Americans are socialists...they just don't know it yet

Polls show that US voters want a more equal society, but that they are not willing to achieve one th

"In America, the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires." John Steinbeck's quote is as relevant today as it was in the first half of the twentieth century. Nowhere was this comment more appropriate than during the 2008 election, when Barack Obama met a plumber called Joe.

Joe the Plumber was an imaginary millionaire. Joe worried that Barack Obama's proposed tax increases for those earning over $250,000 would make him poorer, and discourage him from expanding his business. Except Joe didn't earn over $250,000. Under Obama's proposals, Joe was in line for a tax cut. In his head, Joe was being squeezed until his pips squeaked; in reality, he was getting a fillip from the government.

It's now 2011 and, on the face of it, the imaginary millionaires are still in the ascendance.

According to a poll by Gallup, below, 49 per cent of US voters think that the government should not redistribute wealth via higher taxes on the rich, while 47 per cent think that the government should do so.

Redistributing wealth

A majority of Americans, however, think that the current distribution of wealth is unfair, by 57 per cent to 35 per cent.

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In other words, US voters want a more equal society, but do not want the rich to pay for it - directly. A majority of US voters are, however, more than happy for the rich to fork out extra for social welfare. As social welfare is increasingly the largest burden for the US government, US voters are implicitly calling on the government for the rich to pay more to help the less well off. That sounds to me like redistribution of wealth. Barack Obama was briefly on the ropes in 2008 when he said he wanted to "spread the wealth around". In the next election, a statement like that might not go down as badly. Perhaps Steinbeck was wrong. Americans are a bunch of socialists - they just don't know it yet.

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Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital