Right question, wrong solution here

Given that it is Christmas Day an opportunity for us to play The Grinch. There’s a certain amount of truth in the analysis here, although not a great deal. It’s just the solution proposed that is wrong:

Some people in private rental accommodation are having to cut back on food and heating to cope with rising rents, according to research by the National Housing Federation (NHF).

The organisation, which represents housing associations across England, said soaring rents and high deposits were making life increasingly difficult for those locked out of homeownership.

In a survey of 1,183 private tenants it found that 41% of those with children had struggled to pay their rent at least once. Across all tenant households, 31% had been in difficulties.

More than a quarter of the families surveyed said they had cut back on buying food to meet their housing costs, and just under a quarter had cut back on heating.

Well, yes, we’re sure this happens. As it also happens that some in social housing cut back on heating and or food to afford their rents, as those in owner occupied housing cut back on both or either at times in order to pay mortgages or maintenance bills. This is simply a fact of life for anyone at all facing income constraints. As all of us do of course. Our desires are unlimited and our incomes, as with the more general point about economic resources, are limited.

It is, of course, possible to insist that the general cost of housing (of any and all types) is “too high” and thus propose solutions to this perceived problem.

The group called on the government to provide more affordable homes for families on low and middle incomes. Its chief executive, David Orr, said: “We have too many renters just keeping their heads above water, who are being kept awake at night and suffering from stress over the worry of paying the next rent bill.

“The government needs to come up with a bolder, long-term plan for housebuilding so that families across the country can find the homes they need, at a price they can afford.”

And a bold new plan would also be a nice idea. But that call on the government “to provide” is the wrong way to go about this. For it is the government, as we’ve said innumerable times before, with the Town and Country Planning Acts, that is the problem. Those acts artificially restrict the pieces of land upon which housing may be built. Thus housing, as a result of those restrictions, is more expensive than it would be without the restrictions. This is true of any form or sort of housing: owner occupied, rental, social, “affordable” or otherwise.

And the solution is obvious: loosen those restrictions on what may be built where.

As, of course, happened in the 1930s when the scale of housebuilding was what actually dragged the country up out of recession.

That would be a nice seasonal present, would it not? The government solving the housing problem by the government stopping doing what the government has done to create the housing problem?

The divorce of theology from modern social science and public policy

In modern discourse, talk of God, divinity, spirituality and so on is forcibly divorced from the sciences (considered in the broadest sense). Contemporary mainstream moral philosophy, political economy, political science, economics (not to mention the natural sciences) rarely, if at all, discuss the consequences of the nature of God for the questions they all address.

Consider this: God, by definition, is omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient. Now, without introducing any metaphysical complications, we can say that either God exists or God doesn’t exist (my opinion is that the former is true). If God doesn’t exist, then we can continue working within and articulating the scientific paradigms that currently permeate throughout society. However, as soon as we presume God’s existence, theology becomes fundamental for understanding any other form of knowledge whatsoever. It becomes a primary concern of metaphysics, epistemology and logic. This then feeds through to the sciences that we practice, albeit imperfectly, in modern society. Depending on the presumed conception of God, methodologies and their employment as well as theories and their applications will differ accordingly.

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates considers the nature of the Gods whilst describing his grand, centrally planned society. In India, the caste system is said to have had divine origins (though its interpretation and enforcement became increasingly skewed with time) and this has exerted a profound impact on the socioeconomic organisation of the subcontinent that continues to this day. One of the most famous miracles of Jesus Christ was feeding the multitude with one loaf of bread – to put it simply, divinity can deal with the fundamental economic problem of scarcity for the welfare of all.

Benedict de Spinoza, like many other philosophers and theologians of his age and the preceding ones, offers his readers an account that includes both a proof and a description of the nature of God; to put one of the main conclusions in Spinoza’s Ethics crudely; everything that comes naturally and feels right is good because it has its origins in God and God is good. Now, that which comes naturally is done freely and, intuitively, freedom feels right.

So all this talk of free markets and a free society has a natural resonance with humanity. There is something undoubtedly divine about free will, freedom and a free society.

Why is Polly whining about Downton Abbey?

La Toynbee is whining about Downton Abbey. How it shows the appallingness of old English society and how we’re coming back to that masters and servants type world again. Hmm:

To control history by rewriting the past subtly influences present attitudes too: every dictator knows that.

Well, yes, quite.

What we never see is bedraggled drudges rising in freezing shared attics at 5.30am; slopping out chamber pots, heaving coal, black-leading grates, hauling cans of hot water with hands already made raw by chilblains and caustic soda. We never dwell on the hardship of scrubbing floors, or scrubbing clothes, or scouring grease; in pre-detergent days, they were up to their elbows all day long. And yet they had virtually no water or time for washing themselves. Servants were often sooty and dirty. They smelled strongly of sweat, with few clean clothes, says Dr Lucy Delap, author of Knowing Their Place: Domestic Service in Twentieth-Century Britain. She says they used patchouli oil to cover the sweat, the identifying aromas of hard service. In Mrs Woolf and the Servants, Alison Light records Virginia Woolf observing “Mabel sweats when she is making jam”. Even the somewhat more enlightened and sometimes embarrassed Bloomsbury set wrote of their “inferiors”, Woolf talking of “that poor gaping imbecile, my charwoman”.

True.

Modern capitalism promotes the myth that we are all masters of our fate and birth is not destiny, as proof that swelling wealth at the top has been earned.

And that’s where it jars. For it is modern capitalism that has stopped people having to carry water in chilblained hands. Stopped the scrubbing over the boiling laundry, the wrestles with the mangle. This is what both Hans Roslin and Ha Joon Chang, quite correctly, refer to as the technology of the washing machine. It’s possibly the outstanding achievement of modern capitalism that it has managed to mechanise all of these domestic chores, freeing up large portions of the human race to do something more interesting and less exhausting.

The bits that are left out of Downton Abbey are exactly the bits that justify capitalism itself: the reduction in human drudgery. And no, socialism didn’t do this: your humble author has been the less than proud owner of a Soviet washing machine and it did not remove said drudgery. This is exactly what is meant by the complaints that the Soviets concentrated upon heavy industry rather than consumer products.

There is, of course, something else that Polly’s left out. Historically, in Britain at least, being a servant was more akin to an apprenticeship than anything else. Something done between puberty and marriage for the vast majority of those who did it. Only those who went on to become the senior servants (housekeeper, butler and so on) were likely to make a “career” of it. Being in service was, for most, a phase, not a life sentence.

No, we most certainly don’t want to bring back mass service. Quite apart from the fact that the capitalist technology makes it irrelevant as an institution. But perhaps we could do without those who try “To control history by rewriting the past”?

How about an online platform through which citizens can repeal laws?

A platform through which citizens could directly vote to abolish laws would enable the electorate to directly limit the size of government. Enabling institutionalised, immediate public backlashes to legislation and responses to previous legislation would help modernise governance by creating a new, peaceful and legitimate check-and-balance on power that enhances the democratic process.

One of the arguments for having elected representatives (as opposed to Direct Democracy) is that the deliberative, legislative is inherently complicated and it would be impractical for everyone were directly involved. Representatives, supposedly, effectively synthesise and present the interests of a heterogeneous constituency. Of course, it would be difficult with the current state of technology for all eligible, voting citizens to propose amendments, directly deliberate etc. in the policymaking process. However, it would only, in theory, require a majority of eligible voters to simply repeal laws (voting in favour of repeal and abolition does not, after all, require careful rewording etc.).

Some might argue that this would make government’s job very difficult since there could easily be a popular, legal revolt against newly enacted, controversial pieces of legislation. They argue that unpopular legislation is necessary “for the sake of the public good” but who are they to impose on others their vision of an ideal society? If people cannot be persuaded about the merits of their proposals, what right do they have to impose them? Providing a legal means of revolt will create an alternative, much-needed, non-violent channel through which legislators will also be able to gauge exactly how people feel about some laws.

There may, in the end, be very few laws that a clear majority of eligible voters would even agree to abolish. However, even if there are currently only a handful of laws that we would collectively repeal from the vast, voluminous collection we are subject to, it reduces the need to lobby and burden our representatives with something we ourselves, as the people, could do. This will also enable increased deliberation by representatives on more salient issues.

Wouldn’t it be an absolute pleasure if we could, en masse, stop proposed tax increases and limit the continuous extortion of individuals by government? That’s just one example though. Think of all the other absurd laws that we would collectively have the power to stop without having to lobby our representatives. Most importantly, we can see first-hand whether we would collectively choose to continue restricting ourselves or to actually abolish those laws that inhibit the free society.

The UK just isn’t as unequal as people seem to think

We’ve often said around here that the national inequality figures overstate the actual amount of inequality that there is in the UK. Yes, there’s very definitely regional inequality in incomes. But there’s also significant regional inequality in the cost of living. Not all that surprisingly (with the exception of parts of the SW) the higher living costs (most especially housing) are also where the higher incomes are. The UK is very much more unequal in such regional terms than most other countries simply as a consequence of London’s domination of the economy.

What that in turn means is that consumption inequality, the only form of inequality that we could possibly really worry about, is a lot smaller than the income inequality that we all normally measure.

And from the Taxpayers’ Alliance recent report, this little snippet:

The analysis showed a geographical divide in taxpayers and benefits recipients. Households in the East Midlands and London, as well as the south east, east and south west of England paid more in taxes than they received in benefits. All the other regions received more in benefits than they paid in taxes.

Households in the North East of England received an average of £3,175 more in benefits and benefits in kind than they paid in taxes, whereas in London households paid £4,119 more in taxes than they received.

The tax and benefit system also reduces that regional inequality even further.

We’re really not as unequal as everyone likes to say that we are.