Tuesday, April 19, 2011

How to become top nation

I listen to Radio 5 Live quite a lot, so one of the things I know about my fellow citizens is that quite a lot of them don’t like immigration. David Cameron, who I’m on the record as disliking already, recently made a speech on the subject, because we’ve got an election coming up. I didn’t listen to it but read quite a lot of what claimed to be a transcript here. He didn’t seem to say anything remarkable. I think he said he liked good immigration but not mass immigration. It’s good to know that our leader is a lover of the good, but since I haven’t ruled out mass immigration as being just what this country needs, I'm sad to see he has.

Some people think we’ve got a distinctive culture worth preserving, and that preserving it is possible if but only if we seriously curb immigration. I’m not going to talk about that today. The other thing is that a lot of people think Britain is too crowded. They say it’s a small island. Well, it’s not that small: Great Britain is the ninth largest island in the world, and if we really do fill it up there are always Northern Ireland, Anglesey and so on. It is quite crowded though: while the UK is only about the 33rd most densely populated country, many of those above it are pretty small. But this seems to me beside the point. Scotland and Wales aren’t very crowded, and there’s plenty of room for more urbanisation even in England. I’m from Wirral, and I think it’d be really cool if Wirral became as densely populated as Singapore, with skyscrapers towering over Greasby and Heswall. There’d be all the kinds of amazing things you get in cities like art galleries, lambananas and vibrant music scenes. When people asked me where I’m from they’d have heard of it, and when people asked each other where the Coral are from they wouldn't say Liverpool. Cities are amazing. What kind of country wouldn’t like another Barcelona?

One argument I sometimes hear is that if there were more people there wouldn’t be enough jobs to go round. I've never understood this. People do jobs, and people create jobs. They earn money and spend money. The Belgians aren’t rolling in cash because the money is shared among so many fewer people, and British people don’t eat five times more than Americans. That isn’t the way it works, and it’s unsurprising that that’s not the way it works.

America is the place to look for an example of what immigration can do. People came to America because it’s a great place to live, and that’s why its population is so big and how it got to be top nation. Canada is even bigger and has loads of natural resources too, but most of it is a ghastly place to live so people mostly only populated the nice bits and Canada didn’t get to be top nation. Japan’s a lot more powerful than it’d be if it was only as densely populated as France, and people take a lot more notice of Singapore than they do of Kiribati, although they're about the same size. People come to cities because they’re great, and this makes them even greater. People want to come to Britain because it’s great, and the more people come the greater it’ll be, until eventually we’re top nation and people are drawing cartoons of the US President as a poodle on our leader’s lap instead of the other way round. London didn’t get to be great by shutting everyone out once it reached the size of Bognor Regis. They spread the word that the streets were paved with gold, and now it’s one of the greatest cities in the world. More of the same, please.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Women's football update

Yesterday Spurs got dumped out of the Champions' League, but it hasn't all been doom and gloom for the beautiful game. This may be an important week for women’s football, which regular readers will know I’ve long thought should get more support. Yesterday was the first day of the inaugural season of the Women’s Super League, which is the most professional women’s league my country has ever had. And as we all know, if you want something done well, you should get a professional. The WSL is receiving about three million pounds of investment from the Football Association, and everyone seems pretty pleased about it. Or at least, women seem to be pleased about it. Jose Mourinho and David Beckham don’t seem to have been asked.

The hope is that the WSL will be more competitive than the Women’s Premier League, which has been dominated by Arsenal for ages. The FA investment is being shared around so more clubs will be able to pay more women to be at least semi-professional. That’s a step in the right direction, though it’s still way off what goes on in the US. A more competitive league should increase standards all round, but Arsenal are still top of the WSL at the moment, of course. So we probably won’t win the World Cup this year, but maybe we’ll win Canada 2015. But we probably won't win that either, because we're really not putting very much money in. Sponsors don't seem to have been that taken with it and as a result the WSL is getting a lot less financial support than was initially hoped. So I'm pleased, but I'm only a little bit pleased. I still think we should give this a try.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The sheriff of Nottingham

My country, like most countries with a welfare system, pays people not to work. This is perverse on the face of it, because we want people to work. We do check up on the people we pay not to work to see that they’re trying to lose their position as non-workers, but the biggest stigma attaches to people who commit the heinous crime of supplementing the income they get from not working by contributing to the economy a bit on the side. Those people are benefit frauds, and we run ad campaigns telling their neighbours to rat them out. But since not working isn’t something we value, it’s odd that we pay people to keep doing it and prosecute people who take the money but don’t treat their economic inactivity as a full-time job.

Of course I know how this situation arose. We don’t want anyone to go hungry or homeless but we’re too stingy to feed and house people who could pay for it themselves if we cut them loose. This leads to some people in work making little more (and sometimes a bit less) than people who don’t work. It seems unfair but it’s a price we’re willing to pay for our stinginess.

One way of looking at the current system is like this: we work out how much somebody needs to subsist, and pay that to everyone. Then we have a tax band of 100% on a worker’s first earnings up to the subsistence level. Of course when you look at it that way it seems to discourage work and disproportionately tax the poor. We counterbalance the economic disincentive by forcing people to attempt to find work, even work where all or nearly all of the pay will be taxed at 100%, on pain of prosecution or removal of their subsistence wage. It’s an ugly system.

What I’d like to see is the government paying a subsistence wage to anyone who claims it, even Richard Branson and Prince Philip. Since it goes to everyone, you wouldn’t have to pretend to find work if you wanted to live off just that, and you wouldn’t have it taken away if you worked, so there wouldn’t be the current economic incentive not to. If you lost your job you wouldn’t have to claim benefits you weren’t claiming before, or which people in the workforce weren’t getting, so I suppose there’d be less stigma attached. It’s also worth pointing out that sometimes people would benefit from what other people would spend their time doing if they didn’t have to work. There’d be more economically unviable art produced, for example. Some would be good, and if you didn’t like it you wouldn’t have to consume it. I suppose it’d improve the lot of the children of single parents, too.

Note that this shouldn’t distort the market at all. It’d change the market, of course: everything changes the market. But it shouldn’t create any inefficiency in the economic sense, because unconditional benefits don’t disincentivise exchanges which would otherwise take place and benefit both parties, because they’re unconditional. It should make the market more efficient in the obvious way that people wouldn’t have an incentive not to work, and also in a less obvious way because there wouldn’t be the same humane imperative to have a statutory minimum wage, the alternative to low-paid work not being starvation. If you wanted someone to join Alarm Clock Britain you'd have to pay them what they thought their time was worth, since they could afford not to take the job.

I suppose some people would be horrified by the idea on the grounds that the world doesn’t owe us a living. But it’s worth looking beyond the slogan to see whether this is what we really think. We already provide education up to age eighteen and most healthcare for free, even to people who could afford to pay for it themselves. We don’t charge people who can afford to pay, and we don’t cut people off from these services for not seeking work. I’m only suggesting we apply the same treatment to food and shelter that we already apply to education and healthcare. (And policing, firefighting, military protection of the national interest, drainage, roads, streetlighting, snow management, the coastguard...) Some people think there are things people deserve just for being human. I can’t remember what the term for such entitlements is at the moment, but I’m sure there is one.

So why aren’t we doing this? It isn’t because nobody has thought of it, because it’s not a new idea. I’m not economically literate enough to know which calculations to do to find out if we could afford it, so perhaps we can’t. I guess it'd be expensive, but so are the NHS, the school system and the armed forces. I’m also aware there’d be issues with children, immigrants, and the children of immigrants if a country implemented the policy unilaterally. But that doesn’t explain why we’re not even doing something a little bit like it, like cutting the de facto tax band from 100% to 80%. If I’m right that the current system is almost equivalent to a national subsistence wage and a 100% tax band for the poorest workers, then it's both economically inefficient and brutal towards the poor. And since we live in a democracy, we could do something about it.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Cutting the apron strings

My country is a monarchy, and I dislike this very much. I seldom hear our national anthem without shuddering, especially when they get to the second to last line. It’s a very silly national anthem, because it isn’t about the country. I’m actually quite a patriotic fellow for someone as beardily Guardian-reading and keen on forming a United States of Europe as I am, so it’s irritating to have this family of buffoons (most of them are buffoons) as a focus of my fellow countrymen’s patriotism. But what irritates me even more is that the arguments for abolishing the monarchy can seem so flimsy.

One argument says that the monarchy still isn’t a constitutional irrelevance, and having a constitutional relevance accountable only to a revolution is dangerous. In a sense it’s true that they’re still constitutionally relevant because various notionally royal powers like being able to declare war without parliament’s agreement or being able to decide when lifers are released from prison are de facto wielded by ministers. We could change this without abolishing the monarchy, though. One also occasionally hears that the Queen would get some real power in the event of a constitutional crisis, but it seems to be a belief exclusive to people who write letters to the Telegraph and I’ve never seen any evidence for it.

Another argument is that the monarchy is a waste of money, what with all the money we pay them directly and the money we spend on moving them around and protecting them from Gavrilo Princip. Of course this seems like money down the toilet, but some people think that they make more than they cost because of their effect on tourism. It’d be a shame to abolish the monarchy to save money if it turned out to be a false economy. Perhaps some proper research should be done into it, instead of monarchists and republicans asserting what they would like to be true on the basis of no evidence at all.

The other problem with them is that they’re a nuisance and a national embarrassment, running around saying un-PC things, not taking their socks off in the Golden Temple and torpedoing any architectural projects that would look out of place on a chocolate box. They make us look like idiots, and there's nothing we can do about it. But people accept that sort of thing from their children, as I don't think I'm the first to point out. We let them have a go at doing various jobs, make foreign businessmen shake their hands and say 'hello Andrew, haven't you got big!'; we support them financially, we won’t shut up when one of them gets married, and when one dies they are mourned. Now I don’t feel at all paternal towards the royals and wish they’d go away, stop asking us for money and never darken our doors again. I don't care when they get born/married/killed any more than I care about these things happening to anyone else. They are, lest this sound callous, not my children. But a lot of people seem fond of them, and if enough people want some collective children then that’s what a democracy can be expected to provide.

Another argument says that there is a useful constitutional or at least ambassadorial role to be played by a proper head of state, and we’re missing out on this by only having a pretend one. I expect this is true. Other countries want to talk to our head of state whether she’s a proper one or not, so perhaps it should be someone we’ve elected and given some real power. (Perhaps there’s something to be said for according people respect in a non-arbitrary way.) And some countries’ heads of state do have real power, even if it’s only for resolving constitutional crises. What are the alternatives? Is everywhere with a proper head of state wasting their money? Or are we missing out? I don't see how we can both be right. So maybe there is a case for cutting the royals loose, in spite of my fellow countrymen’s unexplained fondness for them.