The UK’s response to coronavirus has been marked by incompetence.

It’s a difficult situation for any government to manage, but the problems  produced by coronavirus have been marked by muddle and incompetence in the response from the government.  I think we can exonerate them of three serious charges.  It was not inappropriate to delay the initial response: they judged, that people would not comply with instructions until they were convinced of the seriousness of the situation, and so it proved.  It was not obviously wrong, before the numbers became apparent, to ask whether the disease could be allowed to run its course with with only moderate social distancing.  (An illuminating set of simulations, published online by the Washington Post,  suggests that this strategy would still have been more effective than quarantines.)  And it is not wrong to impose restrictions that cannot be adequately enforced.  The nature of the disease’s spread is that every reduction in social activity limits the potential of the disease to spread.  It cannot be stopped, but it can be delayed, and delay makes it more possible for services to cope and ultimately to the availability of a vaccine.

Having said that, there have been several marked problems in the government’s response to the situation. The problems include:

    • Preparation
      • The lack of testing means that the government has not been able to keep track of what is happening, let alone manage public health issues such as contact tracing.
      • The failure to provide personal protective equipment for medical staff is utterly disgraceful.  Hospitals have become a danger zone.
    • Protection
      • The government’s first response was to protect business; its second response was to protect employees.  There are still major problems evident in the protection of people in precarious employment and those on benefits.  I have covered those issues separately.
    • Process
      • Contradictory and inconsistent advice.  There have been frequent, repeated, muddled statements from different government ministers and advisers about what is required, what the rules are, and who is affected.  Instructions are imprecise.  For example, there is still prevarication about what is essential work, such as whether or not construction can proceed.  And if the aim is self-contained households with minimal interaction, what is wrong with individuals working alone on an allotment?
      • Announcements have been sudden and immediate, making it difficult for people to close business or even to move physically to the right location for isolation.
      • Over-reaction.  The police have criticised the public for going to isolated places to walk and exercise.  I am in the middle of a house move – my furniture left on the van on Friday – but the registration of  property transactions has stopped,  and the Law Society has advised solicitors not to conclude business.  I don’t claim any medical expertise, but I think I can say with confidence that coronavirus cannot leap down the circuitry of internet communications to emerge at the other end and eat you.

The social protection system is failing. We have to find ways round the problem.

We have moved into lockdown, and the government has still given little thought to how to protect the situation of people on very low incomes.  The main concessions relate to the failing system of Universal Credit: work allowances and benefit levels have been increased, the presumptive income of self-employed people no longer applies, and new sanctions have been suspended.  Universal Credit is not, however, equipped to respond to people’s circumstances even in normal times, and it cannot cope with the surge in applications.

First, people have to apply.    This is a clip posted on Twitter by an applicant looking to verify his identity:  it will take nearly a month for the position to rise to the point where it can be dealt with and then there is a 45-minute window to respond.  After that, there is a five week wait for benefit delivery. Claimants are offered loans to fill in the gaps, which means a long-term reduction in the future amount of support available.

What are the alternatives?  There is a strong case being made currently for something like a Universal Basic Income.  UBI only provides people with cash, but that meets the present situation: there are plentiful supplies of goods, and what we need to do at present is to make sure that people have the resources to buy them.  I’ve objected to the idea in the past, mainly on two grounds: the distributive impact, which is likely to exclude people on existing benefits, and the opportunity cost.  Neither of those reservations really applies to the present situation.  The government could do worse than offering a flat rate payment to everyone.

However, the mechanisms to deliver a universal income don’t currently exist, and in a crisis, we need to be considering what can be done quickly and immediately.  There are three benefits which have widespread coverage, making it possible to make special payments using mechanisms that are already in existence.

    • The Xmas bonus currently goes to 17.5 million people, mainly pensioners, carers and people with disabilities.
    • The Winter Fuel Payment, which might be more adaptable to special one-off payments, goes to 12 million pensioners.
    • Child Benefit goes to 12.7 million children in 7.3m households.

It should be possible, then, rapidly to make arrangements to make special payments,  with minimum fuss and no additional verification, to up to 37.5 million people (17.5 + 12.7 + 7.3).   It’s not ideal, but we need to find mechanisms that are practical and effective; this would cover a lot of the ground that needs to be covered.

This still leaves a large hole: the position of adults of working age who have no children.  The government obviously hopes that employees within the PAYE system can be supported through businesses, using roughly the same mechanism as Statutory Sick Pay – it won’t work, unfortunately, for the most precarious workers, or self-employed people.    I’ve canvassed in the past another option: make the tax allowance convertible, so that people can claim the equivalent in cash.   That should, in principle, cover most of the people left out by the first proposition, with the added advantage that people who already have sufficient taxable income will be paying it back in tax.

Covid-19: a few questions about the government advice

I was asked once to examine a sick sheep.  What I know about the diseases of sheep and other animals wouldn’t cover the head of a pin, but I manfully walked up to the sheep in question.  It promptly got up and ran away.  I was able at least to call back, “It’s alive”.  It’s always nice to find oneself in a position to make definitive pronouncements, and it seems to me that many of the statements coming from government have at least as much authority as I did with the sheep.

The strategy of the UK government is to normalise the illness, as we have done with other killers such as influenza: allow for large numbers of healthy adults to be infected, reserve special defences for people who are particularly vulnerable, and accept that some people will die.

This position is out of step with the WHO advice, which is to contain the illness.  It is not indefensible, but there are a few holes to fill in the policy.

Question 1:  How will we know if the government’s strategy is working?  If there is no routine testing, we cannot say much if anything about numbers – and so, we will find it difficult to say whether or not the policy is working.

Question 2: What is the cost of telling people not to seek help?  The recommendation to self-isolate and soldier on through the course of the disease depends heavily on people contacting services in due course when problems become serious.  That involves more than self-isolation: it depends on self-assessment.  How many people will this kill?

Question 3:  What happens to people who can’t self-isolate?  The advice that is being given asks people to isolate themselves within their home, to keep a distance and not to make contact with others.  That is feasible for about two-thirds of the UK population.   The others don’t necessarily have a space they can isolate themselves in.  Some have no home; some share their bedrooms with others.  And we might point out that the UK government has issued various edicts requiring poorer people to share rooms.  It is the policy of the UK government not to permit people on benefit to be supported if they have spare rooms, and to penalise them financially  if they do.

Question 4: What happens to people on benefits?  As things currently stand,  there are severe penalties for non-compliance with benefit regulations, including the requirement to seek work, to attend meetings and appointments, and to be available.  Benefit claimants have limited room for manoeuvre – there are limits on how many periods of sickness and how long a person can be excused.

Question 5.  Where, in a society in lockdown, will people’s income come from?  In the short term, the problems identified in questions 3 and 4 could be dealt with in part by two immediate measures:  stop the bedroom tax, and stop all sanctions.  There is a more severe underlying problem, however: our economy and our labour market do not deliver regular, stable incomes for many people.   Under the old system of Unemployment Benefit, people reduced to short-term working or interruption of earnings would receive direct help, based not on a personalised means test but a simple question, about whether or not they had worked on that day (any day where someone had earned £2 was deemed to be a day at work).  We no longer have that system.  Successive governments have undermined the principle of social protection.  We need it more than ever.

My new book is out: The poverty of nations

The print copies of my latest book, The Poverty of Nations, have just arrived.  I can’t physically lift the parcel at the moment, because yesterday I fell off a ladder and after a trip to A and E I’m currently shuffling around with an NHS-supplied walking stick.  Getting the books is nevertheless invigorating enough to merit a trip to the keyboard.

The book develops an argument I’ve been building over the last few years about the relational elements of poverty – understanding poverty, not as a lack of resources or income, but as a set of social relationships. The contents list looks like this:

  • Introduction: Representations of poverty
  • Part I ~ Poverty: economic and social relationships
    • Poverty
    • Poverty and the economy
    • Economic development
    • Inequality
    • Exclusion
    • Poverty and rights
    • Poverty and social policy
  • Part II ~ Rich and poor countries
    • Poverty in national perspective
    • Poverty and the state
    • Poverty in rich countries
    • Poor countries
    • Rich and poor countries
    • Responses to poverty
  • Conclusion: Poverty and social science

I’ve previously put out some explanation about my line of thought.  Here’s an earlier summary of the central argument:

Poverty is at root a relational concept, which can only be understood by locating the experience of poor people in the social and economic situation where they are found. This is not just saying that poverty is ‘relative’. Developments in policy and practice are increasingly focused on dynamic, relational and multi-dimensional understandings of poverty; our conceptual frameworks have failed to keep pace.

Much of the consideration of poverty in the course of the last hundred years, relative or absolute, has found it convenient to rely on three fallacies. The first is that poverty is a condition or state of being, which can be considered exclusively from the perspective of the individual who experiences it. The second is that can be understood solely in terms of resources, when resources themselves have to be understood in terms of social and economic relationships. The third is that there is a clear and decisive threshold below which people can be said to be poor, and above which they are not poor.

All of these positions are tenable – they are supported by many of the most eminent writers in the field – but they are not adequate, either as a way of describing the positions that people hold, or as a conceptual tool to analyse the issues. Discussions of exclusion, a concept which is self-evidently relational, come closer to the idea of poverty than much of the academic literature on poverty in itself, offering a way to escape from the limitations of conventional models of poverty.

I know that there are many people in the field in the UK who will disagree with me.  When I put put a short piece on the Social Policy Association website, one response looked like this:

Why is it so difficult for so many people to grasp that the concept of poverty itself is the serious lack of the necessary and adequate resources …? What Paul Spicker and thousands of others describe is the consequential deprivations, as if accumulating descriptions will clarify the conceptual point….. That suggests ideological bias.

I’m encouraged, however, by the reaction of people who work in the global South, whose reviews are on the Policy Press website.  Michael Noble, who I’ve not worked with, wrote this:

For those of us working in developing countries where minimalist monetary measures of poverty dominate, this book provides a welcome enjoinder to place social relationships centre stage in poverty discourses and when considering policy solutions.

A submission on the economics of Universal Credit

The House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee has asked for submissions on ‘The Economics of Universal Credit’.  My submission has just appeared here, as an MS Word Document. This is my summary of the main points:

The aims of Universal Credit (questions 1 and 2)
• Universal Credit is a portmanteau benefit, not a simplification.
• It has not reduced costs, reduced error or improved the efficiency of benefit administration.
• ‘Personalisation’ has led to unstable, unreliable income flows.

The relationship of UC to the labour market (questions 6 and 7)
• UC has not evidently reduced worklessness, but the relentless emphasis on work is in any case a distortion of perspective.
• The marginal rate of deduction is very high. There is no good evidence of incentive effects, but arguments on this basis are more concerned with equity than with economic behaviour.

I conclude that “The purposes of UC are defeated by its complexity, and its failure to provide a stable, predictable income.”  I doubt that anyone who has followed this blog over the course of the last ten years will be surprised by that judgment.

This document was in MS Word, a proprietary format, because that was what the Lords Committee specified.  To make it accessible, here is a PDF version.

There are limited new take-up figures; they’re hard to explain.

New take-up figures are available for three benefits: Pension Credit, Housing Benefit and income related ESA (plus Income Support – there are not many claimants left).  There are no figures yet for Universal Credit; it’s going  to be a challenge to get credible figures on a benefit where entitlement keeps changing like the sands of the desert.

Not for the first time, however, the figures that we do have are difficult to believe.  Can it be right that 80% of the people entitled to Housing Benefit (89% of those entitled in social housing, and 72% of people entitled in the private rented sector) receive it?

The most puzzling figures relate to pensioners.  According to the figures 60% of the pensioners who were entitled to Pension Credit received it – but 87% of the pensioners entitled to Housing Benefit received it.  These figures refer, largely, to people with similar ages and financial status.   For this to be plausible, we’d need to accept that pensioners on very low incomes are less likely to claim than pensioners on slightly higher incomes, and that pensioner couples don’t show the reluctance to claim Housing Benefit that other couples do when faced with Pension Credit.

This is going to be complicated, too, by the intended reform of Housing Benefit, which for pensioners is due to be combined with Pension Credit  by 2023.  Watch this space.


More bad science: race and IQ again

Just when we think the arguments can’t sink much lower, some kids have a party in the crypt and the dead walk again.  Dominic Cummings wants to select designer babies with higher IQs.  Andrew Sabisky repeats the canard that African Americans have lower IQs than whites.  There’s been no direct comment from Boris Johnson, but he’s on the record as believing stuff about IQ: “it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16% of our species have an IQ below 85 … while 2% have an IQ above 130 … And the harder you shake the pack, the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top”.

IQ tests are supposed to be a proxy for Spearman’s ‘g‘, an underlying factor denoting general intelligence and intellectual potential.  There are two common complaints about that.  The first is that it’s not obvious that anything called general intelligence actually exists.  The second is that even if it does, it’s not clear that g is the underlying factor that IQ tests measure.  It’s much more plausible to suggest that IQ tests  reflect the skills that people gain through education.  The suggestion that people in some racial groups have lower IQ looks very different if we understand it to mean that some groups are disadvantaged in education, educational testing and educational attainment.  We wouldn’t expect a different result.

The other side of the IQ debate is, of course, the assertion that g, and IQ, both reflect people’s genetic endowment.  To establish genetic influence, the believers have relied extensively on twin studies.  There are three big problems with that.  First, twins are generally reared together; they have a common background as well as a common genetic inheritance.  Second, the data are rigged: twins are often accepted as monozygotic on the say-so of their parents rather than a genetic test, and twins where one is disabled (although such twins still have common genetic factors) are routinely discounted from the studies.  And that rigging points to the third problem: the cultists are determined to prove their case, regardless of what the evidence actually shows.  Of course, they say, social factors must be inherited.  Of course that will be manifest in twin studies.  Of course, if genetic evidence isn’t there, it must be lurking in there somewhere. This is very bad science; a scientist is supposed to set out to disprove a proposition, not to prove it.  Twin studies could prove something; they could show, if there are differences in monozygotic twins (such as the known differences in sexuality), that the difference cannot be genetically determined.   But that is not what the scientists are looking for.

From twin studies we have estimates of ‘heritability’.   Many believers claim that this is a measure of genetic influence; it isn’t.  Technically, heritability refers not to genes, but to a combination of genotype and phenotype.  In practice, that combines genetic and environmental influences; it is supposed to disregard familial influences such as culture and language, but in practice that can only be done by weeding those out of a study.  In human terms, heritability means only that something runs in the family.  And that, despite repeated assertions to the contrary, is not the same thing as genetic influence.

Scientists have not been able to link genes, either individually or in combination,  with intelligence – or indeed, with any other social trait.  The problem has been discussed in Nature under the heading of ‘missing heritability’. Differences in physical traits such as height are hardly explained by genetic endowments.  That shouldn’t be surprising, because the progressive gain in height over the past few generations has clearly been environmental, and the environmental difference is so large that it far outweighs the limited, if more extreme, genetic influences.  There is a more recent summary of the state of play here. Like many people in the field, the writer still seems to be convinced that there is something there to be found.  If there is, it’s well hidden.  The fact remains that after 150 years of trying, no-one has been able to prove that factors like intelligence are inherited.  Indeed, one of the assertions made by specialists in this field  is that there is a ‘regression to the mean’.  So their case is held to be proved if children are cleverer than their parents (that’s ‘breeding’), proved if one generation is like another, and proved if children are not as clever.  This is pseudo-science.

The problem that people like me have in engaging with this kind of topic is that believers in genetic influences often assert that their expertise exempts them from critical scrutiny by non-specialists.  Eysenck, whenever he was faced with criticism for the rubbish he published about IQ and inheritance, would deride the critic for not devoting his or her self to the study of the psychology of intelligence. Of course none of the critics would have done that, because no-one wants to waste their life refining the measurement of meaningless claptrap.  You might as well devote your attention to astrology, or ley lines, or the mystic significance of the great pyramid. And you don’t, as Dr Johnson said, need to be a carpenter to know that a table wobbles.  It takes more than scientific method to make a study scientific.


Bad science: eugenics hasn’t gone away

Over the course of last couple of days, it’s emerged not only that number 10 appointed a believer in eugenics to the Cabinet Office, and that Dominic Cummings believes the same sort of drivel, but that a clutch of other people think this is all a perfectly respectable argument.  Richard Dawkins tweeted:

And ideology, it seems, obliterates evidence about eugenics, which we have in abundance.  The ‘why’ is easy to answer.  First, there is no evidence that the characteristics people like this would wish to foster can be arrived at by selective breeding.  In the late 19th century, it was widely believed that poverty was the result of ‘degeneracy’, and that a series of social problems – crime, poverty, madness and disability – were inherited.  This was all rubbish.  The ‘scientific’ studies that were published were, by modern standards, fraudulent; the writers were so convinced it must be true that they didn’t mind a bit of embroidery.

Second, the characeristics that eugenicists want to stop are mainly socially determined.  Andrew Sabisky, the Downing Street adviser at the centre of the storm, was arguing that

“One way to get around problems of unplanned pregnancies creating a permanent underclass would be to legally enforce universal uptake of long-term contraception at the onset of puberty.”

Teenage pregnancy occurs across the social classes, but poorer girls are more likely to choose to keep the baby – it’s a positive choice.  Most girls in this position find a partner later, and partnering plays a major role in breaking any trend to long-term dependency.  There is no permanent underclass.

Third, the methods of eugenic policies are repugnant – I’d recommend Carlson’s excellent history, The Unfit: history of a bad idea.  Forced sterilisations and selective euthanasia  were tried, notably in Virginia and later in Nazi Germany. There’s no defence for this.  And there is no reason to suppose that in Dawkin’s sense, any of this ‘worked’. I admit freely that selective breeding of animals has led to more productive yields for those eating meat.  When I next want to eat a better tasting baby, I’ll know who to call.  I see no reason, however, to suppose that any amount of selective breeding will lead to more perceptive, morally considerate scientists – much as we need them.

The techniques might be new, but the urge to watch and control poor people isn’t.

A Dutch court has ruled that mass surveillance of welfare recipients is a breach of their human rights.  This process has attracted attention because of its concern with technology and surveillance society, but the truth is that poor people have always been subject to surveillance.   In the US, where the Constitution protects people from unlawful searches and seizures, people in receipt of benefits were told in the 1960s that of course they have the right to refuse entry, but that the authorities then have the right not to pay them any benefit.  (The case is in Piven and Cloward’s Regulating the poor.)  In the UK, the obsession with sex in the lower orders has all too often been manifest in the surveillance of couples to see who was sleeping with whom.  I lost one tribunal because the department had a diary of early morning surveillance on the house.  I won another where they were elderly and of mixed race, and the tribunal were content to accept that it was a commercial relationship.   I’ve referred before to circumstances  where HMRC had commissioned the sort of examination of financial records – and jumping to conclusions – that wouldn’t be tolerated for the respectable middle classes.

There are lots of people in sociology who will immediately link this to Foucauldian ideas of ‘discipline’ and surveillance, but I think it’s got more to do with attitudes to the poor: They are not like Us, and They have to be Watched.  At the same time as we’re talking about high-tech surveillance, Australia has been rolling out electronic benefit and transfer cards as a way of controlling the way that poor people spend the little money they’re allowed.  The purpose is to make sure that people don’t fritter their benefits on drink and gambling (not that there’s much reason to think they do). The restraints are  inconsistent with the basic idea of social security or pensions – and,  for that matter, with the kind of free-market ideology which holds that people should be given the money to pay for things like education or health care.  The whole point of cash benefits is that people get to decide how they use them.   The basic case for limiting spending is the assumption that poor people can’t be trusted.

I thought of calling this the ‘new paternalism’, but the truth is that it’s never really gone away.  Five hundred years ago, Juan-Luis Vives was arguing that  the ‘censors’ (or overseers)

 should inform themselves of the life and customs of poor people, whether they be children, young men or elderly. They should know what the children do, how they are progressing, what are their habits and character, what they might become, and, if some of them sin, whose fault it is.  All this has to be corrected. The censors should take care to know if young and old people are living according to the laws they have been made aware of. … They should know whether everyone conducts themselves with economy and temperance. They should reprimand those who spend time at games of chance or who frequent wine or beer taverns.  If one or two warnings are not enough, they should be punished. Penalties will be imposed according to the judgment of those who, in each town, are most prudent … Special care must be taken to protect against frauds by idle people and malingerers, so that they do not have the chance to cheat.

The urge to control the poor was there before social security  came into existence, and it will be there when we are all gone.

The government could take advantage of Brexit to do things differently. It probably won’t.

Over the course of the last 20 years, the EU has made a series of bad calls about the management of national economies, dominated by neo-liberal thinking on issues such as public spending, state based economic activity and social support.  Once the UK is no longer governed by common regulations, these restrictions no longer need to apply.  I have to accept that it is unlikely that the British government will do much about this, because if we look at where many of the EU’s most ill-judged restrictions have come from, it’s often reflected the free-market ideology  of British governments.  Here, nevertheless, are some of the things that a UK government can do after leaving, which members of the EU cannot.

  1. State enterprise.  Mariana Mazzucato has made out an overwhelming case for state enterprise: many of the  major economic developments of the post-war period have been made, not through the operation of an unrestricted private market, but through state action to identify, build and support new development.
  2. Sales tax.  The structure of tax in this area has been subject to EU rules on VAT.  VAT is not a sales tax, because it is not uniformly levied on sales – the way it works tends to focus on stages in the manufacturing process.  This hasn’t worked for financial or digital sectors, and the current controversy about a digital sales tax is taking place because there’s nothing there.  The US-based digital giants, and their defenders in the US administration, can hardly  reasonably object to ‘local’ sales taxes taken at the point of distribution, because that is just what happens in the states of the USA.
  3. Regionally managed immigration.  The Scottish Government’s proposal to do this has been met with incomprehension.  The approach of successive UK governments has been to focus on border control, whereas the bulk of management relies on different mechanisms entirely – housing, employment, education and public services.  There is no intrinsic reason why immigration cannot be differentiated regionally.
  4. The taxation of UK nationals abroad.  The USA taxes its citizens abroad, and the UK could do the same.  There is a good argument against dual taxation, but that is not an argument for advantaging people who move resources or profits from the UK to more favourable tax regimes.  Moving money off shore or to more favourable tax regimes should have no effect on a tax liability to pay any balance of liabilities within the UK.
  5. Procurement  contracts that meet social objectives.  Public procurement contracts that guarantee employment to locally unemployed people.  The general advice to local government has been than this is incompatible with European law; that should no longer apply.  The same should be true of locally negotiated minimum wages, such as the living wage – that runs directly counter to ECJ judgments.
  6. Moving work to the workers.   The process of regional development in the EU was based on different premises – encouraging market specialisation while cushioning the impact of that specialisation on the regions.   That hasn’t worked.  The UK government needs to return to the policies of the 1960s, moving the jobs rather than moving the people.  There is no hope for many British towns unless it is done.
  7. Freeing public expenditure.  The control of public expenditure is based on a myth, that it is government spending that drives the money supply.  It isn’t – private finance does that.  Local government needs to be able to raise funds through  its own bonds, as it did in the 19th century – along with the capacity to default (as local government can do in the USA).  There is no obvious economic case for setting global limits that apply only to the public sector.

None of this qualifies my disappointment with the deeply unsatisfactory settlement –  I am no less troubled by the disregard for citizen’s rights shown by both the British government and the European Union than I was three years ago.  Tonight, as Britain leaves the EU, I will be in Brussels.