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Laurie Penny: The Chancellor’s an economic sadist – and we love it

There's something about punishment and hierarchy that holds a guilty appeal for the British public.

This is going to hurt. Perverts and politicians love a bit of dirty talk and for months the coalition government has been intimating exactly what it is going to do to us, oiling us up with simple, seductive moral offensives on the poor and vulnerable in anticipation of the economic violence to come.

This past week it was university funding; before that, it was child benefit. Now, Chancellor George Osborne's cuts have been revealed in all their glory and no government department has been saved from the coalition horsewhip.

Unsure where the first blow would fall, the country seemed to freeze into some kind of rigid inertia, refusing to acknowledge the totality of our barelyelected leaders' assault on social democracy, on the postwar Attlee settlement, on welfare and health care and everything that once made life on this rainy island bearable. The proper term for this approach is not "economic masochism", in the shadow chancellor's phrasing, but fiscal sadism.

Power games

Only politicians and perverts truly understand sadism. Amateurs think that sadism, fiscal or otherwise, is about hurting people. They are mistaken. Sadism is not about pain. It is about power. It is about the power to inflict pain at random, for no reason, with the most cartoonish and fetishistic of implements, just because you can.

Sadism is about having the power to decide when and if and how much to hurt people, because that kind of control makes you feel important, because that's how you get off.

This is precisely the sort of power play we are dealing with, on both a national and a global scale, as the oligarchies of the world react to the public humiliation of the recession with whiplash efficiency. The phenomenon of fiscal sadism is not unique to this government, although the wet-towel-whipping changing rooms of exclusive private schools do perhaps foster a specific fetish for kinky brutality.

The fiscal sadism of these cuts is part of an international war on social democracy whose agenda is mutating into a terrifying form of kamikaze capitalism. However this government wishes to dress up its decisions, whether in the language of economic pretext or a little rubber dress, there is still no pressing reason for these cuts to be made at such colossal speed, in so calculatedly regressive a fashion, besides the ugly Conservative conviction that poverty is a moral failing.

There are patently more efficient ways to make savings than slashing the heart out of the welfare state. For example, the money saved from George Osborne's crackdowns on benefit fraud could be recouped simply by persuading one man -- the government's efficiency tsar, Philip Green, to pay his taxes like the rest of us. This is not about saving money. This is about control. They plan to hurt us because they want to show us that they can.

The truly awful thing, though, is that we like it. There's a guilty appeal to the easy narrative of punishment and hierarchy, especially if it seems -- whisper it -- that only people worse off than us will really be taking the full whack of the Chancellor's changing-room economics. The French, who, as amply demonstrated this month, don't quite have our fetish for grumbling political obeisance, describe bondage and sadomasochism (BDSM)
as "the British perversion"; perhaps there is something in our national character that delights in ritualised deference, especially if it stings a bit.

Make it hurt

It can be grotesquely reassuring to know that someone else is taking charge, even if they're doing so cruelly. Just as sadism is about power, masochism is about the pleasurable surrender of power.

The right-wing press has squealed in gleeful horror every time a new cut was announced, their only real objections being to the relatively minor excisions from the defence budget. Unfortunately, nobody has yet questioned whether there will be anything left worth defending when the Tories have finished slashing the state into submission.

I have many dear friends who enjoy a little private torment, but the proper place for savage power play is not the theatre of politics. Those in power have co-opted us into a dangerous game of kamikaze capitalism and if we want to continue to live in a country with pretensions to freedom, tolerance and justice, we have to risk rearing up against our chains and ruining the game. We have to risk a bolder refusal to submit to this sick assault on social democracy.

We need to throw their filthy talk back in their faces, before it's too late.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 25 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, What a carve up!

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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.