Pensions

Just a few general thoughts..

I like the idea of automatic and compulsory enrolment but I think it should be a contribution into the state pension pot rather than into a private workplace pension. It should be compulsory because, when people opt out, albeit often with the intention of making other arrangements later, if/when they do not do so, or their plan simply fails, we all have to pay for him or her anyway as ill-prepared public insurers. I’d rather a state pot (let’s pretend for a moment that there has been some progress in the competency of the State! There could be if we insisted on it..) – a state pot because that is collective ownership of an essential public service. A workplace pension doesn’t sound very stable, either for the individual or the country: it reduces people to relying too much on the investment sense and business acumen of their employers. Every generation and all individuals make daily choices and sacrifices between gratification in the present and insuring the future – that’s life – but feeling forced into choosing between one end of life and the other is too horrific. We have to find a way that doesn’t sacrifice our youth and middle age to our last years. Life can be cruelly short or it may be very, very long and we rarely know how long we’ve got. Securing a pension must not be reduced to a choice between either enforced, possibly constant sacrifice and frugality in the hope of a secure old age which might not come or enjoyment and comfort now at the risky expense of a miserable retirement and old age.

However, everyone knows that, in order to have savings – in order to contribute into a pension fund – one needs to have the disposable income in the first place. Either remuneration needs to go up considerably for the bottom half of Society or the obscenely high cost of living must come down. I would say both need to happen. The current state pension is already inadequate, else there wouldn’t be the need for such top-ups as a winter fuel allowance. We can measure how inadequate it is now, so it surely cannot be beyond our wit to measure more realistically, the individual contributory cost of a decent basic pension. Of course it feels as though it is unaffordable, but ‘they’ tell us this about nearly everything. We can’t afford not to afford it, can we, because, despite the love in a so-called Libertarian to pronounce on choice, self-sufficiency and independence, it is clearly only currently possible for a few. Because of our uneven socio-political structures; our unnecessary and insidious class fixations; the disparities in opportunity; notions of deservedness etc, ‘choice’ ‘self-sufficiency’ and ‘independence’ sound like the doubletalk of crass ideology. A neoliberal attitude towards common need and healthy environment invariably costs us more money in the end. In fact, does not a false economy actually cost us all a whole lot more than just money..?

So, the rest of us – you and me: if we want a whole life, with decent pension included, we obviously need very decent wages. Wages we can not just live well on but which can sustain a taxable contribution. That means a wage that more than sustains, even if and when the employment that’s available (or perhaps desired) is the most menial and simple of labours.

Public versus Private

So the public sector isn’t the whole answer and the private sector is not the whole answer. And pitting the one against the other, however hard the corporatocracy tries, is not the answer either…

It is not the public sector’s fault if the private sector cannot provide reliable, affordable, decent pensions. It is not the fault of the public sector that the private sector puts profit before service.

If you work in the public sector, you are a public servant: you work for us; for the good of everybody. That should be a noble use of time and skill. It should be worthy of recognition. It should be deserving of decent working hours, pay and conditions. I want my public servants to feel fulfilled, supported and appreciated. I want them to be worthy of this and, in turn, I want to be deemed worthy of the services they administer. At the moment, for various reasons already identified by many, neither is the case.

I also want this concept of nobility in public service extended to ownership and restored to our public utilities. We understand now that although our national industries were not run perfectly, there was also a concerted effort to deliberately run them down in order to sell us the idea that only private investment held the money and solutions. As it turns out, it didn’t – at least not in any ethically sustainable way. Private, capitalist ownership of vital resources and services turned out to be wonderful for those with vested interests but rather detrimental to and very expensive for the nation’s collective needs. To add extra insult those very same corporations get subsidies – way to make a mockery of capitalism…!  Anyway, it turns out we could have just printed the dosh, made the improvements and invested in ourselves…

There is nothing wrong with having a private sector, but it is just that: private. It has notions of independence and exclusivity attached to it. By definition it is not for general public use without exception and should in no way be sold as a panacea for the efficient and egalitarian provision of essential services. Private enterprise already has its appropriate place in the capitalist market and the corporatocracy should get a hasty grip and suck it up.

Dividing the nation by private-good and public-bad is obscene, reckless and unnecessary and everyone should wise up to this and stop allowing themselves to be held to political ransom through a mainstream media mouthpiece. The one is not and should not be the enemy of the other. Workers within the private sector are also deserving of decent working hours, pay and conditions. For both the poor employee of the private sector and the denigrated public servant there is surely nothing about policy and workers’ rights that a creative, caring and courageous government can’t address with integrity. Like pensions, for example: surely we could at least sort out that awful disparity?

How can it possibly be acceptable that the private sector has for so long been so woefully accommodated that most employees have no provision at all? And what of the self-employed? Who will cover this shortfall? Why everyone else, of course! And, just as top-up benefits demonstrate the inefficiency and misery of low wages, so too does the winter fuel allowance reflect the inadequacy of the state pension. We really should do a better job of working out how much a pension needs to be to provide a comfortable retirement.

I would like some kind of automatic enrolment to be considered so that, regardless of public-, private- or self-employment, everyone contributes to their state pension and for that pension to be a realistically adequate sum on which to live; such that any privately sourced extras are a superfluous desire rather than a vital bridge over a shortfall. A proper, responsible pension system: one that does not carelessly allow people to fall through what is essentially a sensible and rational scheme, only to leave the next generation picking up the slack and plugging the gaps of consistently failing, divisive and cowardly government economics.

Both sectors are appropriate but for quite opposite reasons. The desirability in the private sector is that it recognises an individual’s independence and freedom of choice through innovation and competition; the essentiality of the public sector is that it recognises the value of access and consistency over cynicism and expedience. Yes, each can emulate the other with varying degrees of success, but neither does this perfectly nor even very naturally. Both are valuable; both have their place. The powers that be just need to catch up and learn theirs.

Lifted out of Participation

I’m no economist so I’m keeping this excursion simple.

Is it really better to lift people out of paying tax? It sounds like a desirable policy goal on the surface: of course you want to keep as much of your money as possible, but it makes no sense in the general and especially current context. Aside from the wider philosophical arguments about the responsibility and size of an ideal government and, leaving out that conveniently seldom-mentioned elephant – the ability to print a sovereign currency as necessary – isn’t the excuse for limited Government spending usually blamed on the revenue-capacity of the Treasury? That same Treasury that is so starved of income that it’s keen to also ‘lift’ the biggest and the richest out of tax?

So, lack of revenue being the narrative, how does it help the national economy if a growing number of people pay no tax because they can only find part-time, short-term, zero-hour contracts and the like? Part-time work is ideal if you only require part-time wages, but underemployment doesn’t keep the roof over your head and feed your family. It doesn’t cover your bills and it certainly doesn’t make you feel safe. It puts you in almost constant survival mode and this engenders anxiety, hopelessness and resentment because desire and effort are made to seem almost redundant. So, because the underemployed employee can’t earn enough to even cover life’s basics, we know that financial assistance is required from the State.

Suddenly, through a variety of top-up benefits, you are beholden to all the lucky, tax-paying public and, to add insult to the injurious and carelessly laid policy traps, you are generically and fatuously labelled as a ‘scrounger’ who must have some terrible moral deficiency. You are now a gratuitous drain on some fictionalised hard-working majority. Ironic considering how very few people would knock back a chance to genuinely improve their lot if real improvement was on offer.

Maybe, as some will tell you, part-time work, temporary and zero-hour contracts are sneaky economics and avoidable. I suspect this is largely true and quite curable with sufficient and appropriate investment in our common needs, such as infrastructure, public services, housing, science and technology (especially green). In such progressive and abundant circumstances, employees may even see their personal and collective value being more highly respected and rewarded – sufficiently to pay tax.

Maybe, as others will tell you, this epidemic of underemployment is just the consequence of our modern economy to which we must adjust. If this is true then we need to urgently and seriously find ways to make life affordable on minimum hours and minimum wages.

Lifting people out of tax is symptom-based popularism – a convenient way of ignoring the larger reality: we wouldn’t need so much money if it didn’t cost so damned much to live.

There is another issue around this seeming gift of tax exemption which underpins my philosophical view: that renowned concept of ‘no taxation without representation’. Tax contributions are as much a citizen’s way of participating in the running of their country as is their vote. It actually anchors the citizen’s vote by virtue of the State’s need for the contribution as a vehicle of that representation. Thus we derive our right to have a say in a democratic system.