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The presidential election may be over, but TV politics is still a laughing matter

It is not easy to win an election when every late-night chat-show comedian is against you. Mitt Romney didn’t stand a chance. He was too rich, too handsome, too well turned out, too stiff, too entitled, too candid (about the 47 per cent), too secretive (about his tax affairs), too Mormon. During the campaign, the comics told more than twice as many jokes about Romney as about Barack Obama. Even when it was all over, there was no respite. “No gloating,” joked HBO’s Bill Maher. “The Republicans are licking their wounds. Which is, ironically, Mitt Romney’s health-care plan.”

“Romney did well with certain voters,” explained Conan O’Brien on TBS. “He had the support of men, people over 45 and married women. In other words, Mitt Romney had the support of Mitt and Ann Romney.” O’Brien is on to something. If you want to know what went wrong for Romney, look at the demographics of the TV ratings. Conservatives go to bed too early for late-night comics (who come on at 11.30pm) and are too set in their ways to watch the edgy, news-based, late-night TV comedy that informs younger voters about politics.

While conservatives bask in the red-faced anger of Fox News, younger, hipper Americans are laughing at Jon Stewart’s cod current affairs bulletin The Daily Show, the celebrity-driven satire revue Saturday Night Live and the faux-Fox show The Colbert Report. The host of the latter, Stephen Colbert, is the most ingenious and powerful because, by posing as a preening, bombastic, conservative ignoramus, he takes his gags to the heart of the enemy.

Idiot box

The real Colbert is the 11th and youngest of an Irish-American Catholic family, a father-of three, a Sunday school teacher and an avid Latin student. Accompanying a friend who was plug - ging a book about ancient Rome on The Colbert Report, I got to see him at close quarters at a studio in a converted warehouse, way west on 54th Street, New York City. Already in character, Colbert charmed the green room in sober suit and stripy tie, his Reaganesque hair plastered back with oil.

He reminds guests that, whatever they say or do, to make the comedy work, he will always remain in his conservative character. Implanted in his throne on the set, he gazes unblinking into the camera lens, raises a quizzical eyebrow, points and prods the air with a menacing pencil while encouraging the whoops of his youthful audience. Colbert confessed to Oprah Winfrey that he wanted to create “a pundit show where the character was a well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiot”.

So, just as Dame Edna lifts partly from Mary Whitehouse and partly from Margaret Thatcher, Colbert’s alter ego since 2005 is an extravagant homage to Fox News’s prime-time pontificator Bill O’Reilly, a blustering, bullying, false-indignant television host who presses home his pat points with humourless deliberation. Colbert summed up his nemesis’s philosophy: “Like any good newsman, I believe that if you’re not scared, I’m not doing my job.”

Colbert’s power is in the accuracy of his blows. For the final eight weeks of the election, Fox seemed to suggest that the White House had tried to cover up the true cause of the murder of the US ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi, Libya, in September, though to what end the channel was never able to explain. Nonetheless, Fox kept sniping away and asking over and over: when exactly did the White House know the raid on Benghazi was a terrorist attack? Why was there a gap between what they knew and what they said in public? In his take on this trumped-up charge, Colbert paced dramatically through the studio, urgently asking the receding camera a string of ever more ridiculous rhetorical questions. Colbert’s final shot: “If you put a statement in the form of a question, is that journalism?”

The genius of Colbert is that his “Faux ’Reilly” is more successful than the real thing. O’Reilly is ahead in mere numbers, pulling in about three million viewers at prime time on Fox (humorous motto: “Fair and balanced”), while Colbert attracts about 1.5 million at 11.30pm on Comedy Central. But follow the money. Colbert attracts the audience that advertisers most want to reach – young adults between 18 and 29. Forty-three per cent of Colbert’s audience are that age, 37 per cent are 30-to-49-yearolds and just 6 per cent are over 65. Meanwhile, just 12 per cent of O’Reilly’s audience are 18-to- 29-year-olds and 40 per cent are aged over 65. Pastiche makes perfect.

Gag order

Should young Americans discover politics through comedy? Why not? Research by Fairleigh Dickinson University shows that those who get all their news from The Daily Show are better informed than those who learn all their news from cable news. And it is not just current affairs that people learn about watching the box. The Kaiser Family Foundation found more than half of ER viewers said they learned about health issues from the show and almost a third said it helped them make health-care choices.

How much should we learn from comedy and how much from the news? Should there not be a distinction between news and gags about the news? Between the news business and show business? In his private capacity, Col - bert warns, “You shouldn’t listen to us at all if you’re looking for information . . . We’re just comedians.” Yet Colbert’s doppelgänger suggests a more interesting ambiguity: “Jon [Stewart] always said The Daily Show has no political impact. We’re going to go ahead and pick up that gauntlet and change the world!”

Nicholas Wapshott’s “Keynes Hayek: the Clash That Defined Modern Economics” is published by W W Norton (£12.99)

Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: the Clash That Defined Modern Economics is published by W W Norton (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The family in peril

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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.