Tag Archives: naive politicians

Our Dirty Streets are not so much a consequence of Neo-Liberalism as the Poor Policy Choices made by our Politicians

As a fan of Scandinavia noir I am always struck by the cleanliness of the streets, which is such a contrast with the streets of the city where I live. Italy is always said to be a country where local government does not work, yet my experience of Italy is very different. When I stayed in Pisa, I would always come across the street cleaners when returning to my hotel late at night. Apparently the council was concerned that leaving rubbish uncollected in the streets would encourage rats and mosquitos. (Obviously there are exceptions, as in Naples where the Camorra control refuge collection.) British towns and cities seem to demonstrate a certain air of neglect, it is obvious that refuge collection is not a priority. What is not realised is that this dirtiness of the British city is not so much a characteristic of the national character, but a consequence of policy decisions of government.

This is a neglect imposed on local communities by central government consequent on it adopting the policies of Neo-liberalism. One of the tenets of Neo-liberal practice is that private enterprise is superior to public enterprise in the provision of goods and services. If however the state or local authority preferred to keep a service within the private sector, it should be run as if it was a private business enterprise. In practical terms this meant respect for the bottom line. If the private sector ethos was adopted by the public sector the same level of service could be delivered at a lower cost of the tax payer. Also these efficiencies in service provision meant that more could be delivered for less.

When working as a manager in local authority social services, I encountered this new philosophy first hand. The funding to local government had been cut and I was at a meeting with fellow managers to discuss how best to implement these cuts. This particular meeting was about home care; the local authority employed care staff to look after the elderly and the house bound. Our senior managers were enthusiasts for this new philosophy of work and had decided that twenty minutes of care would be all that any housebound individual needed. What we agreed on was a certain minimum of care that could be achieved in twenty minutes. Light dusting only was permitted in the room in which the individual spent most of their time. Using a vacuum cleaner to clean the carpet was forbidden, as it would take up too much time. There were a whole of list of don’ts, that is time consuming care activities. To ensure that the staff were not tempted to do more than the minimum, they were given so many clients to visit, that if they did more than the directed minimum, they would end up working more hours than those for which they were paid. This new service delivery scheme was regarded as a success as it mean fewer care staff were needed for home care, which meant a big cost saving for the local authority. What the housebound elderly or sick wanted was irrelevant.

A similar approach is applied to refuge collection. Funding for such has been cut by the central government to encourage the adoption of cost cutting efficiency As a fan of Scandinavia noir I am always struck by the cleanliness of the streets, which is such a contrast with the streets of the city where I live. Italy is always said to be a country where local government does not work, yet my experience of Italy is very different. When I stayed in Pisa, I would always come across the street cleaners when returning to my hotel late at night. Apparently the council was concerned that leaving rubbish uncollected in the streets would encourage rats and mosquitos. (Obviously there are exceptions as in Naples, where the Camorra control refuge collection.) British towns and cities seem to demonstrate a certain air of neglect, it is obvious that refuge collection is not a priority. What is not realised is that this dirtiness of the British is not so much a characteristic of the national character, but a consequence of policy decisions of government.

This is a neglect imposed on local communities by central government consequent on it adopting the policies of Neo-liberalism. One of the tenets of Neo-liberal practice is that private enterprise is superior to public enterprise in the provision of goods and services. If however the state or local authority preferred to keep a service within the private sector, it should be run as if it was a private business enterprise. In practical terms this meant respect for the bottom line. If the private sector ethos was adopted by the public sector the same level of service could be delivered at a lower cost of the tax payer. Also these efficiencies in service provision meant that more could be delivered for less.

When working as a manager in local authority social services, I encountered this new philosophy first hand. The funding to local government had been cut and I was at a meeting with fellow managers to discuss how best to implement these cuts. This particular meeting was about home care, the local authority employed care staff to look after the elderly and the house bound. Our senior managers were enthusiasts for this new philosophy of work and had decide that twenty minutes of care would be all that any housebound individual needed. What we agreed on was a certain minimum of care that could be achieved in twenty minutes. Light dusting only was permitted in the room in which the individual spent most of their time. Using a vacuum cleaner to clean the carpet was forbidden, as it would take up too much time. There were a whole of list of don’t, that is time consuming care activities. To ensure that the staff were not tempted to more than the minimum, they were given so many clients to visit, that if they did more than the directed minimum, they would end up working more hours than those for which they were paid. This new service delivery scheme was regarded as a success as it mean fewer care staff were needed for home care, which meant a big cost saving for the local authority. What the housebound elderly or sick wanted was irrelevant.

A similar approach is applied to refuge collection. Funding for such has been cut by the central government to encourage the adoption of cost cutting saving measures and the ending of what were seen as over friendly employee policies. The local authority can only manage this service by giving a time limit to each individual household refuge collection. Speeding up refuge collection is achieved by making householders take there bins on the pavement for collection. These refugee collectors know that if they delay themselves by collecting the rubbish strewn in the street, they will be unable to complete there work in time forcing them to work for free in their own time to finish their round. In consequence any difficult or time consuming tasks are left undone. Problematic streets or houses will be left untouched, as to tackle them would be take up too much time. Given human nature, the refuge collectors will be tempted to avoid the more difficult tasks claiming that it would contravene their terms of employment, which demands the minimum of time spent on each task. When the work practice emphasises quantity not quality, it is easy to understand why our streets remain dirty.

What has been had the most impact on the provision of public service provision is the self denying ordinance adopted by the politicians. The one that tells them that they should never interfere in the free market and that free markets work best if all power is ceded to the entrepreneur. If all entrepreneurs were gifted and benevolent this would be fine. Instead they have used this freedom from regulation and oversight to enrich themselves at the expense of society and the state. They have been given a licence to make money, a licence that imposes no obligations on them. Only today I read an article explaining how a property developer could make £50,000 a year. All they had to do was convert a house into a series of micro flats and charge the tenants exorbitant rents. This £50,000 would in come in part or wholly from the state. Either the tenants received tax credits to help pay their rent or the tenants received housing benefit which would be used to pay the rent. Only recently two major rail companies walked away from a contract the run the East Coast railway. The government never questioned there reasoning, it was sufficient for them to claim that the continue to operate the railway would cause them to lose money.

Rather than blaming Neo-Liberalism for this situation, it is the politicians who are to blame. They failed to have an elemental grasp of human psychology. If you give a group of powerful and ruthless people the freedom to act as they please, they will do just that. If profit maximisation is the sole motivating factor for running a service, the business owners will do whatever they can to maximise their profits. If reducing the quality of the service improves profits, that will be done. One illustration of this is a proposal by one of the privatised rail company was to strip all the seats out of the carriages in its commuter trains and replace them will diagonal resting places. This would have enabled the company to squeeze even more people on to its trains, increasing both revenue and profits.

Our politicians are as hapless babes in the cut and thrust of the market place. When a business tenders for a large contract, it incurs substantial costs in drafting that tender. If it fails to win the tender it will have to bear the cost of failed bid. Our political babes have allowed those who submit losing tenders, to sue them for the money they lost in preparing the contract. These naive innocents are quite happy to acquiesce in this most uncommercial of practices. The business men and women who compete for contracts for the privatised services have been more or less able to draft the terms on which they compete for government business.

What renders our politicians so helpless is that they have so decimated the civil service and local government in there desire to create a small minimal cost government, that they lack the staff who are either qualified or experienced to manage out sourcing successfully. Not so long ago the staff devising a contract for the running of a railway service, were so incompetent in their drafting and in the subsequent negotiations, that the losing tenderer was able to successfully take the the Ministry to court and win back the contract it had lost. It is not unknown that for a government so lacking in-house expertise, that it will turn to one of the large accounting companies asking them to draft the out sourcing contract. This same accountancy company could also be advising one of the companies bidding for that contract. With the out sourcing of government services to the private sector, it is always win, win for the private sector and lose, lose for the government.

Returning to the start of my essay the dirty streets of British towns and cities is a consequence of the adoption of least cost minimal service practices, associated with out sourcing and competitive tendering. This could be said to be a consequence of the adoption of Neo-liberalism, but really it’s down to the naivety of the political classes. To put it another way the wrong people are in charge of the provision of public services, people with the wrong mindset. When for those in charge the priority is the bottom line, non profit making services will be delivered for the lowest cost, even if that means the service is minimal and delivered barely acceptable standards. What is needed is the services to be put in the hands of those whose priority is to maximise the common good. Obviously cost efficiency is important but it should not be the main criteria for service provision. The least cost health care option is to provide no health care, but it is not necessarily the best option. measures. The local authority can only manage this service by giving a time limit to each individual refuge collection. Speeding up refuge collection is achieved by making householders take there bins on the pavement for collection. These refugee collectors know that if they delay themselves by collecting the rubbish strewn in the street, they will be unable to complete there work in time and will be forced to work for free in their own time to finish their round. In consequence any difficult or time consuming tasks are left undone. Problematic streets or houses will be left untouched, as to tackle them would be take up too much time. Given human nature, the refuge collectors will be tempted to avoid the more difficult tasks claiming that it would contravene their terms of employment, which demands the minimum of time spent on each task. When the work practice emphasises quantity not quality, it is easy to understand why our streets remain dirty.

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The Great Pensions Con

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Daily Express was lauding the government’s action to reduce the charges companies can levy on pensions as a great a great deal for pensioners. Taking the government’s figures at face value, The Daily Express seems right, if a fee of 1% reduces a savers’ pension pot by £130,000, capping that fee at 0.75% will greatly increase the value of their pension. However while action to tackle the high fees levied on pensions is very desirable it is ignoring the real problem with British private sector pensions. What matters is not the money value of the pension in 40 years time, buts it real value, can that pension sustain the pensioner in their desired standard of living in forty years time? Unfortunately given the way the pension industry is run run at present for most people it is very unlikely that will happen.

What the government fails to understand is that pensions that are paid in forty year’s time are paid out of the national income in forty years time. If the economy has undergone a period of sustained and real growth pensions can be quite generous, if however the growth is largely illusory, that is an inflationary expansion in national income, even the most generous of incomes will be quite miserly in terms of their purchasing power. Pension fund managers unfortunately aim for the rapid illusory short term monetary increase in the fund as it is this that determines their bonuses and income.

Rather than being put into investments that will increase real economic growth, pension funds are invested in a whole host of short term speculative ventures. Whenever there is a takeover mooted, one large source of funds is always the pension funds. Evidence shows that takeovers yield little real growth but a instead a source of funds for the buyer. One example is the former electrical giant GEC that squandered its cash on buying over priced technology companies that proved worthless when the dot com bubble burst, leaving GEC bankrupt. More usually the profitable assets in the taken over company are sold off which increases the money value of the pension fund but it is not matched by any increase in real income. There is another illusory source of pension fund growth. Fund managers lend to private equity firms, who are brilliant at maximising income for themselves but not there clients. They operate a ‘2 and 20’ rule. A fee of 2% is levied on the money handled and of the venture is profitable they take 20% of the profit made. Pension funds being a convenient cash cow for everybody but pensioners. There is not one speculative venture that is not funded without pension fund money. Consequently these funds can show rapid growth in their monetary values, but which is not matched by any real growth in national income.

Perhaps the most pernicious of fund managers practices, is their habit of lending their shares, for a fee of course, to speculators these speculators can then sell these borrowed shares to force down the price of the shares in the company they borrowed. They then buy shares at the new lower price to sell on in place of those they borrowed. Their profit is the difference between the price at which they sold and that at which they bought. Why fund managers do what is obviously an action detrimental to the fund is a mystery. Obviously they hope in some way to make a profit from this speculative venture. Do they mimic the actions of the ‘naked short seller’? This speculative activity does not represent a responsible investment policy to maximise future returns for the fund. Playing silly games with money is not a sensible investment strategy.

Lending the funds shares to financial traders for speculation, does not suggest that pension funds are in the best of hands.

A responsibly managed pension fund would be an asset to the British saver, whereas an irresponsibly managed one is not. There are examples of well managed pension funds but few are British. Although it not called such the responsibly managed Norwegian sovereign wealth fund is an example. In Norway the government has invested the proceeds from oil into a fund which invests in real as opposed to money assets around the world. Some of this money is invested in the British infra structure, investments that will continue to earn money for the Norwegians into the indefinite future, money that will finance Norwegian spending on welfare. Dubai has invested its money into buying real assets the British ports and the P&O shipping line. Assets that will continue to earn money when their oil incomes diminish. There is very little such foresight shown in the British pension industry.

One of the main reasons for both the Labour and Coalition governments promoting these new workplace pensions, is the prospect of being able to reduce the cost of the state pension. What they hope is that an increased workplace pension will increasingly supplement an ever diminishing state pension. There is nobody so naive or foolish as the British politician who believes in the promises of the finance industry. Despite all the scandals and failures within this industry they continue to believe that they will deliver on private pensions, when evidence demonstrates the contrary.

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Student loans, the bleak future for higher education

Self financing has become the big principle that guides university education. Rather than the state funding higher education, it will be the students who will do so by paying fees. These fees to be financed by loans from the state. The constant background noise that accompanies these ‘new’ policies is that after years of overspending, the government has become so indebted that what has to be done is to cut government spending to balance the books. It has been stated so often and by so many authoritative people that it has been become one of the accepted truths of our culture. However it is not true, it just that a series of misapprehensions of the recent past have been manipulated by powerful groups in society to produce a climate of opinion that makes possible a remaking of the social order in their interest. They want a small state, whose relatives low cost will enable them to minimise their tax burden and use their huge tax free incomes to indulge in conspicuous over consumption.

Part of that remaking of society is the introduction of student loans. It is so familiar that it hardly needs repeating, but with increasing numbers of students attending university the old system of financing higher education was said to unaffordable. When Lord Browne in his report recommended increasing student fees to £9000 per annum, his understanding of the situation was never queried. Why did nobody see the fault in his analysis which implied that a system in which all tax payers contributed a small sum each to higher education was less affordable than a system in which a much smaller group (all current undergraduates) would each pay a much larger sum to finance higher education. Logic suggests that this policy might be fallacious, why can a few afford what the nation as a whole cannot?

Much was made of the fact that under this new system even these much larger monthly payments would be reasonable and easily affordable. Modest is one of these words which can mean many things to many people. Modest for an oil executive or well paid cabinet minister is not the same as modest for a young professional. Those I know repaying their loan would not use the word modest to describe their repayments.

The phrase ‘smoke and mirrors’ comes to mind when describing the governments student loan policy. It will be many years before student loan repayments make a substantial contribution to the funding of higher education. Total government spending on higher education will not decrease for many years as the increase in loan repayments will take a number of years to take effect. Will it be twenty or thirty years before we see student loan repayments making a substantial contribution to higher education funding? When will break even point be reached? Even the government recognises that there a problem and is increasing the interest payments made on new loans so as to increase the graduate contributions to funding education. What matters is not that it will take decades for the policy to become self funding, if ever, but that the government says it will happen. Appearance counts for everything, reality can be safely ignored. Particularly as an overwhelming right wing media are conveniently myopic when it comes to the implementation of their favourite policies.

With the increasing commercialisation of the university sector it is unlikely that £9000 pa will remain the maximum fees for university. Foreign students pay in excess of £20,000 per annum in fees. At this level of payment the universities earn a surplus/profit on each student; it cannot be long before the universities find some new reason to negotiate a further fees increase. Only the most naive can believe that fees will remain at this level for any length of time. Universities as they become increasingly commercialised will increasingly behave any other business. Can we expect the annual announcement of a fees rise as occurs in the rail industry?

There is another possibility and that is that the universities will cut costs to squeeze as much of a cash as they can out of each student. As the main costs faced by a university is staff costs, there is for the less scrupulous Vice Chancellor lots of opportunities to do this.They can reduce staff student contact time, increasingly using IT as a staff free teaching resource or increasing staff student ratios (given the possibilities offered by IT the 1000 plus lecture is feasible). For the enterprising Vice Chancellor the possibilities are endless. Less prestigious universities will possibly lower fees to attract students to keep up numbers so as to keep them viable. However the price to be paid for such low cost universities will be horrendous. Their financial viability will only be secured by economising on all those things that make university education desirable. Financial objectives will increasingly come to dominate in universities at the expense of educational objectives.

Of concern must be the fact that the new system of university finance will be managed by for-profit businesses. Already it is reported in the press that the government is considering selling off its student loans book to a private provider. These loans are at present interest free, to make them more attractive to a potential buyer the government is considering adding interest to these loans. The costs of administering the student loans system will be considerable. In the past the American health care system was considered as an example of how not to manage a health care system, as 40% of health care costs went into the management of the system. Now any cabinet minister would tell you that it was a price worth paying for the efficient delivery of health care at the point of delivery. What share of the proceeds of loan repayments will go to the managers of the student finances? Whatever it might be, it will diminish the contribution of loan repayments to the financing of higher education.

When the government sells student debt to for profit companies, it will have to do so in way that guarantees these companies a profit. The obvious way to do that will be to sell it at a discount. If the private company pays less than the market value of the student debt, it is guaranteed a profit in the event of a shortfall in repayments. Whatever deal the government has with private companies it can only diminish the contribution of loan repayments to the financing of higher education.

No mention has been made of the difficulties of collecting these loan repayments. Many graduates are highly mobile in terms of jobs and location. A maths graduate from Oxbridge might decide to work for a New York finance house, only returning to the UK at retirement age. Such a person would given the current rules avoid repaying any of their student loan. The commercial organisations managing the repayments system would be under an obligation not only to remain viable but to make a substantial return on their investment. The only way this could be achieved is to increase the costs of loan repayments on those who cannot avoid making repayments, that is those residing in the UK. The government has shown that it is not adverse to such an arrangement, as it is considering charging interest on what were formerly interest free loans.

The change in funding is claimed to be a revolution, as universities will now be independent of the government as they will depend in future from their income from their customers the students. What can be best described as the ‘free market fallacy’. With the universities no longer dependent on government funding, they will be free it is said from government dictates on curriculum and be able to set a curriculum that needs the needs of their students and the UK economy. There is the sting in the tail, they must meet the needs of the UK economy. Universities will be obliged to provide those courses that will guarantee the employability of their students. This explains why there is a large increase in business and business related courses and a decline in the humanities, the range of modern languages on offer is rapidly diminishing and subjects such as philosophy which have no business application are disappearing from the curriculum altogether. It is an attack on the enlightenment project, that of education for education’s sake.

The strings by which the government puppet masters control the universities will no longer be visible, but they will remain in place never the less.

This ‘realist’ government has said it is prepared to accept that universities may be allowed to go bankrupt, it wants the stiff winds of competition to weed out those weak universities that provide a poor quality education. One suspects that what the government means is those new universities that attract large numbers of non traditional lower income students which instead of teaching them useful vocational and employment skills teach subjects that fall within the ‘liberal education’ ethos. Government boasting about the opening of private universities that focus on providing vocational education at lower cost than traditional universities show the direction in which the coalition government want higher education move.

The change in the attitudes university education is reflected in the views of two contrasting philosophers. Michael Oakshott writing on education in the 1960′ s defined education as the initiation into new areas of experience and knowledge which was in contrast to Keith Joseph who 20 years later saw education as being limited to those subject areas that had economic utility. Rather than opening up young minds to new experiences Keith Joseph wanted to limit the experiences of young people to those that had economic utility. Fine arts to be replaced by accountancy etc. It is Keith Joseph thinking rather than that of Michael Oakshott that has dominated government policy towards the universities.

Government policy is characterised by naivety and ignorance of the world beyond the confines of Westminster and dining rooms of Notting Hill. They foresee an exciting future in which the universities freed from government control will compete against each other and that competition will drive up standards as the universities compete for students. Any cursory examination of the economy will demonstrate that free markets are dominated by a few big firms. There are not numerous suppliers engaged in fierce competition with each other. We speak of the ‘big four or five’ when speaking of the banks, supermarkets, energy suppliers etc. not the numberless independents. One of the economists claimed by the government to provide the evidence for their policy is J S Schumpeter, but one suspects that their reading of his books has not been very thorough. He writes that although markets start as competitive they end up as monopolistic, that is dominated by a few large suppliers. The most successful firms eliminate competition by either driving out of the market their less successful competitors or by absorbing them into their business. By freeing the university sector from government control and opening it up to market forces, there is no reason why the university market should not follow the pattern outlined by Schumpeter.

Already the government has unwittingly made moves to reducing competition in this sector. They have suggested that the most successful universities should set up an external degree system whereby their students study for their degrees in local outreach institutions, such as further education colleges. This outsourcing of degrees will undermine smaller local universities that lack the prestige and resources of the major universities resulting in a consolidation within the university sector as universities close.
The government has said it is prepared too see universities close. The assumption being that the high quality universities will prosper and expand. However this is to misunderstand the market system. One factor in attaining market dominance is quality of the product, others equally important factors such as cost efficiencies may have little to do with the quality of the product. What will happen is that the new private universities will be best placed to take advantage of the new opportunities. They are the most cost efficient, they offer the least cost degrees and have the marketing skills of a successful business institution. It could well be that they supplant Oxbridge and the Russell Group as the dominant players in the university market. What we are looking at to borrow an analogy from the grocery trade is a future dominated by the ALDI university.

If cost is to be the deciding factor university education for the majority of students will be changed. It will no longer be the three year course at some hallowed institution but a low cost course lacking most of the features associated with a high quality education. An out sourced degree course at an FE college will be considerably inferior to one undertaken at the well resourced home university.

Is ASDA another precursor of the future? It is planning to offer degree courses to its own staff. These degrees will be both vocational and low cost. The two criteria which the government believes are the two key criteria for university education.

What the government and its supporters fail to realise is that the market has its own logic. If the government is responsible for the direction of education that direction is open to debate and it is likely that university education will be directed towards achieving a variety of desirable goals, which at its best is education for education’s sake. However a market dominated system directed to maximising profit will focus on a narrow range of courses that maximise returns. If profit maximisation is to be attained by cost cutting all innovation will disappear as new ideas cost money and would be contrary to the least cost consensus that prevailed in universities. Already such changes can be seen in the university sector with the increasing proliferation of business studies courses, increasingly universities will teach ‘to do’ rather than ‘to think’. The uniform mediocrity imposed by the market will be a more successful suppressor of free thinking that any of the repressive institutions of the past. Cost is a far better censor than the Inquisition.