Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Lefty firebrands demand a better deal for top earners

I was on the radio this morning debating with Max Brophy of the Education Activists Network - the group linked to the Millbank incident. While iPlayer lasts you can find it here, starting 1h05mins in.

As always it is a shame I didn't get to respond to some of Max's points directly. The fairly preposterous line that there is an ideological attack on the public sector - when the share of national income spent by the government is simply returning to the level it was in 2006. And it is a little bizarre that something called the Education Action Network is rioting, when education is relatively unscathed in the adjustment this country is making to the fact that it has a great deal less money to spend.

But my main point, which I almost managed to get across is this. While clearly we are in a coalition, and in no position to deliver on our original policy, it is worth noting that student debts are becoming very undebtlike indeed. There is no commercial loan you could take out that you would be let off altogether if your earnings were below £21000. For people on these incomes, there are essentially no fees and free education, before we even consider the new bursaries and maintenance provision. This is a big improvement on the status quo. The fees pledge is honoured, and in spades, for low earners. They pay no fees, nothing.

For people on middle incomes, repayments will be limited by income, and not by the size of the debt, which therefore becomes a notional debt not a real one. Payments defined and limited by income are usually called taxes, and this differs from a graduate tax in name only. Of course a pure graduate tax would keep the pledge. If this policy breaks the pledge for middle earners, it does so entirely because of what the payments are called. Toby Foster, the host, asked if the protest was really all about semantics, and it almost is.

But not quite. There are still the top earners - the top third or so - those who will end up paying £6000 fees, or in exceptional cases £9000. That's the full cost of their education in the chalk and talk subjects, and a little less in the more expensive subjects. These are the people we have let down in compromising on fees. So effectively what leftwing firebrand Max was demanding was a better deal for top earners. It's a funny old world isn't it.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Young's Gaffe

Lord Young is in trouble and has apologised for a gaffe stating that most people have never had it so good.

Specifically, if you have a mortgage and you still have a job, then with interest rates lower than ever, you have more money to spend that you did in normal economic times.

There are two big problems here. One is that "a job and a mortgage" accounts for a minority of households. So the remark, while true of the hypothetical middle-Englander Young probably had in mind, is not true of "most people".

The second is more telling. There seems to be something implicit in ever saying "most people" that pushes people's irrational tribal-brain buttons. Because if most people are X and a minority are Y, are you saying, and am I hearing that X matters and Y doesn't?

If, in a democracy, you say most people want better railways, that kinda suggests that support for better railways matters politically, and democratic governments ought to represent that interest group.

On the other hand if you say that most people want a heterosexual relationship, that doesn't imply any kind of political demand for priority or favour for heterosexuals from the government. Or does it? Why did you bring up the question of what kinds of relationships people want? Is it a dog-whistle? Are you framing some question as straight v gay?

Young's remarks, we are told, are insensitive to those who have lost their jobs, or fear they will. Is this really the problem? The government's institutions for dealing with unemployed people show total crass disregard for their feelings and always have done. Having been entirely forgotten about by some Lord is probably something of a mercy by contrast.

No, the problem here is the politics of framing an analysis in terms of, say the better off 60% versus the worse off 40%. It might not even be intended, but those are the buttons that are pushed. And many - particularly on the left, and the far right - see politics entirely as an exercise in identifying or creating, promoting and exploiting tribal divisions in society. They get very upset if you pick the wrong dividing line to exploit. I get upset even if you pick the right dividing line. Politics should not be about dividing people into groups, but respecting them as individuals.

And it is a fact of recessions that most of the pain falls on relatively few people. Surely it is more insensitive to deny this than to mention it.