Category Archives: Politics

Party politics, elections and so on.

MPs pay: get the facts right, please

If you like it would appear most MPs don’t have the time / inclination to read the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) report into MPs pay, you should at least get an idea of what it (not the press) says.

It’s not 11% pay rise it’s 9.26% yes it’s high but lets get the number right – the pay rise happens in 2015 – and between now and then MPs are getting a 1% pay rise a year anyway – so in 2015 values they go from £67,731 to £74,000

The recommendations are cost neutral to the taxpayer (so overall they are not getting more money) – while the headline pay is going up, MPs will lose out on the payments they get when they leave parliament, what they can claim (they won’t be able to claim evening meals for example) and their pensions is being downgraded significantly to be more normal.

Once it’s implemented MPs pay will be linked to average earnings – So this shouldn’t happen again.

IPSA were asked to fix a problem and they have – they have looked at where MPs wages should sit in relation to other jobs, removed some of the rouge payments around the edge and have set out a way for this to remain fixed into the future.

You can agree or disagree with the levels and how but you should probably understand how they reached the numbers they did.

The biggest argument I can see for not paying MPs this money – most of them blatantly haven’t read or understood these reports and that in my opinion raises competency issues.

Fixing economics

Now, before I go ahead and start trying to fix economics, I feel it only fair to point out that I know almost nothing about economics. Kevin tells me that most economic theory is dependent on the assumption that the planet’s resources will never run out, enabling economic growth to continue ad infinitum. That sounds like nonsense, to me, but what do I know? I’m no economist. What follows is an unscientific economic proposal, based on almost no cited evidence whatsoever. It’s foundation, instead, is largely the floaty stuff in the back of my head, which I don’t really remember reading, but must have picked up from somewhere. Caveat over.

I have been thinking quite a bit recently about the multi-generationally unemployed, and other long-term benefit-dependent groups, who have had a lot of negative media attention, recently, on the back of (I think it’s on the back of, not resulting in, though one can’t always tell) equally negative political attention.

It’s not new rhetoric. They talk ceaselessly about people who “won’t” work, rather than can’t, how unacceptable it is for people to live on benefits if it’s remotely possible for them to do otherwise, about “making work pay” (a phrase they find much easier to say than to do, it seems), about obliging parents to leave ever-younger children in child-care while they work. And the media dutifully regurgitate it all, emphasising the exceptional cases to make scrounging look like a norm, creating an underclass of “other” for us all to resent.

I have a lot of problems with this, which you possibly detected, perceptive creature that you are, from the tone of the previous paragraph. But it has lately occurred to me that the imagined solution to these imagined problems is going to solve nothing.

The government agencies working in this area, and, indeed, lots of the non-government agencies, are fixated with the idea that getting people jobs is the ultimate goal. That with jobs, people will have independence from the state, freedom from poverty, and will generally become the sorts of people we can approve of. Their children will achieve more at school, get jobs of their own, and all will be set on an upward trajectory of joy.

The problem, as I see it, is that jobs do not give independence. Very few jobs of ANY sort give independence, but the sort of low-paid jobs for which most of the long-term unemployed would be destined, so much less so. It’s a straight swap – instead of going to government, or, perhaps, charity, and hoping to able to jump through sufficient hoops for a handout that will enable them to survive until the next handout, they are going to an employer, hoping that they, rather than the next person, will be offered the job, so that they can jump through a different set of hoops, to get a wage with which to survive until the next one.

It’s not actually any different. The hoops are different – an employer’s hoops will have more to do with the requirements of a business, presumably, and less to do with bureaucracy and appearing to deserve the money in some way, but ultimately, it’s the same. If anything, it’s more precarious – employers, particularly employers of the low-paid, are rather more likely to dismiss on a whim, and rather more likely to get away with it. Fire a rich person without due process, and expect to get sued. Fire a poor person, and expect no noticeable repercussions at all.

My point is, that the government is trying to solve the wrong problem. The problem is not joblessness. The problem is a culture of dependence. Changing on whom people depend is just moving deckchairs around on the Titanic. People will have a much better chance of raising THEMSELVES out of poverty if they are in control of the process. Being raised by someone else will always lack the commitment and investment of the individual concerned, which is, at best, a shocking waste of an obvious resource of effort. At worst, it’s doomed to failure. Today, someone pointed me towards this blog post by Kester Brewin, and this line caught my eye:

They simply await their welfare payment, and that’s it, and the huge amount of charitable money that has been put into this demographic group has done little to really change the core problem of zero positive engagement with education or labour.

Because money IS poured into trying to get poor people to get jobs, and it doesn’t work. It’s money down the drain. The defining principle behind all this financial investment is the goal of getting people into jobs. But jobs don’t pay much more, they are even less dependable than the benefits system, and most importantly, they don’t offer any direct connection between the performance of the individual and the amount of money in their pocket at the end of the day. A cleaner or a checkout assistant only has to achieve enough to avoid being fired. If by cleaning harder, or smiling at customers more, they manage to increase the profits of the organisation, they’re never going to see the benefit of that. There is a disconnect between the quality of their work, and the reward.

The two key exceptions to this rule which occur to me, are the self-employed, and members of the John Lewis Partnership. Self-employment reconnects the link between the work and profits. It also, as an aside, offers direct control of what the work is like – work for yourself, and you get to decide what is worth doing, and what isn’t. How far you will travel, which jobs are too dirty, which hours are too unsocial – when you’re in direct control, you’re more able to make choices. It’s empowering. It’s the opposite of dependence.

The John Lewis Partnership takes this concept to a mammoth scale. Every member of staff is a partner, and partners get an annual bonus which is a share of the profits. They are directly invested in the success of the business, because they are directly rewarded out of that success. Some of that disconnect presumably remains – it’s such a large organisation, it must make it harder to make the direct link between the size of the profits, and the quality of one person’s work. But it still seems to work – John Lewis continue to make money, to expand, to build massive new shops, even as other retailers are going to the wall. The concept of the workers’ co-operative is much less exceptional in parts of the US, and their experience, too, is that staff are personally invested, so work harder, causing the business to do better.

So my proposition is that, if we are going to pour gazillions of pounds into getting poor people into a situation of financial independence, let’s do it properly. Let’s ACTUALLY work towards helping them be independent. Let’s stop mandatory training on how to get through a job interview, and replace it with proper support for the starting of small businesses, of partnerships, of workers’ co-operatives.

Let’s stop trying to generate fodder for the existing captains of industry, so they can carry on getting richer. Let’s start giving people the chance to make their own money.

I might start buying real books again

It saddens my little heart when I pickup a book and see my Kindle lying unloved next to the bed, but until some quite fundamental things change, I think I will be do that more often in the future.

A Kindle, they're very good.

Don’t get me wrong, the Kindle is an amazing reading device, it really is one of the best thing to read on, ever. I prefer reading on it to books by quite a long way, but the efforts of the publishing industry and the reluctance of government to move with the times is beginning to get in the way of what should really be a pleasurable experience.

At the moment there are 4 main reasons why I am turning back to real books

  1. Tax: in the UK there is no VAT on real books, because sometime ago we decided books are a necessity for society to function and flourish, ebooks however are an electronic service, and we tax them – so all ebooks have a 20% VAT on them.
  2. Publishers: The net book agreement was broken sometime ago; mainly because it was price fixing, but that hasn’t stopped publishers putting a ‘pricing agreement in’ that means the publishers are setting the price of ebooks. (The EU are looking in to this)

    That is why eBooks are sometimes more expensive than the print ones! – Why? It can’t possibly cost more for me to download something; compared to it being printed on paper, stuck in a van, sent to a warehouse, put on a shelf, taken of a shelf, put in a package, put on a van, sent to a sorting office, put in a bag, carried to my house and shoved through my letter box!

  3. Publishers don’t like eBooks: That can be the only reason they are still not putting half the books they print out as ebooks.
  4. Copyright law: Copyright law is stifling ebooks. Now I am a firm believer in copyright as a principle, but the current law is way too aggressive. Copyright remains on a literary works for 70 years after the author dies, even if the book goes out of print! 

    Books: these a very good also.

    For the ebook world this means there are loads of books, that you can just not get, because they are out of print and no one can legally scan them in and sell them to you, and because of point 3 the publishers won’t let this slip.

    This to me is a bit of an economic nonsense, you are a publisher / author your 30 year old book is out of print, someone wants to without expense to you, digitise your book, then sell it online and give you some money – where previously you had none.

    This (oversimplified) is what the publishers and authors don’t want Google to do with it’s Google books library project.

The net effect of all this is:

  1. Books that cost more as ebooks , for example Freakenomics (paperback £5.51, eBook £7.99)
  2. Classic Books you cannot get eBook copies of for example Catcher in the Rye
  3. Books that have just fallen out of print, that can’t be revitalized online.
  4. Books you can’t share because publishers are scared of that too.

And I am being driven to put down my kindle and start buying real books again.

*blows dust off website*

Blimey. I think I just uncovered the Lost Cave of Blogginess. I feel like Indiana Jones. It’s like there’s a whole civilisation here, that everyone’s forgotten about.

I notice that the Twitter feed’s out of date – I do still tweet, so not sure why the website’s three weeks out of date. And comments are off. Odd. I shall have to poke Kevin for some kind of tech support.

What was the last thing I blogged? Ah, yes, I remember. It was political, wasn’t it? I was very political, then. That was all Before the Election, though. Everything has changed since then. The world feels different. I did sort of predict that it would, but the starkness of the difference has still taken my breath away.

The new government simply does not care about home educators. It’s not interested in us. And nothing could make me happier. They do not mind that they don’t know what my children are learning – they’re reasonably content that the evidence suggests they’re probably learning quite a lot. They do not need to control the minutiae of what we do on a day-to-day basis. They do not feel the need to protect my children from me, just in case I secretly hate them. They know that that’s very unlikely, and in any case, that all the existing mechanisms for protecting children from nasty parents are pretty much good enough as they are. They are not obsessed with power and control. They are, largely, obsessed with trying to make the books balance, and it’s a sufficiently challenging task that they are unlikely to give me and mine more than a second glance for some years to come.

After 18 months of anger and fear and outright paranoia, the change was quite a shock. It took me a while to settle into it. But settle into it I did. A couple of weeks ago, Ofsted produced a report that they were researching before Christmas, into home education. It was all the same yada-yada-yada as we’ve heard before – no-one is monitoring these people, anything could be happening, blah, blah, blah. It was precisely what we were all dreading, last year, when we first got wind of it. Except the wind has changed, and when I read the summary (didn’t bother to read the whole thing, it wasn’t important enough), I didn’t get angry. I laughed. I smirked as I marvelled at how far out of touch Ofsted had suddenly become. It was precisely the report that the last government wanted them to write – the government which couldn’t bear to leave us alone to get on with it, that wanted to pin down every possible deviation from the state-sanctioned norm, and legislate it out of existence. But this government didn’t want it.

I suspect that they weren’t supposed to publish it at all. A few weeks before, the Department for Education had told all the quangos and gravy trains to stop producing this stuff, until they worked out what the priorities were. But Ofsted had put a lot of time and effort into producing a report which helped to justify their existence, at a time when they’re quite afraid for that existence. And besides, these people could be doing anything – someone should be checking up on them! In any case, the response from the government has resembled the sound of tumble-weed blowing through the deserted town. So much so, this week, Diana Johnson felt the need to poke them, from her new spot on the opposition benches, to try and goad them into continuing the witch-hunt that she was so very keen on. She didn’t get very far. The response amounts to “Yeah, yeah, home educators, we’ll look at it later. Much later.”

It won’t be forever. Sooner or later, someone with the power to do something about it will say, “What do you mean, we don’t know how many there are?” and the whole silly roller-coaster will start again. But that day isn’t likely to come for a very long time – until they’ve got the books to balance, at the very least!