Why the Bible disapproves of Obamacare and suchlike

I’m always slightly baffled by the postures of the American right, and one of the items flagged on on my regular alerts took me into a different world: an article in Conservative Review entitled, Is God in favor of a welfare state?  First, I should say something about Conservative Review.  The positions  they adopt are not what you’d get from an academic book on Conservatism; they advocate a confection of Tea Party, Republicanism and neoliberal ideas, such as

  • “Americans should be free to conduct business free from government intervention or control.”
  • “Congress should work to devolve federal spending and control of education to the state level.”
  • “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
  • “Americans must be allowed to purchase health insurance on a free and open market.”

The article on God’s view of the welfare state talks a fair bit about the Bible.  It argues:

you cannot make a valid argument that God supports a welfare state, redistribution scheme imposed by a secular government without either distorting, or outright ignoring, His Word.

I’m grateful for the correction.  I might otherwise have been confused, for example, by the suggestion that the Bible told us to protect the needy.

For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide to thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in the land. (Deut 15:11)

The early Christians went so far as to hold property in common:

And the multitude of believers had but one heart and one soul. Neither did any one say that ought of the things which he possessed was his own: but all things were common unto them. (Acts 4:32)

Admittedly, on the strict construction of the words, the Bible doesn’t say anything about the welfare state.  It doesn’t say much about modern statecraft, sewers or telecommunications either. But it does say quite a lot about moral responsibility and social organisation – rather more, as it happens, than it has to say about the Creation, which should tell you something about God’s priorities.

Many religions have developed strong communal institutions founded on that.   Jews have formal mechanisms for the management and distribution of charity; Lutherans support the principle of a common chest; Catholics teach the central value of solidarity; Islam has zakat.  Apparently they’re all wrong.

There is absolutely no wealth redistribution, coerced and implemented by the state, either advocated or modeled anywhere in the Bible.

That contention is backed up by the claim that the organisation of biblical Israel was entirely theocratic and ordained by God, so that it doesn’t count as advocating or modelling a system.   I’m not sure I follow the reasoning there.  Besides, it wasn’t either exclusively theocratic, or ordained by God: God expressed his dislike of the people’s request to install a king,  but decided that the issue was up to them (1 Samuel 8).  Absolutely no wealth redistribution?  Try the Jubilee (Leviticus 25), when debts and claims were cancelled and people in servitude were freed.  Nothing in a premodern society compromised liberty as fundamentally as debt.  That’s coupled with the injunction not to oppress each other in trade (Lev 25:14)   No coercion of resources by the state?  The Jewish tradition was that every nation had a duty, commanded of Noah, to establish a system of laws, and understood that people would have to comply with it – an important doctrine for a people with the experience of subjection or exile.  Jesus, who would have known that tradition, was more direct about it:

[They asked] Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not?  … And Jesus, answering, said ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s …’  (Mark 12:14,17)

But perhaps I’m reading the wrong sort of Bible.

The nature of a hate crime: Google thinks that incitement to racial hatred passes its tests

In the Home Affairs Committee last week, a baffled Yvette Cooper politely and repeatedly asked Peter Barron, a spokesman for Google in Europe, ‘In  what  circumstances  is “Jews  admit  organising  white  genocide” not  a statement of hate speech? ‘  The response from Google was as follows:

Peter  Barron:  There  is no  clear  definition  of  hate speech  in  British  law. We  have  our  own  guidelines  around  hate  speech.  The  guideline  that  we follow, which is very close to the law, is that a general expression against a  country,  for  example,  wouldn’t  qualify  as  hate  speech,  but  if  you  are promoting or advocating violence against a particular group based on their race or ethnicity, that would constitute hate speech. … I am not going to defend the content of the video; I found it abhorrent and offensive. However, the important question, which relates to wider issues of freedom of expression, is whether that content is illegal and whether it breaks our guidelines. Our policy and legal experts arrived at the conclusion that it didn’t. I think everyone in this room would agree that it was deeply distasteful.
Chair:  But  your  own  guidelines  say  that  it  is  “not  acceptable  to  post malicious,  hateful  comments  about  a group  of  people  solely  based  on their race” or religion or so on. How on earth is the phrase, “Jews admit organising white genocide”, as well as being clearly false, not a statement that  is  a  malicious  or  hateful  comment  about  a  group  of  people  solely based  on  race,  religion  or  the  other  protected  characteristics  that  your own guidelines and community standards say are unacceptable?
Peter Barron: The test that our legal and policy experts are looking at is whether  there  is  an  incitement  to  violence  against  a  particular  identified group.  I  accept  that  these  are  borderline  cases;  we  often  see  debate among our teams. The conclusion in this case was that it didn’t break our policy guidelines.

The response from Google seems to have divided commentators. One one hand, there are those who defend the principles of free speech – among them Spiked Online, which calls Yvette Cooper the ‘Witchfinder General’, and the editor of the Jewish Chronicle.  On the other, there are many, most obviously the members of the Home Affairs Committee, who find this difficult to take.

Barron’s assertions that there is no definition of hate speech, and the argument that the content is not illegal, are mistakes.  The expression “hate speech” may not be used in UK law, but ”incitement to racial hatred” is, and incitement to hatred  is criminal.  There are many things that people are not allowed to say in the  UK – among them laws of public and private libel, incitement, conspiracy and sedition.  Even in the USA,  ‘The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.’   (That comes from Schenck v. United States, 1919.)  There is a common confusion about the nature of free speech; it is not the freedom to say whatever one pleases, any more than freedom of movement means an unlimited freedom to swing your fist.

Google’s misreading of the law comes about because it has referred to the laws relating to racial hatred in the USA rather than laws in Europe.  Hate speech in the USA is protected by the First Amendment; to be criminal it has to be coupled with the threat of violence, and in general it will be charged only when it occurs in tandem with another offence.  As the threat of violence is already an offence, that reduces the status of hate crime to an aggravating factor, rather than a cause of action in its own right.  That’s why the Internet hosts other material, much worse than the example discussed in the Home Affairs Committee,  which more or less says, get these people before they get you (and no, I’m not going to post the links to the examples I’m thinking of, or even to identify the three words in Google that will bring them up).   It seems that Google is able to take down links and caches of sites questionably accused of infringing copyright, but not of sites that openly breach European laws on racial hatred.

Resilience and welfare reform

Thursday was a conference on Resilience and Welfare Reform, with Citizens Advice Scotland.  The idea of resilience is often misunderstood in Scotland, where it’s seen as a characteristic of someone’s personality; it’s up to individuals and poor communities to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and the emphasis is duly put on removing barriers rather than providing the services they need.   However, in the literature on development, as put e.g. by Robert Chambers, resilience has a more more relevant meaning.  People are at risk when bad things might happen; they are vulnerable if, when bad things happen, they are likely to be harmed by them.  Resilience is the opposite of vulnerability.  People are resilient if they are not likely to be harmed by adverse risks.  Their capacity to recover depends their resources,  on other people around them and on the framework of services.    One of the most effective ways of making people resilient has been to develop social protection, and many of the problems we currently have are because that protection has been removed.

A debate on Universal Basic Income

From one point of view, I ‘won’ a debate in the Chartered Institute of Housing’s conference on Tuesday, when I was sounding a sceptical note about the idea of Universal Basic Income.  After hearing the arguments, people were much more critical of the idea.  There’s a short (and not very balanced) report on a CIH blog here.   If you read it, you might get the impression I had swayed people with my fiery rhetoric and compelling oratorical powers.  But the truth is that the case was largely won for me before I opened my mouth.  At the outset the CIH Chair asked people to vote electronically.  The first question was whether or not people were generally in favour of the idea; 75%, of an audience of about 200 said they were.  Then he asked if they would still support it if they had to pay more in tax, and approval fell to 51%.   Laughter in the hall.  Job done.

Deciding the date for the referendum is not just a ‘game’

Theresa May has described the request for a referendum on Scotland before a final decision about Brexit as a ‘game’.  There’s rather more to it than that.  If Scotland votes for independence before the exit agreement is concluded it will materially affect the terms on which Scotland could become a member of the European Union.  It would make it possible for Scotland’s status to be negotiated as part of the exit agreement; the precedent is the division of Denmark from Greenland, where part of a country left and part continued within the EU.  That would also mean, under the terms of Article 50, that Scotland’s status was subject to majority voting rather than unanimous agreement within the Council.  (We’ve been hearing a lot about the need for the EU to get the consent of all member states to agreement on the UK’s departure; that’s not actually required by the Article 50 process.)  Delaying the timing of the referendum would have the effect of closing down both of those options, and while the situation could be resolved in other ways, a delay now could obstruct Scotland’s consideration for membership for several years.

The date is however a matter of politics, and if May wanted to scuttle Scottish independence, she has another option: which is, to offer an immediate referendum within the next two months, rather than one in 18 months to two years.  The precedent is the short period permitted for the Brexit referendum; the Government’s rationale would be that this would clear the ground before the exit negotiations, Brexit in 2019 and the 2020 General Election; but the political calculation would be that a short time span would make it very difficult for the Nationalists to build enough support to win.  The longer the delay, the more likely it becomes that the vote will be for independence.

Why I’ll be voting for independence this time

Nicola Sturgeon has announced that there will be a further referendum on Scottish independence.  I thought the arguments were finely balanced in 2014, and I did not vote in favour. The main positive arguments for independence seemed to me to be about

  • responsiveness to need
  • self-determination, and
  • solidarity.

The main positive arguments for the union were

  • social protection and security,
  • the increased capacity to act with common resources and
  • pragmatism.

The last of those arguments  has been exploded by recent events: sticking with the UK while it prepares to jump off a cliff is hardly a pragmatic choice. The other arguments for the union are still valid, though the first has been undermined to some extent by the erosion of public services and social protection under the mantle of ‘austerity’; and all of the arguments for union are as much arguments for union with Europe as they are for union with the UK.  The scales have tipped, and as they stand now I will vote in favour this time.

If Scotland is going to be serious about independence, however, some of the holes in the Scottish Government’s proposals have to be filled. Their initial  attempts to outline a constitutional settlement were led astray by the inclusion of specific policies (such as policies on defence) rather than constitutional powers.   I hope we won’t have a repetition of the disastrous White Paper, which presented a policy manifesto instead of an agenda for independence.  We do need to embark on a constitutional debate.

The future of the EU is not going to be for its citizens

The EU Commission’s White Paper on The Future of Europe  was published on 1st March.  It covers five scenarios:

  • carrying on as things are
  • nothing but the single market
  • allowing those who want to do more to develop initiatives
  • doing less
  • strengthening the EU on issues such as trade, foreign policy and defence

It’s striking what this is missing.  The problems faced by the EU are crisply stated:

many Europeans consider the Union as either too distant or too interfering in their day-to-day lives. Others question its added-value and ask how Europe improves their standard of living. And for
too many, the EU fell short of their expectations as it struggled with its worst financial, economic and social crisis in post-war history.

If the problem is that people think the EU is remote and irrelevant, then proposals to make it still more remote and less valuable to citizens make no sense at all.  In September Juncker was talking about developing a “European Pillar of Social Rights” – but there are only eighteen words about social rights in the White Paper, and those are confined to the world of work.  The idea that the EU should be there for its citizens seems to have been forgotten.


Reforming PIP

The Government’s proposals for the reform of PIP make for curious reading.  The DWP press release explains that the purpose of the proposals “is to restore the original intention of the benefit which has been expanded by the legal judgments.”  The fullest account of the rationale for the policy is however given in the Equality Analysis, which covers the detailed arguments without saying much about equalities.

The problem that the proposals are supposedly addressing is that a couple of legal decisions have accepted that people with a range of disabilities might reasonably be said to qualify for support under the rules as passed.  Those disabilities mainly relate to people who have to manage a medical condition or therapy, which is expressly provided for in they regulations, and people who suffer from mental disorders that interfere with their capacity to travel.   The responsible minister has explained that

The Government continually monitors the effectiveness of PIP to ensure it is delivering its original policy intent and supporting those who face the greatest barriers to leading independent lives. Two recent Upper Tribunal judgments have broadened the way the PIP assessment criteria should be interpreted, going beyond the original intention.

The Equality Analysis goes into more detail about the apparent intention.

PIP is a payment that is intended to be broadly proportionate to the overall need of a claimant. The greater someone’s need, all else being equal, the greater the cost they will face as they go about their daily lives.

The analysis argues that  the tribunals’ interpretations of the points schemes go further than the DWP intended.

There are three problems with this account.  The first is the question of what PIP is supposed to be about.  If PIP is really supposed to be an extra cost benefit, it makes little sense to offer it without reference to people’s ability to pay.  The truth is that when the non-means tested benefits were introduced, they had a very different objective.  The Disablement Income Group had been campaigning for a recognition that the incomes of people with disabilities were consistently lower than for others.  Alf Morris explained, in Parliament (10th and 15th Jul, 1970):

“It is not only a question of finance we are discussing, but also the dignity of disabled people. … This provision must be seen as only part – a very minor part – of an entirely new financial deal for the severely disabled. … This is only one stage towards improving the financial status, and therefore the dignity, of every one of our severely disabled fellow citizens.”

The point of the non-means tested benefits was to introduce a   general income supplement, recognising that the incomes of people with disabilities were consistently lower than for others.

The second problem lies in using an assessment of functional activity as the basis of an assessment of costs.  This makes no sense – and the Equality Analysis explicitly acknowledges that it doesn’t work.  Testing people’s activities is “a proxy for their overall need”, but then it goes to explain that assessing costs is not practical:  “it would not only lead to inconsistent outcomes but would also be expensive and difficult to administer.”  If there was a direct relationship between need and cost, this would not be true – and the outcomes wouldn’t be inconsistent.  As far as I can tell, there isn’t such a relationship, or at least not one at the level there would need to be to make it the basis of an individual assessment.

The third problem concerns the Government’s intention.  It’s clear that the Government thought that introducing PIP would save money, and that the benefit would be more restrictive than the Disability Living Allowance.  I challenged that assumption more than four years ago, when I wrote this:

the target is a reduction of 600,000 people taken off benefit by 2018. I am not sure how a cut in numbers of that size is supposed to be achieved, but it is most probably made up of three elements: people who will lose the lower rate for the care component, people who fail to turn up for assessment, and people whose conditions have improved sufficiently not to qualify. (There is a fourth element, which is the attempt to individualise assessments more closely – blind people, for example, will no longer qualify automatically for higher rate mobility – but that can work both ways.)

On general principles, I think the predictions are likely to be wrong. The common experience of selective benefits has been that when governments try to impose firmer boundaries, they are liable to discover that needs are deeper, more complex and more difficult to reject than they imagine. The distinction between the lower and middle care rates on DLA has always been confusing, and many people can argue persuasively for higher banding. There are new opportunities to include people with psychiatric disorders. And the PIP rules do not exclude the growing numbers of older people claiming DLA.  Short term reductions have to be offset against the general trend, and as time goes on, inexorably, there will be pressure to extend protection. That happened with Single Payments, it happened with Incapacity Benefit, it has happened with DLA, and it will probably happen here, too.

And so it has proved.

Basic Income continued

It’s a problem with social media that there are so many ways to respond, so people following this blog won’t necessarily get to see the comments that people make on Twitter and in other ways.  Some of the criticisms that people made yesterday were directed at my Evil Assertion that the best way to deal with the loss of jobs was to make jobs.  Another  person challenged my argument that Basic Income wouldn’t leave poorer people better off if it got knocked off their benefits – we’ve seen this before, because it’s what used to happen to Child Benefit.  “I’d like to see Professor Spicker’s basic income proposals that leave poor people no better off, as I have seen none-such that do that.”  So here are a few.

Reed and Lansley, authors of the Compass schemes, do their best to hold losers to the minimum (7% of the second income decile for their Scheme 1, while about a third are no better off.) They explain:

“it is not possible to design a scheme that is revenue neutral, pays a decent sum and withdraws most means-tested benefits without significant numbers of losers.”

Malcolm Torry is Director of the Citizens Income Trust, and the author of a clutch of recent books on Basic Income.  He has produced three schemes for the CIT, labelled A, B and C. (The RSA scheme is also based on the CIT models.) He acknowledges that there will be losers:

“A feasible way to implement a Citizen’s Income showed that in 2012/13 a Citizen’s Income of £71 per week (with less for children and young people, and more for elderly people) could have been largely funded … but that at the point of implementation such a scheme would have imposed losses of over 10% of disposable income on 21.12% of low-income households (defined here as households in the lowest disposable income decile). … In relation to schemes A and C, while it is true that the high losses imposed on households at the point of implementation are the result of the complexity of the current tax and benefits scheme, and not of the Citizen’s Incomes, such losses would make the schemes impossible to implement.”

Scheme A would leave 28% of the lowest paid households worse off by more than 10% of current income, Scheme C would leave 29% worse off. Scheme B is the one that leaves existing benefits in place, and takes BI off them; while scheme B largely avoids losers, the poorest who currently receive benefits will remain in the means tested system.

That’s six schemes so far. Neither Reform Scotland nor the Green scheme do the same kind of modelling, but while they aim to be more generous, which is one of the ways of reducing dependence on means-testing, both abolish Tax Credits. There will be losers as well as gainers.

Some comments on Basic Income schemes; it’s not the answer to automation

A couple of days ago I spoke to Anas Hassan, a journalist for Common Weal, about Basic Income.  His article is on Common Space.  He recorded the conversation, and what’s presented, while it looks a bit like I’ve written a contribution, is actually a selection of the things I said over the phone.   Part of my comment, which is about the distributive problems of Basic Income, is stuff I’ve already covered in this blog, so I won’t repeat it now.  The other part is something I think I haven’t tackled elsewhere, which is about the idea that Basic Income can make up for the loss of jobs in an automated age.    What I told Anas, more or less, is this:

There are ways of absorbing the loss of jobs. As it happens, I think that there are lots of jobs that we ought to be providing and we ought to be doing. Many of those jobs are public in one sense or another – either they are paid for publicly or they are directly employed in the public sector.  Examples might be police, nurses, people involved in fire and rescue, gardeners. We need a massive number of carers both for older people and for younger people. We need more road menders [My correction: Anas has written ‘members’]. We need more people protecting the civic environment.  … We also have countries that simply employ more people doing things that are socially useful. My model for that would be some of the Nordic countries, but particularly Norway. And what we find is that the number of people who are involved in public service is directly associated and related to the amount of residual poverty that then remains in that economy, because what you are giving people is respected, worthwhile jobs. We could do that. Government has created many jobs. They are worthwhile jobs. They’re important jobs. And it could create an awful lot more if we had the will to do so.  That’s the answer to this question of what happens to people not having jobs.