Sunday, 4 July 2010

Government magic

The key skill of the conjuror is sleight of hand. There's a brilliant trick being carried off by leading politicians in a number of countries at the moment, which consists of taking hold of widely-held views, often directed against politicians, and skilfully turning them to their advantage.

A curious trait of our democracies is that though we choose our governments, we loathe them as soon as they’re elected. By getting into office, any politician becomes at a stroke a lying, cheating snake who’s just like all the others. They get worse and worse until they’re finally forced out of public life, to general relief.

At that point a strange process of rehabilitation often gets under way. There are exceptions, of course: it’ll be a while before anyone starts to think any better of Tony Blair, for instance. But with most politicians, once they’re out of office, people begin to warm to them again. Jimmy Carter was one of the most reviled politicians in the West, defeated for a second term by a third-rate former Hollywood actor who was probably already suffering from the Alzheimer’s that later killed him. Thirty years on, Carter has attained a status little short of sainthood.

In part, the dislike of government takes the form of a desire to see more power exercised locally. The trouble is that we dislike local politicians even more than national ones. Who are they to strut around making themselves important when we know that all they’ve done is get elected to a job no more than a handful of people would consider worth doing in the first place?

Now national politicians, aware of our distrust of all politicians, and our particular dislike of local ones, have started to turn these feelings to their advantage.

In Britain, for instance, our smart new government has set up an ‘Office for Budget Responsibility’. This is staffed by economists, not politicians, and will make forecasts about future trends in the economy and rule on the advisability of financial measures proposed by government.

Fascinating isn’t it? We spent centuries wresting the power to tax from the unelected busybodies surrounding the king. Why, it was because Charles I was trying to raise taxes for a foreign war that we rose against him and sent him to the scaffold. When our colonists in North America in turn rose against us their war cry was ‘no taxation without representation’. Yet now we want to hand over financial control to a bunch of unelected so-called experts.

And what sort of experts are they? Economists. Please tell me that I’m not alone in seeing an irony here. As J K Galbraith, an economist himself, pointed out, the role of economists is to make astrologers look good. On the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England in the run up to the financial crash, only one of the nine experts called for reductions in the interest rate; seven voted to leave them unchanged for month after month; there was even one who called for them to be raised. It turns out that David Blanchflower, the lone advocate for a reduction, was the one who got it right. Eight out of nine got it wrong. Again and again.

Now we’re supposed to put our faith in experts like them?

But the real beauty of the creation of the Office for Budget Responsibility is the way it plays to the distrust of politicians in general while strengthening the hands of those politicians who happen to be in power. As ‘experts’, economists have an aura of authority which politicians don’t. This has been used to the benefit of the very politicians that make up the government: last week figures worked out by the Office for Budget Responsibility and showing that the impact of the government's economic policy on unemployment was, unsurprisingly, going to be catastrophic, were leaked to The Guardian. That proved embarrassing for the government. No problem: the Office rushed out some new predictions that ‘corrected’ the earlier ones. One might quibble that they were based on forecasts for private sector growth that most commentators think are wildly optimistic. But hey, they’re a lot more comfortable for the government, and they have the authority of having been produced by ‘independent experts’.

The other wonderful initiative in England is called ‘Free schools’. This is equally clever in the way that it plays simultaneously on the desire for local control and the dislike of local politicians.

Obviously, no school can be free, they all cost money. They'll be free to parents, of course, though not free to society: like any state school, these ones will be paid for by all of us, through our taxes. The freedom of their name, though, will lie in the fact that the parents will run them, allowing them to avoid the supposedly bureaucratic control of local authorities.

One of the most outspoken supporters of this plan is a character called Toby Young. He puts together a smartly constructed justification for why we should all fund a school he can run himself for his own kids, whatever impact that may have on any coherent educational strategy his local authority may be pursuing for children in his neighbourhood generally.

Young seems to be aspiring to be the thinking Englishman’s equivalent of what Sarah Palin is in the United States. I say ‘thinking’ because he's good at writing, if you have the stomach for his particular brand of Fox News-style ultra-right wing diatribe, and when Palin was questioned about what papers she consulted, she made it clear that she hadn’t even fully mastered reading yet. On the other hand, having heard Young in public argument, I’m not convinced he has her open-mindedness or her sensitivity to nuance. At one point he told an opponent ‘I don’t want to get personal’. Why do people say that kind of thing? Everyone knows there’s a ‘but’ coming, followed by a personal attack. Since no-one was forcing him to make it, he must clearly have wanted to.

In any case, since they take public money, the schools will be subject to the usual checks on their administration and their standards. If local authorities don’t do the monitoring, who will? You got it. Central government. So a degree of authority and the funding for these schools will have been switched from local to national control, and all in the name of local autonomy.

See what I mean about conjuring? Pick a card, pick any card, but whichever it is, the government wins. And there are even clever, articulate people like Toby Young who'll give a veneer of plausibility to the deception.

And just like any magic act, it ultimately only works because of our willingness to let ourselves be duped.

Ah, well. Hamlet got it about right: ‘what a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty.’

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