Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Official: old people not worth tuppence

The kite-flying on benefits by Nick Boles, which is generally deemed to be indicative of government thinking, coincides with another gripe-fest about the quality of ICT teaching in schools. There is a connection between the two.

The ICT debate has been framed in largely instrumental terms. Kids need to learn coding because that will lead to future prosperity: "Digital literacy must take its place alongside reading, writing and numeracy as a really valuable component of general economic success". The Guardian's roundtable discussion, sponsored by those anti-evil peeps at Google, identifies teachers as part of the problem: "The point was made that in secondary schools many of the existing cohort of ICT teachers started out teaching business studies – they had little or no coding expertise and may be reluctant to teach the new curriculum". This highlights the danger of an instrumental curriculum, which is what is being proposed. Again. I recall doing "Commerce" at school in the 70s, which meant preparing us for a clerical role rather than understanding trade flows. The world it envisaged, which wouldn't have been unfamiliar to Bob Cratchit, was transformed by IT. Of course, you cannot teach around technologies that have yet to be invented, but that is precisely why instrumental education is problematic.

Public education always exhibits a tension between the desire of the idealists to teach children how to learn and the desire of politicians and business people to teach those practical skills that industry needs now. The latter is vulnerable to redundancy, and arguably at an increasing rate. This same tension is exhibited in Nick Boles's suggestion that public expenditure should be judged on its economic value, its return on investment. Thus resources should be prioritised for workers, to help improve productivity, instead of being spent on un-productive people such as the elderly or children: "Productivity and competitiveness are my lodestars because I am convinced that the only way we can restore sustained improvement in living standards is if most working people in Britain can command high and steadily increasing wages in the market place."

This rhetoric helps explain the real background to the debate that counterposes universal and means-tested benefits. While many old people fear the latter because they remember the abuse and arbitrariness it gave rise to, not to mention the deliberately cultivated shame, most young people struggle to see why we should spend public money on benefits for the elderly rich. The point is that capital has an interest in the state providing benefits for workers only. The NHS keeps workers healthy, therefore boosting productivity. Similarly, state education provides employees who have already been partially trained for the job.

Where neither of these exist, capital must either accept unhealthier and less able workers, which means lower productivity and thus lower profits, or it must invest itself in health care schemes and training. The paternalism of the Victorians is held up by many on the right as evidence that freed of the shackles of the state, charity (aka Big Society) would fill the void for public goods. In fact, as history shows, the pressure of competition between businesses means that some become free-riders, benefiting from the social investment of others.

The evolution of the welfare state could not have happened without the realisation of capital that state provision was preferable because it was more efficient and prevented free-riding. The decision to fund this provision through general taxation also meant that a large part of the cost could be recouped from the workers themselves, rather than being paid for by business. Ultimately, capital has no interest in any public expenditure on the elderly (unless they work) or any investment in education that isn't of measurable value to business. There is no ROI in the old, or in the teaching of critical theory. Means-testing provides a mechanism for the progressive erosion of such benefits.

Interestingly, Boles's thinking is already evoking criticism on the right because it reneges on the quid pro quo of contributory taxes such as NICs, though the purpose of this bleat appears to be merely to recommend that we all rely on private provision from the off. No doubt means-testing will be presented as a "fair" compromise short of the full horror of privatisation. You'd almost think they were in cahoots.

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