He kept the 2007 budget from Blair’s final sign-off until the last possible moment. Blair noticed the problem and queried it. He was lied to in much the same terms we were – it won’t be many people and anyway, they’re all on tax credits. He shrugged and waved it through; Gordon’s problem, not his.
If that account is anything like true, Brown’s a lying bastard. And I wouldn’t attach so much credence to the lying bastard scenario if the alternative wasn’t – if anything – even more outlandish, that Brown and his advisers and everyone else at the Treasury were too stupid to notice the problem. There is just no way they are unable to carry out the simple calculations I’ve sketched out above. Next time he talks about the £120 “tax cut” he gave people on middle incomes, remind yourself of the full deceitful horror of its provenance, and the million people earning between £6,035 and £10,500 who are still taking home less than they were last year. And now they’re facing the recession as well – his recession. He must not be allowed to get away with this.
November 6, 2008
You could be soon. On the dying echo of the primaeval scream of terror that was our most recent post, comes news of a heartening babystep victory. Earlier today, No2ID campaigners seized possession of Jacqui “We’ll just change the law” Smith’s fingerprints and are holding them, rather excitingly, at a secret location (no doubt for the application of sellotape technology; the old ways work best).
The prints were on a water glass she drank from at an event at the Social Markets Foundation, which I now gather was the event at which she made this announcement about bringing forward the ID cards scheme to early next year. Ah, the poetry of it.
November 6, 2008
We in the People’s Republic now realise that we have spent a totally deficient amount of time over the last year’s blogging activity on fostering a culture of cynical corrosive nihilism. We are obviously hopelessly out of step with the zeitgeist, what with our all-too-frequent postings on such subjects as the teaching of history, Herbert Spencer, Anglo-Norman linguistics, urban planning, psychological profiling and our interminable difficulties with British Gas. We are a damn sight too constructive, optimistic, reflective and cautious, among the many other inconvenient qualities associated with liberalism.
We are ready to make amends. (more…)
November 5, 2008
Anyone still caught up in Obamamania and/or mainlining chocolate biscuits to stay awake may have missed the last trio of emails from our own presidential hopefuls this morning.
Lembit’s offering, as the Guardian rightly suggests, is a gamble, not one that works on me but one I find interesting nonetheless. This is the “most candid letter you’ll ever read from a political candidate”. He has had personal problems this year, including the death of a friend, which was why his campaign didn’t kick off early enough. On the other hand, this experience has made him stronger and brought him to a new level of understanding (I should add in his defence that my summary is more emetic than his prose) as regards (a) why he is the perfect president and (b) why others have doubts about this. He appeals over the heads of those doubts as follows:
When all the pretence of normal life is stripped away by hard times, you get to know yourself better. I’ve learned why I want to do the job of President. I know I can reach people in a special way, to make them listen and feel listened too. I know it comes from a motivation from deep inside me. I don’t do it perfectly by any means, but I do have a good heart, and any errors are usually sins of omission, not sins of intent. And the drive to serve the Party is rooted in what I feel I can do best – organising and motivating our Party to achieve great results.
And with some humility, I can tell you I’ve learned to see why some folk are concerned about my Presidency. Some fear I’ll be unpredictable, a wild one, or too involved in a profile outside politics. Or they think I’m too much of a joker, or a political lightweight. Or they believe I want to be President for my own self-promotion.
To tell you the truth, I’ve been frustrated and angry with people for thinking these things about me. But looking at it now, I realise that the right response is not to be angry, but to be a bit more empathic to these concerns… to appreciate WHY some feel this way, and try to accommodate that very natural caution within my equally natural enthusiasm and effusive optimism about the human race.
What I do is different for sure. But I sense that it can also be an enormous asset and force for change in how we do politics, and how far out we can reach. And that’s what I’d like to say now – to Vince, Ming, Navnit, John Shipley, and others who I’ve spoken to and thought about recently. I respect those concerns. If I win the election, I’ll work with you to get the best out of all of us, and to value the differences between us for the common goal and vision we share. For me, it’s the vision of a Lib Dem Government. It’s a journey we can only make successfully if we make it together. But it’s also a journey we can only complete if we’re a bit braver, and embrace each other’s unique contributions.
I know what this is. It’s our old friend the people person appeal. I remember saying something very similar about Nick Clegg at the time of the leadership election – how people-people thought Clegg was the obvious choice, and systems-people thought Huhne was. Lembit’s campaign has struck me this way from the start – all his messaging has been about his own unique personality and power to motivate. His “good heart”. That was why a lot of people voted for Clegg. Lembit is one of those people who genuinely believes that being a people person can change the world. And being a people person alone, not a people person with astonishing powers of rhetoric and an awesome political organisation behind him, like Obama. Or being a people person who’s also extremely bright, focussed and free-thinking, like Clegg. And even Clegg hasn’t reversed the polls in the way people-people voting for him assumed he would. He’s just being, on the whole, a good leader – you can’t ask for more than that.
I’ve got sad nerdy news for people-people. I don’t think it would work this time either. One person can’t change the world through exuberance alone. Plenty of people who change the world are exuberant, of course, but it’s a coincident rather than causal link. Does anyone seriously doubt now that the reason Tony Blair wiped the floor with everyone and everything was that he was a ruthlessly well-organised clever bastard? That famous grin we all thought formed the stuff of his magic in 1997 was no more than a single outward symptom.
I think Lembit’s made the best stab he can at a late surge, and he’s done it playing to his strengths. No, his strengths don’t convince me, but they were never going to, and an attempt to be a less convincing version of Ros Scott would have been a worse option. This was probably his best shot, and he may yet edge it on name recognition alone. If so I just hope there are some decent systems-people in place ready to do the other half of the job for him.
November 4, 2008
Found to be moderately entertaining by the gentle users of Libdig
At conference in September (ah! back in the day when banks were still notionally responsible independent enterprises that could find their arse with a map and a prevailing wind) I recall we were nonplussed in the Lib Dem Voice cupboard at one point to receive news of the launch of Nick Clegg. Surely it’s forty years too late for that? And who would pull the big red cloth off him? He’s a tall chap. Oh, of course, Danny Alexander. That’s ok then.
But no, this was the launch of NickClegg.com. We clicked in. “Why’s the title bar blue?” I said critically. It promptly turned orange. What user-experience voodoo was this!?
At the time I thought little more of it – it seemed to be no more than a double feed of most of the material that goes up on the party website, in a slightly more bloggy style. It’s not like I’m short of party news conduits. But I’ve just been back there trying to find the text of his Liverpool speech in March for my last post (not there, it doesn’t have backdated material before July). And do you know what I found?
NORMAL PEOPLE. At least, I think they’re normal. They don’t comment like political anoraks, or internet anoraks come to that. No by-elections, polls or other political blogs are mentioned. Positioning, squeeze, triangulation, Rennardism, campaigning anecdotage – all notably absent. Nobody says “IIRC”, “AIUI” or “TBH” or “I think you’ll find that the promise to provide free cabbage seed to the under-5s appears in consultation paper 476 and was mentioned twice in last week’s Yorkshire Post interview and on the World at One on Thursday, so our messaging on the issue is pretty clear assuming that a moderately high proportion of the electorate scan their newspapers with magnifying glasses and infra-red technology.” A few are avowedly members or supporters, or hearteningly deciding to become so. But all seem, well, normal. They’re not always commenting favourably, but there’s none of the trenchancy you associate with political activist opponents. I wonder if it’s a genuinely overlooked corner of normalcy in a cyberworld of seething madness, or if the moderation policy is just totally uncompromising.
Either way, may I respectfully suggest that Citizens wishing to visit NickClegg.com all undertake to keep a sock in it? We’ll only scare off the nice Normal People. We like Normal People. Join ussss, nice Normal People. Ahem.
November 4, 2008
Whatever happened to Faceless Britain, I wonder? It was a theme in Clegg’s closing speech at Liverpool spring conference:
What will it look like, this new Britain?
First the great monoliths of centrally-run bureaucracies must be opened up – and run for the sake of the people, the patients, the pupils. These days individuals are powerless in the face of the rules and regulations that run everything. Every sensible request is met with a mindless “Computer Says No”.
Who hasn’t got stuck in the nightmarish world of an automatic phone service they laughably call a “helpline”? The lift music. The menus. The mechanical voice that tells you “your call is important to us”.
It’s frustrating when you’re trying to sort out your gas bill. But what if that helpline’s your only route to getting money for food, heating, clothes for your kids?
We want services that are human-sized, personal in nature, and designed for real people. We don’t want these services handed down by the faceless state. Gordon Brown is obsessed with building bigger and bigger database systems. I sometimes wonder if it’s a mid-life crisis thing…
And it was (still is notionally) the subject of a consultation paper which was supposed give rise to a motion at this year’s autumn conference. It didn’t, I suspect because it’s hard enough to articulate what is so awful about Faceless Britain, let alone articulate a meaningful motion by way of response. The consultation paper tries to nail it, but sounds a little too worked-on to convince:
Faceless Britain quite simply refers to the challenges experienced by millions of ordinary people every day in accessing public services. With every year that goes by, more and more services that used to offer face to face contact are being replaced by systems that are centralised, remote and inhuman. We are seeing the progression of an unaccountable state, creating increasingly remote systems that are divorced from the people they are supposed to serve.
It provides the specific examples of terrible benefit helplines, post office closures, ID cards and the maladministration of the social fund. All concrete examples of the abstract awfulness, but how do you come up with a single motion, a single response, the silver bullet that blows that all away, without being either too detail-focussed (scrap ID cards and keep post offices open) or too broadbrush (devolution). If you have to explain how your solution hangs together and how it resolves whatever you think the problem is, your silver bullet doesn’t work properly. So facelessness as a narrative theme disappeared from view.
The time might be ripe to bring it back, because the facelessness idea bears importantly on the banking crisis. It was the facelessness of the banking system which triggered the information problem which caused the sub-prime bubble. Someone somewhere knew those debts were bad, or rather had access to all the information that would show them the debts were bad. Someone somewhere else knew the values of houses would not go on rising forever. Why didn’t those two pieces of information ever cross paths and flag up a warning sign in the assessment process that rated those debts as triple-A stock? I’m guessing it was because human sanity checks were omitted at various key stages in the process. A spreadsheet is only as good as the data entered into it, and if those two key facts are not analysed together and introduced in numerical form then your spreadsheet is going to give you the wrong answer. Faceless processes that involve 1s and 0s can’t always transmit all the key information. They should be able to, by detecting correlations and cross-references, but there’ll be one quirky piece of information in ten thousand that they miss.
The faceless bank system also promoted the growth of the debt bubble, by making debt easy, by removing the physical human element that made it troublesome (and thus expensive for the bank). You fill in some figures and letters on a screen and press “Send” and if the computer likes the answers you have £80,000. The FT puts it as follows:
Amid the bail-outs and recapitalisations, let us not forget how the Great Meltdown of 2008 started: with the little people at the bottom, the ones with the Ninja mortgages (no income, no job or assets). The brokers and banks who lent them the money were not bothered whether they could pay it back. The bankers thought the value of the houses purchased with the mortgages would rise forever and, anyway, they were planning to package those loans and sell them.
Underneath the great meltdown lay the great disconnection between banks and their customers.
The UK may not have gone for Ninja loans, but it did have its cousins, the self-certified mortgages.
Banks once knew their borrowers. When I took out my first mortgage in the mid-1980s, I was called into the branch manager’s office for an interview. The letter from my employer detailing my salary was on his desk. No self-certification then.
Now, obviously I’m not in the slightest misty-eyed about the bad old days of shining your shoes to go and see your bank manager. It was and would be now hideously subject to personal prejudice. But it did have the merit of elevating the procuring of credit to the status of a social transaction. Human beings behave in a certain way in social transactions. In dealing with another individual, a person has certain social obligations to fulfil, pitfalls to avoid – not looking like too much of a credulous idiot, for example. You can see it dawning on the faces of those people in money programmes, when the guru confronts them with their £400 a month taxi habit or their thirty-seven identical pairs of black trousers. What was I doing? How can I defend that? I can’t. In dealing with an individual with some potential power over them, such as a bank manager with a wadful of cash, a person will analyse their own particular case for its strengths and weaknesses, a process the computer screen simply doesn’t call for.
The facelessness problem hasn’t been expunged for the banking system, of course. It has just been offered a new set of data to wreak its havoc on. And it’s certainly not a problem the shiny new governmental board members are likely to so much as recognise, being from the party and the government that wrote the multi-lingual help and information leaflet on faceless bureaucratic systems.
I very much get the impression that Faceless Britain, for all that it’s sitting on the backburner, is one of Clegg’s own personal hobbyhorses. I hope it finds a way back in some more mature form soon, and possibly extended beyond the public services sphere. Its narrative opposite – that we are the party with a face – has decent groundwork to build on. Liberal Democrat MPs as a group recently emerged from a poll with high scores on being “approachable” and “helpful”. Facelessness as a cultural trend is appropriate for an “age of irresponsibility” and its opposite might be just the thing for an age of austerity.
November 3, 2008
Having had my tuppence worth as much as anyone, I’m starting to find this libertarians v social democrats blogging “debate”, seen in its latest incarnation here, just a little bit crushingly depressing.
I try not to write about meta-blogging matters, but this is all getting a bit daft, isn’t it? Not a week seems to go by in the Lib Dem blogosphere without someone getting up on their hindlegs and starting a very long sentence beginning with “I BELIEVE…” and ending with “…SO IT MUST BE TRUE. SO THERE.” And I thought I was inflexible and opinionated. You can blame me for all this, actually – I went and wrote a long post a while back on how wonderful it was that our party is informed by two parent ideologies and what a marvellous thing was the dialogue between the two strands. So it is, but there’s such a thing as a surfeit you know, chaps.
My real problem, I suppose, is that this is no longer a dialogue – if it ever was. A dialogue has to be about something – a tax policy, say, or an educational model. To be fair, some discussions still get down to these sorts of brass tacks eventually. But mostly, the libertarians v social democrats blog war is about everything, and therefore nothing. It’s tribal, not conciliatory. Same old emotion-based dog whistle language. Same old implication that “libertarians” or “socialists” as the case may be are “the enemy”. The instant recourse to emotive buzzwords – Thatcherite this and stasi that, market worshipping, nanny state, and a host of other perjorative adjectives damagingly attached to perfectly innocent nouns to suit the purpose of the writer, not to mention the freewheeling redefinition of that dread word “libertarian” – just destroys any intellectual value the exercise might have had.
Few people ever seem to actually learn anything, or advance their thinking. Any point, once successfully made, seems to be forgotten after the thread has ended. It’s true, ladies and gentlemen, we are now officially debating at an intellectual level below that of the common goldfish. In terms of the open-mindedness of its participants, it’s akin to standing in a North London pub and listening to a debate on the relative merits of Spurs and the Arsenal. Basically, we’re all just standing up in turn and telling everybody else which emotive socio-political words we weally, weally wuv, and which ones make us go icky-poo-yuk. Well, someone hand round the Nobel prizes.
I’m sure we used to debate Stuff and Things in the blogosphere. How much real-world good that ever did I’ve no idea, but it at least promoted constructive thinking activity and let people work out their positions in a relatively dogma-free atmosphere. The key question facing the online party today is not which “direction” we should take (whose “we” is this, anyway? Because I am tolerably sure that the leadership is not watching the blogosphere agog in anticipation of acting on our verdict, even supposing we could reach one). It’s whether the online party can remain relevant to a wider audience and avoid disappearing excitably up its own arse. Because frankly, if I’m bored of this, some poor sod of a supporter who just looks in on the offchance that we might be saying something interesting and of relevance to them will never darken our virtual doors again.
It does of course occur to me that I could, in fact, do something to counterbalance the madness by blogging about Stuff and Things myself, as opposed to having spent an hour I’ll never get back composing the above. Damn.