Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The Nick Cohen Pledge

An interesting Tweet exchange with Nick Cohen last night at the end of which he offers to get me reading glasses (I am of that age, I suppose) and to put me on a course of basic English (well, I suppose I am foreign). Finally he tells me to go away. How permanently, he does not say, nor do I ask. I wouldn't want to be any more of a burden than I already am.

I don't want to get too acerbic about Cohen, whose articles I generally like. The big argument of his Spectator article is: don't punish the young, or at least if you do, punish the old equally. If he means reducing state benefits to the old and well-off who don't need such benefits, that's fine by me, though it will require a means test of some sort and will certainly punish anyone who has saved. (In fact they are punished already: my mother in law would get state aid in her nursing home if they had been less careful on a very low salary: they spent practically nothing on themselves. He is dead now. Their reward: to be sucked absolutely dry.)

But then he is in favour of means tests under current circumstances:

In these circumstances, whacking up tuition fees for students, withdrawing child tax credits for young, poorish parents, withdrawing child benefits for richish parents all seem like practical politics. Means testing bus passes, winter fuel allowances and free television allowances for the elderly all seem taboo. Of all the austerity measures the coalition has imposed only the granny tax was targeted at the elderly – and that only brought pensioner tax allowances into line with everyone else’s.

But what of the aged poor? Well, bugger them too because:

I have always been reluctant to acknowledge intergenerational conflict. A 64-year-old ex-miner coughing up his guts in a Doncaster council flat is unlikely to believe that he is a member of the “lucky” baby boomer generation. You cannot plausibly describe the undergraduate son of a banker as accursed because he was born into the “jilted generation”. Class trumps age. Or so I used to think. 

My bold & italics. Class doesn't trump age now. Clear enough? Then a piece from the excellent Max Dunbar, and into the last paragraph:

I am sorry to be brutal, but there is no way of phrasing it delicately: the young are our future and the old are our burden.  

My English is not, he tells me, up to understanding that. My eyesight is too poor to make out the words. My intellect is clearly too weak to follow the argument.

But let that go for now. We live on, one way or the other, and generally people need a lot less than they actually have.

The sentence I draw attention to in his article is clearly telling pensioners they are a burden. Reading it along with his views on class and age, hard as I try, I can't make any other sense of it. Conclusions:

  • Pensioners don't only have to put up with feeling like shit physically, they should do so psychologically too. 

  • It suggests to me that pensioners are offered the generous gift of a pension by the state: that it is a gift and that by drawing on this gift we are a burden. 

  • It tells me that we have done nothing for our children (i.e. the young) that we are essentially leeches off them. That bringing up children and doing our best to support them is worthless.

  • It tells me we have done nothing to support the state, that whatever taxes we paid were not half enough to support not only the young but the middle generation.

And more along that line. He cannot, for the life of him, see that it suggests all this. He suggests that being a burden does not mean this.

Don't get me wrong: I can see the problem clearly enough and I can certainly see it is very tough to be young now, tougher perhaps than it used to be. We had no hi-tech goods and no designer clothes, sometimes we lived in bad accommodation with less reliable amenities, but we didn't pay tuition fees and there were times when it was easier to find jobs, though not all the time. I can even see the demographic waterfall up ahead without the promised reading glasses.

I don't actually believe - having read other of his articles and some books too - that he himself believes all this.  But it's what he has written, so perhaps he does believe it.

So it is time for the Nick Cohen Pledge: I will not be a burden.

Speaking for myself I desperately hope not to be. Who knows how easy I will find it to carry out my pledge, but then I don't desperately desire to be sack of skin full bad blood and foul shit either.

Maybe Cohen just spends too much time with his affluent contemporaries.


The Plump said...

don't punish the young, or at least if you do, punish the old equally

I think that what he is trying to say is more like 'give the young priority over the old'.

It is a version of the instinct in a catastrophe to save the children first. He is trying to argue that, instead, we are sacrificing the young to save the old.

As an argument I think that it is overstated and the phraseology is pretty brutal, reflecting unspoken prejudices.

A post of mine seems to have got you into a scrap, sorry. But even though I like his writing very much, and have read most of his books, I don't fancy his chances :-)

Gwil W said...

An old friend of mine was pulled up for speeding on the M6. He was driving his big car with his two Border Collies in the back and was running late for a sheepdog trials. Speed? About 92. Age? About the same. He skipped rope 3 times a day and he wasn't a burden to anybody. Last week I ran in a mountain race in the Alps - 3 men over 75 were also running. Cohen should get out more. Meet a few more old folks.

The Plump said...

Gwil W, I think he was speaking not about general decrepitude, but economic productivity. This is a common argument that with an ageing population, the productive sector is getting smaller and their work is having to support more people who are not in productive employment.

I would make two counter points, whilst recognising the existence of the problem (leaving aside the number of older people who remain productive and that older people's spending also contributes to demand). The first is that even if there is a greater cost in health care, benefits etc, that cost is the reward for past labour - deferred wages. The second is that such a narrowly utilitarian approach to ageing is ethically dubious as I wrote in the post you commented on in my blog.

A more general point that I would make is that what are often seen as technical arguments are, in fact, moral arguments, with the morality obscured.

Anonymous said...

Ageism pure and simple.

Gwil W said...

Plump, I think old people are in the main economically productive because they, like George's relation, generally give all their hard earned savings back to the community which helps to provide employment for young people and opportunities to acquire new skills, i.e. they can get various jobs or become entrepreneurs for example in the drug, medical, and care of the elderly industries to name but a few.

In fact the elderly are in this way very philanthropic as I see it.

The Plump said...

Indeed Gwil W. But all western governments are deeply concerned about current demographic trends. This is partly because state pensions, benefits and services are not wholly funded through savings but through concurrent income. If the number of younger workers in the economy declines as a proportion of the total population, the tax base also diminishes making it more difficult to fund services.

There are several economic objections to this view, including your Keynseian welfarist one, but this does not stop it being a concern. It means that we need to think more carefully about the type of society we want to live in and what our political priorities are. Hence there can be no divorce between economics and moral philosophy. It was this problem that Nick Cohen was writing about. However, I think that he drew the wrong conclusions and certainly that his phraseology was breathtakingly unfortunate. And I have to say that his apparently peevish reaction to George on Twitter disappointed me, coming as it did from a writer I admire.