The Obscurer

Cui Bono

I’m going to write that post if it kills me.

Not this post. Oh no, not this post. This post I’m dashing off because it seems to me that lots of people are missing the point about the impending changes to child benefit. And after all, erroneously thinking I’ve a cogent response when others are missing the point is the only reason to keep this blog this side of the mothballs. No, I’m saying I’m going to write that post if it kills me, the post I’ve spent the past fortnight trying to find the time and inclination to finish off.

But enough about that post. The point of this post is to address to the fact that (almost?) every report over the past few days referring to the half-brained clusterfuck that is the government’s “plan” for child benefit has been premised on the fictional idea of one household with a single-earner on an income of £80,000 losing their child benefit, while the dual-income household next door bringing in two incomes of £40,000 are allowed to keep theirs. Oh the humanity!

Perhaps. But why get hung up on child benefit? If we leave that to one side for a minute, the anomaly we are all suddenly getting worked up about is baked into the tax system already. Let’s take those two households again, each with the same gross income of £80,000; even without child benefit the household with two incomes will be better off in the first place due to their having two tax-free personal allowances; add in the fact that the single-earner household will then pay some of its income tax at the higher 40% rate while the dual-earners only pay at 20% and you could say we have another inequity right there.

This objection to the child benefit plans, then, rather than highlighting some terrible new unfairness, in fact just illustrates an existing quirk regarding how individuals, couples and households are taxed in this country, and how clunky our system already is. Things are complicated even further once National Insurance is factored in; something that slightly benefits the single-earner household in this example, but more by accident than design, and which in truth provides yet another layer of clunkiness. But it is a clunkiness that universal benefits such as child benefit can ameliorate; they are simple to understand, cheap to implement, given to all so that the deserving* receive them while the undeserving* get them taxed away elsewhere while they’re not looking. The alternative is complicated rubbish that the deserving* don’t claim for while the undeserving* pay their accountants to collect for them. Despite all Iain Duncan Smith’s talk of a universal credit, the direction of travel seems to be towards the latter.

The real daftness about these child benefit reforms is not so much the aforementioned and well-worn scenario of two fictional households, but more the case of an individual who earns just above the higher-rate income tax threshold and who, while paying 40% tax on but a fraction of their income, will also lose all of their Child Benefit at a stroke, potentially leaving them with a lower net income than a supposed lower earner situated just below the threshold. I don’t know if there is such a thing as a negative marginal tax rate, but if there is then this government has just found it. So well done them.

You’d almost think they’d cooked up a nefarious scheme to serve as an object lesson in the value of universal benefits, only they haven’t. This isn’t so much the “cliff edge” problem people have been talking about as some demonic game of financial Snakes and Ladders. Now, the government has stated it is looking into methods to deal with the problems thrown up by their half-baked plan dreamt up overnight to grab headlines during a party conference. But what?

Well I suppose they could concoct some further sort of means test, devise a kind of taper system, this would necessitate implementing an appeals process, and of course a review system when the wrong amounts are paid out…basically bugger about with child benefit until it is as expensive to administer and inefficient as the rest of the benefits system. Alternatively you could leave child benefit as is, and expend your energies instead on trying to make the the tax and benefits system in general more simple and straight forward.

I’d favour the latter myself, perhaps utilising something as a benchmark so we can gauge our progress, that of an actually existing example of a simple and efficient benefit. Child benefit, say?


*There must be some better terms to use here rather than “deserving” and “undeserving”, but I can’t think of them. Intended target group and unintended target group? Optimal and sub-optimal recipients? They sound almost as clunky as the government’s plans for reforming child benefit.

Morality Play

After Sunday’s derby match, and United’s defeating of City, a couple of tweets caused some mirth in the obvious quarters. Namely this

and this!/OfficialMR2/status/156041128662155264

The mocking responses were many and varied. “Good luck in the Fourth Round of the Moral Cup”, for example. And “enjoy your Moral Cup success”. And, “here’s to the Moral Cup Winners 2012”. And, well, mainly that same joke, really, over and over and over.

And fair enough, I guess. We lost, and claiming a moral victory is pushing it. But our performance was excellent, and the thing is, I know where Messrs Kompany and Richards are coming from; indeed it’s not a million miles away from what I was feeling after the match. To be precise, I remember saying “it’s not quite a moral victory, but it doesn’t feel far off.” And judging by the reactions of the fans in the stadium, subsequent conversations with other City supporters, and even Alex Ferguson’s downbeat assessment following his side’s 3-2 win, I’m far from alone here. (I also knew that, a couple of days later, being out of the cup, that fine feeling would count for nothing. And here we are.)

So damn those players for expressing themselves a little clumsily, if you like; yes, damn them all. And bring on your ridicule and your opprobrium. But we can take it. In fact we can do better than that. The fact that the players and the fans felt so positive in defeat to our bitterest rival, and so in tune with each other despite our cup exit, is something I take as a hugely encouraging sign.

Because, ultimately, I think it all comes down to whether or not you believe there is more to football than merely winning matches. I certainly do, and I don’t believe you’re a true football fan if you don’t. Real supporters know the thrill of a tightly drawn game, and the boredom of a functional victory; they recognise how a battling defeat can give hope for the future, while a fortuitous win may merely paper over the cracks. Not surprising, then, if for certain United fans – the kind, say, who equate a lack of trophies with a lack of history – this is a concept they they simply fail to grasp, and so find ripe for mockery. Gratifying too that, despite our recent influx of petrodollars, it is something that so many City fans do still understand.

For now, at least.

Divide And Rule

The worst thing about yesterday’s strike by public sector workers was the fact that you just knew it would give rise to some people trotting out a load of tired old bollocks in the ongoing private sector versus public sector ding-dong; and you were right, witnessing the testing of the “little knowledge is a dangerous thing” motif to destruction by people missing the point by several counties. You know the sort of thing, so I won’t go into detail (although, for what it’s worth, I’m beginning to deduct points for those who refer to the private sector as the wealth-creating, productive part of the economy, as that’s just too hackneyed and ignorant to ignore any further).

That said, one of the complaints I read, numerous times over, was the furious assertion that don’t you know it’s the private sector that pays for the public sector in the first place, providing the slackers with their pensions, and their wages?! Now this, it seems to me, is undeniable. It also doesn’t appear to be a problem. Where does this sense of grievance come from, I wonder?

Put another way, rather than clefting the nation in twain and labelling us as either public sector workers or private sector workers, why don’t we use the terms government workers and non-government workers instead? Lest we forget that it’s the non-government workers who are the ones who pay their taxes to finance those wages and pensions for government workers? It’s a disgrace I tell you, something must be done!

Oh really? How about, just for fun, we cut the pie a different way? Talking of pies (and pasties!) how about we divide the country into Greggs employees and non-Greggs employees? Did you know that it’s down to the non-Greggs employees to hand over their hard-earned cash to feather the beds of those pampered Greggs workers, with their wages, and their pensions, and their natty uniforms! It’s an outrage! Oh…er…hang on; that doesn’t actually sound unreasonable, does it? More like a mere a statement of fact, in fact. What’s the difference?

Basically, nothing*. Taxpayers pay for government, customers pay for Greggs. Otherwise, it’s as you are. The reason they are considered differently is down to ideological oafishness. No one would dream of getting angry at Greggs workers for having a decent pension paid for by the likes of you and me. And yet…and yet…

…we get the common sight of newspaper columnists, sneering down their noses at public sector workers who earn a fraction of their salary, and demanding they endure a shittier retirement. And incidentally that, if anything, is the problem with Jeremy Clarkson’s comments. Not that he’s said something controversial (yawn†); he made a joke, and as is his way, it wasn’t all that funny. It’s the suggestion that behind the joke lies the unsurprising lack of self-awareness of a pampered rich man looking down on others while pocketing a handsome cheque from the state broadcaster. He’s a tit.

In summary, then, yes; it’s the private sector that pays for the public sector. But that isn’t a matter to feel aggrieved about; it’s a matter of bookkeeping.

PostScript: Another post! And a vaguely topical one! Good God! Can I keep it up?

*You get further points deducted for stating that we can choose to shop at Greggs but we’re forced to pay for government. True, but irrelevant.

This, for what it’s worth is the correct response to whatever Clarkson says or does. For heaven’s sake don’t complain. It just makes you look silly.

I Have Nothing To Offer But Blood, Sweat, Gravy And Egg

You’d be forgiven for thinking that this blog has entered the terminal stage of its weary life cycle; indeed, you may believe it’s exited that stage and is done and dusted already. And you may be right. But the road to hell is paved with intentions, good and bad, and I intend to “reboot” this place, if reboot is the right phrase, and starting now. Or nearly now.

I’d been finding it increasingly difficult to find the time, inclination and trousers with which to blog, and so at the turn of the year decided to go on a hiatus, and to make the most of the remaining time I had left with the kids until they were both in full-time education. So I set September as my intended return date and put my feet up. In May I had my latest and last dust up with some phishers trying set up home in the hidden nooks and crannies of my self-hosted blog, and so I also resolved to leave the cuckoos to it and move over to, which I’ve done, and which explains the exciting fresh new look to this site. Now, with the kids in school and the removal of the distraction of having to maintain and update my own website, I reckoned I would suddenly have plenty of free time in which to write stuff and put the world to rights. Yet here we are in November, and nothing; not a word.

Oh I’ve got excuses, but they’re not interesting. And during my absence I can’t say I’ve exactly been straining at the leash to break my self-imposed abstinence. There was a brief moment when I thought I’d write about the summer riots, but before long I was so fed up with the claptrap being spouted by all sides, with people, as ever, proclaiming an absolute knowledge of the unknowable which conveniently also fully vindicated their existing prejudices that I completely withdrew from all news and comments programmes and turned off twitter because it was pissing me off (in particular the views of people I habitually agree with pissed me off, which I find really depressing; the David Starkey’s of this world can just be dismissed as twats.)

But I do like to write, and so I intend to return. And if nothing else I have rafts of drafts; posts which I had abandoned because before I’d finished them they’d stopped being topical; the world had moved on and I felt I’d run out of time. And now I have the time, theoretically*. I’m also, to my mind, the master of l’esprit de l’escalier; or in my case more like l’esprit de l’escalier, l’entrance hall, la rue extérieur et alors dans mon maison avec un cup de thé et un croissant, et quatre jour après le fact. You see, an event will have been in the news, but rather than have something to say there and then it’ll be days later when I’m still mulling it over that I suddenly come up with a killer line, or what I feel passes for a killer line. But I’d think it too late, now, to come over all smart, a bit silly to revisit old news, and so I’d let it slip. So from now on, on this blog, it’s never too silly to revisit old news, as long as I think I’ve got a feeble comment to make. And a draft is never too long in the tooth that it can’t still be published. If I think I’ve got something interesting to say then you’re going to get it, right between the eyes, and topicality be damned. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

And that, more or less, is that, for now; a tentative new mission statement for the all new Obscurer. Same as the old Obscurer. Stick around if you fancy your chances. This could go either way.

*Just re-read that line. Doesn’t really make sense in this context. Oh well. Fuck it.


Normal service is resumed…