The Scotsman comes around to the idea of a universal benefit

I made a case, last December, for the removal of fees for burials and cremations. The Scotsman has just offered an editorial accepting that argument in relation to children, at least.

The majority of Scotland’s councils have scrapped burial fees for children. … Unfortunately, nine of Scotland’s 32 local authorities continue to charge bereaved parents fees of up to £800 for burials. We are not always convinced by arguments for universality. … But surely there is no debate to be had about the abolition of burial fees for children?

It’s pleasing that they’ve gone that far. I do wonder, however, that we don’t extend the argument a little further. Funerals are almost always a difficult experience, the expense of a funeral is (after a house and car) one of the largest that most people will ever have to incur, the present system for helping people in difficulties is riddled with anomalies, and there is no risk or incentive arguments that would mean it was not appropriate to offer people some help with costs. “We Scots”, the Scotsman argues, “have a good conceit of ourselves as a compassionate, humane lot.” So why stop at children?

Easterly argues that the Washington Consensus worked: post hoc, propter hoc?

Development economist Bill Easterly  has posted a new paper arguing that the “Washington Consensus” and structural adjustment might have worked after all.  These were the basis for the liberal market policies forced on developing countries by the IMF and the World Bank in the 80s and 90s.   The argument is that although most of the measures failed to show any consistent benefits at the time, subsequent improvements in development might not have happened without it.

There are three core problems with that position.  The first problem is evidential: showing that something happens over a long period of time does not show that a policy near the beginning is what started it.  If structural adjustment really did work, there should be evidence of it starting to work at the time, and evidence that countries which did it more faithfully had better results.  There really isn’t.  Second, the ‘policy outcomes’ Easterley uses as a test – currency value, inflation rates, trade shares and so on – are not necessarily the outcomes of policy at all; they are indicators that economies have avoided some of the problems that impede growth.  Third, over that length of time, there have been lots of other influences.  The massive improvements in recent years might just be attributable to poverty reduction strategies, the growth of democracy, improved governance, basic health care, the internet and the cellphone, the advancement of education, cash transfers, women’s rights and many other things.  The more influence we attribute to any of those – and I’d argue that they all matter – the less we attribute to structural adjustment.

Universal Credit: more complexity for self-employed people

Five years ago, I was writing about the unsuitability of the Universal Credit scheme for the circumstances of self-employed people.  Lots of self-employment is fictitious – a fraud by employers – but there’s real self-employment, too.  Income from genuine self-employment tends to be lumpy – unevenly distributed, and slow to match either with costs or the time when the work is actually done.  In the short term, it can be difficult to tell what one’s income actually is. I’ve just had a quick look at my own accounts – fortunately, I don’t have to rely on Universal Credit.  Last year I received self-employed income in five months, got nothing in five more, and paid out in two others.  That last bit is not at all unusual – tax is usually due in January and July.

We are shortly due to have another change in the way that self-employed income is calculated.  The system began with the idea that everyone would have their benefit calculated in ‘real time’, and then, for self-employed people, that they would have their circumstances calculated monthly on the basis of a notional “minimum income floor”, even if they had none – or if, like me, their costs happen to exceed their income in that month.  The new system will  take larger income payments and distribute any nominal surplus to later months.   What it won’t do, as far as I can tell, is to take proper account of losses and liabilities, because the minimum income floor still applies  to loss-making months.  Nor will it be geared to the tax system, because while HMRC has started routinely taking six-monthly payments on account, self-employed people’s liability to tax still typically gets settled well after the event.

Aadhaar: an electronic card fails to work its magic

The Aadhaar card is an electronic system for managing the identification details of the population of India.  The current case against Aadhaar  in the Indian Supreme Court is principally concerned with issues of privacy and data management; the main argument in the court is that the card is unconstitutional, and creates the mechansims for a ‘surveillance state’.  From the point of view of social administration, it is a greater concern that people have to have a card before they can receive benefits and services.  That issue was being flagged more than a year ago, with people being denied access to rice rations because of problems in the system.  A recent report in the Washington Post adds many more examples – access to schools, food or pensions.

One of the advantages claimed for the Aadhaar card was that it was going to reduce welfare fraud.  It has had the opposite effect: people who supply the services may be able to pocket the resources that people have not been able to access.  This looks like a classic case, of imagining that the arguments for a particular IT process are universal, and disrearding the conditions where the system has to operate.  There’s a further problem, too: that even if the process seems straightforward in its own right, mistakes are very difficult to correct.  This system is supposed to deal with the largest population in the world of people who can’t read or write.

People are confused about hate speech

People get very muddled over ‘free speech’.  The primary objection to the case of the ‘Nazi Pug’ is not that someone was saying something which was upsetting or offensive; it is that repeating the phrase ‘Gas the Jews’, whether or not it is presented as a joke, goes beyond the bounds of what is permissible.

Liberty is not licence.  It’s generally accepted that the point where one person’s liberty stops is where it limits the freedoms of someone else.  The freedom to swing your fist, as the saying has it, ends where my nose begins.  Your rights and liberties are not just about the freedom to speak.  They may also protect you from having to hear some things directed at you – threats, intimidation, and assaults among them.  No-one should have to to listen to other people saying “we’re here to burn your house down” on the basis that those are just words.  Words are not empty – they are often the precursors to action.   We often accept trivial and silly sentiments from comedians – Monty Python’s design to slice up the public with rotating knives – because we’re not taking them seriously.   “Gas the Jews” isn’t silly or trivial.   It’s a threat, and a threat with real meaning; repeating it, as my friend Ephraim Borowski argued for the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities, normalises it.

There is another fundamental objection, too.  Free speech, Scanlon argues, does not reside in the rights of the person who is speaking, but in the rights of the person who is listening.  You are entitled to hear many views that are objectionable, offensive or unpleasant to some people: for example, you may want to read The Satanic Verses, even though it is offensive to many Muslims. That’s about your rights, not the author’s.  However, your rights to hear things are not limitless, and there are things you don’t have the right to hear.  In the UK, you’re not at liberty to hear libels (that is, falsehoods which are damaging to individuals), or treason, which is damaging to the security of everyone.   You are not entitled to hear incitements to commit crime, threats to minorities, attempts to raise an army for the purposes of civil war.

There’s a tendency to dismiss words, on the basis that they’re harmless; that’s far from being the case.  Words can crush people.  They can threaten, intimidate, bully, and destroy.   (The US laws on hate speech largely fail to deal with this; it’s only chargeable as  hate speech after the action has been taken.  Most European legislators don’t think that’s good enough.)  The central objection to hate speech is not that it is hateful – lots of stereotypes are – or even that it is bad manners, but that it is dangerous.  “Let’s kill these people”  – there are plenty of examples of that kind of thing on the internet, but I’m not going to link to them – is illegal in most European countries, for a good reason.  And “Gas the Jews”, whether or not it is said with a smile, clearly falls into that category.

 

Saving remote Scotland

A short research note from the James Hutton Institute offers a gloomy prediction for the future of Scotland’s remote areas.  About half the country is sparsely populated, in the sense that it takes a journey of more than 30 minutes to reach places where 10,000 people live; large parts of the country are, more or less, wilderness.  Low populations mean limited development, limited opportunities and limited services – schools, banks, supermarkets and fuel have to have a population base to justify their existence.  The projected populations of the islands and Argyll and Bute are expected to fall by a third; the population of the Highlands is likely to fall by a quarter.

Lesley Riddoch offers a splendid piece in the National, crackling with ideas about the kinds of things that could be done to help remote areas.  The article’s not helped by a headline that suggests a different kind of content, but Riddoch’s article points to to issues including energy, land ownership, housing, communications, and local governance.  I know that some people will question whether human beings ought to be allowed into empty and wild spaces, but we need to question the wisdom of allowing half a country to wither away.

The Scottish Social Security Bill, now amended

The second stage of the Scottish Social Security Bill is complete.  Unusually, most of the issues raised as amendments have been incorporated, a clear sign that the legislators have taken comments seriously; there will be a Scottish Social Security Commission to review legislation and regulations, the rules on overpayments have been considerably qualified, and I was particularly gratified to see two new clauses on alienability (48A and 48B).  Mandatory reconsideration is still there before a claimant can appeal, in a piece of macho drafting depending on multiple cross-references to determine what can be appealed and what can’t.  The Bill is not perfect, then, but it is much better for the amendments.

The House of Commons has agreed that European Citizenship should be maintained

Something remarkable happened yesterday.  The House of Commons passed this motion:

this House supports the maintenance of European Union citizenship rights for Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish and English citizens, notes that the range of rights and protections afforded to individuals as European Union citizens are integral to a person’s European identity; further notes that many of those rights are closely linked to the UK’s membership of the Single Market; and calls on the UK Government to ensure that the UK’s membership of the Single Market and UK citizens’ right to European Union citizenship are retained in the event that the UK leaves the EU.

That argument (and indeed many of the arguments made in Parliament) has been the subject of several entries on this blog, the petition I have raised to the European Parliament (0922/2016, here), and a legal case currently being considered by the Dutch courts.   The position to date has been that the British Government has signally failed to protect the rights of British citizens, probably because they fear that if they make the attempt, they will have to make reciprocal concessions to the EU.  That would be worth doing, but the central argument is not one about protecting the interests of the UK; it is to require the EU to live up to the commitments that it has made to its citizens.

Unemployment benefits are being reformed in France

The government of President Macron has proposed a series of changes to unemployment benefits.  The context is very different to the UK.   Unemployment benefits are not run by the government, but by Unédic, a formal consortium of employers and trades unions.  The benefits are contributory and related to previous income (which makes them generous by comparison with UK benefits); they get reduced for longer periods of unemployment.

The proposed reform makes three substantial changes.  First, it will extend unemployment benefits for the first time to the self-employed.  Second, employees will not longer be excluded from  claiming if they have given up their previous work voluntarily.  The government is justifying this by suggesting that it offers people the opportunity to start a business.  At this stage, it’s not clear whether that will be a formal condition; if it’s not, there are others who may find different uses for it.   (The Thatcher government in the UK used to have a separate system of support for small business start ups, and one person I knew at the time was funded to become a successful writer of comedy.)

Third, there will be new sanctions; a person who refuses two reasonable offers of employment will have benefits halved.  That’s a little more leeway than claimants in the UK get, where claimants are driven to destitution for missing an appointment.    A report yesterday gives two examples of people having benefits stopped for the serious offence of being in hospital at the wrong time.

An OECD economist argues that Universal Credit is better than Basic Income

I was surprised to read a report from the Helsinki Times, that the OECD is recommending Finland to forget about Basic Income and adopt Universal Credit instead.  It took me a little while to find the source; it’s in a blog post written by Jon Kristian Pareliussen.  He  had previously expressed his appreciation for Universal Credit in a paper written in 2013, when the system was still imaginary rather than practical.  Even at that time, the idea that work incentives would be preserved by a marginal rate of deduction of possibly three-quarters – that’s the combined effect of tax or NI plus the loss of  UC – was fantasy.

The OECD’s opposition of Basic Income has a rather stronger foundation.   Last year’s report on Basic Income explained that in each of the countries they looked at, schemes for a Basic Income were likely to leave many poor people worse off.  What Basic Income wouldn’t do is to undermine work incentives, because there is no added marginal rate of deduction.