Tag Archives: quality of life

Will Lembit have me arrested?

I’ve just updated Prawn Free Lembit with Mr Opik’s latest column from the Daily Sport and it has put me in a bit of a quandary.

You see, by posting that column, I’m breaching copyright. I’m a pretty good boy when it comes to copyright violation generally – unusually for my generation even where music is concerned – but I set up Prawn Free Lembit because I thought these columns ought to see the light of day outside of the confines of a porn-infested and frankly medieval website that doesn’t even have RSS feeds. He’s an elected politician and I think we all have a right to know what he has to say without having degrading images of women shoved in our faces, don’t you think? I don’t editorialise and let Lembit speaks for himself. If it leads to people asking awkward questions about why a man in his forties who owns a pair of trousers would spend a significant part of his working week perving about which “Sport Stunna” he’d like to “elevate” to “high office” (f’narr!), then that’s on him.

However noble my intentions may have been however, it is clear that Lembit has a very black and white view of the matter. Breach of copyright is “theft”, pure and simple. He has lent his support to Peter Mandelson’s plan to cut off people who are caught filesharing illegally and presumably the rozzers will be knocking on my door any minute.

The arguments about why Mandelson’s plans are utterly bogus have been well rehearsed. While I wouldn’t go quite as far as those who favour legalising peer-to-peer filesharing in all circumstances, the government’s disconnection plans would punish the innocent, be impractical in practice and fundamentally miss the point.

The music industry is in the mess that it is in for a very simple reason. It has filched the public and recording artists for decades. This was possible to get away with 20 years ago because technology and IP laws made it easy for them. As a result they could live it large, ply their musicians and useful dupes with drugs and alcohol and indulge their megastars. When the internet came along, instead of waking up to its potential threat to them and adapting, they pretended it didn’t exist for decades. The result was utter contempt by the general public which fuelled the rise of peer-to-peer once the technology came up to speed.

The death of the music industry – which is a real possibility – will not mean the death of music. Music existed before copyright laws and it will exist long after them as well. People won’t suddenly stop making music. What it will probably mean is the death of the superstar. Your online music store will resemble a public library more than HMV. Instead of having a middle man around who decides what music is worth listening to and what category it should be wedged into, we’ll be able to choose from a much wider source. Technology will (has) made garage bands sound as professional as the big labels and marketing costs have levelled out. The Simon Cowells of this world are utterly fucked, which is why his himself has already jumped ship and moved onto TV – and even then the X-Factor band wagon won’t keep rolling forever.

Will it be possible to make money as a musician in the future? It all depends on what your aspirations are. Any halfway successful musician will be able to make several multiples of what I’ll earn in my lifetime, but there’ll be a lot fewer multi-millionaires. You probably won’t ever get that private jet I’m afraid. The simple fact are only so many punters out there and talent is nothing like as hard to come by as Smash Hits and NME led us to believe. They lied.

But is rendering musician to the status of mere vocation such a terrible thing? Money has destroyed so many talents over the years that it is hard to shed a tear for the decline of the superstar. Is it really so wonderful that popular music has become so strongly associated with excess, mental illness, vanity, self-abasement and violence? More musicians earning less money is a scenario in which 99% of us win. It is no coincidence that Wilkinson and Pickett considered a move towards less restrictive IP laws as a crucial step towards engendering a more equal culture in The Spirit Level.

The reason I suspect Lembit does not see it that way is that it is not music he is really defending but the industry which he has courted and been courted by (and indeed courted within) for the past decade.

Oh, and as I have thus far forgotten to post the latest edition of The Show, courtesy of EyeSeeSound.tv, allow me to do so here. It’s the future!

Quality of Life (3) – Communities, Activities and Mental Health

This is the continuation of my series of posts in response to the Lib Dems’ Quality of Life consulation paper. Part one can be found here. Part two can be found here.

16. How can we actively promote ‘good neighbour’ policies?
Noting that word “actively” my response is that we shouldn’t. More equal societies tend to be more trusting societies but I’m not sure there’s much we can or should do to force people to be good neighbours.

The one thing we could do is scrap all legislation that is designed to tackle this thing called “anti-social behaviour.” Criminal behaviour is a different matter, but we need to avoid giving people the impression that it is the role of the state to intervene when it comes to naughty or irritating behaviour.

Another thing that might help would be to move away from gated communities and sprawling housing estates and promote mixed housing wherever possible. I simply can’t see what will stop people from drifting apart on socio-economic lines however if we don’t have some way of discouraging it via, say a land value tax system (i.e. you can have that gated community if you are willing to pay wider society for the privilege).

17. Should government provide greater financial support for community activities – community spaces, clubs, other collective activities? Should it provide other support? If so, what?

Again, rather than doing more it might be an idea if government did less. The Independent Safeguarding Authority is an example of an interference too far in this respect.

18. Should we try to increase significantly the status of those who carry out voluntary activities? If so, how? Should some kind of honours or rewards system play a role? If we increased the status of these activities, would we reduce the stigma attached to unemployment?

If something is rewarded it ceases to be voluntary. I certainly believe that unemployed people should be encouraged – and certainly not be penalised – for doing voluntary work. Perhaps we could combine job centres with time banks (but if Mrs Miggins can’t leave her home, how will she notify the job centre that she needs her shopping done?).

Ultimately though, we don’t want “voluntary” work to be restricted to unemployed people because they have nothing better to do. If we want to avoid such volunteering to lose status as more unemployed people take it up, we have to find ways to encourage employed people to participate too.

I can’t see that there is much national government can do however. The answer, surely, is decentralisation and allow local government to experiment.

19. How can we ensure everyone, including people of diverse ages, ethnic, social and religious backgrounds, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation or ability is included and welcome in the life of their community? How do we combat prejudice while respecting difference?

This is like the “good neighbours” question. I’m not sure there is anything active we can do about this at all. What we need is to break down barriers, which is why I think mixed communities are crucial.

20. Watching large amounts of TV is a major contributor to lower wellbeing. What is the right Liberal Democrat approach to discouraging or limiting it?

We need to make our minds up. Either British TV is the best in the world and a public service, or it is trash that we should discourage people from watching.

TV is on the decline and increasing numbers of people are turning to the internet. This may be a problem that is solving itself as mass media becomes more interactive.

The simplest way to discourage poor people from watching television is to replace the licence fee with subscription television. That way, a number of people – especially older people – will be priced out of watching. But if my grandmother is anything to go by, Eastenders and Countdown are a great comfort to them. Taking the goggle box away from them is certainly unlikely to be popular.

21. How do we combat loneliness, and in particular the isolation of the elderly?

Again, more mixed communities and a more equal society will help.

I’m actually relatively optimistic about this for the future. I strongly suspect this will be much less of a problem for my generation in old age as we will have the internet and a range of opportunities to explore our interests and long distance relationships (assuming climate change hasn’t sent us back to the stone age of course). Even my parents’ generation will have made strides towards this.

22. Should more public money be spent on improving the appearance of local areas?

Again, that is a local matter. Are we talking broken windows theory here? Certainly I can see a case for local authorities responding to vandalism as quickly as possible. But once again, if young people lived in a more equal society where they felt like stakeholders instead of trespassers we would probably see less vandalism.

23. How should government be involved in promoting good mental health?

Greater experts than me will, I’m sure, make specific suggestions. Again I feel the need to point out that the evidence suggests that more equal societies face fewer mental health problems.

24. How can we use education to enhance public understanding about mental health issues?

I certainly would not support adding yet another clause to the national curriculum. If people were taught critical thinking more in schools, it would almost certainly help as they would be less prone to prejudice and I would be happy to see whole swathes of curriculum trashed to make way for this to be on the core syllabus.

Ultimately however, we should leave teachers to get on with it and encourage them to learn from each other.

25. If we make mental health treatment a much higher priority for government spending – do we spend more on health or make cut-backs elsewhere?

This sounds like a false dichotomy to me. Mental health appears to be linked to physical health problems – it thus follows that more investment in the former will lead to savings in the latter.

26. How do drugs and alcohol impact on mental health? What should government do to reduce demand or supply?

Not a lot. We need to be treating people when they’re down not treading on them.

The experience in places such as the Netherlands is that decriminalising drugs leads to a reduction in usage simply because people get less trapped in the criminal justice system. Alcohol is a more intractable problem and alcohol abuse seems to be more a symptom of wider problems than a problem in itself.

How do we deal with that? Empowering local authorities to take a firmer grasp of their licensing policies would be a start. Designing pubs so that they cater more for talking and families and are less Viking drinking halls would help too.

One idea might be to lower the drinking age on real ale and wine in pubs (to 16?), while retaining the 18 age for things like spirits, alco-pops, cider and lager. I’m serious. If we encouraged young people to acquire a taste for proper alcoholic drinks they would be less tempted to blag things like Bacardi Breezers that taste like soft drinks and promote binge drinking. As a positive by-product, it would also help local breweries.

Quality of Life (2) – work and unemployment

This is the continuation of my series of posts in response to the Lib Dems’ Quality of Life consulation paper, the first of which can be found here.

Taking the next three questions in one go next:

6. Should there be compulsory limits to working hours? Can employees make a genuinely free choice to opt-out of the European working time directive? Is it liberal to restrict how much we work?

7. Would a more flexible approach to working make a difference to people’s happiness? How would this be achieved without creating unnecessary bureaucracy?

8. Should we incentivise part-time jobs through NI or other employment tax breaks, especially to encourage employers to create senior part-time roles?

I have to admit that I don’t have much of a problem with the current working time directive (i.e. 48 hours). Most countries have worked perfectly well without the opt-out and the 17-week reference period stops the rule from being silly. There might be a few areas where we might allow for some exemptions but the current blanket opt-out option, in practice, seems as meaningless as the rules of shop workers working Sunday shifts (I worked in a shop full time when these rules were introduced. I was formally told I had the right to opt out but it was made very clear that anyone who did would be looked at unfavourably in the future). If a compromise could be brought forward between the opt-out and compulsory options I’d be open-minded about it, and I would certainly be sceptical about a France-style 35 hour week, but I would have little problem with the current European law.

With all that said, I do think there is a lot we could do to make it easier for both employers and employees. Fundamentally, we tax work far too much in this country while leaving wealth almost untouched. While this is the case there will always be pressure on employers to employ fewer people for more hours (as opposed to more people for less hours) and pressure on staff to work whatever hours they can. The right to flexible working is all very well, but are making it has hard as possible for people to be flexible. A liberal government would consider changing this to be a priority. The poor record of the Lib Dems in this respect has been deeply disappointing.

The party’s move towards lifting the poorest paid out of taxation is a long overdue step in the right direction (it should be noted that this was party policy in 1997) but I would like to see us go much further.

The 1992 Lib Dem manifesto, which more than anything else is the document which made me join the party, contained a commitment to a modest citizen’s income. I believe we should revisit this policy.

How would all this be paid for? The only way I can conceive is by establishing a national Land Value Tax, something which has been Lib Dem policy for a long time but which we have been very lukewarm about in recent years. Instead of cravenly following public opinion on this one, it is time we started to make the case for a fundamental shift in the burden of taxation. I really do believe it is an argument that can be won.

9. Are they ways we can promote greater employee responsibility for their work, and/or involvement in deciding how they work? How could we encourage staff stake-holding?

All the evidence I’ve read – and personal experience – indicates that greater democracy in the workforce leads to a happier workforce and greater efficiency. It would almost certainly also help control out of control executive pay in a way that crude mechanisms such as a “maximum wage” could not.

Again, in the not so distant past the Lib Dems had much stronger policy on this and the time is right to rediscover our passion for “industrial democracy.” This means much more emphasis on obliging companies to consult their workforce, share ownership schemes and mutualism.

10. How could quality of life thinking shape our approach to education, training and career choices?

This is a huge topic and I am not an expert in education. I certainly think we need to broaden apprenticeship training in this country. A shift away from income taxes would encourage this, as would greater workplace democracy.

Vocational qualifications such as MBAs can be fearfully expensive. Some employers are better than others at helping staff cover the cost of these. A great many employers are simply too small. I certainly think there is a case for government subsidising these qualifications through small businesses and non-profit organisations.

11. Should we have more public holidays or increased holiday entitlements? Or even statutory education and training days where employees would be free to pursue skills related either to their current job or future employment prospects?

A few more public holidays would bring us up to the European average. I’m not convinced about the need for statutory training days as the need for these would vary enormously depending on the employee and employer.

12. Technological developments have changed the way we work and at times can contribute to unemployment as companies need fewer people to do the same work. Would it be better for wellbeing if we reversed this trend?

I didn’t realise Ned Ludd was on the working group! Technological developments certainly can lead to structural unemployment in the long term but if anything the experience of the past 250 years points in the opposite direction: we are working longer hours than ever and are able to afford a welfare state. Technology also creates new types of work and will continue to do so in exciting ways. The fact that fewer people are working themselves to death in factories and farms than in the past is a good thing.

With that said, it does bear repeating that while companies are free to make whatever capital investment they wish, labour costs come with a deadweight cost. We should be less concerned about technology putting people out of work and more concerned about ensuring that the two are put on a level playing field. Once again, this means taxing labour less.

13. How can we tackle the stigma of unemployment?

14. Should employment policy be refocused on creating a more flexible employment market with more active government intervention, like Denmark, where it is easier for the unemployed to find new work and consequently less necessary to have high job protection? How would this be achieved?

15. Can we better use unemployment as an opportunity for people to retrain and gain new skills?

Unemployment should carry a stigma and there are too many parts of the country where it doesn’t have enough of one. That isn’t to say we should ever write people off – quite the opposite.

Again, I think a shift away from taxes on labour would help increase the fluidity of the labour market (I know I sound like a stuck record here, but this is the problem with answering each question in turn). This, combined with a citizens’ income would reduce the disincentive within the benefits system to take on low paid work.

We also need to remove the barriers for internships and volunteer work. Currently in my experience the system all but discourages these by forcing people to do less than 16 hours a week and insisting on a paper trail. Yet such activity ought to be encouraged – even incentivised. We could even extend this to political parties: there are much worse things people could be doing with their time than actively working within their communities.

I don’t know enough about the Danish system. Since the working group is clearly looking at this model, it would have been useful to have an explanation, or at least a footnote for us to explore in more detail.

Quality of Life (1) – Introduction

I’ve got out of the habit of blogging my responses to the Lib Dem policy consultation papers of late but the Quality of Life one caught my eye and I thought I’d have a stab at it.

My overall response is that, while I applaud the party for wanting to tackle this issue and personally consider it to be very important, the direction that the consultation paper is taking somewhat concerns me. Unlike some, I don’t think this is an area where government should not intervene, but it needs to be realistic about what it can achieve and it would be better off taking fewer, more strategic decisions than attempting to meddle with every little issue.

I’m also increasingly coming to the conclusion that equality and quality of life are flipsides of the same coin (it is no coincidence that most people who disregard the former also dismiss the latter). To tackle one is to tackle the other, and vice versa. Having entirely seperate consultations on the two areas – the equality consultation begins at the next conference – is to a certain extent redundant.

Anyway, without further ado, here is my response. I will try to contain my comments to the questions in the paper (although such questions always irritate me so I am bound to drift off topic):

1. Should government be more concerned to increase their citizens’ wellbeing than their wealth? What is the proper role of government in promoting quality of life?

The answer to the first question is most definitely yes, but few would subscribe to the notion that wealth and wellbeing are entirely unrelated. Having recently read The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, some of the most compelling charts they print in that book are the ones where they compare the GDP of countries with life expectency (page 7) and happiness (page 9). What these charts show are that GDP, life expectency and happiness are related up to a certain point (around $25,000 per capita) and then level off. From that point onward, equality becomes a more defining factor.

So my tentative answer to the second question is that the role of government is to foster a political economy that is both healthy and where people are relatively equal. But it is absolutely crucial that the way we achieve that equality is itself equitable.

2. Should governments concentrate on minimising misery rather than augmenting happiness? If so, do they need to do more or less?

This is a bit of a silly question. I would answer that our goal should be more about “minimising misery” than “augmenting happiness” since the latter sounds a bit too Brave New World for my taste. But I’m not entirely convinced that the government should be especially concerned with either per se.

I’ve always been wary of the term “happiness” and its utilitarian ties. I understand that a lot of people use happiness and well-being as interchangeable terms but this question somewhat suggests that the author is thinking of happiness in rather more simplistic terms.

There are a variety of things we should be seeking to maximise: liberty, self-confidence, trust in society, questioning of authority, a sense of being in control of one’s life (indeed, I don’t think you can have the former without the latter four – others disagree). These are things we should be concerning ourselves with, not gross “happiness”.

3. Are the ways our public services work detrimental to our quality of life?

In a lot of ways, yes. Far too often they undermine our need for self-control, demand unquestioning obedience and assume that society is a dark and sinister place. They need to be as transparent, accountable and democratic as possible and controlled at the lowest possible level.

4. What additional or alternative indicators should government use in place of GDP?

There are lots of different indicators we could use. The debate about alternative indicators has been going on for at least as long as I’ve been involved in politics. It hasn’t got very far, partially because I think it misses the point.

I have a far stronger indicator for the state of the economy than GDP. It’s called the Maltesers Index. I’ve noticed that over the last six months, an increasing number of shops I walk into are trying to flog me packets of sweets at discount prices. Borders appear to have forgotten that their main trade is in books. The last time I walked into a WH Smiths you could barely reach the counter for all the bargain bins of confectionary they had put in front of it. I have a fairly good understanding of the economics of why that is, but I wouldn’t want the MI to guide national policy for the simple fact that the government could massively improve their figures by banning Maltesers. This wouldn’t actually help the economy – it would make things worse. What’s more I like Maltesers.

We can find all sorts of measurements, but they will always be open to abuse because they are prone to being gamed. What’s more, they have to feel real to people. Two major quality of life indicators have dominated public policy for decades – reported crime and the British Crime Survey – yet they are rarely referred to as such. Politicians tend to emphasise whichever of the two figures that are more helpful to them (in my view the BCS is better but it isn’t without its flaws) and the result is that we tend to distrust both of them. You could say the same about unemployment figures.

The fact is, government measures lots of things. We could measure a few more things but I’m not convinced it will change much. The best indicator in my book is the record of votes cast for whom in each election. We should try having an electoral system that reflects it at some point.

5. People are often bad predictors of what will improve their own quality of life. What role should government play here? What happens if our liberal commitments to equality and freedom of choice appear to conflict with our desire to enable to enjoy a good quality of life?

This is a question that is crying out for a “for instance”. The simple answer is “it depends.”

Yes, people are often bad predictors of what will improve their own quality of life, but governments are too. I’m not convinced that the solution is for the government to step in and meddle with every single solution. We need the government to be looking at more strategic shifts. This is why, for me, equality is such a big deal. The evidence before us suggests that by managing this shift, we could improve a whole range of social and health indicators in a way that hundreds of government programmes have been unable to match.

For the most part, the role of government should be to mitigate bad personal choices, not to prevent them. That of course brings in the question of moral hazard and there should certainly be a cost for making mistakes. But that isn’t the same thing as letting people rot.

Drugs policy is an excellent example. We know that taking drugs such as cocaine and heroin is generally not a very good idea, leading to addiction, the risk of overdose and mental health issues. Yet all attempts to restrict this choice have backfired. Yet all the experiments involving legalisation to one degree or another suggest that such an approach leads to fewer social problems and even less drug useage. Part of the lesson here is that by allowing people to make wrong choices and picking them up off the floor when they do, we enable them to make right choices in future instead of getting stuck in a cycle of desperation and criminality.

The real challenge to freedom of choice is the much cited tragedy of the commons, but I’m not convinced that simply removing choice or even costing in externalities will be the solution. Apart from anything else, such moves are not popular and the parties that propose easy solutions are the ones that tend to win at the ballot box. Mark van Vugt wrote an interesting article in New Scientist a couple of weeks ago challenging this and proposing an alternative approach, suggesting four “i”s: information, identity, institutions and incentives. Ultimately, if individual choices tend to be flawed then it is the role of the state to help inform those choices. In the longer term that will be more effective.