<![CDATA[Economics]]> <![CDATA[Hard Times review: how the crash made our society more unequal]]> Hard Times: the Divisive Toll of the Economic Slump 
Tom Clark and Anthony Heath
Yale University Press, 304pp, £18.99

The robust growth of Britain’s economy is poised to continue for the next two years, the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development trumpeted last week. It was the latest round of positive news that fuelled triumphant headlines, amid talk of high levels of consumer spending and business investment in the UK. But although the British economy is on course to expand by more than 3 per cent this year, few people aside from the financial elite have cause to start popping champagne corks.

The widely touted “recovery” has yet to manifest itself to most ordinary workers, who are forced to accept increasingly precarious, ill-paid and unreliable jobs. Meanwhile, the “progressive disease” of unemployment, and underemployment, not only damages the psychological and physical health of the affected individuals, but is corroding the very fabric of society.

This is the central tenet of Hard Times – that the economic slump of 2008 and its aftermath have augmented the schisms already present in two rich, but profoundly unequal societies: the UK and the US. While the Great Recession of our times may not have cut as deep as the Depression of the 1930s, it has wreaked damage more selectively, whacking those at the poor end of the socio-economic spectrum hardest.

The authors Tom Clark, a Guardian journalist, and Anthony Heath, a sociology professor at the University of Manchester, draw on data collated over five years by a transatlantic team of scholars, examining the societal effects of the slump and comparing the UK’s solution – what the government termed “expansionary fiscal contraction” and everyone else called spending cuts – with the US stimulus package.

Their analysis proves that the system was already failing to benefit ordinary workers during the boom years at the turn of the millennium. The rewards of growth had ceased to trickle down from the towers of high finance even before wages fell off a cliff in 2008. Apart from the top 10 per cent of society, British workers have less in their pay packet than a decade ago. The young, those living in the north and “dropouts” from the education system have become particularly susceptible to zero-hours contracts, unpredictable shifts, low pay and unemployment.

Some of the demographics identified as vulnerable come as a surprise. Against the received wisdom that it is usually women who suffer most in economic slumps, the data shows that men are worse off. And despite the inflamed racial tensions in the US, black and other ethnic-minority citizens have fared worse in the UK job market, itself painted as a “dystopic ideal” boasting a “culture of utterly commoditised labour”.

This is important, we are told, because hard times are inexorably bound up with unhappiness. Using a number of indicators, including anxiety, health and even optimism about sex life, the authors show how unemployment and deprivation affect individual well-being, and how, “even in a rich society, shattered expectations, insecurity and want of purpose will convert economic into psychological depression”.

The plight of affected individuals has had a knock-on effect in their social circles and the wider community, too. Familial relations and friendships have typically been weakened; bickering (often over shifts) and bullying have increased in the workplace; and social capital – the ties that bind communities – has declined severely among those most hurt by the slump.

Personal interviews are interspersed among the data. Several of the characters face such extreme and specific instances of hardship (the woman from Luton, who has lost a leg, and her husband, who is blighted with advanced cancer) that it is difficult to draw universal truths from them, though their emotive weight attests to the psychological toll of poverty.

The authors take a strong line against the Conservative government, pointing out, fairly, the cynicism of its mantra “We’re all in this together”. They assert: “Look across any dimension you like – race, sex, age or class – and you see that some of us are very much more equal than others wherever joblessness is concerned.”

The authors provide more insight when they stick to social science; the public policy chapter appended to the end is best skipped. More jobs, fairer distribution of the proceeds of growth and a decent safety net are worthy, if woolly, goals, and the kind likely to be approved by centrist politicians of all stripes. Yet the concrete proposals offered to achieve them – simply raise expenditure on jobseekers’ benefits using funds reallocated from, say, the UK’s nuclear deterrent – seem amateurish and ill-thought-out.

The authors draw out deep-rooted problems with liberal market capitalism, yet it is a shame that the merits and drawbacks of other versions of capitalism, such as those employed by Germany, the Scandinavian nations and Japan, are left unexplored. This is a sobering, data-driven examination of rising inequality and the overarching tone is one of pessimism; that trend looks set to continue into the foreseeable future. 

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<![CDATA[Robert Skidelsky: The welfare state did not cause the crash. So why is Osborne cutting it?]]> The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has warned that there will need to be “colossal” cuts in public spending to balance the books by 2018-19 – at least £55bn extra. On 4 December, the day after the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, the director of the IFS, Paul Johnson, said that it wasn’t for lack of effort that the deficit hasn’t fallen. Rather, it was “because the economy performed so poorly in the first half of the parliament, hitting revenues very hard”.

Very true – but what Johnson omitted to say was that the main reason the economy performed so poorly in the first half of the parliament was because George Osborne was busy cutting the deficit. He should have been expanding it!

This is something that expert commen­tators lack the guts to say because that would brand them as Keynesians. They may admit that fiscal consolidation has made eco­nomic recovery “more challenging”. But they don’t tell us why. This theoretical gap leaves them without a reputable story of why the economy behaved so poorly. They are in familiar “blown-off-course” territory.

Every possible event that might affect growth, however fleetingly, has been summoned in aid of explaining the failure of the economy to grow: the Greek crisis, the rising price of oil, the extra bank holiday on the Queen’s Diamond ­Jubilee and the closure of shops during the London Olympics, snow and floods – everything except the real reason, which is that a deficiency of ­private ­demand was not being offset by public-­sector investment.

The latest explanation of why the Chancellor has failed to meet his deficit targets concentrates on the nature of the labour market recovery. The government has congratulated itself on the fall in unemployment. We would expect falling unemployment to increase tax revenues and reduce public spending. However, this will not happen if government policy has created lots of new, mostly low-wage jobs whose holders pay no direct taxes and that must be propped up with benefits.

The catastrophic fall in productivity that we are now seeing was planted in the two and a half years of stagnation that followed the creation of the coalition in 2010. In October 2012, the Office for Budget Responsibility found that the economy had grown by only 0.9 per cent between Q1 of 2010 and Q2 of 2012, while its June 2010 forecast was 5.7 per cent growth over the same period. Subsequent upward revision has made these figures less dire but there is no doubt that Osborne and his advisers seriously underestimated the adverse effects of austerity on investment.

As is now increasingly recognised, this extended period of stagnation reduced the long-term growth rate of the economy through the destruction of both human skills and physical capital.

Despite his warning about the size of the cuts to come, Paul Johnson said that they could be achieved. He added, however, that they would require a “reimagining” (or, put another way, shrinking) of the state. Two questions arise. First, what effect will shrinking the state have on the economy? Second, what effect will it have on the polity?

On the first, Johnson seems to assume that the economy will go on growing at about 2.5 per cent a year, even as the deficit is being cut to zero. This is highly optimistic because the cutting is simultaneously reducing private incomes. It may be possible, by sufficiently heroic austerity, for a government to keep revenues for a time running ahead of cuts but at what level of GDP will the budget eventually be balanced? Certainly lower than it would have been without the cuts.

The cuts not only change the level of GDP but also its composition and, therefore, the relations between the state and its citizens. This point is recognised by Labour, which promises “fairer” cuts. If a government has to cut its spending, it is much better to tax the rich than starve the poor. However, this is alien to the spirit of cutting. The barely subliminal message of all austerity programmes is that the deficit has been caused by spiralling welfare payments to the poor, with the object of austerity ­being to “get them on their bikes” – like in the 1930s, when unemployment was consistently around or above 10 per cent.

We urgently need to have a proper debate about the role and size of the state. Prosperity does not demand that the state should spend 40 per cent-plus of national income as it does now, though justice may.

In the old days, people used to talk of a “trade-off” between efficiency and justice and some of those arguments may still be valid, though I am less and less persuaded that the private sector scores heavily over the public sector in efficiency. A financial system that allocates capital to itself and whose crash in 2008 left the population 15 per cent poorer than it would have been is hardly an advertisement for private-sector efficiency.

What is really indefensible is to cut the state for reasons of financial dogmatism, as though the size of the state – and especially the welfare state – were the cause of the slump. We need a cool discussion on the role of the state as owner and regulator in a market economy and in the light of the civic purposes that people set for themselves. It needs to be pointed out that these huge cuts imply serious losses to the quality of government services and the strength of the defence and police services.

I’m not sure which is worse: to bleed the economy with small cuts stretching many years ahead or to cut deeply now and hope for the best. What does seem clear is that politics will not allow the second and only a ­Labour government can avert the first.

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<![CDATA[Sorry, Myleene: yes, you can point at things and tax them. That’s what we should do to the City]]> You can’t just point at things and tax them,” declaimed the former pop star Myleene Klass on 17 November, becoming overnight a perhaps unexpected pin-up for the right.

Klass made her comment on ITV’s The Agenda as part of a longer rant aimed at her fellow panellist Ed Miliband, who wants to introduce a “mansion tax” on properties worth more than £2m. (What’s Klass complaining about? She sold her own home for a very modest £1.8m in 2013.) The Labour leader produced this rather feeble response: “I totally understand that people don’t like paying more in tax.”

Myleene and Ed are both wrong. First, governments can “point at things and tax them”. The 1st-century Roman emperor Vespasian levied a tax on urine; until the mid-19th century, the British government had a tax on soap. These days, in the US, different state governments tax different things: Alabama taxes playing cards; Arkansas taxes tattoos; Colorado taxes napkins; Kansas taxes hot-air balloon rides. “Pointing and taxing” is a perk of holding office.

Second, raising taxes isn’t always unpopular. Miliband’s “mansion tax” has the support of 72 per cent of voters, although he omitted to mention that on The Agenda. There is a range of other popular taxes out there, begging to be implemented or increased. The next Labour government, for example, could pledge to tax the UK’s 2,600-odd private schools – as the shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt, has hinted it might – by scrapping their ludicrous “charitable” status and saving the taxpayer about £100m a year. Only 15 per cent of voters think such schools should be allowed to keep their tax-exempt status.

Or Labour could listen to that notorious lefty John Major and impose a windfall tax on the profits of the “big six” energy companies, which are expected to rise by an astonishing 108 per cent in 2014. Public support for such a move: 52 per cent. It could even add a penny to the basic rate of income tax to help fund the NHS – 60 per cent of voters who expressed a view said they would support such a hike.

Then there’s the financial transaction tax (FTT) – also known as the “Tobin tax” or the “Robin Hood tax” – which has the support of 61 per cent of voters. It was conceived in the 1970s by the Nobel Prize-winning economist James Tobin as a small tax that could be applied to currency transactions to “throw some sand in the well-greased wheels” of international financial markets.

In 2013, it was resurrected by the European Commission as a proposed 0.1 per cent tax on the exchange of shares and bonds and a 0.01 per cent tax on derivatives and has since attracted support from 11 EU member states, including France and Germany.

You might think UK politicians, looking for new sources of revenue to help reduce the deficit, would be falling over themselves to sign up. You’d be wrong. George Osborne, a wannabe leader of a Conservative Party that derives half its income from the City of London, spent £68,000 of UK taxpayers’ cash trying (and failing) to persuade the European Court of Justice to strike down the commission’s FTT. The shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, a former City minister, says he backs a financial transaction tax – but not without the participation of the US.

A Tobin tax won’t raise much revenue, says Osborne, and won’t work unless it is global, says Balls. There are two pretty simple responses to these objections. The first is academic: a 2011 review of the evidence by the economists Neil McCulloch and Grazia Pacillo concluded that an FTT is “feasible” and “could make a significant contribution to revenue”. The second is practical: we already have a mini-version of an FTT in the UK – how else to describe the UK’s 0.5 per cent stamp duty on shares, which raises £3bn for the exchequer each year?

This isn’t just about raising revenue, either. In 2009, Adair Turner, the then Financial Services Authority chairman, grabbed the headlines when he backed an FTT on the grounds that the City was “too big” and much of its activity “socially useless”.

Austerity having kicked in globally and the mega-banks having dusted themselves down with bailout money and continued with business as usual, the list of FTT supporters has expanded over the past five years: from the billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to the former JPMorgan executive Avinash Persaud, plus the Nobel Prize-winning economists Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz. In 2011, 1,000 economists – including Columbia University’s Jeffrey Sachs – signed an open letter to the G20’s finance ministers throwing their combined intellectual weight behind the FTT. (Sachs, incidentally, doubles up as a “personal adviser” to Osborne on development issues.)

And consider some of the numbers involved. According to the Bank for International Settlements, £3.3trn was traded each day on the foreign exchange markets alone in 2013. According to the Austrian economist Stephan Schulmeister, a global FTT at a rate of 0.01 per cent could raise roughly £180bn. According to the Institute for Public Policy Research, a British FTT on its own could bring in £20bn.

It really is a no-brainer: a tax that is popular with the public and backed by the experts and would raise revenue for the UK exchequer, while helping to stabilise a deeply unstable sector of the UK economy. As the 1,000 economists pointed out, an FTT is “technically feasible” and “morally right”. It is, you could say, a tax whose time has come. Even Myleene Klass might agree. 

Mehdi Hasan is an NS contributing writer and the political director of Huffington Post UK, where this column is crossposted

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<![CDATA[Autumn Statement 2014: Osborne cuts stamp duty. Is this his answer to Labour's mansion tax?]]> Great news, first time buyers! Chancellor George Osborne has announced plans to fix the housing crisis within five years!

Nah, just kidding, of course he hasn't done that. But there was something that looks suspiciously like good news in today’s Autumn Statement all the same: a cut in Stamp Duty which, Osborne claims will benefit 98 per cent of all home buyers. The only people who won't benefit are the very, very rich.

In other words, this looks a lot like Osborne's answer to Labour's mansion tax.

Stamp Duty, for those who haven't had the pleasure, is a land tax you pay when you buy a house. Not any house, admittedly: it doesn't kick in until £125,000, so, historically, it only affected people who bought large and expensive houses.

But over the last few years, as prices as have gone up, more and more people have found themselves falling into that price bracket. In parts of the country (hi, London!) almost any property purchase will result in a bill for Stamp Duty.

And this bill, remember, is not paid by the people who are selling a house (and thus, presumably, have money to spare). It’s paid by those who are buying it.

The tax has proved problematic in another way, too. It comes with "cliff edges", at which the rate suddenly increases. From £125,000 to £250,000, it's levied at 1 per cent: at £250,001, though, it goes up to 3 per cent. In other words, if the price of the house that you’re buying goes up by £1, your tax liability triples, from £2,500 to £7,500.

Result: any home that's "worth" around £260,000 will almost certainly only find a buyer if it's sold at £250,000 or less. The tax distorts the market.

Today Osborne has announced that, from midnight tonight, he's changing all this. (He seems to have borrowed his plan from Scotland’s finance minister John Swinney.) Under the reformed Stamp Duty regime, there'll no tax paid on the first £125,000; then 2 per cent on the portion up to £250,000. Unlike under the old regime, though, that first £125,000 is still untaxed, so the tax bill increases gradually as the price of the property does. There’s no longer any cliff edge.

There’ll be other gradual increases at points beyond that, too. You’ll pay 5 per cent on the chunk from £250,000 up to £925,000; 10 per cent on the chunk up to £1.5m; and 12 per cent on everything beyond that. Here, courtesy of property consultants Savills, is a graph comparing systems old and new:

In other words, basically everyone buying a home at less than £1m has just had a tax cut. Everyone buying homes worth more than £1m has just had a tax increase.

This is much more progressive than the current system; it’ll do less to distort the housing market, too. It's very difficult for Labour to counter because it looks like, well, a good policy. Already people are calling it a “tax on London”, which is about the greatest accolade it could have.

What it won't do, however, is making housing any more affordable. If a buyer was previously able to pay both £260,000 for a house, and £7,800 for the associated stamp duty, they can still afford to pay roughly £267,800 for the lot.

There's still the same amount of money flowing into the market: all that'll change is the share of it that'll flow to the Treasury. Lower the tax that buyers pay – and the headline value of property might actually rise.

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<![CDATA[Capitalism was supposed to signal the end of poverty. What went wrong?]]> Hand to Mouth: the Truth About Being Poor in a Wealthy World 
Linda Tirado
Virago, 224pp, £14.99

The Rich – from Slaves to Super-Yachts: a 2,000-Year History 
John Kampfner
Little, Brown, 480pp, £25

Inequality and the 1% 
Danny Dorling
Verso, 192pp, £12.99 

During the long boom of the 1990s and 2000s, it became possible to imagine that nearly everyone who wanted to could do well out of capitalism. The rich would be rich – a few, alas, would be richer almost than we could imagine – but the poor could be (and should be) educated, doctored and employed out of poverty. There was much to do, true, but much had been done; the “system”, if such a name could be given to the historical agglomeration of habits and institutions that governs our economic lives, seemed to work. And that was why virtually everyone, from the cool Icelanders to the red Chinese, subscribed to it.

Some readers will be shaking their heads, proclaiming their opposition to capitalism or to “neoliberalism”. Perhaps they went on a march in the City against globalisation or attended one of the late Tony Benn’s twinkly, twilit evenings of socialism. But it would have taken an unusual inner certainty – a faith, almost – to have believed that this great, growing cornucopia of riches, from iPods to EasyJet, would be brought to a halt.

In this country, the near collapse of Northern Rock in the autumn of 2007 marked the end of the era of confidence. For the first time in years, the comfortable and the doing-OKs began to look at the world with something of the same continuing anxiety that had been limited to the poor. Indeed, they began to feel poor themselves. Yet they weren’t poor and they haven’t become poor. That much should be obvious to anyone reading Linda Tirado’s Hand to Mouth. Albeit a book by an American (and therefore set in a society that believes anyone can make it if they try hard enough – and its corollary that if you didn’t make it, you didn’t try hard enough), it is nevertheless a book about everywhere in the developed world, too.

The name Tirado is almost an aptronym, because the book doesn’t ever let up its tone of exhausted complaint and makes no attempt to charm its readers. This artlessness may be why Tirado’s original post on the Gawker website in the autumn of 2013 went “viral” in the first place. It was an answer to the complaint that the poor tended to be poor because of the choices they made – because they smoked, took drugs, had children they couldn’t afford and otherwise connived at their own poverty. This is something that Americans say and believe but that British people tend only to believe.

Her post was entitled “Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or Poverty Thoughts”. Within a year, it brought Tirado a book deal and a precarious celebrity. It also brought her plenty of criticism from people who seemed – through attacking her credibility (she comes from a middle-class family) – almost desperate to deny the truth that she was describing.

It is easy to see why. Tirado depicts a life in which hard work – very hard work – often gets you nowhere because you aren’t paid enough to save for the day when you have no work, or fall ill, or the car breaks down. A life in which the smallest budgeting decision makes the difference between buying insurance or having enough to eat. In other words, a world in which the “long term” cannot afford to exist.

This is the world of people who flip burgers by day and wait tables by night, not to get through college but for life. For ever. And, as Tirado makes mercilessly clear, these tend to be the same jobs where we (and therefore the employer) expect a smile from the counter staff, a have-a-nice-day delivered convincingly by someone who has been on his or her feet for six hours – and our orders got right or else we’ll be cross.

The book is not enjoyable, it is not witty and its anger and sense of hopelessness make it hard to like the author. But Tirado doesn’t want you to like her, or even feel sorry for her. More of her book says “F*** you” to the reader than “Help me”. Nor is she particularly interested in her own demons, whose shadows the readers must discern for themselves. Far from everything that happens to Tirado is a necessary consequence of her poverty and you can’t help wondering how a different person would have managed the same problems.

Yet this, exactly, is her strength. She strips away our capacity to avoid the truth, to be sidetracked. Tirado tells us what we all secretly know every time we catch a glimpse of the night cleaner in the early-morning office finishing up and then heading off to a second job, or to take the kids to school, or to college. It’s a harder life than ours.

That Tirado should have been lionised probably says a good thing about us, because generally, I imagine, it is easier to sell books about the lives of the spectacularly wealthy than those about the quotidian existence of the poor. The first category is, after all, about infinite possibility (or as infinite as a human being can manage) – not, like the second, which is about severe limitation. In that sense, it is about fantasy being realised, which is why Mills & Boon heroes are rarely car-wash operatives.

I have to say that, for myself, this lack of limitation makes the super-rich boringly unreal. The furniture and frocks and motor cars in Downton Abbey very quickly become a substitute for plot or insight into character. The man or woman becomes a mannequin, over which are draped distracting furs and jewellery.

John Kampfner, a former editor of the New Statesman, must have encountered this precise problem when writing his new book, The Rich. The riches are interesting but the people may not be. He compounds this problem for himself by looking at the lives only of the male creators of fabulous wealth, when he could have made more drama by examining the biographies of the wives, mothers, aunts and daughters of the super-rich.

Despite this self-imposed limitation, Kampfner’s book is a fascinating series of well-observed vignettes, beginning with Marcus Licinius Crassus, a contemporary of Caesar, and ending up with more generic chapters on the sheikhs, geeks, oligarchs and bankers of our own times. There are some surprises here (I had never heard of Alain le Roux, the Breton who came over with William the Conqueror and took over much of England) and reminders of some of the ever-thusnesses of human history.

We talk easily of how huge wealth must be accompanied by equally huge power. Kampfner’s book reminds us that this is often not the way it feels to the super-rich. Paradoxically the scale of their riches makes them feel unsafe. Rather than thinking themselves invulnerable from state action because they can control politicians with their money, they more often worry about what could go wrong. This is well illustrated by Kampfner in the case of the new Chinese billionaires, who are only too anxious to render under to the communist Caesars that which is the Caesars’.

What they are worried about is envy. I don’t mean by this that all opposition to their excessive wealth is irrational but that – especially in times such as these – what they have and what they are can seem to be almost psychically unbearable.

The political use of that envy is the purpose of Danny Dorling’s chart-littered polemic on the “1 per cent”. Everything that is wrong with our society, Dorling argues, is the fault of the top 1 per cent of earners taking a bigger and bigger share of our wealth. Tackle them, he writes, and you hardly need to do anything else – or, as he puts it, “Simply concentrating on the share taken by the 1 per cent is enough. It may even be one of the best measures of inequality to consider in terms of how simple a target it may be for effective social policy.”

There are three flaws in Dorling’s hurriedly written book (he had another published in February). The first is that the 1 per cent doesn’t really exist, which is why again and again in the book he seems to use the term “super-rich” about people who earn above £150,000 per year. The consequence is that he attributes characteristics of behaviour, psychology and action to a group, most of whose putative members don’t share those characteristics.

The second problem is that he becomes absurdly determinist. It should be obvious to anyone but the most sequestered that Sir David Attenborough is against what he sees as overpopulation not because (as Dorling strongly implies) he is one of the anti-poor 1 per cent but because he is a lifelong and over-passionate naturalist.

The third problem is more serious. Dorling wants to form a coalition against the super-rich that he knows (and argues) is more likely to be led successfully by the well-heeled middle classes than by the downtrodden – by the other Dorlings than by the Tirados. The poor may wave a pike or knit in the shadow of the guillotine but the committee of public safety will be made up of doctors and deputy head teachers.

There is, it seems to me, a more likely consequence – which is that the relatively well-off (certainly those whom Tirado and her cleaner and fast-food comrades would consider well-off, which is almost everyone reading this article) will absorb this argument and say, “Tax them, not me.” Any substantial change in the condition of the poor in any developed nation will only happen with the agreement and the contribution of the middle classes. They will have to agree to pay, one way or another. Theirs is another book altogether. 

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<![CDATA[Crash test dummies: a call for bold economic reform]]> The Shifts and the Shocks 
Martin Wolf
Allen Lane, 496pp, £25

Mainstream economics is in crisis. That might seem a melodramatic statement, one that has been made every year for the past half-century. But this time it is true. I say this not because of some personal vendetta, but on grounds with which any self-­respecting economist would find it hard to argue. The consumers have had enough: young people no longer want to study it.

For some time now, they have been voting with their feet. For more than two decades, the number of economics departments in the UK has been declining; and this year, for the first time in living memory, introductory economics was overtaken by introductory computer science as the single most popular course at Harvard University.

More recently, the students have become more vocal. Vigorous movements have sprung up demanding reform of the mainstream curriculum – from the Post-Crash Economics Society in Manchester and the Cambridge Society for Economic Pluralism to the Glasgow University Real World Economics Society and the international Rethinking Economics. These groups say that economics as it is taught in universities does not respect classical academic values of pluralism and intellectual freedom – and so, it has become a self-referential catechism rather than an engine for understanding the economic world.

Does it really matter to the rest of us if students don’t like the way that economics is taught these days? The Shifts and the Shocks, a sparkling book by one of the movements’ more unlikely supporters, shows unequivocally that it does.

Martin Wolf is a figure unique in modern economics. The chief economics correspondent of the Financial Times, he is the Undisputed Heavyweight Economic Commentary Champion of the World, whose regular columns for nearly 30 years have translated worldwide developments in the field into language that the public – and even policymakers – can understand.

Wolf is no armchair theorist or op-ed blowhard: he is a reporter of the old school whose beat is the global decision-making circuit. As the Waugh of Scoop might have said: he has loitered of old at many a World Economic Forum, and forced an entry into many a stricken ministry of finance.

He is also more than a journalist. He has achieved that rarest of feats – to have earned an eminent place among the very policy-makers and academics on whom he reports. When in 2010 the UK government appointed the Independent Commission on Banking to propose reforms to the sector, it turned to the warden of All Souls, Oxford, a former head of Barclays Bank . . . and Martin Wolf.

So, it is no surprise that his new book provides an exceptionally comprehensive, lucid and engaging account of both the main changes that the world economy underwent in the 1990s and 2000s (the “shifts”) and the crisis itself (the “shocks”).

Much has been written about the crisis. No other book, however, presents so clear an explanation of the extraordinary interaction of global macroeconomic and national financial factors behind it: how decisions taken in Beijing by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party could lead inadvertently to a boom in mortgage lending in Arizona and the collapse of eight of America’s largest financial institutions.

Yet it is not – or not just – for this masterful overview of events that you should read this book. It is for its answer to the most fundamental question posed by the crisis: not how, but why, did it happen? More than anything else, Wolf argues, it was mainstream economics itself that was to blame. The drawing up of national budgets, the setting of central bank interest rates, the pricing of shares, bonds and options, all became ever more sophisticated in the decades leading up to the crash. But all were based on a flawed understanding of how the economy works. Remarkable as it may seem now, it was an understanding that assumed away all the things at the core of the crisis: money, banks, finance. By mistaking this fantasy-world for reality, we earned ourselves the ultimate lesson in the power of ideas: “The crisis happened partly because the economic mainstream rendered that outcome ostensibly so unlikely in theory that they ended up making it far more likely in practice.”

When it comes to solutions to our post-crisis problems, Wolf argues, the first step is to jettison the straitjacket of mainstream economics – and this he proceeds to do. The result is a guide to a raft of bold reforms: from experimentation with narrow banking within nations to the introduction of a shared currency for use between them.

The defining demand of the new student economics reform movements is for pluralism. For them, the crisis did more than just expose the flaws in mainstream theory. It showed how dangerous the fixation on a single method of doing economics to the exclusion of all others is. Early on in The Shifts and the Shocks, Wolf sums up why the students are right in a typically succinct epigram: “Naive economics helps cause unstable economies.” His book is a consummate demonstration of how powerful an alternative approach to the subject, rooted in an intimate familiarity with real-world data and unashamedly catholic in its choice of theoretical frameworks, can be.

No one could accuse it of being naive – and if it achieves the wide audience it deserves, it might even make the world economy more stable. 

Felix Martin is the author of “Money: the Unauthorised Biography” (Vintage, £9.99)

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<![CDATA[Why does the UK now oppose funding search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean?]]> How do you solve a problem like desperate foreigners risking their lives to get to the UK? The government has a new answer. 

Britain will not support search and rescue operations to prevent refugees drowning in the Mediterranean. “We do not support planned search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean,” the Foreign Office minister Baroness Anelay has explained, asserting that search and rescue operations acted as “an unintended ‘pull factor’, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths”. The implication, therefore, is that the policy is a humane one, designed to save lives.

It is easy to take a different view. Those who flee from Libya or Syria do so in desperation. The existing rescue operations hardly make crossing the Mediterranean as a refugee risk-free. Over 3,000 people have died attempting to reach Europe from the Mediterranean so far this year. The idea that they will cease now that the quality of the search and rescue operation has deteriorated even further is extraordinary.

The UK has long maintained a certain sense of moral superiority in its attitude to welcoming immigrants and refugees. When the Australian government released its notorious posters two weeks ago – ‘NO WAY: You will not make Australia home’, accompanied by the image of a boat being tossed in a threatening sea – many said that it could not happen here.

That claim just became a lot harder to make. In the quest to clamp down on immigration, of any sort, the UK government has put thousands of desperate refugees at risk. One of David Cameron’s most notable achievements has been the development of the What Works Network, with its emphasis on evidence in policy-making. Yet there seems no indication whatsoever that evidence that reducing search and rescue operations will save lives, as Lady Anelay suggested.

The conclusion is inescapable. The UK government is acting brazenly out of a need to be seen to be doing something – anything, really – about immigration. Political expediency trumps the needs of some of the most distressed people in the world.

They are not the only losers. Acts like these, together with the ‘Go Home or Face Arrest’ vans last year, create the image of the UK as distrustful and even resentful of foreigners, which has already manifested itself in the steep drop in foreign students studying in the UK. If talented foreign people see a country that seems suspicious of them, they will be less likely to work in the UK or do business with it, with negative economic consequences for everyone in the UK.

The government’s stance on search and rescue operations not only fails on a humanitarian case, but also on the most hardheaded business one too.

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<![CDATA[The “New Mediocre” – and why the eurozone may be sliding back into recession]]> This summer, we went on holiday to Italy. While Britain seems to be in a state of perpetual flux, nothing much had changed since the last time we were there: the same delicious food and wine, the same immaculate medieval towns, the same beautiful frescoes and churches and galleries.

Yet there is a dark side to Italy’s immutability, especially for its citizens. Another thing that has hardly changed in the past decade and a half is the level of the country’s national income. Italy’s GDP was, in real terms, no larger this past year than it was at the turn of the millennium. That is a staggering fact. Even with the collapse of 2008 to 2009, the UK’s national income has grown by more than a quarter over the same period.

Nor are Italy’s prospects improving. The International Monetary Fund has revised its forecast for Italy’s growth this year from an already desultory 0.3 per cent to -0.2 per cent. If this projection is correct, it will signal that Italy’s economy will have contracted in every quarter since June 2011, with a single exception.

For most of the post-crisis period, the received wisdom has been that the laggardly performance of the eurozone’s Latin periphery has been the result of fiscal incontinence and a sad lack of the moral fibre needed to undertake the necessary structural reforms. That has certainly been the line taken by Germany in the interminable negotiations over how to resolve the sovereign debt crisis that reached a crescendo in the summer of 2012.

This year, however, the authorised version has become much harder to sustain. The German economy, too, has begun to contract, despite Germany’s vaunted current account surplus and unimpeachable public finances. In Italy’s case, the charges never quite stuck anyway. The government there runs a primary surplus. It takes in more revenue than it spends, if interest costs are excluded, and has done for years: a situation that dedicated austerians such as our own government can only dream of. Because of this, the IMF’s gloomy judgement that there is a significant probability that the entire eurozone will slide back into recession this year has been greeted by many with puzzlement. “What exactly,” they ask, “is the problem?”

The right context for an answer is probably to be found in another announcement from the IMF. Christine Lagarde, the organ­isation’s managing director, used its autumn summit to acknowledge that its economic forecasts since the crisis have been consistently overoptimistic for all of the advanced economies. The problem, in other words, is not unique to Italy, nor even just to the eurozone. Something seems to have gone structurally wrong with all of the advanced economies: their ailment is chronic, not acute. It is time, Lagarde suggested, that we reconciled ourselves to a “new mediocre” – the reality that economic growth will not recover to the 2-3 per cent range that developed economies typically enjoyed in the three decades before the crisis.

This saturnine assessment of the world’s economic predicament has been whispered about in worried tones for months now in the world of high finance. The fashionable term for it is “secular stagnation” – a shorthand coined by an American professor of the 1930s and popularised by Larry Summers, the former US treasury secretary and Harvard economist, in a speech last year. But “secular stagnation” is a description of the problem, rather than an analysis of its causes. If it is true that we are not going back to the good old days of 3 per cent growth (let alone the 4 or 5 per cent of the 1950s and 1960s), the important question is: why?

On this, unfortunately, mainstream economics is unilluminating. Indeed, “secular” is code among economists for “unexplained” – meaning that the new mediocre is an anomaly that cannot be accounted for by the factors that mainstream economic models normally consider important.

The most convincing explanations come instead from more heterodox quarters. Lagarde referred to one herself, warning that inequality is casting a “dark shadow” over the global economy. The problem is that the rich tend to save a larger proportion of their income than the poor; so that increasing inequality may be not just socially undesirable but a structural drag on demand.

Another theory is that the vast overhang of public and private debt that the advanced economies have accumulated since 1980 is to blame for their stagnation. This idea makes intuitive sense. Losing your job makes you much more cautious if you have a hefty mortgage than if you are debt-free. It’s easy to see that the same desire to pay down debt rather than to invest and spend might be causing a prolonged “balance-sheet recession” if the economy as a whole is seeking to minimise the financial risks heaped up in more optimistic times.

Nevertheless, even these explanations don’t get to the root of things. They offer plausible hypotheses concerning the mechanics of what has gone wrong. But they prompt still more fundamental questions, especially if we want to know what to do about it. Why has inequality been increasing since the late 1970s – and why was there the giant build-up of debt in the first place?

For an answer to these questions, it is necessary to venture outside the neat reserve of economics into the wild savannah of politics. It was the postwar political settlements that gave us the trente glorieuses in France and “You’ve never had it so good!”. It was Thatcherism and ordoliberalism that gave us the pre-crisis era of debt-fuelled growth. So, how can we engineer a renaissance from secular stagnation? Don’t look to the economists for the answer. Only a new generation of politicians and voters can provide one. 

Mehdi Hasan returns next week

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<![CDATA[If he thinks £2,800 a month in rent is “affordable”, Boris Johnson must be from the Planet Zog]]> Every morning, I walk to work past the old Mount Pleasant sorting office in Islington, north London. Until recently, it hummed with activity as red Royal Mail vans chugged in and out. But like its parent company before it, half of it is now being sold off. In a few years’ time, this glorified car park will become 681 highly desirable flats.

On 2 October, London’s mayor, the Great Blond Hope himself, handed down a ruling: 24 per cent of the new flats should be affordable. He says he wants Londoners to benefit from new housing developments, not “oligarchs from the Planet Zog”.

But what is “affordable” when we’re talking about a prime slab of Islington real estate? Now, this is the point at which I advise readers of a nervous disposition – or those who bought their house before the great boom; or those living in social housing; oh, and anyone north of Watford – to sit down. An “affordable” four-bedroom flat in the development could cost up to £2,800 in rent a month. (That comes from confidential figures submitted as part of the planning process, obtained by the Guardian.) In order for housing costs to make up no more than a third of your income, as experts recommend, a family would need a combined salary of £100,000 a year to afford this “affordable housing”. To rent at market rates, you’d need double that.

Affordable housing has become a very voguish idea in the past few years, as it implies that there is an easy way to circumvent the insane demands of the property market in popular areas without relying on council (sorry, “social”) housing. The idea is that a big developer will build you lots of lovely new houses, at no cost to the taxpayer, in return for beneficently letting some people on average incomes live there.

Unfortunately, as the Mount Pleasant example shows, linking affordable rents to market rents works only if market rents aren’t absurdly high. On the site, the subsidised houses will cost 44 per cent of the market rate on average, although that can go up to 60 per cent. According to Islington council’s housing lead James Murray, a social rent in the area is just 20 per cent. Of course, you’ll be lucky to pay that, because the waiting list is currently 18,000-strong.

What strikes me about what happened at Mount Pleasant is not just the madness of calling £2,800-a-month rent affordable, but the tangled web of policies, perverse incentives and loopholes that encouraged this situation to arise. The Greens have rightly pointed out that until a few months ago the Mount Pleasant site was owned by the taxpayer: the profit from turning it into flats could have been ours; equally, all of that land could have been earmarked purely for new social housing. Islington’s Labour-controlled council is angry because the planning decision was taken out of its hands by the mayor in January. The council says he just wants more ribbons to cut, and has ignored its target for all new developments to be 50 per cent affordable.

But there’s a bigger problem lurking behind all this: the concept of affordable housing itself. Like tax credits propping up poverty wages, affordable housing is only needed because, in many places, the private rental market is otherwise out of reach. The problem is particularly acute in the south-east but it manifests in different ways all over the country.

If you ever want to depress yourself thoroughly, read the National Housing Federation’s Broken Market, Broken Dreams (you know things are bad when policy reports start having titles that sound like Céline Dion ballads). We’re building only half the 245,000 homes a year that we need, and the average home now costs seven times the average salary, compared to 4.5 times in the 1960s. Adjusted for inflation, a first-time buyer now needs double the income and ten times the deposit she would have needed in the 1980s. And the government’s outlay is getting bigger, too: “the total housing benefit bill in England – accounting for inflation – has risen by almost 150 per cent from £8.7bn to £21.5bn in 21 years”.

The report also shows why we have made a fetish out of home ownership: for the younger generations locked out of buying, the consequences are catastrophic. On average, homeowners with a mortgage spend 20 per cent of their income on paying it. Private renters spend 40 per cent of their income on housing costs.

Now, a confession. I rent in the private sector, and a selfish, irrational part of me thinks that affordable housing isn’t fair. Why should some people who aren’t entirely on their uppers get to live in Zone 2 without paying the crushing rent that I do? On an intellectual level, I know all the arguments about mixed communities, and the horrifying example of the banlieue of Paris, and I’ve walked past One Hyde Park and seen how few lights are on in the evening because those aren’t flats, they’re bank accounts. I don’t want to live on the edges of a theme park for the rich.

But there’s still a stab of resentment, not helped by reading another well-heeled middle-aged Londoner moaning that Labour wants them to pay tax on the mansion they bought for thruppence-ha’penny in 1975 and that’s now worth millions. Envy is a dark and powerful force in politics, and one easily exploited by cynical populists. My generation is easy prey.

So any reform of our housing market has to help private renters – whether by offering them a truly affordable home through a housing association, or by increasing supply in the private sector to ease prices. Oh, and there is one thing I forgot to mention about Mount Pleasant: it is expected that most of the flats will be bought off-plan by foreign investors – so-called buy to leave. Another victory for the oligarchs from the Planet Zog, whatever Boris Johnson might claim. 

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<![CDATA[Mariana Mazzucato wins the New Statesman SPERI prize for political economy]]> Mariana Mazzucato, of the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex, has been awarded the inaugural New Statesman SPERI prize in political economy.

The prize was launched this year by the New Statesman magazine and the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI) at the University of Sheffield.

The Prize will be awarded biennially to the scholar who has succeeded most effectively in disseminating original and critical ideas in political economy to a wider public audience over the preceding two or three years.

The shortlist for the prize contained some of the most innovative and exciting thinkers in political economy working today. The nominees were: Ha-Joon Chang (University of Cambridge); Mariana Mazzucato (University of Sussex); Thomas Piketty (Paris School of Economics); Wolfgang Streeck (Max Planck Institute, Cologne); Anne Wren (Trinity College, Dublin); and Simon Wren-Lewis (University of Oxford).

The Prize Jury was Helen Lewis, Deputy Editor of the New Statesman; George Eaton, Political Editor of the New Statesman; Professor Tony Payne, Director of SPERI; Professor Andrew Gamble, Professor of Politics at the University of Cambridge and Chair of the International Advisory Board of SPERI; Sarah O’Connor, Economics Correspondent at the Financial Times; and Gavin Kelly, Chief Executive of The Resolution Foundation.

In their announcement of the shortlist, the jury said of the winner: “Mariana Mazzucato is a professor in the economics of innovation at the University of Sussex.  She is an accomplished broadcaster and writer, and her 2013 book The Entrepreneurial State contained a wealth of examples showing how the state – not just the private sector – could foster innovation.  The judges praised the originality of her thinking, her willingness to challenge the conventional wisdom and her capacity to take her arguments forward with gusto.”

Helen Lewis, Deputy Editor of the New Statesman, added: “Mariana Mazzucato is one of the most engaging and interesting thinkers currently working in the field of political economy. Her work on the entrepreneurial state and smart growth is required reading for anyone working in economic policy-making.”

Professor Tony Payne, Director of SPERI, noted: “Mariana Mazzucato is a fabulous first winner of this new Prize.  She fulfils the criteria that describe the prize to the letter.”

Professor Mazzucato said: “I am honoured and delighted to receive the New Statesman SPERI prize, especially given the high calibre of the shortlist.  I hope it will help focus attention on the urgent need to tackle rising inequality.  This is not just about tax: we need to fundamentally rethink how we talk about wealth creation. Ignoring the key role of the state – or the tax payer – in wealth creation has, in my view, been a lead cause of inequality, allowing some (hyped up) actors to reap a rate of return way beyond their actual contribution.  My Prize Lecture will focus on this dysfunctional dynamic – and what to do about it.”

Professor Mazzucato will deliver the New Statesman SPERI Prize Lecture at the Emmanuel Centre in London at 6.30pm on Thursday 13 November. Its title will be: “Smart growth: an innovative way to tackle inequality”. The lecture is free but places are limited and will be allocated on a first-come, first-served basis - please register here.

 

Notes for editors:

Mariana Mazzucato (PhD) holds the prestigious RM Phillips chair in the Economics of Innovation at SPRU in the University of Sussex. Previously she has held academic positions at the University of Denver, London Business School, Open University, and Bocconi University. Her research focuses on the relationship between financial markets, innovation, and economic growth--at the company, industry and national level. Between 2009-2012 she directed a large 3 year European Commission FP7 funded project on Finance and Innovation (FINNOV); her current project on Financing Innovation is funded by the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET); and her project on Finance and Mission Oriented Investments is funded by the Ford Foundation's Reforming Global Financial Governance initiative. Her new book The Entrepreneurial State: debunking private vs. public sector myths (Anthem, 2013)--on the 2013 Books of the Year list of the Financial TimesForbes and the Huffington Post--focuses on the need to develop new frameworks to understand the role of the state in economic growth—and how to enable rewards from innovation to be just as ‘social’ as the risks taken. In 2013 the New Republic called her one of the '3 most important thinkers about innovation'. She advises the UK government and the EC on innovation-led growth. Her research outputs, media engagement, and talks (including her TED Global talk), can be found on her website.  

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<![CDATA[Why do we still believe that divorce leaves men worse off than women?]]> When I was growing up my father, a solicitor, had a collection of cartoons based on the legal profession. There’s one I remember in particular. Called “The Divorce Settlement”, it was divided into three parts: “His Share”, showing a battered suitcase and an electric heater; “Her Share”, showing a semi, two children and a car; “The Lawyer’s Share”, showing a mansion, a yacht, a Rolls Royce and several bottles of champagne (the joke being that when it comes to divorce, lawyers are the ultimate winners).

This cartoon always bothered me, not because I felt particularly protective of divorce lawyers, but because I didn’t understand why it was taken as read that ex-wives came second and ex-husbands last. Certainly this wasn’t the case in any of the divorces I’d encountered, both within my family and outside it. It was always the wives who seemed to have been left in the lurch, unable to socialise, go on holiday or send their children on school trips. From the way my parents talked about divorced couples we knew, they recognised this, too, and yet the myth of the “poor ex-husband” persisted. While individual ex-wives might be struggling, ex-wives as a group still seemed to be grasping harridans, living the WAG lifestyle without even having to pay for it in spray tans, diets and reluctant shags.

A recent study from the University of Essex shows that for women who split up with their partners, the reality is far less glamorous. According to Mike Brewer, Professor of Economics and one of the study’s authors:

Women continue to see living standards fall by more after separation than men, especially when children are involved, but even for couples with no children. Mothers and children from high-income families see especially large drops in living standards, because the loss of the man’s earnings is in no way compensated for by higher income from alimony, child maintenance, benefits and tax credits, and having fewer mouths to feed.

Around 15 per cent of mothers and 19 per cent of children fall into relative poverty post-separation. The wealth gap between men and women is even starker in couples who separate later in life. Contrary to popular belief, men are not tied to women and screwed over the moment they leave; if we’re going to describe human relationships using such cynical terms, it’s actually the other way round.

This inequality ought to be causing more outrage, especially as it’s not a case of “just the women” but is hurting children, too (compared to women, children tend at least to be innocent until proven guilty in life’s great trials). However, it seems the power of a false narrative – long-suffering ex-husband, greedy ex-wife – is enough to quell dissent. Certainly I have female friends who have gone out of their way not to be “too demanding” when it comes to divorce, repenting at leisure once they realise that it’s all very well to avoid being tarred with the hysterical harpy brush, but you still need to pay the rent.

We’re surrounded by a culture that has somehow managed to depict women – those hardy human beings who live longest, bear children and do the most of the world’s caring work – as inferior and needy. Regardless of how much men depend on the physical and emotional labour of women, intimate relationships between the sexes are still described in terms of clingy, biological-clock-driven woman versus brave,  independent man who dreads getting “tied down” (there is a whole dating guide industry based around telling women how not to appear as drippy and pathetic as they really are). We have learned to undervalue what we bring to relationships, in both emotional and economic terms, and men have learned to take it for granted.

And so, despite the fact that according to the single parent charity Gingerbread, only two-fifths of single parents (the vast majority of them women) receive maintenance from the child’s other parent, it’s men who are donning superhero costumes and declaring themselves the real victims of any separation. The utter erasure of women and children from the standard post-break up narrative exposes the truth about chivalry and “women and children first”: you’ll hold open a door for us, just as long as it’s not one that offers access to independence, safety and self-determination. You’ll pay for food on the first date, but years down the line, when we’re struggling to feed your children? That’s when you suddenly find you believe in an abstract “equality,” one that’s devoid of any social, economic or cultural context.

Women work as hard, if not harder, than men yet the latter take possession of the vast majority of the world’s resources, claiming to have “earned it”. While I’m well aware that this is not some evil plot on the part of individual men, that in itself does not lessen the harm it does. Many heterosexual couples endeavour to have equal relationships and against all odds, some achieve it. Nonetheless, there remains a structural imbalance that cannot be easily overcome by the goodwill of individuals or pairs working in isolation. If campaigns such as HeForShe are to have any serious impact, they need to get right to the heart of how we understand work and value. This isn’t about ensuring men are generous to women; it’s about destroying a hierarchy which puts men in the position of benefactor and women in that of supplicant in the first place. That’s not a solid foundation for any relationship, intimate or otherwise.

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<![CDATA[Why you should leave work on time today]]> Today is Go Home On Time Day, a day on which employees up and down the land stick it to The Man by working their contracted hours. Shut down Microsoft Office and rebel, people! You have nothing to lose but your unsaved Excel spreadsheets! (You can redo them later, once the kids are in bed. Or maybe wait until after midnight, just to make sure you’re not breaking the secret Go Home On Time Day rules.)

In case you’re wondering why such an outrageous act of insurrection is being encouraged, it forms part of National Work-Life Balance Week, set up by the charity Working Families. Yes, this is where we are, folks. It’s down to a charity – a bloody good charity at that – to keep reminding employees that they’re still human beings with a right to interact with their own families. Since fewer than half of all parents leave work on time every day, it’s pretty clear we still need a reminder.

Despite the merits of the Work-Life Balance campaign, I do have one misgiving: the phrase itself always makes me uncomfortable. Like “body confidence” and “positive mental attitude”, “work-life balance” is one of those touchy-feely concepts which can end up being just another thing at which to fail. Don’t have a good “work-life balance” yet? Best add it to your never-ending to-do list, along with practising mindfulness, having some me-time and learning to be your own best friend. It can start to feel like all everyday experience is being taken from us and sold back piecemeal, via a Bisto gravy advert (this is our night, our family night!). The artificiality of the thing never ceases to grate. I don’t want a “work-life balance”; I just want a life!

Because it is of course an arbitrary distinction, work versus life. Employers would like us to think otherwise. Wouldn’t it be great if we could leave our lives at the door the moment we entered our workplaces? All human experience – hunger, sickness, fatigue, boredom – could then remain outside. After all, that forms a part of living, not working.  Once you’re in worker mode, all human emotions can be simulated; it’s more professional that way. Smile on demand, make conversation when appropriate, but just don’t seem too alive. Life is messy; the quality is patchy and it rarely runs on time and to budget. There’s simply no place for it in The Productivity Triangle.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, there is also the gendered aspect to the whole “work-life” distinction. Work (paid employment outside the home) is seen as male, life (domestic labour) is seen as female. This has led to the assumption that a solution to both gender inequality and employee dissatisfaction is to get more women “working” and more men “living”. It shouldn’t be hard to see the problem with this. Much of what we call “life” – cooking, cleaning, caring for dependants – is in fact work (many’s the time I find myself skiving not by leaving the office early, but by staying late). Furthermore, it is work that women have carried on doing while also being “allowed” to do paid (“male”) work, albeit usually for meagre rewards. Some balance.

The concept of work-life balance is of course useful to politicians, distracting attention from the fact that the one thing that would enable all of us to achieve a better state of being would be a more equal distribution of wealth. In Smile or Die, her analysis of the ways in which “positive thinking” obscures the need for structural change, Barbara Ehrenreich points out that “the most routine obstacle to human happiness is poverty”:

To the extent that happiness surveys can be believed, they consistently show that the world’s happiest countries tend also to be among the richest. […] Some recent studies find furthermore that, within countries, richer people tend to be happier, with about 90 percent of Americans in households earning at least $250,000 a year reporting being “very happy,” compared with only 42 per cent of people in households earning less than $30,000.

And yet in a country in which the “happiness index” is supposed to matter, the poor are getting poorer, the rich are getting richer and we are pulled in two directions. We are under pressure both to act out “being human” (laugh! Smile! Make that gravy!) and to cut ourselves off from all the usual support networks (so what if you have to work two jobs and can’t afford to live anywhere near your friends and family? Accept it! Times are tough!).

We are on the back foot, horribly so. Even the Telegraph has run a piece complaining that “screw-everyone capitalism has become much more prevalent in the last 15 years” and that “our financial elite is now totally out of control”. That employees can request flexible or part-time working is undoubtedly a step forward, but the fact that if it is awarded, we then can’t afford to pay the rent is two steps back. Our expectations are tempered by a culture of shame. However much we know about the structural basis for inequality, we’re still encouraged to believe that knowing the language of choice will magically make choice available. I think this is especially true for women. If leaning in, stepping up to the plate, fighting fire with fire etc. were all they’re cracked up to be, the gender pay gap in the UK wouldn’t stand at 19.7 per cent. If being human makes us less appealing as employees, being human and female makes us doubly so.

And yet ultimately it doesn’t matter whether so-called “life” or “work” is the dominant force in your life, providing you are secure and content. The balance can change over time, depending on who is around you and what your priorities are. The point is not to achieve some neat 50/50 split, but to be treated like a person – a person with real needs and real responsibilities – at all times.

So, go home on time today. Or don’t, depending on how messy the house is and how much you’d rather potter about after closing time, avoiding your nearest and dearest. Just remember that there’s nothing shameful in expecting more from those with more power than you. And close down that spreadsheet.

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<![CDATA[The London problem: has the capital become too dominant?]]> The referendum on Scottish independence is, at heart, not a vote about Scotland. It’s a vote about London. The choice facing Scots is whether they trust each other enough to sever the umbilical cord: London largesse, London-based decision-making, London hegemony. London divides the UK in a way that no other country in Europe is divided.

Indeed, London is a divided city in its own right: it is home to the greatest concentration of poverty in western Europe. At least two of its boroughs – Hackney and Tower Hamlets – are among the ten most deprived in England. And yet politicians such as Greg Clark, the minister for universities, science and cities, tell us that Londoners are 69 per cent more productive, in GDP generated per head, than citizens elsewhere in the UK.

It is worth dwelling on Clark’s figures (below), both for what they reveal and for what they hide. Clark used the figure of 69 per cent to try to demonstrate that London was not so different from other capital cities in terms of economic dominance. But he did not take into account the size of London’s population relative to the rest of the UK. London is small compared to, say, Seoul, or Tokyo; consequently its economic dominance is even more pronounced.

The only city that takes a greater share of national product than London is Moscow. Paris takes a large but slightly lower proportion and so, for well over half a century, the French have referred to “Paris et le désert français”. The English talk about their own division simply, and less dramatically, as the problem of “the north”. A plan is needed for the north, we are often told; but that is impossible if there is no plan for London.

There is nothing inevitable about living with high rates of national inequality. We are not in some imaginary global race where everywhere is becoming similarly unequal. At the lower end of Clark’s list is Vienna, whose citizens were apparently only 30 per cent more productive than the average Austrian; even more equitable is Stockholm, at 23 per cent; and Tokyo and Seoul, each with a rate below 15 per cent. Of course, almost all that extra London money flows into the pockets of the richest residents. The median Londoner is not much better off than the average citizen of the UK.

What exercises many Scots right now is that the rich Londoners they hear most from appear to believe that there is no alternative to these inequalities and that the rest of the UK may even benefit from the trickle-down of some of the wealth of an ever richer capital. Growing inequalities undermine the case that Scotland is “better together” with London and the idea that Scots might moderate the arrogance of London’s elite should they remain in the Union with England.

It is taking a long time for the English chatter to turn towards the realisation that the Scottish vote is a judgement on London – and on the desirability of being linked so closely to what can appear to be a selfish, often stupid and always dominating force. It is hard to think of a scenario that would shake London from its trajectory of growing inequality and drift towards being a tax haven for the world’s super-rich.

Of all the scenarios I can imagine, and each is unlikely to occur, it is Scotland voting Yes to independence that might most obviously dent the English capital’s prestige. How will Londoners explain why, if being attached in some way to London is so beneficial, the Scots chose to leave? What other event, more than such a rejection, would encourage the introspection needed among the English about where they are heading?

Other scenarios are easy to imagine but are more unpredictable in outcome, and not necessarily desirable in the short term. A run on sterling is seldom mentioned today, but sterling is a weak currency backed up by an indebted set of one small and three very small nations. A second banking crisis is far from impossible and would hurt London more than anywhere else on the planet. Or think of climate change bringing persistent rain, followed by the flood waters of the Thames meeting a particularly high spring tide coupled with a storm surge. You can begin to imagine some of the scenarios that the cabinet’s emergency Cobra committee might find a little tricky to deal with.

So what would a serious “London plan” be? What could offer a more sustainable future for the English capital and English regions, irrespective of the choice being made north of the border in September?

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Technically, a London plan already exists in the form of the Mayor of London’s Spatial Development Strategy. In many ways this is a laughable document; though mostly tedious, it serves to demonstrate that there is no plan. To save you the trouble of searching for the best jokes it’s worth knowing that paragraph 3.22 of the latest version (October 2013) states, on provision of housing, that: “The probability-based approach adopted in London to address this has already been tested and found to be robust.”

In truth, there hasn’t been a proper London plan for some time. The Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC) studied regional trends in the UK under New Labour and came to the conclusion that London stood out in stark contrast: “There was no autonomous private-sector job creation in decaying regions like the North-East or West Midlands during this period; and precious little full-time job growth anywhere outside London. Between 1997 and 2010, London on its own accounted for 43 per cent of all extra full-time jobs created in the UK, and London is now the only region of the UK capable of creating new full-time private jobs. And, again frighteningly, there is no movement of surplus population from the periphery to the centre.”

The CRESC researchers explained that London grows through immigration from the rest of Europe. It does not soak up surplus labour from the rest of the UK but, instead, sees more people leave it to settle in the rest of the UK than those who come in. And it is not just for jobs that people are coming to London. It is now thought that in a good year for overseas recruitment London universities may admit more students from outside the UK than from places in the UK outside London. The more frequently people move across borders and the longer the distances they travel, the less closely tied the capital becomes to the rest of Britain.

By early this year, the trends identified by CRESC had become embedded with the help of the coalition government after the 2008 crash. The Centre for Cities reported that London had accounted for 80 per cent of private-sector job growth between 2010 and 2012. That was ten times more than for the second-fastest-growing city in that period, the UK’s second city of finance: Edinburgh. Whereas there had been public-sector job cuts in most cities, the national government was increasing the number of state-funded jobs in London by 66,300. By contrast, Edinburgh lost more than 3,000 jobs of this type over the same period.

The north-south divide widened more rapidly after 2010 and started to become a stable feature of many British maps. This is evident from the geographical patterns seen with so many trends, from the rise in shoplifting (see Figures 2 and 3 below) through to the proportion of people who had bought a home for the first time in 2007 and who were still in negative equity seven years later. In the early 1990s, negative equity was worse in London, not in the north.

As London moves away from the rest of Britain economically, other areas begin to drop off the map. Scotland is often missing from the most recent maps used by social scientists, because data is no longer collected in the same way there.

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What can be done about London’s economic dominance? The first thing might be to accept a few truths. The second is to act on that understanding. The third is to speculate on what might happen if we don’t act.

What happens when one does not plan? It is worth looking at the more laissez-faire attitude in some US cities. Look at the low-density sprawl and absolute car dependency of Los Angeles and the power blackouts of California. Look at poorly planned megacities in poorer parts of the world to see how bad crowding on pavements can become and how long a commute can get, and look to all the worst-planned cities for where ordinary people pay the most simply for the right to live and work in the city.

The truths we must accept in order to avoid this future are not unpleasant, but certainly many of us do not want to accept them. London is growing and poised to grow quickly. It is Europe’s only megacity, though in less than a century it has dropped in rank from the largest city in the world by population to 25th largest. Its nearest competitors for megacity status, Cairo, Istanbul and Moscow, lie on the edge of Europe and are not getting that much closer politically or demographically.

It is not so much the success of London’s financial industry that is causing its wealth and influence to grow as the curiosity and aspiration of a huge number of mostly young adults from around the world. These youngsters have set their heart on living and working in London, at least for a few years. Forty years ago it was the Irish, Welsh and above all the Scots who came to live in London in unusually high numbers.

From Danes or Frenchmen who believe their country is holding back their entrepreneurial zeal, through to the nouveaux riches of China and India looking for a luxury second home, and even refugees without papers who need somewhere to work for a pittance but have a chance, London is attractive to millions. London speaks the world’s second language and the first language of the internet. No matter who you are, you won’t stand out as odd in London. It has surpassed even New York and Singapore as the favour­ite global bolt-hole of the super-rich.

London will grow; the only question is by how much, and how well-planned that growth will be. Government rhetoric suggests that nationally we will soon be building 200,000 homes a year but will have zero net migration. Given recent trends, both claims insult the voters’ intelligence. Nor, together, are they tenable. There is one good reason to build houses and it is for the immigrants we should expect to come, those who have been coming for many years now and whose numbers were boosted by the financial crash. If emigration were greater than immigration in future years there would be very little need to build new houses. Soon, given the age structure, many more people will die each year than will be born in England, even if fertility rates do not fall further as they have done across the rest of Europe. Simply refurbishing the old stock would result in enough homes for all of “Generation Rent”. And so many would not have to rent if they did not allow their elected politicians to help landlords evade so much tax, and make it desirable to be a private landlord. England has enough homes for everyone living here but not enough to cover those whose likely arrival we should plan for.

The last time the UK had a recession and net inward migration was in the 1930s, an effect of the 1929 crash. It was then that we built many of London’s suburbs. Partly we built them as fewer people emigrated from England: there were fewer opportunities abroad during the Great Depression. We built them also because migration from even more depressed Scotland, Ireland and Wales, as well as immigration from further afield, was increasing demand. Today is similar, except people are travelling from further within Europe. Policymakers in the European Commission refer to this internal movement of people as “mobility” across the EU rather than migration, but it will be some time before such language from across the Channel permeates our thinking.

Without immigration, there is no sensible reason to build new homes rather than renovate old ones – unless we want to see our existing housing stock shared out even more unfairly. We need “Pocket homes” for singles and couples without children. We need to time our building of homes in London to fit in with expansion of public transport and cycle routes. We need to encourage the value put on walking so as not to increase our levels of air pollution, already the highest recorded in western Europe. (Some argue that levels are higher in central Paris.) But all this would require a decent plan. The free market does not co-ordinate spatially and temporally; it reacts rather than instigates.

Acting on the understanding that London is going to grow requires recognising where London’s real boundaries lie. Oxford and Cambridge are de facto outlying suburbs of the capital. Oxford’s soon-to-be-opened second mainline rail station will be just over an hour’s commute from central London. If we do not provide better housing closer to the centre of the capital, the effects will be felt a very long way out. London relies on far too much long-distance commuting, to the detriment of many people’s lives.

We must build high-density, high-quality housing that is affordable. The smoke and mirrors of those with a vested interest in house-price inflation and high rents makes this sound impossible. Given that so many people are willing to pay so much to live in London, couldn’t they all be housed there a little more cheaply, yet still have the actual costs of providing that housing more than adequately covered? They could – but not at rates of return that would allow the richest 1 per cent to carry on getting richer as quickly as they do now. London needs both rent regulation and enhanced housebuilding.

But where are we to build? Our greenbelts were designated at a time when we did not understand the extent of the floodplain. Existing greenbelt land needs to be swapped, acre for acre, for land that really should never be built on; land where we should expect more floods as rainfall becomes more erratic. We should protect ecologically valuable land that is under threat. All that should become true greenbelt, not uninspiring farmland. As London expands, it should build not only upwards, but also on some of the higher land on the edges – but only where there is an environmental argument to do so; and not in small, car-dependent towns further away from the centre of London.

At present, the policies set out by the coalition government’s “Ecosystem Markets Task Force” allow builders to offset the destruction of Sites of Special Scientific Interest by, for instance, planting a new oak wood if they build over an ancient one. This has to be stopped. Greenbelts don’t prevent urban sprawl; the sprawl just hops over them, increasing commuting times outside them and house prices inside. Good-quality, high-density living prevents sprawl.

Much of the building that will be needed for the new migrants who will come (and help reduce our national debt) should be within the present boundary of Greater London. Many people argue that there is little justification for giving planning permission for new buildings within London with fewer than five storeys. At these densities, enough people arrive to sustain local street life. Cafés and local shops are found across Barcelona, a city that is four times as dense as London in its heart. But London also needs wider pavements, more cycle lanes, more one-way streets with just a single lane for cars, and far fewer lorries and taxis trying to squeeze through its streets.

Far more imaginative policies than better traffic control can be thought up to make the capital more liveable. There is no need to try to pack every last national institution into London. Why not move parliament somewhere more affordable, to a place where MPs won’t need huge housing allowances to be able to live and work while distancing their lives from those of their constituents? But if parliament were to be relocated outside London, where would that be?

One obvious answer is the first stop from London on High Speed 2, Birmingham. Members of the House of Lords, such as Norman Tebbit, who complain that they couldn’t live anywhere near their workplace could easily find a home in Coventry, or nearby Sparkhill, with perhaps more homes built on brownfield sites there, relieving the pressure on London. The old buildings in the capital could be kept for ceremonial occasions and as tourist attractions, but there is no need to require our elected representatives to battle their way through to the neighbourhoods least representative of the lives of almost all of their constituents.

There is much else in London that does not need to be there. Much can move out to make way for the almost inevitable influx. (It is worth remembering here that there are at least two possibilities that would make that influx not inevitable. The first would be Britain leaving the EU and revoking the free movement of labour. The second would be an economic crash in London that was not part of a worldwide financial meltdown – due to a generally unforeseen run on sterling that required sharp hikes in interest rates. The effects of either would be similar.)

Finally, what might make for a better-planned future? We seldom consider the most liveable megacity in the world, the one with the lowest crime rate and highest life expectancies: Tokyo. What helped Tokyo become what it is today? Very equitable income distribution certainly helps, but that was not all. It was after the great property crash of 1992-93 that Tokyo’s planners were able to say, with some force, that following the money and doing what the market suggested did not result in the best overall outcome. Satisfying the wishes of innumerable pairs of buyers and sellers never results in an equilibrium. Only someone as mathematically unimaginative as an orthodox economist could believe that.

The great London residential property-value crash may be years away, but what is our plan for its aftermath, if indeed it happens? A Japanese colleague sent me data showing how the average price of residential land in Tokyo more than doubled in value in the year to 1987, stayed very high until 1990, but then fell back to 1986 prices by 1996 and has remained low ever since (see Figure 4, below). Life as they knew it did not end in Japan when the value of land in Tokyo plummeted. The following two decades weren’t actually “lost”. It just became easier and cheaper to live, and far more obviously necessary to plan.

Without a plan, life in cities becomes chaotic, prices surge, congestion rises and dissent grows to the point where parts of the state begin to calculate that it is in their interest to leave. Not planning for London to grow in a world that is ever more urbanised is planning to preserve a living museum, one with aspects of Dickensian-level inequality. Planning to allow almost anything the markets and overseas investors desire is planning for a Blade Runner-style future.

Between these two extremes lie many other possibilities. But if you were living in Scotland now would you trust the English elite to have the sense to consider them? 

Danny Dorling’s “All That Is Solid: the Great Housing Disaster” is published by Allen Lane (£20)

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<![CDATA[Where has the French Left gone?]]> Can a Socialist government committed to austerity measures still be called Socialist? This is one of the questions facing the French Left following President Francois Hollande’s recent decision to disband the government to expel voices critical of his new economic direction. The dissolution – the second in six months – has been described as a purge of dissident voices, with the replacement of, among others, the now former economic minister Arnaud Montebourg, an avowedly anti-austerity figure who takes a Krugman-esque line, by business-friendly former Rothschild banker Emmanuel Macron, who controversially questioned France’s sacrosanct 35 hour working week. Montebourg recently publicly blamed Hollande for choking the economy with spending cuts and has become the symbol for a movement of Leftist rebels, “les Frondeurs”, who argue that France should not be “aligning itself with the obsessions of the German right“.

Montebourg’s replacement is a confirmation that the government’s direction on economic matters would not be open to question. The dissolution comes after two previous reshuffles, the previous of which saw the appointment of Manuel Valls as Prime Minister in March, a move which was widely seen as an attempt to resituate the PS in the political centre, given Valls’ commitment to cutting public spending and reaching out to the business sector. The new cabinet reflects Hollande’s commitment to Valls’ vision and willingness to sacrifice the left of his party, for whom a central sticking point has been diverging visions on how to revive France’s flailing economy, with Hollande’s camp advocating cutting, against those who favour more borrowing.

The dissolution reflects the increasing pressure on Hollande to turn around a dire economic outlook. Despite two years in power, the government has failed to reverse growing unemployment and growth this year has been downgraded to 0.5 per cent. Hollande’s shifting strategy now involves integrating voices more conciliatory towards his centrist line, best exemplified by his new chief of staff, Jean-Pierre Jouyet, a former minister under center-right former President Nicolas Sarkozy.

President Hollande began his presidency with the strongest mandate for any left-wing government for 30 years, including a Socialist majority in the National Assembly. But his political wavering combined with personal scandals and his decision to dissolve the government three times, have left the public sceptical as to his abilities at a time where public confidence is at an all-time low. Polls indicate public approval ratings of just 17 per cent, and Hollande is now the bearer of the unenviable title of most unpopular president since polling records began. Whereas his Socialist predecessors all left their mark in the form of a significant social reforms (income support under Mitterrand, the 35 hour working week under Jospin, etc), it remains unclear what social contribution will mark Hollande’s legacy.

The same president who rode the anti-austerity wave to power and terrified the City with comments like “the finance sector is my enemy“ has been seen to be increasingly toeing the German line. Despite his promise to get tough with the finance sector, the appointment of a former Bank of America Merrill Lynch economist as new economic adviser says otherwise and the recent reshuffle has been seen as the replacement of Left-wing socialists with finance sector aficionados. For many within the party, this represents a betrayal of the very mandate Hollande had been elected to carry out.

Over the last week at the Socialist summer convention in La Rochelle, Prime Minister Valls has sought to portray himself as the purveyor of “Leftist realism” in the face of those accusing him and the government of kowtowing to austerity measures, repeating that the government “doesn’t practise austerity“ despite plans for further public spending cuts and tax breaks for businesses. But the balancing act which sees Hollande simultaneously try to appease the EU call for budget restraint while maintaining the support of the left wing of his party, has inevitably left him looking weak and ineffective. Even among Socialists, only 58 per cent have confidence in the government’s plan.

And despite a strong mandate, the Socialists have been unable to truly implement policies which reflect Leftist principles, instead, they’ve been restricted in that implementation by EU directives and arguably forced to rethink the very nature of Leftist economic policy. If Leftist politics is about rhetoric and not substance, given that the substance is decided elsewhere, the result can only ultimately be disillusionment with mainstream politics. This leaves “Flanby”, as President Hollande has been nicknamed, looking very wobbly, but it also plays into the nationalistic rhetoric of the FN, which rails against EU intrusions. Ultimately, a divided and incoherent Left leaves the way open for Marine Le Pen to target those workers traditionally more likely to lean Left. This is all the more worrying when one considers that a recent poll put her at the top of the next presidential race, and in light of the erosion of support for the radical Left party, where the charismatic Jean-Luc Mélenchon has recently stepped down.

The dilemma was succinctly summarised by Montebourg in an interview with Le Monde, in which he stated: “If we align ourselves with the most extreme orthodoxy of the German right, this will mean French people’s votes have no legitimacy and alternatives do not count.” The danger of further disillusionment with the main parties is the inevitable outcome.

For the French Left, there seems to be two competing visions. Either support a re-vamping of the Socialist party to fit the limitations of the EU framework and in so doing, ultimately alienate a core, ideologically motivated grassroots or call, as some of the radical Left have, for the setting of national objectives in defiance of the limitations imposed by Brussels (possibly as part of a movement for a Sixth Republic, as advocated by Radical Leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon). The third – and possibly more likely – option involves infighting within the Socialist party, which will likely paralyse the government. Could the narrow room for manoeuvre for political parties as imposed by the EU ultimately undermine national politics to the extent of buttressing radical parties? The rise of the Front National could be one indication of this. It remains to be seen whether the Left will succeed in offering a competing vision to Le Pen’s increasing monopoly of that protest vote. What is more certain is that the infighting within the main parties on both Left and Right could mean politics will increasingly be played out on the margins.

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<![CDATA[Indignation at stories of “rejected” disabled children masks the harm done by government cuts]]> The would-be mum of twins carried by a surrogate has “rejected” one of the babies because it was born with a disability, the Telegraph reported today.  The non-disabled boy was adopted as planned but his disabled twin sister, who has a severe muscular condition, has stayed with her birth mother after the adopting-mum refused to take her. (It’s unclear what the would-be father has done in all this. He either was never involved or the reporting has chosen to put responsibility solely on the woman.)

“She'd be a fucking dribbling cabbage! Who would want to adopt her?” the prospective mum allegedly told the surrogate; both of them British. “No one would want to adopt a disabled child'.”

Well, quite. I enjoy a bit of casual judgement as much as the next person and this woman seems a suitably terrible (wonderful) candidate. “A fucking dribbling cabbage.” Find her, bring back the stocks, and see how she likes scraps of cabbage as they’re thrown at her (probably hard) face.

Today’s is the latest in a growing line of “Won’t someone think of the disabled children?” stories – each depressing and tragic and greeted with customary indignation. The case of “Baby Gammy”, who was left with his Thai surrogate mother by an Australian couple because he had Down's Syndrome, gained international coverage. Even Richard Dawkins has got involved with his “best abort a foetus with Down's Syndrome and try again” tweets last week. Abort, don’t abort. Adopt, don’t adopt. It’s difficult to keep track of just what exactly women should be doing when they find out their child will be disabled, but the media and the public’s role is very clear: pass judgment whilst offering no constructive help whatsoever.

Women, as ever, are the ones on the receiving end of this judgement. The men – or 50 per cent of the genetic material – are presumably mute and locked in a cupboard somewhere. Women are who nature left to grow the child and whom society has chosen, long after nine months, to take the cultural brunt of them. We’re also largely the ones left to take on 24/7 caring responsibilities – an impact particularly heavy when the child has a disability. Almost three quarters of mums with disabled children are forced to give up their careers, or at best limit them, due to lack of affordable or suitable childcare for disabled children.  (Families with disabled children pay eight times more towards childcare costs than parents of non-disabled children.)

What are we doing for them? Other than offering judgement or praise, I mean – which, as yet, hasn’t been proven to care for a screaming child at 3am or pay the electricity bill.

As a country, we’re doing really well at hurting them. One in seven families with disabled children are going without meals and one in six can’t afford to heat their homes. For those where parents aren’t in work because of their caring responsibilities, things are inevitably even worse. This was before the full impact of benefit cuts hit. (Guess what things are like now.)

The social security and tax changes have had more of a negative effect on families that include at least one disabled person, particularly a child (and especially for those with already low-incomes). Poor families that have a disabled child – or adult – have lost what’s estimated to be five times as much proportionally as better-off non-disabled families. Let’s say that again. Our government’s response to the difficulty of raising a disabled child, particularly with low-income, has been to make it more difficult. It’s funny how little we hear about that. It’s as if headlines about lazy adoptive mothers are easier to get our moral heads around.

Stories like “Baby Gammy” or the British surrogate are welcome distractions from the bigger, deeper problems of parents and disabled children. They let us simultaneously cast judgement on a woman’s reproductive choices whilst convincing ourselves her individual prejudice and selfishness is in such contrast to the rest of society. Failing to look after a child with a disability? What kind of monster would do that? Our government – and the cash strapped councils sitting in every part of this country.  

Almost two thirds of English local authorities had reduced their expenditure on short breaks for families with a disabled child after two years of coalition government, according to disability charity Mencap (pdf). Play services to youth clubs, babysitters, overnight care and residential stays are disappearing – cast out as not a “legal necessity” and therefore just more luxuries we can do without.

Perhaps we could ask the parents currently looking after their disabled children if a bit of help is a luxury – if they have the money to drive to the next hospital appointment, the energy for getting up tonight without a break. I would but I’m busy finding old veg to throw at the latest useless adoptive mother.

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