The "great pensions divide" - it isn't what you think

Mehdi Hasan on today's pensions strike.

As public-sector workers, including teachers, go on strike today, the (right-wing) papers are filled with anti-union, anti-public-sector-pension headlines and stories. The Daily Telegraph, on its front page, claims that "a mid-ranking teacher on £32,000 a year will receive a final salary pension that is the equivalent of having built up a £500,000 pension pot. This is 20 times higher than the average private-sector scheme, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics."

The Daily Mail headline is:

Great pensions divide: private-sector staff must put in a third of their pay to match state worker benefits.

But the "divide" isn't between private sector and public sector -- as usual, it's between the rich (including newspaper editors!) and the rest of us. Most papers conveniently chose to ignore a report from Income Data Services, published yesterday, which revealed a "widening gap" between the boardrooms and workers.

Thankfully, the Guardian didn't:

Directors in Britain's top 100 companies have accumulated final salary retirement pots worth £2.8m on average, according to figures that reveal a widening gap between the pensions awarded to boardroom executives and the shop floor.

Incomes Data Services (IDS) said about 46 per cent of FTSE 100 directors were still accruing final salary benefits in generous schemes that typically pay two-thirds of final salary as a retirement income.

A pot of £2.8m could buy an employee a pension annuity worth more than £170,000 a year, IDS said.

Using the Telegraph's aforementioned ratio, directors' pension pots are worth more than 100 times as much as the average private-sector scheme. The Guardian report continues:

Company directors, like MPs, have among the most generous schemes in the G20 group of richest nations, with guaranteed benefits worth two-thirds of final salary accrued at an accelerated pace. Many directors can earn their full pension after only 20 years service, while it takes MPs just 26 years. Most workers take between 35 and 40 years to accrue a full pension.

Meanwhile, a letter in today's Guardian reminds us of TUC research in 2009 outlining how:

. . . tax relief on pension contributions of £37bn is heavily skewed towards the better off. Treasury figures show that 60 per cent of tax relief goes to higher rate taxpayers, with 25 per cent going to the top 1 per cent of earners.

Where is the anger? The outrage? Where are the headlines bemoaning "gold-plated" pension schemes in Britain's (failing) boardrooms? As Mark Serwotka, the leader of the PCS union, has rightly pointed out:

It's not public-sector workers who exploit [private-sector workers] but their private-sector employers.

One final point: can we, once and for all, nail the right-wing lie that public-sector pensions are "unaffordable"? The cost of public-sector pensions is set to fall in the coming decades. Don't believe me? The Hutton Report, commissioned by the coalition government and used by ministers as a justification for the "reforms" to pension contributions, states on page 22:

There have been significant reforms to the main public-service pension schemes over the last decade, including increased pension ages for new members and a change in the indexation of pensions from RPI to CPI indexation. Some of these changes have reduced projected benefit payments in the coming decades. For the interim report, the commission asked the Government Actuary's Department (GAD) to project future public-service pensions expenditure. It projected benefit payments to fall gradually to around 1.4 per cent of GDP in 2059-2060, after peaking at 1.9 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2010-11.

But, as Jon Snow's interview with the Cabinet Office Minister, Francis Maude, on Channel 4 News on Monday evening revealed, the government seems totally unaware of the contents of the report that it commissioned -- and that it now chooses to hide behind.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt