Cassandra by Evelyn De Morgan (1898, London); Cassandra in front of the burning city of Troy at the peak of her insanity.
Being an economist you are given an insight to society’s social and economic problems denied to others. There are times when like Cassandra you regret that insight, as apart from feeling anger there is nothing that you can do to prevent the disasters you foresee happening. Cassandra could not prevent the fall of Troy and alternative economists such as myself are powerless and are unable to change the foolish or cruel economic policies of governments.
One of the problems obsessing the current generation of politicians is how to afford the pensions and care demanded by an ever growing number of elderly people. Given the predominance of Neo-Liberal thinking, the only option considered is how to reduce the cost of incomes and care of the elderly. What is never considered is how to enable the elderly to maintain a reasonable standard of living and to enjoy a reasonable level of care when they become physically frail. As a consequence, the current generation of politicians have decide to reduce the cost of pensions by increasing by stages the age at which state pensions will be paid until it reaches the age of 70. They are at the same time freeing employers from their obligations towards their employees, which includes paying a pension. Only one option occurs to this current generation of politicians, which is to reintroduce poverty as a necessary accompaniment to old age.
Increasing the pensionable age to 70 is promoted as a positive change as most people will live to an increasingly old age and their years enjoying a pension will remain unchanged. However this ignores the problems of old age; while medical,advances have extended the life span, what they have not done is abolish physical frailty. Given the arduous physical nature of much work there are many occupations in which work is not practicable beyond a certain age. In the building trade it has been the custom that once a worker through ageing becomes to infirm to work as a bricklayer or labourer, they are given the job of tea boy. There are only a limited number of such tea boy type jobs available. No politician has considered the cost of transferring the burden of income from pensions to welfare payments. Although to be fair to the government welfare payments are considerably lower than pensions and are discretionary, so their is plenty of scope to refuse or reduce payments to reduce the cost of the elderly.
When Bismarck the German Chancellor was faced with the demand for pensions from the veterans of the 1870 Franco-Prussian war, he asked at what age do the veterans die? When he was told 65, he said that will be the age at which pensions will be paid. Similarly when in the 1960’s most male teachers who retired at 60 died at 63, there was no concern about paying pensions. The government was making a healthy profit out of the public sector pension scheme, as payments into the fund greatly exceeded payments. Increasing the pension age to 70 has the unspoken intention of decreasing the number of claimants. The average age of death for men is 78, which means 50% of men die before the age of 78. Increasing the pension age to 70 will deny an increasing number of the elderly of a pension. It is no surprise that given these figures there are a number of politicians arguing for the pensionable age to be increased beyond 70. To put it simply if the pension age is increased to an age at which the majority of an age cohort do not live to collect them, the government pension fund will be in surplus.
Unremarked on by commentators is the other approach to reducing the cost of pensions and that is to reverse the trend toward an ever ageing population. If there is a gradual reduction in the average age of death, the cost of pension provision will be much reduced. Rather than an explicit policy, this is one British governments have drifted into unconsciously, through their indifference to the welfare of their people. There are precedents for this most notably in post communist Russia, where in the chaos of the post Soviet years the life expectancy of men fell. There the average life expectancy of men has fallen to 64 years and of those men that die before the age of 55, 35% die of alcohol related illnesses. (BBC News 31 Jan 2014). In Britain the government has stumbled into a social experiment in which the people are now subject to unrestricted alcohol sales. Alcohol sales have increased and anecdotal evidence suggests that the British are the binge drinking champions of Europe. Excessive alcohol consumption is damaging to health as alcohol includes a toxin (ethyl alcohol). There is evidence for the damaging effects on health, but it’s effect on life expectancy have not yet become evident. There is one tragic victim of the British booze craze, the child that suffers foetal alcohol syndrome. These children suffer brain damage and possibly physical disfigurement. Government estimates suggest that there may soon be a million such children in the UK. None of these damaged children will live to the average British life expectancy of 81 for men and women (World Bank 2012). While the numbers in Britain that have similar drinking habits to the Russians is still relatively small, the number is growing and will impact negatively on life expectancy. A government that is indifferent to the welfare of its people, but overly concerned with the welfare of the private alcohol business (doing all they can to facilitate their profit making) can expect to preside over a declining life expectancy.
Glasgow is notorious the heavy drinking of its male population and in 2013 the average life expectancy of the Glasgow male was 72.6 years, six years less than the UK average. (The Guardian. 16.04.2013) Obviously with the English drinking habits increasing resembling those of the male Glaswegian, the government will get a bonus when having increased pension age to 70, an increasing large minority of the age cohort never claim their pensions.
The main factor in increasing life expectancy has been the improvements in the standard of living, which was particularly marked in the years of social democracy. I as a one of the many ‘baby boomers’ benefitted from this benign period in British society and it is us healthy sixty year olds that are pushing up the average life expectancy. However Britain has embarked on a policy of reversing the rise in the standard of living for an increasing large minority of the population. If the current impoverishment of the middle classes continues it could be the majority that experiences a decline in their living standards. Governments have adopted the policy of making Britain the low cost or low wage capital of Europe. This has involved the deregulation of industrial practice allowing businesses to only have minimal regard for the welfare of the workers. Gresham’s law states that bad money drives out good money, but it should be better applied to British business where bad employment practices drive out the good. This is illustrated By this example, Sir John Randal announced the closure of his department store in Uxbridge. One of the main reasons for closure was his inability to compete with other retail outlets that used all the unfair working practices of low cost Britain, zero hour contracts, split shifts etc. His business was penalised for treating its staff well. In low wage Britain poor diet and poor housing will lead to an increase in poor health and a consequent reduced life expectancy.
While it would be wrong to accuse our leading politicians of deliberately embarking on a policy to reduce the life expectancy of many British people, they cannot be excused from not knowing the malign effects of their policy decisions. They as a group have opted out of any responsibility for ensuring the welfare of the people. What they are collectively guilty of, is desiring a return to the society that prevailed in the 1930’s one of low wages, poor health economy and a limited lif expectancy. In the Britain of this time it was regarded as a boost to health, as if all teeth were removed when w person in their twenties still had healthy test, they would avoid all the problems of bad teeth in later life. Politicians may use words that minimise the inhumanity of their policies, removing labour protection legislation is renamed the creation of a flexible labour market. Just like the American politicians who during the Vietnamese war called civilian deaths collateral damage, so in modern Britain the collateral damage of our leaders economic policies are poor health and a reduced life expectancy. I can find no other words for it that as a social experiment in the practice of ‘cruel economics’.