We’re back to paying people to dig holes, and paying others to fill them in again with IDS

Apparently George Osborne had to deny Matthew d’Ancona’s report of him saying [ref]hat tip to the Indy[/ref]

“You see Iain giving a presentation,” George Osborne, right, is reported to have observed during a turf war, “and realise he’s just not clever enough.”

I think this is a bit harsh on IDS. There seems to be a general shortage of brainpower in the political sphere, or a general shortage of cojones in levelling with the electorate. I suspect here are more fundamental problems than the skivers and strivers rhetoric allows.

Apparently the unemployed are going to be given a 35-hour a week detention for being unemployed, or do community service/workfare. Lest it be said I’m picking on the Tories, Rachel Reeves of Labour delivered herself thusly

But this policy is not as ambitious as Labour’s compulsory jobs guarantee, which would ensure there is a paid job for every young person out of work for over 12 months and every adult unemployed for more than two years.

Compulsory jobs, eh? Labour seems to believe more an more in its overwhelming power to control things, from the price of electricity to the jobs market. The Condems claim the problem started with the previous lot…

The Tories argue that the number of households where no member has ever worked doubled under Labour from 136,000 in June 1997 to 269,000 in June 2010. They claim that in the decade to 2010, 1.4 million people had spent nine out of the previous 10 years on out-of-work benefits.

Now the Ermine is not a bleeding heart liberal. In the decade of plenty under Labour no doubt many people did come to the same conclusion as I did, that work is overrated. Some people wouldn’t or couldn’t save up first to buy themselves out of the rat race, so they do it on other people’s dime. And yet even I think it’s time to stop, and think, and ask more searching questions about what it means that 1.4 million people spending 90% of a decade on out of work benefits. According to the ONS we have thirty million souls in employment, so we are talking 5% long-term unemployed, out of an unemployment rate of 7.7%. The traditional viewpoint of unemployment is it is something that people cycle through every once in a while, after all, an Ermine has been unemployed for 2% of his working life [ref]6 months, after graduating, out of a 30-year working life[/ref].

And yet when when you look at the stats and two-thirds of the unemployed have been on out-of-work benefits for many years then something else is going on. This could be explained by –

  1. many of the unemployed are lazy bastards and chose this as a lifestyle
  2. sickness and pestilence stalks the land such that 1 in 20 of the workforce is seriously ill or disabled – God help those of pension age in that case
  3. our economy has changed and cannot gainfully employ 5% of the workforce due to them not fitting the requirements an employer needs

or some combination of all three, and maybe factors I failed to spot.

I favour an increasing amount of 3. There are undoubtedly some lazy barstewards about. But not enough to explain two-thirds of the unemployed being long-term unemployed IMO. I suspect the answer is that globalisation, outsourcing and automation has raised the bar on what is required of an employee – after all the Flynn Effect is apparently traceable to the fact that an industrial economy requires its workforce to infer the particular from the general, extrapolate and make mental models of an increasingly complex and abstract world.


James Flynn on the Flynn effect – increasing IQ over the 20th century (hat tip to Greg).

Flynn asserts that IQ scores at the end of the 19th century would be averaging 70, on the verge of mental retardation, if ours are normalised to 100. However, as technology progresses, requirements presumably increase, and the bar for employability is probably scanning across the bell-curve of IQ distribution, leaving increasing numbers of people behind. IQ is not the only parameter employers need, but there’s less call for sheer physical strength, for instance, of even skilled craftsmanship. Humans are adaptable, but not infinitely adaptable, and I think we are beginning to lose the race.

And there, I believe, is where politicians are failing us. We pay them to lead, and to adapt our societies to changing conditions, be that increasing industrialisation, global warming or societal changes. And adapting to a world where there is not enough work for people, in particular if an increasing number of people are becoming unemployable, is as much a political issue as it is of one of ‘fairness’. After all, it is perfectly possible to postulate a world where all the work is done by machines[ref]A young Ermine addled his growing mind with far too much science fiction, and I am sure Isaac Asimov’s Solarians featured one such world[/ref]. Such a world would not be divided into workers and shirkers. If we are on our way to a society when fewer and fewer people produce the GDP in association with machines then none of these get people back to work initiatives will work, for the simple reason that there aren’t enough jobs that match the abilities across the working-age population. Do we even need everybody in work for the economy to grow? After all, Britain doesn’t need me to be in work – although I am technically ‘economically inactive’ I don’t know what the Government thinks I am doing with my investment portfolio.

At the moment the discussion on unemployment is predicated on an assumption that nearly anybody is employable – hence all the emphasis on

‘Claimants will attend a local centre full-time for up to 6 months, with support and supervision to look for work and apply for jobs,’ Mr Duncan Smith will add.

‘No attendance. No benefit. That is only fair.’

There’s a hidden assumption, there, IDS. And that is that, assuming everyone were willing, and took your training to the best of their ability, that the economy can find gainful work for all these people. I am not so sure, in which all you are doing is the equivalent of Depression era digging holes and filling them in again.

There are similar fallacies in the under-occupancy levy, leading me to suspect a lack of smarts at the Dept of Work & Pensions. I’m all for the principle that if you want to to live in a bigger house than you need, that you pay for it yourself, and if you live on the public purse then you don’t get to do that automatically. However, changing the housing benefit terms without having looked to see if what you’re asking people to do – downsize to social housing that fits their household size – is possible is just as bloody unfair as people living large while taxpayers have to scrimp and save. It wouldn’t have been beyond the wit of man to say that if you refuse the offer of a smaller sized place then your housing benefit gets docked, rather than we will take the money off you but tough luck, buster, we can’t offer you a smaller house, so you’re SOL on that one. On the other hand, I don’t find it unreasonable to ask people to move out of damned expensive places like London – after all I had to.

Perhaps it is time for us to ask ourselves what a successful first-world human economy looks like in the 21st century. Maximizing the amount of consumer goods and services in the country, with all the attendant damage to the environment is one option. Is the 35-40 hour five day week the optimum? Do we need to maximise GDP? Is the world changing, an increasing competition in the workplace? Can we design a society to maintain living standards in the face of that, and if not, what are the alternatives? What do we mean by living standards anyway? Modern Britain  seems to have a high material living standards compared to a few decades ago but shockingly high levels of stress and job insecurity, unhealthy physically inactive lifestyles and an increasing difficulty of doing something most people want to do – have children and perhaps get to see them grow up.

I don’t know what the answers to any of that is, but I do know that from observation the assumption that 1950s and 1960s levels of employment are possible looks less and less tenable to me. This debate needs to be widened out from skivers and strivers, to ‘what would an economy with 100% strivers look like? How about 100% skivers (a bit like Solaria, or Japan in 100 years)

The former looks too much like that hole-digging and hole-filling to me. Labour attempted that – throw money at problem and hope some of it sticks to the sides on its way down the drain. We ended up with a lot of middle-class welfare jobs and diversity outreach coordinators, basically white-collar hole-digging and filling. Unwinding that is causing much hurt and loss of employment now, but it shows how much make-work covered up for some fundamental problems – there just doesn’t seem enough work for everyone in Britain now. Telling the unemployed that it’s possible for all of them to get jobs is bollocks.

We need to understand, or at least debate what we think we are up against, preferably not in a sectarian black-and-white way. Understanding of the physical world has helped make Britain a rich nation; more understanding of the human world can hopefully make us a rich society. At the moment we seem to be having a shouting match based on a Calvinist work-is-inherently-good-for-you lines. It may be the the collective viewpoint of Britons is that paying people for futile work is how we prefer to allocate resources, but at least let’s know that’s what we are doing here 😉

CalvinistWatch – Happiness is having a job, according to Civitas

In a shocking confusion of correlation with causation, Anastasia de Waal from Civitas bangs the drum for the Calvinist world-view that happiness is having a job. I’ve already had a run-in with the Calvinist work-ethic on here. It may be damned fortuitous that this makes the wage-slaves pliant, but it still needs shooting wherever it arises.

Say it ain’t so, Anastasia. Even at Civitas they must know deep down that there’s more to life than having a job. It’s also damned convenient for a right-wing think tank to take the line that the serfs do it for the good of their souls and the money doesn’t matter. So there’s no need to pay the oiks a living wage then, leaving more for Sir Hector Fat Cat’s bonus, presumably.

Clearly the standards of logical discourse are slipping these days. I think that in a capitalist society such as ours, for most people having a job would appear to be a necessary, but not sufficient condition to be happy. Me, I’d kick the job into touch in a heartbeat – it’s having an income that is necessary, though again not sufficient for being happy.

Civitas take a look at the undoubted unhappiness that goes with not having a job if you have no other means of supporting yourself and your family, and flip the sense of it to imply “Happiness…. is having a job” to plagiarize the Hamlet cigar ads of yesteryear.

Anastasia de Waal, a social policy analyst at the think tank Civitas, said employment was central to people’s sense of identity and wellbeing.

“A job is about your life, it is not about your income,” she said.

“It is about every aspect – having the motivation to get up in the morning, self-esteem and being a role model to your children. Income is almost secondary to that.

“People’s lives fall apart if they don’t have a job. They are much more likely to be depressed if they are out of work, and there is a strong relationship between unemployment and family breakdown and health difficulties.”

Well, colour me stupid , but let’s just run that lot again with “have any money” swapped for “have a job”

Ermine, a cynical bastard at the blog Simple Living in Suffolk, said having enough money was central to people’s sense of identity and wellbeing.

“Having enough money is about your life, it is not about your job,”

[Calvinist claptrap omitted]

“People’s lives fall apart if they don’t have any money. They are much more likely to be depressed if they have no money, and there is a strong relationship between being skint and family breakdown and health difficulties.”

Works pretty well for me. None of this is to gainsay the obvious suffering and hardship that many people are suffering as they lose their jobs, but I’d say that the hardship would be a damn sight less if they didn’t lose their income at the same time as losing their job.Some of the wage-slaves might even get to meet their kids and see what they’re up to these days…

We need to understand this subtle difference if we have to re-engineer our societies for a world in which the myth of continuous growth is shown to have been an illusory dream all along. Although it is hard to image from where we are standing, it is possible to conceive of a society where not everybody had jobs, but everybody had enough income to lead an interesting life.

Say, for instance, we were in some sci-fi future where we had matter replicators and robots. Provided we had managed to avoid the MegaCorporation of Earth copyrighting everything beforehand, this could lead to a society where there were no material wants. Of course it would probably be unsustainable and environmentally destructive too, but hey, if you run out of Earths you could always make another, that’s what a matter replicator is there for 🙂