The leftward and other blatherings of Span (now with Snaps!)

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Look Mum, no hands

Over at Just Left, Jordan Carter has written asking how to cut-through to those stuck in the mire of generational welfare dependency. Given the high number of trolls on Jordan's blog, I suspect this debate will go downhill fast, despite Jordan's best intentions, and lo and behold the second commenter, Billy, delivers the usual frothing beneficiary bash:

Continuing to pay them to do nothing but have children is certainly guaranteeing that they never have any incentive to change their lot. Welfare is not the solution: it is the problem. Give that this government has just extended welfare to the highest income earners in the country via working for families they are probably least equipped to come up with a solution.

This right-wing line that welfare is the problem troubles me considerably. I find the idea of living in a country where your own government doesn't support you when you are in need abhorrent.

What would happen to the vulnerable in a nation without a safety net? Where getting sick, losing your job, or being unable to find one, ageing, being a child or a student, having dependents to look after, sentences you to an unpleasant life as Hobbes might have imagined it?

It's hard to imagine being so vulnerable when you are young, healthy and moneyed, particularly if you have no one dependent on you for care or support. But anyone of us can find ourselves at the rough end of this stick at any time - I would like to think I am contributing to a society which looks after those in need, doesn't ignore them.

What could be the outcomes for those ignored? Starvation, no water, no power, no housing, constantly moving, cadging off friends and family, wearing out your welcome with everyone, missing out on education, no social interaction, ill health, no transport, going to the local library to keep warm, relying on substance abuse to get some form of oblivion, I could go on and on (no doubt some will think I already have). What about the children in those families? Do they deserve to miss out on an education, go to 18 schools in a few short years, have little to eat, be unable to get warm, not be able to join the others playing soccer or netball? Does anyone deserve to live a life so alienated and marginalised, regardless of their age?

I just find it difficult to imagine that there are people out there who would rather be able to buy a few more CDs, and ignore all of this. It shouldn't surprise me, it already happens now, with a benefit system. The trolls on Jordan's blog are evidence that there are those out there who don't see "them" (i.e. poor people) as human beings. How depressing is that.


Gavin said...

welfare dependancy is the problem and labour don't seem to want to create incentives to achieve for oneself. abatement rates are so high that it is just not worth trying to earn more

span said...

I agree about the abatement rates, they need to be addressed. However just repeating, yet again, that "welfare dependancy is the problem" is not really an incisive comment - saying it over and over again doesn't make it true.

I'm sure there are cases where people are taking advantage. BUT I would be surprised if it's much more than 5%, which is the general rate of false accusation/fraud you get with most things.

So why should we label and punish the 95% doing their best?

Jordan said...

You are an optimist, Julie. The reason the right are going to lose a fourth election in a row is that they have nothing to say which is constructive. They are the ultimate example of the blame mentality - everything that goes wrong in New Zealand is Labour's fault. People see through that sort of rubbish really quickly.

While it might be depressing, the tone of the debate, it is encouraging to think that the whole right is like this at the moment - from the parliamentary level down. They despise the thought of nine long years of wasted time on the opposition benches, and their behaviour at the moment seems inevitably destined to turn that into twelve - or more.

Gavin's post above is not one of the usual, but the problem is that he misses the facts. Abatement rates have just been cut by 1/3 on many benefits - as part of Working for Families.

What is the effect of cutting abatement rates? It means many more people on much higher incomes get benefits or family support. And then what do the right say? They say that Labour is trapping people in dependency.

Go figure. The logic isn't there. It's a pack of angry wasps in more ways than one.

span said...

Jordan, I'm glad to hear the abatement rates have been cut.

Unfortunately I'm not as optimistic about the dog whistle politics as you are. When I have heard in my staffroom from Labour voting people the same racist and anti-poor statements I am reading from some of the RW bloggers, I start to despair.

Just as Howard used bashing immigrants and refugees to get re-elected, so we already know that Brash et al aren't above similar tactics. They weren't in 2005 and they came close, too close.

Gavin said...

Having peopleon welfare is not at all constructive to their lives, attitudes or to the country as a whole. It is very depressing when when I and my family have so much of what we earn taken from us in taxes to then have it offered back to us as long as we go with our hands out to Auntie Helen who says she will make it all better.

Jordan, how does giving people more welfare decrease abatement rates?

span said...

Gavin, what is your alternative to welfare for those in need?

How would you expect to be looked after if you couldn't support yourself or your family?

Commie Mutant Traitor said...

What about crime rates? That's one thing that the right seem to care about, and without welfare, the starving homeless people will be committing a *lot* of crime.

span said...

Good point CMT - I orginally had something about this in the post but thanks to the vagaries of blogger I lost the first version and had to write it again. It never ceases to amaze me that those who want to get tough on crime are often also the very same people who want to slash or abolish welfare. Either they can't join the dots or they really just want an excuse to put poor people behind locked doors, as far away as possible.

stephen said...

Does anyone deserve to live a life so alienated and marginalised, regardless of their age?

And following on from that, is it even in our best interests to allow this? I think not. The alienated and marginalised are the ones CMT is alluding to.

Look back to the 70s, where we went from a few beneficiaries to a great many. That's when the current multi-generation families we're wringing our hands about got started. In the late 70s and early 80s the former wage-earners in those families learned that there was nothing out there for them, and turned their backs on the rest of society. And three decades later they've taught their children. So was it welfare that did it to them? Surely not, because there was 40 years of welfare state before then. I'd say it was the death of the hope of anything better, myself.

Gavin said...

the problem is not necessarily the welfare but becoming trapped on it. We need to have a welfare system where there is an incentive to get off and earn your own money.

Just saying that welfare dependency isn't a problem doesn't make it go away.

span said...

There is incentive to get a job, but sometimes there just aren't enough jobs, or the incentive isn't enough, or someone is genuinely trapped.

Here's some incentives off the top of my head:
- self-esteem and pride (in a good way)
- not being labelled a bludger anymore
- possibly having some disposable income, and everything that goes with that
- more social interaction

But the number of unskilled jobs is dropping, and access to education is a difficult thing these days, especially for those who dropped out of school early and haven't had positive experiences with Govt agencies/education.

If society (the media, politicians, Govt agencies that you interact with, other people) treats you like crap why would you feel you have to give anything back to it?

After all there are plenty of moneyed right wing people who have lived pretty good lives who feel they shouldn't have to give anything (i.e. tax) back to their community, imagine how much more resentment there is from someone who has actually had a rough deal from school, family, the police, etc etc.

He-Hole-ad said...

span, there are just as many die-hard ideologues on the left as there are on the right - evident from postings all over the NZ-blogsphere.

The way society treats people is reflective of our attitudes as a nation. It doesn't matter what your misdemeanour or position in the social ladder, if it grabs attention you will get pilloried.

Even if you are well-off, male, and white but get caught short somehow, you will be on the receiving end of the great Kiwi clobbering machine - but having money means that it is easier to avoid (not that you will not be targetted).

Of the "incentives" you note, I think the last one is most important. Social interaction is what generates/inculcates a sense of right and wrong. You cannot develop an appreciation of how your actions affect others without the hands-on experience of interacting with a range of people.

Living below the poverty line means that you are more likely to socially limited. And if your only point of social contact is the pub, then its a lose-lose situation.

Throwing money at it doesn't automatically mean people will interact better, especially as the amount per person that would conceivably be paid is little more than the cost of dozen beers.

Somewhat ironically, the Maori Party have the opportunity to get their heads in front of the rest of the pack on this one. If one's main circle of social contact is your (extended) family, it is important that they are also "plugged into society". I have no idea how to do this, but you have to start with an idea.

Brian S said...

Span - You ask what would happen to the vulnerable in a nation without a safety net, as if no safety net would exist if government did not provide it. Yet, charitable organizations have been providing help for the needy long before welfare came into existence, and whether or not government provides assistance, there will always be people prepared to give.

Private assistance is much better than government assistance because it doesn't require that money be taken from other people by force, which is morally wrong. It can also be targeted better. One dollar given to a charitable organization will go further than the dollar in tax taken off you by the government to fund welfare.

You are concerned for those genuinely in need. Good for you. So give money and give your time. And don't be so pessimistic to think that the rest of us are so callous that we would turn a blind eye to those in need. Humans are capable of good as well as evil and this capacity for either exists irrespective of government. You must trust people to help other people on a voluntary basis. You must trust, also, that letting people keep more of their own money (by taxing them less) results in them giving more.

Forcing a person to give up some of their wealth to another person is an attack on the rights of both parties to live as individuals for themselves. Let help be given voluntarily as needed and taken voluntarily as need be.

span said...

Brian I have a lot of time and respect for the work that the many many charities active in NZ do, it is worthy stuff.

However too often they are forced to do work that should be supported and funded by the Govt directly (eg health research a la the Cancer Society), or to pick up the pieces due to the paucity of care from the Govt (eg the Auckland City Mission papering over the cracks with their foodbanks etc).

(as an aside, I also find it distressing how charities are so competitive these days, particularly in producing things to give people to acknowledge their donation - I don't need to be given a flash badge or anything in return for my donation, it is just lessening the amount of money free for doing the good work they do).

I guess you and I have a fundamental disagreement that probably can't be resolved though, Brian. I believe that part of living in a society is to pay tax, so that we can pool our collective resources and provide those things that we decide as a nation we want and are better off clubbing together on. You think tax is theft - I think it is a necessary part of a democratic structure, and indeed that you can't have democracy without some form of taxation to pay for it (and whatever it is decided democratically that the group want to do).

Brian S said...

Span - You cite examples of charities being "forced" to do work that you think should be done by government. But if charities are willing to do this work (and clearly they are), why not leave them to it?

Unlike you, I don't find it distressing that charities are competitive. That competition means that charities will become more efficient and also that lots of new knowledge about raising money will be discovered. Presumably some charities have found that by giving out badges they actually increase the amount of money coming in (it might pay you to be more concerned about the wastage that goes on in government departments before your tax dollar gets to its intended recipient).

I don't believe that disagreements can't be resolved. First off, let me say that I don't think that government can be done away with altogether (though it could just be the case that we don't have the knowledge how to do that just yet). But government should exist only to guarantee life, liberty, and property. And only that.

Clearly government needs money in order to function. The question is how this money should be raised without contradicting the ethical principles on which government should be based and without causing the collapse of society.
I must admit I don't have the all answers. I tend to favour a system based entirely on voluntary contributions, but it is hard to see all the ramifications of such a system. As a backup, I favour a system based based only on consumption.

Whatever the answer, tax should not be used for anything other than the legitimate role of government, namely protecting life, liberty, and freedom. Anything else is to use a person's money for a purpose that may be contrary to that person's judgement. And that is wrong.

Commie Mutant Traitor said...

Charities may be willing to do things they believe to be necessary but which the government fails to do, but that doesn't mean the people involved wouldn't rather be doing other things. Why should these people be forced to do all the work, while those without social consciences contribute nothing? And charities tend to be struggling at the best of times; how would they cope if the government gave up on welfare altogether and expected charities to pick up the slack? "The slack" being far more than charities are already hard pressed to manage.

What if giving out badges increases a charity's share of donations, but doesn't increase the total amount people are willing or able to donate? Competition will then result in all charities giving out badges just to end up back where they started, only worse off because of the extra expense of badge production. Yipee.

span said...

What CMT said, about charities being "forced." I should have used a different word in the context of this discussion, sorry about that.

Brian, I suspect how you and I would define what a govt ought to do would fall out quite differently - e.g. does your idea of life include access to health care, or just protection from harm? Would that protection from harm extend to things like food safety standards, or would it be restricted to assault? And then what about protection from harm to quality of life, rather than just actually dying? You see what I'm getting at here - your minimal state can grow quite quickly.

Also I'm sceptical about competition always making things more efficient. I've worked in private businesses and seen them be horrifically inefficient, even when the industry itself is highly competitive. Having a competitive environment can actually result in a lot of waste, particularly in the areas of advertising and promotion.

Just a few thoughts in my lunch break. Interesting discussion.

Brian S said...

Span - Thanks for taking the time during your lunchbreak to post those thoughts.

What exactly must a government do to guarantee our right to life, liberty, and property? The paradox of big government is that it harms that which it was meant to protect. By definition, it is more intrusive, it requires more taxes, and it needs an army of bureaucrats in order to function. Big government appropriates money, property, and freedom. Now people use their own money, property, and freedom for all sorts of purposes, but one very important purpose is to solve problems and generate new knowledge. And it is through new knowledge that we gain better ways of living and save lives.

Big government puts a dampener on our ability to create knowledge, but the really insidious thing is that this is an unseen effect; you cannot miss knowledge that is not there.

You might argue that government also solves problems and I would agree: it does. But these solutions always involve the use of force (because it is only through force that governments can get things done). For most problems – though not all - there are better solutions than ones involving force (same as with child-rearing). But with government monopolizing the problem we never get to know about these. Furthermore, government is not the best mechanism for generating knowledge. Free markets generally are far more effective because they mirror Karl Popper’s process of knowledge generation (conjecture followed by creative criticism).

So what exactly must a government do to guarantee our right to life, liberty, and property? I would say the answer depends on the times and circumstances. Generally, however, we need to recognize that small government is usually best simply because government can easily threaten that which it is supposed to protect.

On the issue of charities: If I am correct in what I say above, I would predict that big governments actually create more work for charitable organizations.

span said...

Brian S - and thank you for your sarcasm.

I could equally argue that a lack of government involvement could harm life, liberty and property. This is a bit of a pointless argument, as I said earlier, neither you nor I are going to give way anytime soon.

Besides which, governments do not monopolise problem-solving, far from it. Community groups of all sorts are always taking different approaches to problems in their communities, independent of Govt - churches are a good example.