By John Charles Dyer, UK Correspondent
5 April 2013. Politics often seems to come in two phrases. The first is, “Me, I want.” The second is, “Mine, you can’t have.” They are the alligators in all the swamps the dedicated hope to drain. They infest every public policy issue. They handicap every effort to face facts and effectively respond. Social Security is one such public policy issue where fundamental facts present difficult questions for every side in the debate.
Is it Social Security or is it Welfare
It is “Black April” in the UK. The Coalition implements several “reforms.” Some argue these reforms dismantle social security rather than reform it, penalizing the poorest and most vulnerable for the reckless gambling of the richest and most protected. Others argue the reforms improve the system, making it fairer. They call the system “welfare” not “social security.” They describe the system as a safety net not social insurance and its benefits as "dole." They say the dole entraps. It undercuts the self confident, self reliance essential to earn one's way in the world.
But the language of unbridled hate undergirds many proponents' arguments. Many, especially the Chancellor, divide the UK into “aspirational strivers” -- the good guys --- and “work shy shirkers” -- the bad guys -- who hide “with the blinds drawn” while the good guys go to work to not only “earn their way in the world” but also support the shirker. It should not be that one can do better on benefits than in work, an argument made by comparing the extreme end of benefits in London to the lowest wage earners throughout the country. The Coalition argues they still provide for the "deserving" poor but in so arguing create yet another divisive distinction separating countrymen.
While they say they provide for the most vulnerable, what they actually do is cut both the eligibility and the support the eligible receive. They give little. They more than take that away with a multitude of cuts. They argue they make work pay, but they have done nothing to increase individual wages, benefits or hours of employment. They only made benefits hurt more severely than the lowest paid work.
In rhetoric and design it is a naked appeal to “Mine, you can’t have.”
I am on the other side of this argument. I am committed to social security as an expression of the social responsibility fundamental to a functioning society. But I, like others who hold my view, struggle with the question, how are you going to pay for it.
But the current "Sovereign Debt Crisis" brought the question of affordability into sharp focus. We who are persuaded social security is a good thing -- nay a human right -- sometimes don't give due credit to the legitimacy of this concern or the sincerity of those who hold it. We correctly point to years of war without exit strategy, bank bail outs, the transfer of income generating to multinational elites without national loyalties and tax avoidance, the systematic erosion of the industrial base. All true, but the question remains regardless of cause.
I must recognize there is an element of “Me, I want” in the difficulty we have addressing the affordability issue.
But the Coalition does not address the affordability of a system it supports. It dismantles the system in the name of affordability.
At root much of the budget category “welfare” benefits is actually social security pay out. This pay out was earned by generations of hard work and contributions, not only in the form of shares of National Insurance payments in but in general taxes paid.
Substantial evidence supports the conclusion that destruction of that system, not reform, is the object of the exercise. While the Coalition argues they intend to “restore” the system to its “true nature,” they in fact change it from earned social security to charity safety net. The evidence is clear.
Much as we who advocate for social security sometimes stumble responding to affordability, conservatives overlook both this evidence and the true nature of social security. Sincere and thoughtful conservatives would do well to recognize there is more than a small element of “Mine, you can’t have” at the root of these radical reforms.
An inconvenient double edged fact
Both sides must confront an inconvenient, double edged statistic provided by the Office of National Statistics in response to a Freedom of Information Request. Comparing the quarter in 2008 when the recession was at its deepest trough since the crash to the last quarter of 2012, net employment increased by 402,000 working at least one hour paid per week. But the percentage of working age adults working for pay declined from 59.6 to 58.7 per cent.
This statistic presents questions to answer to both sides of the debate. To proponents of the reforms it is factually indisputable the economy declines in its ability to provide the work they argue "shirkers" ought to get. To opponents it adds a sense of long term edge to that awkward question, how does an economy with a declining ability to provide work for hire pay for those benefits.
Reversing the decline appears a dicy proposition. The power of established economies to hold onto control of diminishing natural resources and world markets has declined. Over the past generation Neo Liberalism sharply accelerated a slow but pre-existing post war shift in economic power from West to East, from developed country to developing.
But even more fundamental than the economics is raw global population growth, a growth for which the global economy must provide. Always a volatile, aggressive species with disturbingly dangerous tendencies, humankind faces some serious scarcity and survival challenges. That has never been a good thing in human history, but it is more dangerous today than at any time in modern history in part because of the diffusion of modern technology. Take the current Korean crisis. Experts estimate over a million people could die in just one day in Seoul in a North Korean artillery barrage.
Returning to social security in the United Kingdom, I don't have a fully developed answer, but I do have fully developed principles with which to begin.
The affordability issue conditions how we implement the social security value, but it is not cause for abandoning it. It is not justification to back door social darwinism and the defeat of the Labour movement into public policy.
Seems to me that is precisely what Conservatives in the Coalition do. They endanger those who depend on social security, but they also undercut the social responsibility that spread general prosperity through two generations. They endanger the fabric of national society itself.
We proponents of Social Security have a responsibility to articulate an implementation of the New Deal that is affordable. I believe we can. We could begin by actually making work pay enough to live on without government subsidy, provide for one’s old age and provide social security for the health and welfare of one's family. That and wage/price controls, regulation of finance and commerce and a major redevelopment of the High Steets into multiuse neighbourhoods -- rather than the present course of reducing resources without touching needs -- seems to me the way forward while we all search longer term answers to the more intractable problems the globe faces.