On Working Poverty, And Living in Omelas

John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, for whom I have a great deal of time, is backing a campaign to require employers to agree, voluntarily, to pay what is deemed to be the Living Wage, rather than the rather lower National Minimum Wage. The Living Wage is set at £7.65 an hour, or £8.80 in London; the minimum wage is £6.31.

None of these exactly represent a king’s ransom – or even a half-way decent salary in London at least. The phrase “working poverty” is used to describe people in employment but still on the breadline. I asked the chief executive of a company with an interest in the jobs market about this. He said any increase in the amount businesses had to pay their employees threatened their competitiveness and could derail the economic recovery. This is the standard line put out by the business lobby.

It doesn’t seem to address the question, though. Any company that pays its staff so little that they are required to take state benefits to bring themselves up to a decent standard of living, as we assess it, is being subsidised by the state, that is, by you or me out of our taxes. Their business model requires the employment of low cost staff whose wages are then topped up by the very people who are probably also their customers.

There are companies like this, in the hospitality or catering sectors, and elsewhere. As a business writer, this does not seem to me to be a sustainable model, nor one that exactly equates with the free market such firms generally claim to support. One suspects such employers are the first to complain when the state intervenes in business elsewhere.

There is a broader philosophical point here. The American writer Ursula Le Guin wrote a thought-provoking story four decades ago, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”. It is an allegory about a city of that name where life is perfect for everyone. This utopia has one flaw. It is predicated on the existence, deep in a basement below the city, of a child who is forced to live out its life in filth and abject misery.

On reaching adulthood, every citizen would be taken to see this child and told that any attempt to alleviate that misery would mean the perfect life enjoyed by everyone else would automatically disappear. Most accepted the bargain; a small minority each year would walk away from the city, to a more uncertain, less perfect future.

What Le Guin was doing, of course, was examining the philosophy of utilitarianism. This says that any society should attempt to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number. If this meant that a number of people led less than perfect lives, then this was an acceptable bargain. Most societies in history have operated on that basis. It is clear what Le Guin’s view was.

We live in Omelas. The strength of the London economy, and on the UK’s as a whole, is dependent on a large class of poorly paid labour, often immigrant, who put up with lives that would not be tolerated by most of the population.

These are the hidden people. You see them out of the corner of your eye, groups of shabbily-dressed men standing smoking at the street corner at dawn, waiting for the van. The cleaners who start work in the small hours, the care home staff working 16-hour days.

Should they be paid a wage sufficient to fund a decent lifestyle, or should the wages those jobs pay be forced to rise to a level where they might tempt the indigenous population and obviate the need for immigrant labour, we are told economic growth would sputter and cease. We accept the bargain. Few walk away from Omelas. But at least someone is asking the question.


On Horace Silver

Horace Silver has died. Not exactly a household name, but one of the founders of the form of jazz known as “hard bop”, a rather formulaic style in which players took it in turns to take solos over a robust backing rhythm. As it happens, I bought a couple of his CDs at the weekend, usual silly price from FOPP in Cambridge.

You will know his best known tune, “Song For My Father”. At least if you were alive and sentient in the early 1970s, you would. It was abstracted, shamelessly, as the backing rhythm to Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number”. In those days, we didn’t call it sampling, we called it plagiarism. The Becker/Fagen writing partnership were well versed in jazz and would have known the tune. No harm in it, though. It’s a good song.

The number of successful legal actions for musical plagiarism are remarkably few, probably because in previous years the average judge had difficulty telling one pop song from another. Rod Stewart accidentally recycled a Brazilian tune, “Taj Mahal” by Jorge Ben, for “Do You Think I’m Sexy”, probably heard it in a Brazilian bar somewhere. If you heard it, you’d have no doubt of the connection.

George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” was reckoned to have been based on an old 1963 hit, “He’s So Fine”. Led Zeppelin were recently accused of lifting “Stairway To Heaven” from an old instrumental by the West Coast band Spirit.

You’d know “Song For My Father”. Or at least the opening notes. Da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum…

Sunni vs Shia

Last autumn our Parliament rejected a motion put before the House by David Cameron that would “if necessary” have meant military intervention in the civil war in Syria, against the forces of President Assad.

This was the first time, apparently, that the Commons had voted against a British prime minister’s foreign policy since 1782.

Assad practises a form of Islam that makes him a Shia, one side of the divide that has split the Islamic world since the 8th Century. The forces that are ranged against him are largely Sunni, the other half of that divide. Theologically, Shia Islam believes temporal power should reside with religious leaders. Sunni Islam believes power should belong to political, rather than religious, leaders.

That is an over-simplification, but good enough for us now. Sunni Islam is seen as analogous to Roman Catholicism, more established, more mainstream. Shi’ism is more like Protestantism, generally the underdog. Again, an over-simplification but good enough.

Iran is Shia. Assad is Shia. The current regime in Bagdad is Shia, and biased against Sunnis. Saudi Arabia is Sunni, as are other Gulf states, though they have substantial and restive Shia minorities that are supported by Iran and ruthlessly repressed by the ruling regimes.

This fight has been going on for 1,300 years and has set nation against nation. The (Sunni) Ottomans fought regular wars against the (Shia) Persians in medieval times, for example. Experts who I respect say it may take three decades for the current outbreak of hostilities to resolve itself, and the borders of the Middle East to be redrawn again.

The people behind Isis, the fanatics who are moving through Iraq towards Bagdad, are Sunni. They are, one might almost say, uniquely horrible among fanatical Islam, and have as their aim the establishment of a super-state covering much of the Middle East. Within it, they have made clear, there is no place for Shias, who will be exterminated. Except that there is probably some other splinter group even more horrible out there. Boko Haram?

We are now told we may have to intervene on behalf of Bagdad, a corrupt Shia regime, against the Sunnis who are invading. Having been told to fight for the Sunnis against (Shia) Assad, we now must support Shia Bagdad against Sunni Isis, which has itself spilled over from the (Sunni) forces opposing Assad.

You would be right to be confused. But do we really have a dog in this particular fight?

Death On The NHS

This is beyond parody, surely. The Guardian has dug up a report from a Washington-based foundation that says the NHS is the world’s best health care system among developed countries.

This might come as a surprise to those of us who have experienced some Continental health services – the Spanish one comes to mind, on a personal note. The study, by the Commonwealth Fund, “respected around the world”, finds the NHS scores highest for quality, access and efficiency. The US ranks at the bottom of the table of 11 nations.

There is just one minor drawback with the Envy Of The World. The NHS ranks bottom but one on a composite “healthy lives” score. This includes factors such as infant deaths and the number of people who would otherwise have survived had they received the right treatment on time, though the Fund thinks this might have something to do with social and economic factors.

As the paper puts it, apparently without irony, “the only serious black mark against the NHS was its poor record on keeping people alive.”

Yes, one can see how that might be regarded as serious.

The Man Who Wants To Run Europe

The man who wants to run Europe is annoyed that the British media are taking an interest in him. Jean-Claude Juncker, the Eurocrats’ choice to run the European Commission, is complaining about the intrusion into his private life – to The Guardian, probably the only newspaper that could greet his claims with a straight face.

One of the things politicians have to put up with is people wanting to know who they are, what they believe and what plans they might have for ordering everyone’s lives. It rather goes with the territory.

Juncker’s views are not entirely clear. He once described the Lisbon treaty thus: “The constitutional treaty was an easily understandable treaty. This is a simplified treaty which is very complicated.” He was, to be fair, joking.

Juncker owes his pre-eminence to having been Prime Minister of Luxembourg for almost two decades. He is therefore about to become one of the most powerful men in Europe because he used to run a tiny country that, by rights, should not really exist.

Much of the 18th Century map of central Europe was a patchwork quilt of tiny duchies, margravates and palatinates, run by aristocrats of varying degrees of dottiness. Gradually these were absorbed into new countries like Germany and Italy.

They somehow missed Luxembourg, population half a million, who enjoy the second highest GDP per head on Earth, state motto “We want to remain what we are.” (Likewise Lichtenstein, an Alpine country about the size of a large shipping container and mainly of interest to tax avoiders. A country which has the unique distinction of having been invaded recently by the Swiss. By mistake.)

That Luxembourgeoise motto is ironic, given Juncker’s keenness for making everyone part of a super-state, whether they want it or not. He said of the French referendum in 2005 over the Lisbon treaty: “If it’s a yes, we will say, on we go, and if it’s a no, we will say, we continue.”

 Luxembourg was created out of the same geopolitical carve-up that gave us Belgium, another country that isn’t. Juncker is therefore in line for the presidency of the European Commission because he once ran a polity about the size of Sheffield which only exists because of a historical quirk. Only in the EU…


On Smoking, and the NHS

I met a chief executive the other day who refuses to employ smokers. Not out of personal antipathy to the habit, but on purely commercial grounds. He has a lot of employees in the US, and offers medical care as part of their remuneration package. This is more expensive if they are smokers.

He made an interesting suggestion. It is increasingly obvious that we cannot afford to maintain the National Health Service in its current form. The drugs are getting more and more expensive, people are living longer and requiring more treatment. This is a fact. The NHS is not, a couple of decades hence, going to be able to continue as it is.

Something will have to be done, and it will require a departure from the founding principles of “free at the point of delivery”. Why not, my chief executive suggested, charge people according to the extent that their lifestyles, smoking, drinking, obesity, whatever, contributed to their need for treatment?

If you are treated for a smoking-related condition, you get charged for treatment. Ditto all those other bad lifestyle choices. Lead a blameless life, as healthy as possible, and you don’t get charged when you need the NHS.

There is one counter-argument. If you smoke, you and your fellows already contribute billions in taxes to the State to help fund the NHS, among others. One Nobel prize winning expert suggested the other day this was the real reason why tobacco had not been banned along with other dangerous substances.

Plus, if you smoke you probably die earlier, and do not create such a burden for the NHS as you grow older. Earlier, and often very quickly.

Oh Gawd! He’s On About The Tube Again!

Regular readers will know of my views on our wonderful public transport system. On Sunday, when I had to work, there were no tubes on my line at all. On Monday, it was severely disrupted. On Tuesday it was disrupted again. I reckon about one journey in five is affected in some way by signal failure/broken down train/zebras on the line, etc, etc. About one in ten is severely disrupted, to the extent of something not working at all.

I know. What can one do but suffer in silence? Boring, boring, boring. But I believe we deserve better. Consider this interesting counter-factual.

You buy a new car. In about one car in five, something doesn’t work. The lights don’t come on, one of the doors doesn’t open. In about one in ten, it either doesn’t go at all, or struggles to get beyond 20 mph.

Let’s extend the metaphor. About one weekend in three, they come and drive it away for repairs, so you can’t use it at all. Not that, when they return it, this seems to have made any difference.

The manufacturers shrug. What do you expect? It’s a car.

What would happen? Well, about next Thursday week, a new manufacturer would emerge, making cars that always worked. No one would buy car made by the existing manufacturers, and they would go bust.

This is the way markets work. The only way such discipline can be imported onto our public transport system is to ensure that the financial punishment for failure, on the part of those corporates paid to operate it and their employees, is equally condign. But how?

Misery Loves Company

Some headlines are so arresting that you simply have to stop and read more. “Europe tells Britain to increase taxes”, it says on the front of the newspaper I work for.

Indeed. The unelected Eurocrats want the British government to raise taxes, especially on land and property. I wondered, in a tweet retweeted by a number of apparent Ukip supporters, how many votes this would bring in for Nigel Farage in the Newark by-election.

This was, presumably, not the intention, though one can never be sure what Brussels actually intends. One can only assume that those Eurocrats, having wrecked much of Europe’s economy while seeing the UK’s starting to move ahead again strongly, would prefer us to revert to the misery they have caused elsewhere in the Eurozone. In some perverse new rendering of, we’re all in it together.

Meanwhile Brussels would also like to see more austerity meted out in Greece, a country already at breaking point – the Athenian economy hasn’t looked this sick since, ooh, the end of the Second Peloponnesian War. Should be good for a few more votes for the neo-fascist Golden Dawn.

I did not vote for Ukip, and I know of few people in business who believe we should leave the EU. But I can understand why some people think we should.