Sure Start in the Recession

The public sector – through whatever fault, Lehman Brothers, state getting too big, decide amongst yourselves – will have to make tremendous cuts. We can (and will) pour scorn on George Osborne for being in the party of VAT raising, only to fund inheritance tax exemption for 3,000 of the richest estates, but for the moment severe cuts is our lot. This among other things, has spurred on calls for creativity and ingenuity in commission services, so as to implement the soundest interventions, make best of what existing resources are already available, and not make recession a regression in productivity (or something along those lines).

Children’s Services is no different matter. In-keeping with the Action for Children/NEF document Backing the Future, though we realise public spending will have to be curbed, it is still very wise to carry on spending in the correct, carefully targeted, areas. Investment in children – even in spite of the economic climate – is a must, particularly if uncertainty about double dips (and who knows what else) consume commissioning services.

One example of this kind of thinking can be found in health and social care services, where realistic approaches to how the recession will affect mental health have been met with the further understanding that the services themselves are not immune to economic breakdown. For better or for worse, in an attempt to save money the government has already planned to make best use of existing services, with the intention of cutting waste and coordinating planning, is to merge health and social care commissioning functions. In a white paper, due to be published in the new year, consideration will be made for all social care funding to be delegated to Primary Care Trusts, rather than rolling out to local authorities, to avoid the “shunt” of costs from “NHS to local government and vice versa.”

The Backing the Future report also notes how important investing in targeted interventions are (which report doesn’t), and this has also been repeated in the pre-budget report for the DCSF, which have been requested to cut £350 million in order to save. Plans are underway for the money to come from central budgets, non-departmental public body efficiencies – or quangos, such as the Children’s Workforce Development Council, Children’s Commissioner and family courts body Cafcass – and will entail a review of current pilot schemes to concentrate on what interventions are actually working, as well as cut downs on consultancy work where unnecessary. To reiterate, we are looking at savings by merges and curbing interventions that are not securing results, providing the price is right.

A demos report on parenting entitled Building Character took note of Sure Start in the section on policy directions. It said that where Sure Start once had a ‘Children’s Centre’ model, it has slowly over time developed into an ‘arm’ of the welfare state by emphasising “getting mothers into work” and spotlighting teenage years, rather than focusing on early years and early interventions. The report aims not to denigrate such noble input, but simply – on account of best practice and best use of resources – to point out there is both a strategic risk of losing focus, but also economic dangers in doing the job – and undercutting the vision – of already existing work in this field. Demos identified the Family Nurse Partnership (FNP) as a programme that has its focus in targeting “parents most likely to need support in their parenting [for example] teenage mothers.” Additionally, the report found “evidence for a strong link between low income parents and lower confidence when it comes to parenting” thus presenting the case that the NFP could place further emphasis in its existing role to tackle low aspirations among vulnerable parents, especially suited it is to do this given that the scheme was launched as a “government drive to drive against social exclusion.”

Merging initiatives has its merits, provided they guard jobs and secure value, and keeping interventions that protect returns is the sine qua non of the public sector, but in this tight squeeze – thanks no less to a culture of excess and risk – if we could match interventions that stand up with avoiding remit overlapping the finances in the public sector would surely fare better.

Don’t be fooled, the future is state regulation

In my opinion, that famous neo-Hegelian thinker Francis Fukuyama – the man responsible for the predication in the late eighties/early nineties that at the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end-of-history had loomed upon us, and it had shown free-market capitalism to be the victor over socialism – has gone from being a thinker of history, to an illustration of how exactly history has panned out. Allow me to explain.

In the work for which he is best known The End of History and the Last Man (1992), Fukuyama argued that the endpoint of man’s social and cultural evolution has been realised in liberal, free-market democracy, conflicting with other more popular Hegelian thinkers, most notably Karl Marx who asserted that ‘the end of pre-history’ would be the triumph of communism over capitalism.

Fukuyama was considered a key neoconservative thinker ever since the 1992 publication, and was often held by laissez-faire thinkers and businessmen as a source of justification for the pursuit of capital, as well as the primary reference for understanding why revolutionary fronts failed.

This was the opinion that Fukuyama held – in print – until 2003, when he released his book Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, in which he realised the potentially dangerous cost of allowing the pharmaceutical industry a totally free charter to operate, without regulation from either the state or a non-departmental public body (or quango, as they are known colloquially).

Fukuyama cites in the book examples including the issuing of psychotropic drugs to children with behavioural problems, concluding that often corporations have dubious motives in creating and selling them. Ritalin, Fukuyama opines, is one such drug, created in order to cap a child’s instincts, stating that it ‘‘is prescribed largely for young boys who do not want to sit still in class because nature never designed them to behave that way’’ (p. 52). The state, of course, is not devoid of blame here, but attention should be paid to the power of the drugs lobby, especially in the United States, where most of Fukuyama’s attention is focused on.

The future would look even bleaker were biotechnology to be unregulated. Fukuyama worries that Human Genetics has the potential to be used as a tool for misuse, especially in the field of genetic engineering, where opinions on what is considered ‘normal’ be saved, and what is considered ‘abnormal’ be destroyed at the genetic root. Destroying disease would be an obvious benefit, but opinions on so-called racial, sexual, and biological normality in general would cause real tension. Furthermore, genetic engineering, unless curbed and utilised in some way, could be the play thing of the rich, thereby creating the potential of a wealthy “superior breed” – or as one philosopher has stated, a master race with the capabilities of “instigating a new class warfare”.

It is for this reason that once hardcore free-marketer Fukuyama has become concerned with who be trusted to decide the utility value of biotechnological advancements.

More recently Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws QC, chair of the Human Genetics Commission, in her lecture at Gresham College, noted that the argument of the day is not whether genetics be regulated or not, but rather how genetics be regulated?

The same argument, I would argue, goes for the economy in general today. The question, since the crash, should not be whether or not regulation should be set up overseeing the banking system, but rather how this regulation should operate. The Tories’ argument against Alistair Darling’s new plans to give the Financial Services Authority (FSA) new powers ‘to tear up contracts that would result in payments being made that would cause instability’ is that the FSA already has these powers. But the Tories want to scrap the FSA. It doesn’t take a genius to spot the inharmonious position George Osborne has taken of both wanting to come down hard on the City, but opposing the existing regulatory body of the financial system. If he were genuine about his concern for big bonuses (which he obviously isn’t) he would want to expand the FSA, and ask questions as to why they haven’t done more to seek out capitalist greed.

The sixty-four-thousand-dollar-question on the economy is the same one as for genetics, how should regulation operate. Francis Fukuyama, having gone from stating unfettered capitalism as historical victor, to realising that the future is in regulation, is the embodiment of that very question. It is no longer necessary to bicker about whether the invisible hand is the attitude to have towards the functioning of society and economics, but, rather, how best the state, and those it represents, should take full control.

Reallocation to save the public sector

Fierce reminders on the telly last night and this morning are reminding us of the fire burning mass strikes that took place in protest at Tory cuts, and my goodness back then they didn’t mix their words, its a price worth paying – who’s paying?

Trade Union leaders at TUC have warned that this could be the reality again, wildcat strikes, already a feature of the year gone by.

There may have been a secret let out the bag that the Tories, under George Osborne’s jurisdiction, want to cut spending by 30%, but on the Labour side discussions are under way about where best to cut from, if the budget is going to be slashed.

Many of the Labour commentators are calling for cut in the middle class purses, not so much out of an able-to-pay philosophy, as such, but in order to keep afloat the working and lower middle who might not have been able to prepare for such an event.

It seems pretty reasonable, but then this propsal, featuring in yesterdays Observer also seems like a modest one, in these times;

Slash bankers’ bonuses, build more affordable homes, enshrine equal rights for agency workers and support better childcare provision. And while you’re at it, stop top earners getting tax relief on pensions, axe the £16bn Trident missile programme, scrap ID cards and use the money to rebuild Britain’s manufacturing base and protect key public services and jobs from cuts.

Gordon Brown will try desparately to stop unions from mass striking, saying that it is realistic that cuts will be made – for the greater good?

The basic premise of the above proposal is to say lets take from extravagent spending – set about at a less spendthrifty time – and not draw anything away from the public sector, who at once have done nothing to deserve it, but will bear the most burden.

If there was anything to be said for a high pay commission, it is to fund a sector that is constantly made vulnerable by private sector mistakes – i.e. there should be no unreal bonus pay after a fiscal stimulus – inappropriate it may be, but furthermore, it’s a slap in the face for those to where the money has been reallocated.

Indeed the reallocation of funds for antiquated plans such as Trident, unnecessary items as ID cards – which can be shelved at least – and caps on unrealistic earnings – not just in a recession, but at any time – will safegaurd the public sector from sinking.

George Osborne, recently in an interview with John Harris, said that under his watch, the banks won’t mind tougher regulation if it means wider change, if that were true, then the banks won’t mind if that change goes ahead by people who mean it, and that doesn’t mean scrapping the FSA – a city regulatory system – but strengthening it.

In support of the High Pay Campaign

Listening to the Jeremy Vine show today, I heard a debate between a woman whose husband works for an overpaid CEO, who had been seen wearing – by her own admission – a watch that cost more than the wages of the department manager, and a man who thinks that people who complain about the superich are just jealous.

The latter chap mentioned that if some people were not paid vast amounts of money, even in a recession, then who would buy all the private jets, top of the range sports cars, expenseive watches etc. In other words, how would the companies that make these things manage to stay afloat? Its almost an absurd characature of an argument, formerly espoused by the new monied in the 80′s. But the chap admitted to not earning much himself, though he (of course) wasn’t jealous, he was jealous of nobody.

He used an often heard argument, that the top CEO’s didn’t leave school being paid top whack, they’ve had to work for it, and who can fault this argument (or rather, who can prove it right or wrong, I don’t really know how hard one has to work to be a top CEO). But it does need a bit more explanation, namely that internships into influential roles still favour higher level earners, and the issue of low-income students to college and university has only very recently been addressed. Further, what does this line of argument suggest about those who both work hard and earn minimum wages for example. All in all, this mode of argument lacks clarity, and leaves a lot open to criticism.

The Compass high pay campaign begins today, and the beginning of their opening statement reads;

The crisis we find ourselves in is one significantly caused by greed. The salaries of those at the top raced away while the median wage stagnated. Inequality grew, and an economic crisis ensued. The unjust rewards of a few hundred ‘masters of the universe’ exacerbated the risks we were all exposed to many times over. Banking and executive remuneration packages have reached excessive levels. We believe now is the time for government to take decisive action.

The line of argument that suggests that curbing excessive levels of pay, of especial danger in times of recession, would do more damage to the economy – namely that it doesn’t please big business, and that will walk away, hence being in a constant state of blackmail with them, whether fair or not – forget that excess is to blame for the economic meltdown.

To suggest greed is bad might once have been limited to the left, but it is increasingly becoming the establishment view. Even the shadow chancellor agrees.

Another figure given in the opening statement reads;

an employee working a 40 hour week earning the minimum wage would have to work for around 226 years to receive the same remuneration as a FTSE 100 CEO does in just one year.

This is not suggestive that hard work is limited to those high earners, but rather the gap between rich and poor has been exasperated by a greed is good attitude.

The statement continues;

In 1997 a ‘Low Pay Commission’ was set up to advise on the implementation of the Minimum Wage – a policy which has ensured greater fairness and economic stability. We need a ‘High Pay Commission’ to launch a wide-ranging review of pay at the top. It should consider proposals to restrict excessive remuneration such as maximum wage ratios and bonus taxation to provide the just society and sustainable economy we all want.

The proposal to set up a commission to regulate the excesses of top level wages will surely add some stability to the economy in general. But although the Tories have said they oppose bankers greed, it should be interesting to see whether they agree to set out a maximum wage. George Osborne said to John Harris in an interview with the Guardian over the weekend to a question relating to how the city, from which a lot of Tory money comes from, will react to Osborne’s anti-greed sentiment;

“The fact that people in the City give us money, even though we are promising tougher regulation, is a sign that many people in the City understand that there needs to be change,”

It should be remembered that this is a victory for the left that a Tory is saying this, but replacing one regulatory system (FSA) with another is not as decisive as setting maximum wages and caps, resting upon the proof that greed is what harms an economy, not what harnesses one.

On the topic of that other progressive conservative turn, Red Toryism, Philip Blond, the driver of this project, has said that “liberalism [often] produces the very thing it seeks to avoid.” In this he means that if ones starting point is to create a pure liberalism, a partial or complete disassociation of the individual from the determinate force (i.e. state, police etc) this can often end in “anarchic individualism that requires a surveillance state”. This has been the usual practice viz the economy, that the less it is determined (or planned) the more freedom emerges, but that of course has had damaging effects to the economy. Perhaps international politics has learned that liberalisation (of the markets) does not necessarily lead to liberty, as Blond has suggested. Its a pity his version of communitarianism is too dependent on investment and not welfare, for investment vouchers does not come close to ending the problems that comes with financial imbalences.

The Tories and Progressivism: Those Oxymorons

Politics is very exciting at the moment: real thinking is taking place, words are being articulated and debated, and ideas are the bedrock of policy once more. Take the example of Roger Helmer MEP, his stupidity on the subject of homophobia had a brief moment of genius, it was an analysis of the subject of etymology in that it focused on whether meanings of words stack up to public attitudes, and also how certain attitudes may be perceived from the outside. Deeply philosophical stuff. Only it was magnificently wrong. Despite Iain Dale’s totemistic, scant reflection.

Another revival of etymology in politics surrounds the word progressivism. George Osborne hyperbolically asserting that the Tories are the only progressive force in UK politics today, and Peter Mandelson riposting back that for Osborne to think this is categorically erroneous.

Indeed for these two former yachting buddies, as one blogger puts it correctly, it is a battle of ideas, and how to put those ideas into practice, which as cat-and-mouse as it might appear, makes for interesting reading. Mandy is right to say that what Osborne thinks he means by progressive is whatever it is that the Tories stand for “this month”. It certainly feels like that anyway, that Osborne figures that if a compassionate grin emerges from his po-face as he pours over public spending reform, this will sideline what lies behind the rhetoric.

This, too, goes for inheritance tax, which isn’t thoroughly progressive.

But, for the left, is there not a sense of satisfaction in that our historically right-wing party have found solace in entertaining ‘radical’ sentiment. Firstly it was Cameron’s call for a ‘day of reckoning’ back in January, saying that the nation’s modest earners – “nurses and cleaners and [sic] teachers” – should not have to fund the “multi-billion pound taxpayer bail-out of the banks” adding “[t]here cannot be one law for the rich and another for everyone else.”

Agreed. But this, given the circumstances, would have to imply a tax raise, and I’d like to think this was the case, but it will most certainly not be, so Hopi Sen accounts.

Then this notion of Red Toryism, or Conservative communitarianism, that amounts to replacing welfare with investment vouchers, or rather, a regulated system with a rearticulation of dog-eat-dog capitalism.

Progressivism is a system of formulating change, and the Tories at the moment are engaging in an exciting game of new words that would have once been oxymoronic such as progressive conservatism, but in actual fact it seems that its all talk. The Right inside the Labour camp are short-circuiting, and a shift to the left is imminent. A host of leftist elements are waiting in line, anticipating the death blow to New Labour. Why that blow has had to receive electoral punch from null Tory sentiment is beyond me, but to be sure, even if New Labour is hardly a progressive force worth defending lock stock and barrel, the Tories version of progressivism is a simple veil. Its a pity the traditional Labour base can not hold Mandy up as one of their own, in the battle of words in the new (possibly brief) epoch of political etymology.

Osborne’s silence “speaks for itself”?

Did anybody see this in the Indy;

In an interview with The Independent on Sunday, Mr Osborne refused to repeat Mr Coulson’s denial. And in remarks which could trigger speculation that the Tory leadership could pull support from Mr Coulson if his story evaporates, Mr Osborne referred to his colleague in the past tense. Asked whether Mr Coulson had denied to him at the time any knowledge of phone-tapping, Mr Osborne said: “I’m not going to go into my private conversations with Andy Coulson, but I will say this – I think he’s been an absolutely excellent communications director for the Conservative Party. I think he’s conducted himself in that job in an entirely proper and correct way.

or even Chris Barnyard’s reminder the next day;

Yesterday the Independent on Sunday reported that shadow chancellor George Osborne refused to repeat Coulson’s denial he knew of the pay-offs.

I did. But I didn’t hear diddly-squat about it on the popular Tory blogs. How curious.

Osborne also noted how with police having no new evidence, Coulson’s innocence spoke for itself. But one thing is for sure, Osborne’s refusal to repeat Coulson’s denial speaks for itself also; he’s covering his own back just in case (is he not convinced that Coulson’s innocence speaks for itself?)

Dale and Guido (though on holiday at Chateau Fawkes) both revisited stories on McBride rather than speculate on Osborne or the Tories’ own McBride moment, while Dizzy took to talking about a strange friend he has.

Will be interesting to see whats written about Osborne during and after the committee’s hearing today with Coulson – will he be vindicated or will the shadow chancellor be accused of cowardice?

Using Zizek against Red Toryism

Early in 2008, philosopher Slavoj Žižek published a book entitled Violence: Six Sideways Reflections in which he aims to describe the differences between the violence we might see on the news in the form of thuggery and the violence incurred by the workings of the rogue bankers tweaking the economy. The difference, for Žižek, is the difference between “subjective” and “objective” violence. That is to say, “subjective” violence is the perceptibly obvious violence seen on the streets in the form of “crime and terror, civil unrest, international conflict” whereas “objective” violence is the unseen form of violence that takes the form of either the “symbolic” (bound in language and its forms), or the “systemic” (the catastrophic consequences of our economy when it is functioning as normal). The very notion that this objective violence is unseen sustains the level with which we perceive something as subjectively violent.

Žižek readily points to the likes of Bill Gates and George Soros as figureheads of a new type of business ethic that implicitly incorporates objective violence. They create a philanthropic standard for themselves at which they desire to be perceived, when in fact the more appropriate standard to which one should perceive them is at the concealed level of their function in the economy, an economy that determines the fate of individuals and whole nations. For instance when their philanthropy is contrasted to a street robber it might seem obvious who the violent criminal is, but when we start to analyse that which may not be readily perceptible – objective violence – , we start to understand their violence at another level, which the philanthropy has been used to camouflage.

If we change the word philanthropy with compassion we will have some idea of the tools the Tories are playing with at the moment. We’ve had hug-a-hoodie, we’ve had Cameron talk about white-collar crime, George Osborne has called for regulation of the financial system and section 28 has been apologised for. We have the choice, we can either accept that (unsurprisingly) a fairer system for all people regardless of class, race and sexuality does win votes and so the Tories are appealing to this, or the Tories really have changed.

For me, it’s a bit of both. The Tories have always wanted to hone in on some of the better ideas of the Labour party which is why they elected a meek and mild, soft Tory like Cameron to front them. He is at once electable and hasn’t got all the belligerence of previous leaders (such as Michael Howard). But what lurks around the corner with the Tories? They insist on lowering taxes for the rich, they still insist Britain is broken due to a lack in marriage, and they’ve decided to group themselves with fascists and Nazi apologists in Europe who would’ve seen section 28 as nothing short of pink propaganda.

The most intriguing expression to come out conservatism in Britain in the ‘compassionate’ period is Red Toryism. Ideas like it have been circulating for a while, but its British proponent is Philip Blond, a former theologian and director of the Progressive Conservatism Project at Demos. The idea has a faint whiff of libertarianism, in that it wants to curb welfare dependence while encouraging those on lower incomes to invest in enterprise with investment vouchers, creating an investment pool. These all sound rather like the ideas of one commentator who, on the subject of the part-privatisation of Royal Mail, justified the myth that the public services aren’t creating capital and thus should have its funding from tax taken away.

All in all, it seems more of the same, that the bottom end are sold “opportunities” in order that money can be taken away from the welfare state – which is not, contrary to our crap right-wing media’s opinion, a haven for the lazy – and they enter into another dog-eat-dog lottery that simply rearticulates the concentration of wealth in this country, and others that are dominated by the markets (see this from Don Paskini explaining how Red Toryism is more of the same). And all this is gathered under the collective term communitarianism – meaning civic groups should replace governmental functions where possible.

Sunny Hundal has spotted a strategic problem for the left since the initiative vindicates elements of people power that the left have always fought for. The version that the left has championed, however, was not underlined with a plan to promote lower income or unemployment as a source of investment opportunities – at best it outright fails to iron out the problems that make these societal injustices occur at all, at worst it ignores or absolves them.

So the way in which Blond has supported his communitarianism is by utilising more of the same expressions of false hope provided by the dog-eat-dog world of the markets. But this standard has been obfuscated by a standard of compassionate camouflage. Exactly the sort of camouflage Zizek was talking about that Soros and Gates use.

So now is the chance for the left to pounce, to promote its own communitarianism based on dialogues between people and public services – like the type used by Ed Balls and his idea that education can get stronger through dialogue between parent, teachers and authority over the internet – and overcome the hidden motives by the Tories.

The curious week of chancellor Darling

Alistair Darling wants to cut the £175bn black hole in the public accounts by £50bn. So what’s he going to do about it?

In the midst of hard, cold economic misery, the chancellor threatens to freeze public sector pay. Even from supporting voices, such as Andrew Hutson from the Adam Smith Institute, its accepted that such a manoeuvre will save £5bn. A small price for such a deal, that affects people who, not only have done nothing to create the financial mess, but, are the most affected by it.

It has spurred on hardcore free-marketeers, who by and large support the move, as seen on the ASI website, to use this measure to their own advantage, seeing it as a way of shouting a huge told-you-so on the so-called lack of wealth creation in the public sector. For them, the public sector should stump up money since it doesn’t create as much money, and, as they will point out, is quite happy just to receive it.

Or, as Hutson states, “A freeze in pay would send out messages that the public sector needs to really earn our money rather than automatically receiving it.”

But this should stick uncomfortably in the throats of people who remember how much was provided by the government to bail out banks (which I can say with some certainty is most of us).

This brings us on to what Darling will not be doing. As the Guardian reports tonight “He (Darling) made no mention of capping bankers’ pay despite telling MPs that “irresponsible pay practices made banks take too much risk”.” And as Vince Cable said: “This [white] paper will be greeted with a sigh of relief in the City since it marks a return to ‘business as usual’.”

Another matter that Darling will not be seeing to is some severe cases of tax evasion. As Michael Meacher MP noted tonight his attempt to start a debate on tax avoidance of the super-rich was turned away by the speaker on the grounds that “the effect of the new clause would be to increase taxation”.

As Meacher further notes;

“The totality of tax avoided by super-rich individuals and big corporations has been estimated by independent research at some £25bn a year, and even by the Treasury at up to £13bn a year.”

That liberal estimate, and even the conservative one, is a substantial amount more than the £5bn that Darling wants to cut from public sector pay.

So Darling’s proposals will be celebrated by free-marketeers and bankers who will laugh off the possibility of a mere new Council for Financial Stability, and who always felt that public sector workers were getting let off anyway.

And, as Dan Roberts pointed out today;

“Appeasing the vested interests of the City will only lead to a repeat of past cycles of financial boom and bust. What is odd is it took a Tory shadow chancellor to realise this.”

Curious indeed…

Brown versus Osborne on the economy (, stupid!)

Andrew Rawnsley, in his Observer article, retold an overheard quip made by a proud George Osborne that he spends only 40% of his time on the economy (rather a lot, my guess would’ve been 10%). Since his other responsibility is general election co-ordinator, his above figure implies most of his time is spent on the latter job (and, as Rawnsley points out, considers it more important). On the flipside, Gordon Brown who is the prime minister, almost definately spends most of his time with numbers. He should’ve stuck with it methinks…

Iain Dale didn’t buy George Osborne’s DVD

I just emailed Iain Dale’s show asking silly questions because its Friday, but I did ask him whether he bought George Osborne’s DVD, which the taxpayer paid £47 for -  for Osborne’s expense. Dale responded by saying he didn’t think the taxpayer should be paying for that.

Ah ha, sad as it may be this is Raincoat Optimism’s first exclusive; Iain Dale will stand as chancellor…

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