UK Politics

A little bit of politics

Something else I noticed on the Notes From The Underground thread that David T mentions below was a comment by Paleo Man, where he writes that he’s “Happiness has almost nothing to do with social or economic conditions, ‘human rights’ or constitutional arrangements, except at the extreme fringes of misery usually generated by visionaries who briefly impose on a gullible populace. Quietism is the best guarantor of mild contentment, which is the most we should hope for. Leave the blowhard fussing and fretting to the HP nerds of this world”.

Aside from some minor differences in prose style, it’s similar to an article Michael Portillo wrote for the Sunday Times in May, about the limited influence of politics and politicians on people’s lives. Echoing Paleo Man’s remark about HP nerds, Portillo says that “Only teenage anoraks think politics matters by comparison with getting a job, a car and a lover”, and argues that politicians need to make fewer and smaller promises:

They have fallen far behind the public in their understanding of what politics can achieve and therefore what politics is for…Yet the promising has gone on. Politicians commit themselves to utopian improvements that the public knows they will not deliver. It is one reason why people feel contemptuous of the political process. If politicians could ratchet down their pledges they would seem less silly and implausible…Politicians might in time compete with each other to promise less – so as to appear more credible – rather than more.

Indeed, a great happiness is to be free from the clutches of government bureaucracy. Those who never have to fill in a claim form or hold on for half an hour to speak to a surly and indifferent official are liberated from the stress and humiliation that afflict the poorest in Britain.

Up to a point I can agree with all this (especially the bit about people who spend inordinate amounts of their time arguing about politics over the internet being wonks and anoraks and nerds. There are exceptions of course, but we tend to be few and far between). In a lecture in 2003 the economist Richard Layard mentioned a survey of 1,000 working women in Texas, who’d been asked to divide their previous day into episodes, and rank them in order of which episode made them most happy. The highest ranked activity was sex, followed by socialising, dinner, relaxing, lunch, exercising and praying. Clearly none of these activities is closely related to government policy, and so therefore you could argue that politics was unimportant and had little influence on people’s day to day lives.

But Layard also found that happiness is affected by economic conditions, or at least that for people earning less than $15,000 a year there’s a strong link between income and happiness. Above that level, income tends to make people unhappy when they compare their own income with others’, and that, on the basis that “an extra pound gives less extra happiness to a rich person than a poor person”, the wider the gap in incomes, the more likely people are to be unhappy. $15,000 in 2003 was about £10,000, or what you’d expect to earn working a 40 hour week on the minimum wage, and you may have read an article yesterday about some of the excuses employers give to avoid paying this amount. You may also have read Polly Toynbee writing in the Guardian that:

This week City dealers’ bonuses soared higher than ever, to £21bn, dwarfing the £3.3bn tax take from all their inheritances. Even mid-ranking bankers are due for £1.5m on top of their salaries…Just remember this: the top 1% of the population owns 23% of everything. The bottom 50% owns just 6%. If you take homes out of the equation, then the top 1% owns 63% of all other assets. The bottom half owns just 1%

So as much as I share Paleo Man’s aversion to utopian visionaries, and Portillo’s belief that politicians should avoid promising improvements they can’t deliver, I think there’s some scope for a little bit of politics here, both in progressive taxation, and in housing, about which the Times reported earlier this month that “the number of second homes in the UK has risen by 15 per cent since 2000 and is set to reach 3.3 million by 2015”. Brownie put it best in a comment to this post, where he said: “Any system that not only permits, but actively encourages, the acquisition of multiple homes by the affluent few to the detriment of literally millions of young adults looking for somewhere to live, is manifestly immoral. Any government with the faintest of socialist pretensions that fails to confront such a glaring injustice, deserves our scorn”.