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On a visit to a Californian ghost town, I understand why the crowd abhors reason

Will Self's "Madness of Crowds" column.

Sometimes the crowd is the madness – at others it’s the absence of the crowd that is. Standing with the father of my youngest son’s schoolfriend we survey the prospect: a large triangle of close-cropped grass is bald-faced-on-to on two sides by semis of 1960s vintage – the contracting metal of cooling engine blocks ticks in the cool summer evening. There is a sense of spaciousness – exposure, even – at odds with the conurbation that we both know surrounds us.

Nasty nick

“We’ve been here for over ten years,” the father figure says, adopting a hands-in-pockets stance, “and y’know what.”

“What.” I counter his rhetorical question with one of my own.

“During that entire time we’ve never so much as locked the front door once – not once. Hell, I even leave the key in the ignition of my car. And y’know what.”

“What.” If it weren’t that he was making an apposite observation this reflexivity would be intolerable.

“None of the neighbours has ever had a break-in either – and y’know why.”

“Why.” In point of fact, I know why.

“’Cause of the nick, of course,” he gestures to the hypotenuse of the triangle, which is formed by a 25-foot-high wall of ageing London stock brick; beyond this can be seen the peaked roofs, the mucal rendering, the barred lancet windows of HMP Wandsworth. We are both silent for a while – I’ve no idea what the paterfamilias is thinking about but I’m meditating on the crowd of felons in the nick: each one probably at this time banged up for the night in his cell. A particulate crowd – a crowd of isolates, each of one is not regarded and therefore becomes undifferentiated, faceless and to be ignored.

One might’ve thought that even to the averagely sussed, cracked-up, aggravated burglar, the juju that surrounds the prison – where, no doubt, he has spent time himself – would be countered by the following reasoning: “No one probably dares go near the gaffs in back of the nick – those straight-goers probably leave their doors unlocked. All I’ll have to do is stroll round and carry off some rich fucking pickings.” But as friend’s father’s testimony confirmed, if there’s one thing the crowd abhors, it’s reason.

Cut to Bodie, a ghost town in the middle east of California, on the Nevada border. Bodie once had upwards of 40,000 inhabitants, daily newspapers, taverns, hotels, schools and so forth. At the height of the Gold Rush it was the second biggest city in California after San Francisco. When the seams became unprofitable, the crowd ebbed away until at the time of the vast fire in the early 1930s that destroyed 90 per cent of the buildings there were only a handful of people left. Now the only residents are temporary ones; tourists who drive the ten miles of winding – and latterly dirt – road from Highway 395, pay their $20 and then mosey about the revenant of the town’s grid pattern, stopping to admire the echt weathering of the church, the general store and some barns, houses and assorted lean-tos. Up on the hillside is the flaking bulk of the Standard Stamp Mill, where the ore was crushed and refined – but this is, quite reasonably, classed as a dangerous structure and can only be visited in an organised crowd (called “a tour group”).

Standing in the cinematic rain, the sky umber overhead, I find myself curiously heartened by the way the State of California has resisted the impulse to gussy Bodie up. True, there has been some artful rearrangement, some gathering together of curios into implausibly exact arrays but on the whole Bodie has been left alone. The crowd respond to this arty desuetude by moving about the ruined buildings gently and quietly – or is it perhaps that only those who already feel themselves on the way to being revenants choose to visit ghost towns? Although there was some enthusiasm in the family for visiting Alcatraz, this proved impossible because the tour groups had to be booked long in advance, such is its popularity.

Just deserts

In Bodie, where absences touched one another lightly on the edge of the great expanse of America Deserta, I wondered at the strangeness of it all: to superstitiously avoid one jail but wildly flock to another is surely definitive proof – if any were needed – that there’s nowt so queer as folk. One of the reasons they need to corral visitors to Alcatraz is that the temptation to pilfer the few remaining relics is so great. I wish I’d had my son’s friend’s father along with me, so I could ask him what he thought of this paradox – but only rhetorically, of course.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who comes next?

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.