The unemployment game

The last time I signed on was when I left university. It was during the dotcom crash and I was discovering that applying for a job was much more nuanced than the governments approved advice to school children had prepared me for. One had to think about the jobs and your skills carefully, and find the right sources of jobs. I quickly worked out that the job center was only good for claiming benefits.

Anyway, when I got to the job centre (a short car journey away) I was told off for not filling in a form listing the companies I’d applied to. I had been persuaded that the allowance was an entitlement that I should take even though I was not exaclty destitute, and the form was a condition of getting my job seeker’s allowance. It seemed entirely reasonable at the time since the idea of the form, I remember, was to ensure I’d been seeking a job.

The form had 3 slots and I’d left my copy blank. Plainly, there was going to be some difficulty claiming job seekers allowance if I could not claim to have contacted at least three companies in, what was it? two weeks? What was I thinking?

Well, I had my trusty notebook with me, with a list of at least 12 companies that I had phoned or sent letters to and all the scribbled notes next to each set of details. Rather than saying “maybe try quality rather than quantity”, or anything remotely sensible the woman signing me on said “please remember to fill in the official form next time”.

She barely even glanced at my notebook.

employment-game-score-5I know IDS has been trying to tighten things up a bit, but I was still surprised when someone at work sent me this “Realistic Unemployment Simulator” from “Us v Them”. The amusing game, which lampoons Ian Duncan Smith as lofty and out-of-touch gives you a limited time to walk your character between the house, job centre, mandatory job interviews, and mandatory voluntary work. As the game progresses racing around to eat, seek work, claim benefits and train becomes physically impossible. My maximum score was 6 job interviews.

Sure it’s been 12 years since I was last unemployed and I was 12 years younger at the time. It was also a situation that quickly resolved itself by, first of all, contacting an agency for a few days work. I ended up putting the rubber bits in double glazed windows in a freezing hanger full of sharp metal edges, a process that involved getting super-glue all over my hands. I never got to know how much heat was turned up on people who were out of work for more than a few months but my experience of over-delivering on the requirements by a factor of 4 simply does not gel with the message of this silly game. Sure, it was a tricky business, but I did have time remaining to experiment with baking bread and to complete Max Payne.

I am probably not the only person to have had a similar encounter with the benefit system after leaving University. We have now grown up, got experience, and are in jobs. They may not, if they are lucky, have signed on for 12 years and all they will remember is the ridiculousness of the controls the system had in place when they last claimed. I think the left, to be taken seriously, needs less of the whiny multimedia presentations prepared by well off IT professionals and should generate memes that explain why they think it is so damned hard to find a job. Thier message in this “realistic simulator” is not that it is tricky, but that it is physically impossible to do. There may very well be good reasons to think it is physically impossible, I am not claiming JSA now, but that is not my experience and is not going to be the experience of very many more people like me who have gone on to pay for the system.

Dutch ditch committment to welfare state

King Willem-Alexander, in a speech written by the Dutch government is quoted as saying:

King Willem-AlexanderThe classic welfare state of the second half of the 20th century in these areas in particular brought forth arrangements that are unsustainable in their current form.

The Independent (and Guido where I found this) are calling this the end of the welfare state. The alternative is that “people must take responsibility for their own future and create their own social and financial safety nets, with less help from the national government”.

A step in the right direction.

Decentralising welfare

With welfare a hot issue, I thought it might be helpful to summarise my tactical ideas on this topic. Note that the focus of these ideas is on long term joblessness, although various other problems could be solved the same way.

A reminder of what I was trying to achieve:

Turning off the welfare taps would not happen, and if it did there would be social unrest like you have never seen. [..] a reformer needs to provide some level of service of the existing kind and either reduce it slowly, introduce healthy incentives, or both. The services would need to include job seekers allowance, disability benefit and practical assistance programs such as job centres and training programs, but would need to be slowly changed to ensure recipients are genuine and that the schemes really work cost effectively.

© Helen Cobain

© Helen Cobain

And here in bullet point form are the key steps and details of the plan:

  1. make welfare a hyper local service – still state run and state funded but run at the parish or borough level. Because we basically cannot get this right and to incentivise market based restructuring later, we deliberately choose to make each provider a little too small to be self-sustaining.
  2. change funding flows to cut out middlemen – payments would start to flow direct from payroll departments to local providers. A tapering subsidy would ensure stability. The choice of provider would follow a simple rule e.g. based on your postcode. The payments would be treated as deductable, since they replace a tax, and the scheme is therefore revenue neutral.
  3. make the choice of provider free – this allows competition and new innovative market participants to enter, with some stability ensured by the subsidies and the fact payments are still compulsory. Failing providers would be allowed to go bankrupt. Frankly, things would already be a lot better if you stopped here and you might certainly leave things alone for a bit.
  4. make payments voluntary – including higher and lower amounts. The scale of payments would then always be proportionate to need as perceived by the payer. I’m certain the media (and trade associations) would ensure payers are well informed as to that level.

What has been done at this point is a transition back to voluntary Friendly Societies as the main service provider, but we have also achieved a “big bang” that opens up the market to all sorts of innovate players, including for profit welfare providers, non-geographic providers, the whole lot. There would be no restrictions on who provided welfare.

If you like this plan, please share it via social media. I certainly consider it important and if you agree it is an important idea why not press the “Important” button and make that known anonymously (you are asked to login, for stats etc).

Alternatively, if you think there is something wrong with this proposal, say so in the comments. It’s important we have well-formed alternatives rather than just being grouchy.

Why welfare is just not cricket

Tonight is the second part of a BBC series called “Nick and Margaret: We All Pay Your Benefits”. I didn’t know about the program in time to see part one, and am probably not alone, so hopefully this post will sever to alert readers to it. It’s on tonight 11th July at 9.00pm. On the program Taxpayers are to be pitched against welfare claimants to decide how much welfare is enough welfare. The titular “Nick and Margaret” are two of the people from the Apprentice which would appear to give the taxpayers a home advantage, but – without having seen a single second of the program – I can already predict that they have lost. I want to explain why that is genuinely sad news.

What kind of thinking leads to people to support welfare? People complain that the “freedom to starve to death” is no freedom at all. What those people desire is the opposite, the “freedom to never starve to death” but that freedom that is not available to anyone. It is part of the nature of a living being that it must eat eventually or it’s life processes will fade out and come to a halt. The freedom that is possible, and which is often denied us, is the freedom to act in any way the individual desires to try to feed itself. Of course, success is not guaranteed, such a guarantee would amount to the same impossible freedom to never starve.

What is really being asked for here is the freedom “to never have been born”, for it is freedom from the imposition of having been born that the welfare claimant and their liberal supporters seek when they ask for freedom from their nature as a living thing. They ask for freedom from the need – shared by every animal – to feed itself.

I do believe there are some “lazy” welfare claimants who talk themselves out of work because it is simply not necessary for them. I don’t want to rag on them, where it is not the fault of systemic failures, their problem is essentially psychological. People allow themselves to stay in an unhealthy place, but that is an easy mistake to make. Objectivists call that category of mistake a moral failing – a failure to make good long term decisions – but it is mostly an individual failing and not of the same scale as what I want to discuss. What I have a genuine problem with is the political system set up to allow claimants – often with no controls, and often called an “entitlement” – to live at the expense of the rich.

In practice it is the middle class that pay the bulk of taxes and pay for all the welfare bills. Nick and Margaret are doing them a disservice by fronting the show as rich business people, but let’s not get distracted by that. The basic premise and is what I have a problem with: the premise that it is okay to take away wealth from the successful to give it to any claimant so that they can feed themselves. This gives the claimant freedom from starvation at the expense of the richer persons’ right to life, and to freedom of action. I think this is disastrous economically, creating the same unemployment it is supposed to fight – but I don’t actually have a massive problem with that either. That is an error of knowledge. The problem that really exercises me is that the right to life – to ownership, control and enjoyment of precious irreplaceable hours – is thwarted and lives taken away.

On average, nearly half of all working days in the UK are taken away on this premise. Nobody gives those lives back to the tax payer. Mises proved this would not be possible, even if attempted. We work at the optimal time of day and dedicate “working days” to the pursuit of work. We call them “working days” for that reason; they are not days dedicated to any other purpose and for half of the time those dedicated days are diverted to deal with the essentially psychological problems of people we don’t have the time to go and meet. In this way what is taken is the very best of people’s time. Each working day is a day not spent at rest. Every working day is a day not spent with family, not spent pursuing the arts, not thinking about spiritual matters, nor trading – at the optimal time of day – with others in pursuit of these kinds of goal. It is the very best, most useful parts of somebody’s life that welfare recipients take away. Although the quantities are high, they are not important – it’s simply not okay to take away someone’s life, not even a little bit of it.