I was intending to discuss Iain Duncan Smith’s speech today at the Centre for Social Justice. I really was.
But I just can’t.
I’ve read the text of the speech and watched some of the VT. But I’m not quite sure what to say.
The characteristic missionary zeal is there. But now it comes with an extra dollop of hubris. Quite incredibly IDS likens his callous welfare changes to the campaign to abolish slavery.
We have a fine smattering of slogans and soundbites.
There are some extraordinarily sweeping claims about the attitudes, lifestyles and behaviours of those who receive assistance from the state.
If you are looking for simplistic binary understandings of the world – those who work hard and those who are “trapped” in a lifetime on benefit – and implausible generalisations about the moral laxity or weakness of will of those who require state support then you’ve come to the right place.
We have an interpretation of the impacts of welfare reform that can only be sustained as long as we make little or no effort to understand what is actually happening on the ground. There’s a little statistical chicanery of the type that will be familiar to seasoned IDS watchers.
But then no one would mistake IDS for a member of the reality-based community.
Yet, mostly we have a great confused jumble of incoherent fragments of thought and inconsistent lines of argument.
If you read the speech to discern what models of social processes or theories of change must, by implication, underlie the statements being made you might very well depart none the wiser.
Are people primarily extrinsically motivated? Do they work simply for the money, and hence high effective marginal tax rates might well attenuate incentives towards greater labour market participation? Or, as IDS makes a point of noting, they lead people straight to crime and the cash-in–hand economy. Or is work not primarily about money but about making a contribution, conforming to social norms and sustaining communities, in which case high effective marginal tax rates are not necessarily a deterrent? Or is it a mix of both? It is quite possible that IDS operates at both ends of the spectrum and most of the points in between during the course of his speech. But it isn’t entirely clear.
Nobody sensible thinks high effective marginal rates are desirable, so I’m not really disageeing with IDS’s overall point here, but a consistent understanding of their influence is vital to determining the most appropriate approach to reform and understanding and calibrating potential policy impacts.
As I read through the speech one of my most frequent reactions to the statements I encountered was a bemused “what does that even mean?”
With rigorous and incisive analysis like this underpinning welfare reform, it’s no wonder it’s proving such an unalloyed success.
This post was reblogged to Public Finance magazine’s blog on 24/01/14
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