recentpopularlog in

robertogreco : stephenharper   2

James Meek · Robin Hood in a Time of Austerity · LRB 18 February 2016
"How like the Middle Ages, if it were so. Behind the twisted rhetoric of a hardworking majority oppressed by a welfare-mad government, a modern version of the medieval world has been constructed, one where the real poor are taxed more heavily than the rich; where most of those who are not rich are burdened by an onerous roster of fees and monopolies levied by remote, unaccountable private landlords; and where many of us live out our lives shackled to an endless chain of private debt.

Since the Thatcher revolution in 1979, British governments have boasted of how they’ve lowered taxes. And they have, except for one section of society: the poorest 20 per cent. In 1977, the least well-off fifth of households paid 37 per cent of their gross income in direct taxes (like income tax) and indirect taxes (like VAT), against 38 per cent for the richest fifth. In 2014, the tax take from the poorest group had gone up to 37.8 per cent, while the taxes paid by the richest had gone down to less than 35 per cent.

Not only does this understate the extent of tax cuts for the top 1 per cent; it shows only part of the burden borne by the least well off. Piketty writes that ‘modern redistribution does not consist in transferring income from the rich to the poor, at least not in so explicit a way. It consists rather in financing public services and replacement incomes that are more or less equal for everyone, especially in the areas of health, education and pensions.’ This is a very cautious definition of the modern social state. Health, education and social security make up the lion’s share of public spending, but they’re intimately linked to a wider set of networks that includes energy, water and transport and, some would argue, should include housing. What these networks have in common is that society has decided they’re essential, and therefore should be universal – that is, we think everyone should have access to them, all the time. The significance of this is that, on the one hand, society takes on itself the obligation to give its poorest members access to these networks, which they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford; and, on the other, payment to use these networks, if it isn’t funded out of general taxation, becomes in itself a tax, particularly when that network is a monopoly. In Britain, many of these universal networks, such as electricity and water, have been privatised, often twice – once to put them on the stock market, once to put them into the hands of overseas owners. Bills for these services have increased faster than inflation, and take little account of people’s ability to pay. It is the poorest, then, who as well as paying the heaviest combination of indirect and direct taxation bear the brunt of such hybrid public-private taxes as the water tax and the electricity tax.

Other universal networks, such as health and education, haven’t been privatised, but have been through another process that makes them ripe for the introduction of flat fees for usage in future. This process really got going under Labour, and it is a sign of the liberal left’s failure to recognise what it has done that there isn’t a name for it. One word to describe it might be ‘autonomisation’ – the process by which state-run bodies continue to be funded by the state but are run autonomously on a non-profit basis. So state secondary schools become academies, NHS hospitals become NHS foundation trusts, and council estates are transferred to housing associations. The British state is in a condition of rolling abdication, leaving behind a partly privatised, partly autonomised set of universal networks, increasingly run by absentee landlords in the form of global companies and overseas corporate investors, that is disproportionately funded by the poorest payers of taxes, fees and duties, many of whom are also deep in debt.

There is a cynical view which says that as long as the majority of the population feel they’re doing all right, a democratically elected government is safe to squeeze the poor and pamper the rich. But cynicism is a risky thing to rely on when a government is simultaneously cutting spending and shedding control of the universal networks on which its entire population relies. As Hobsbawm writes in Bandits, ‘concentration of power in the modern territorial state is what eventually eliminated rural banditry, endemic or epidemic. At the end of the 20th century it looks as though this situation might be coming to an end, and the consequences of this regression of state power cannot yet be foreseen.’ We’re a long way from the return of the literal outlaw to Nottinghamshire. But we need to remember the insight given our ancestors when they saw through the illusion of the Robin Hood myth, when they saw that the strongbox of silver coins wasn’t just money stolen from each of them individually, but power robbed from them collectively, and that they needed to wield that power collectively as much as they needed their money back. For sure, freedom to choose is a grand thing, and the market will try to help you exercise it. With a bit of money in the bank, a middle-class family might choose to send their child to private school, provided by the market; but that same family can’t choose to build and maintain a universal education network by itself, and the market won’t provide it. With money, you can choose to buy a car, and the market will provide it; but you can’t choose, all by yourself, to build and maintain a universal road network, and the market won’t provide it. To make and keep universal networks requires the authority of the state, an authority that has been absent; and it’s hard to see where that authority might come from if the people don’t find a way to assert their kingship."
2016  jamesmeek  capitalism  politics  policy  welfare  poor  class  rich  wealthdistribution  inequality  taxes  taxation  health  education  thomaspiketty  neoliberalism  autonomization  housing  uk  finance  davidcameron  margaretthatcher  ronaldreagan  stephenharper  us  canada  australia  marcorubio  georgeosborne  power  money  economics  labor  erichobsbawm  government  markets  universalnetworks  infrastructure  via:anabjain 
april 2016 by robertogreco

Copy this bookmark:





to read