The Obscurer

Pensioned Off

If you’ve read my previous post, where I mention that I work in the public sector, then you are no doubt jealous of the fact that my pension allows me to “swan off” at 60 when everyone else will have to work until they are 68 before they retire; at least you will if you have been reading what the media has been saying for the past month or so.

Unlike many bloggers I have a fairly benign opinion of the mainstream media; but it has been frustrating recently to see many commentators I respect blithely trot out this “two tier pension” rubbish recently. I will briefly explain what I mean.

Firstly, I would have thought it is pretty obvious that if the state retirement age is raised then that affects everyone equally, wherever they work. This seems to have escaped the critical faculties of most newspapers; I may be able to retire at 60, but I will still have to wait until I am 67/68 before I get my state pension.

Secondly, the current average retirement age is 58 (according to a copy of the Daily Express I saw lying around, so I am happy for that figure to be proved wrong); that is short of 65 and even a couple of years shy of 60. So, regardless of the age you can draw your pension, most people I suspect will retire as soon as they can afford to, whenever that may be.

The main difference with my position compared to many in the private sector is that I cannot be prevented from retiring at 60 and drawing my pension; but that is not to say that I will be able to. I hope to retire earlier; I may well have to retire later, and work until my occupational pension is supplemented by my state pension. We will have to see how the sums work out.

The fact is that every pension scheme, everywhere, is having to look at how affordable its benefits are. As long as the benefits can be funded, then I don’t see it matters when people retire, or what pension they receive. If the only way my pension fund can remain solvent is for my retirement age to be put back five years then I personally am not bothered by that fact. All things should be considered, but whatever they do it won’t change the age at which I actually want to retire.

The point is that this is another silly and simplistic difference between the public and private sectors. There isn’t a two tier retirement age, rather there is a multi tier retirement age in theory (as many retirement ages as there are different pensions schemes) and an almost infinite number of retirement ages in practice (the age at which people actually finish work). My wife’s private sector occupational pension states she should work until 65, but as the benefits she will receive are higher than in mine she may be able to retire earlier than I can if her employers can let her go. If you have your own personal private pension then you can retire whenever you want, just as long as your pension pot has built up enough money for you to be paid a reasonable annuity.

I do feel fortunate to be a member of my pension scheme, don’t get me wrong, I know it is better than most; but if you think I will have a 7 year head start on you, sat on a beach while you serve out your time, then think again. As ever, real life is a bit more complicated than that.

Either / Or

There have been some interesting posts over at The Filter^ recently. This one, on the subject of drinking, harks back to an earlier post on the same subject, and follows the author’s usual line that government action will invariably make matters worse, that there are free market solutions to our problems. As usual, Anthony makes some insightful points, most of which I agree with, but I think he seems to just take things a bit too far and reveals what I feel are some of his prejudices.

My attitude to the recent relaxation in the licensing laws is that it is a good thing. Just because some people will overdo it with 24 hour drinking doesn’t mean I should be prevented from having a beer after eleven. The idea that every town centre is a war-zone at the weekend is a myth; I regularly go into Stockport on a Friday (and to a dreaded Wetherspoons to boot) and I cannot think of the last time I saw any trouble there. However, I also work for one of the emergency services, and I know that there is plenty of violence and disorder every night that is entirely drink related. I suppose my attitude is that we should let the free market do what the free market does, but accept that there will likely be externalities as a result, and that we may have to accept an increased role for the public sector, not in opposition to the private sector, but as a consequence of it.

I think that is pretty much my opinion in general; that the free market is the best way of organising things, that is should certainly be given the first go at providing our goods and services, but that we shouldn’t get bogged down in an ideology that the market always knows best. It makes sense to me to accept that the pursuit of profit does not necessarily provide the perfect desired outcome, and that when it fails we shouldn’t begrudge the fact that a public sector solution may be required, and should be valued for what it provides. At the same time, we must be aware that public sector involvement may very well make a situation worse than it was in the first place; we shouldn’t place all of out faith in either sector.

Returning to The Filter^ then; it was this part of Anthony’s original post that got me thinking. Considering an archetypal weekend night he says

The emergency services can complain all they want about how expensive it is to look after us all on a Saturday night, but this merely hints at the underlying problem. If you wish to nanny, expect children. With no financial penalty for drunkenness and irresponsibility – if the public purse picks up the bill, then of course people will make unwise decisions. For those who advocate socialised services that erode personal responsibility, funding A&E is a fair cost.

It is a well written paragraph, and but it seems to start from the point that government and all its agents are to blame and deserve no sympathy for their predicament; but aren’t they really just dealing with the consequences of standard human nature and behaviour? Is there any reason to believe that the welfare state’s nannying has influenced disorder at the weekend? Is it not just down to drunks getting lairy (on drinks bought from private sector providers!)? It sounds as if Anthony believes that the emergency services almost deserve their fate; as if because they are government employees they are complicit in the dependency culture that spawns disorder (when in fact we are far too jaundiced to have a benevolent attitude towards welfarism).

Anthony’s answer is of course that the free market can sort out our problems. It is licensing restrictions and local government red tape that mean only large companies can get planning permission for large bars; cut red tape and a thousand pleasant cafés will bloom (perhaps). But there has been a relaxation of just such regulations in recent years, and with it we have seen an increase in violent disorder and alcohol related crime; I am not suggesting there is a definite cause and effect here, but the facts seem plain. In his response to my comments on his most recent post Anthony suggests that scrapping the NHS and getting people to take out private health insurance will mean people may be hit in the pocket if they kick off and so are more likely to behave; but there already is a financial disincentive in the form of fines and possible imprisonment if you are drunk and disorderly or commit a public order offence, and how many people who get into scrapes will think about the financial implications of responding to a drunken taunt in a pub? How many even bother to go to A&E as it is for their split lip or bust eye? Anthony also suggests the police shouldn’t take drunken brawls between people who like a battle too seriously, and I am sure they would agree; but the police (unlike private sector companies) cannot, and arguably shouldn’t, pick and choose what they deal with. Surely they shouldn’t judge but should just uphold the law and deal with any transgressions they see? I don’t really see how else they should operate.

Anthony is a staunch advocate of the free market, and rightly so; but I think if he has an Achilles heel it is because he doesn’t realise that I am too. He seems to resent almost any action the state may engage in, and to see any argument in favour of public sector action, or any criticism of free market realities, as betraying a statist “government knows best” attitude.

But I have worked in the public sector long enough to know that I don’t fancy any casual extension of the government’s powers, I don’t want the state running more than it has to. The problem is that I have also worked in the private sector long enough to know that they seem little better, and that they share many of the problems and frustrations you find working for the state. To criticise one needn’t mean you have unquestioning faith in the other

Is it impossible to marvel at and embrace the market economy, to be grateful for what it provides us both on its own terms and certainly when compared to the alternatives; and yet to also acknowledge that there is a limit to what it can achieve, that it isn’t perfect, that there are times when the only solution may be government action, and that we can welcome and value that just as highly? It needn’t be a case of either/or, but both, working in partnership to create and protect the wealth and liberties that surely we all value?