Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Dumbing down the electorate? According to the OECD, there's no need

Now here’s an interesting insight into our societies.

England and Northern Ireland (Scotland and Wales decided, perhaps wisely, not to take part in this study) are 14th out of 24 countries rated for literacy by the OECD. The United States is 17th.

On numeracy, England and Northern Ireland are 18th, the United States 22nd.

I particularly liked one of the test questions, in which respondents were asked whether the following sentence makes sense or not: ‘a person who is twenty years old is older than a person who is thirty years old.’ 

I think that tests a key skill: the aptitude that allows us to understand that the taxation system in the UK and US favours the poor over the rich, or the concept that in England we’re all in this struggle against financial crisis together, all being called on to sacrifice in the same way and to the same extent.

Interestingly, the OECD does lots of studies. Another shows that once you take taxation into account, the UK is 28th out of 34 countries when it comes to income equality, and the US a near-championship level 31st. The populations can barely read or count, but boy are they good at getting themselves ripped off by the guys with their hands in the till.

And the best news of all? This is all going to get even more intense. Among 16 to 24 year olds, England and Northern Ireland outperform the United States on literacy, coming 22nd out of 24 and leaving the US trailing behind at 19th; but on numeracy, young Americans notch up the perfect score, a straight bottom, 24th out of 24 where England and Northern Ireland can only get to 21st – honourably into the 20s but hardly comparable to the US.

That means that, without undue optimism, we can expect our electorates to get still dumber, especially in the US. With such levels of numeracy among the young, there are good grounds for hope that the Tea Party will be able to go on persuading voters that it’s a fine thing to lay off half a million people without pay, that this won’t have a knock-on effect when those people start defaulting on their obligations, and that still more to the point, there’ll be no consequences when the country defaults on its debts too.

John Boehner looking impressive.
The OECD's finding explain why he impresses so many
With a younger generation boasting such enviable levels of skill, there’ll be no difficulty getting people to accept that it’s perfectly reasonable to pass legislation, get it cleared by the supreme court and endorsed in a presidential election, and then refuse to fund government until it withdraws it. I think that’s called demanding with menaces, but the literacy results suggest that enough people won’t be able to read or understand either word.

We should be deeply grateful to the OECD for providing the hard evidence for why it is that, though the US is playing on the financial brink, and Britain
’s anaemic recovery is benefiting only a tiny minority of the population,  the American Tea Party and British ConDems still enjoy otherwise inexplicably strong poll positions.

‘Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public,’ said H L Mencken. The OECD has shown us why he was right. And that the sentiment can be applied just as confidently in Britain. Or at any rate in England and Northern Ireland.


Awoogamuffin said...

Problem is that even the conservatives want to make the rich pay more tax (and hopefully stop the widening divide between rich and poor) but the task is rife with complications.

The recent moves give tax collectors greater discretion in deciding if somebody respecting the letter of the law has broken the spirit. The issue here is that as soon as you leave this kind of legislation up to the whim of officials, you lose the ability to make marginal decisions when doing business.

Though deep down I really like the idea of simply using common sense to punish tax avoiders, I'd prefer it to be done clearly and transparently (there's a reason we admire the Romans for publicly displaying their laws in the form of twelve tables posted at the forum), though I admit that any legislative solution will not last long as accountants will find new ways to work around the rules.

To hear this argument expressed much more clearly, I highly recommend this "Analysis" episode:

Though I agree that tax avoidance needs to be stopped, I feel that Jamie Whyte does a great job defending an unpopular opinion

David Beeson said...

Err,not sure about wanting to make the rich pay more: they took the top rate of 50% down to 45%; and on the gap between poor and rich, the UK was already the most unequal of the EU countries and it's rapidly becoming more unequal still. I don't believe the Tories have any belief in levelling; on the contrary, I believe they subscribe to a notion that it is excellence that gets you into the elite, and excellence should be rewarded.

The elite might, through its excellence, enrich the whole of society and therefore reduce poverty, but this shouldn't reduce the differentials between top and bottom. On the contrary, if anything it should increase the rewards going to the top that made it all possible.

That's the theory. The practice is that as soon as things turn tough, they protect the 'excellent' at the cost of the rest, ultimately making the poor - often the poorest - pay for their own failure. That's what's happening now.

Happy to listen to the Analysis piece, though.