Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Misery, thy name is Lettuce Rationing

According to the newspapers, Britain is in the grip of a shortage of lettuce. Actually there is no obvious shortage here in Edinburgh. I bought a lettuce in my local Sainsbury's yesterday, but perhaps we are exceptions. Everywhere else long queues are forming outside grocers, market stalls and vegetable shows, while shoppers are carrying string bags in their pockets just in case they happen to notice a lettuce in a shop window on the opposite side of the road.

The official story is that the shortage is due to bad weather. The weather here is pretty average for February in Scotland: rain, wind and freezing temperatures, just like the rest of the year. So I am led to wonder how much of the lettuce shortage is really due to the weather and how much is due to the European Onion's crazy ‘set aside’ policy, under which nice little earner farmers receive payments for not growing food.

Maybe this is what the future holds for other areas of economic activity. On the railways, for instance. The terms of the contract which Govia, aka Southern, holds with the Department of Transport pays them a fixed sum, whether they operate the trains or not. From their point of view, that’s the same as set aside, since they can stop operating trains and claim money for not operating them.

And then there's teaching. Thousands of people are being paid to run schools and teach children even though when they come out of school a third of children can't read and seven eighths can't add up.

It isn't because of the weather, or the leaves on the line, or sitting up after midnight buggering about with a mobile phone. They’re doing it on purpose.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

The sort of pension I want you to get

What do we want?
Free pensions equal to the average wage!
When do we want it?
At age 60!

Pensions are, briefly, in the news again. It is a pity that there are so many distractions to be seen and heard, because old age pensions are one of the most important provisions that a country can make for the people who live in it. One forgets that before the Old Age Pension Act of 1908, people too old or weak to work expected to find themselves in the work-house until the day they died. The workhouses, incidentally did not finally close until 1930. I often have the feeling that some of our sillier politicians pine for the chance to bring back the workhouse.
This week the Daily Mail reported that the Office if Budget Responsibility believes that the pensionable age might rise again, this time to seventy five years.
There seem to me to be three basic objections to that proposal.
Firstly, the present government, though it appears less like a sort of political Keystone Cops than its predecessor, tries to justify its every act of meanness by claiming that ‘austerity’ has made it necessary. You get the feeling that if the United States said they only invaded Iraq because of austerity, everybody in Britain would have accepted their excuse. Usually the government claim that ‘we are all living longer,’ and therefore they cannot pay pensions as generously as before. Nonetheless they continue to spend our money on nuclear weapons, a high speed railway from nowhere to Birmingham, sending advice to Civil Servants not to take cakes into the office and a high maintenance multitude of wastrel Royalty. And while all that goes on, pensioners in the United Kingdom are paid less than almost any other pensioners in western Europe. Sometimes I get really annoyed when the government tells me what I have to put up with instead of understanding that I put them where they are, I pay them, and if I don't want them to boss me around they should damn well stop it.
If you look at the numbers, you can see that this purported justification is false. We are not living longer. The age at which the oldest people die has not changed. Life expectancy has not changed in a hundred years. Life expectancy at birth has increased because babies no longer die in infancy and women no longer die in childbirth. But life expectancy at age 18 has scarcely increased at all, except for people stopping smoking and surviving cancer for longer than once they did. That’s important, because it is at the age of 18 that you start to save for your pension. The number of years during which you will pay pension contributions and the number of years for which you will live on your pension are about the same as ever.
Secondly, unemployment is massive and shows no sign of diminishing. Don't believe the old wives’ tales about unemployment falling or about employment increasing. Neither is true. The figures are more fiddled than Paganini's violin. The terrible fact is that unless things change a lot, and quickly, many people now in their twenties will reach the age of sixty five having never had a paid, full time job with proper wages. By the time they come to claim their old age pension they will have a derisory National Insurance contribution record.
Thirdly, many workers, certainly including me, are not going to be fit enough to continue working long past their sixty fifth birthday. With massive unemployment meaning that every job is filled immediately, often by a friend or relation of a manager, and with the Job Centres reduced to advertising vacancies which are wholly imaginary, many skilled workers will find themselves begging or, worse, scraping a living on Social Security.
I have no clear vision of what ought to happen — obviously it ought to involve giant corporations paying their taxes and government not wasting money on endless computer systems that don't work and wouldn't have made a blind bit of difference to anybody if they had — and nobody cares what I think anyway. I do propose a goal: a distant landmark, if you like, towards which we can all march on our bath chairs and walking sticks and zimmer frames, holding our banners as high as our arthritis allows. It is: Free pensions, paid at age 60, equal in value to the average wage of full time employed persons in the United Kingdom. The government can afford it, and don't let them tell you otherwise. They just don't want to.
If we know where we want to go, there is a small chance that eventually, and once the Revolution has overthrown the old order, we will get there.

17 February 2017. If you agree with me, please sign my on line E-Petition to Parliament about pension reform. You must be a British citizen or a UK resident to sign it. It's here: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/185661/sponsors/yOLF7ucjsGAChNvzYHq.

27 December 2017. It's been pointed out to me that the life expectancy statistics have another odd property that I had failed to notice. You cannot extrapolate from them.

Life expectancy at birth has increased because children no longer die in infancy. Although it has taken some time to stop children dying in infancy, the process is now complete. There are, to all intents and purposes, no more deaths in infancy to stop. There will be no further increase in life expectancy due to the end of infant mortality.

Likewise women of childbearing age do not die in childbirth any more. There are, therefore, no more deaths of women in childbirth to be stopped.

Deaths due to lung cancer are, in many cases, caused by smoking. An almost universal habit in the 1960s, smoking has pretty much dried up now. There are many fewer premature deaths from lung cancer, so only a small further fall in deaths from lung cancer is possible.

What does this mean for pensions? It means that although these three important causes of death have been pretty much eliminated, the corresponding increase in life expectancy cannot continue. This means that, even if you consider the rise in life expectancy since 1917, you cannot extrapolate from it to predict the life expectancy of an 18 year old worker born today. In other words there is no reason to suppose that the increases in life expectancy due to the elimination of death in infancy, death in childbirth and death due to smoking will continue. There is, in other words, no reason to expect life expectancy at age 18 to be much greater in sixty-five years' time than it is now. The government is telling untruths about life expectancy in an attempt to cut taxes for themselves and their toff chums.