Monday, March 31, 2008

Blinkered Nauseating Hypocrisy

No more Mr Nice Guy

Away from the internet over the weekend, Tyler has returned to a raging diatribe from his old mate the Doc, who's been lashing out at the TPA and its supporters, including Tyler.

Doc picks up our post on the latest TPA Town Hall Rich List, and spews forth:

"The Taxpayers’ Alliance blinkered hypcrisy is an ever increasing source of annoyance... Daily Mail style TPA tabloid fodder. As always with the TPA it takes cheap shots... appeals to the gut rather than the intellect... fraudulent bogey figure... journalistic fraud... TPA’s disreputable spin...

... the TPA, sailing close to the law of defamation... classic bit of economic prestidigitation... an inflammatory out-of-context quote- that is how the TPA works... an exercise in blinkered, nauseating hypocrisy."


But as the great Oscar was wont to observe, there's only one thing worse than being accused of Blinkered Nauseating Hypocrisy, and that is not being accused of BNH.

To start with, let's note that Doc is not alone in his anger. Over on the TPA blog, there are similar splenetic comments from other public employees: how dare the TPA pick on hard working public servants, put them in the tabloid dock over pay, and then not have the integrity to publish their own pay?

And you know what? If I'd stayed working as a civil servant I'd be squawking too. I'd feel I earned every penny. I'd feel that Labour's pay rises were no more than I was due after years of underpayment, and years of watching acquaintances in the private sector creaming it in jobs frankly much less demanding and certainly much less worthwhile than my own. You bet I'd be up for some TPA bashing.

Which is precisely why such tricky issues are never taken up by our mainstream political parties. As we blogged here, one in four employees now works for the public sector (including GPs), and in one way or another, more than half of the electorate are now state beneficiaries. That's a whole shedload of voters you could lose by laying into state pay-outs.

But that's a roadmap to disaster. Someone has to highlight the issues and get the facts out on the table. And nobody's interested in abstract arguments about high level principles, or heavy wonk papers about labour market comparabilities. The reason the TPA Rich List has had such extensive media coverage is that it's specific: it names names.

And let's be clear- these really are the things they didn't want you to know. As the Rich List explains, the level of remuneration disclosure required of local authorities is far below that required of public companies, or even for crissake, quangos. Left to themselves, the authorities tell their taxpayers absolutely zip. The TPA had to send out Freedom of Information requests to 450 plus councils, and quite a few refused to answer (see report for examples of the cock-and-bull excuses they gave).

The Rich List brings transparency, and also helps Council Tax payers identify situations where senior officials have been rewarded for failure. Because as the Guardian's economics editor - probably not a natural TPA supporter - says, Britain's newly enriched public sector bosses "have big salaries, drive expensive cars and – so far at least – appear to have achieved the square root of naff all.

No wonder there's a certain tension in the air.

And it reflects a much bigger picture. For the first time in 15 years the tide is starting to turn against Big Government. On BOM we say praise God, and pass the ammunition. But the left is already in a muck sweat about massacres to come - so much so, that even some rightish commentators are urging them to pull themselves together and brace up (see Matthew Parris in the Times over the weekend).

As always, public employees are out there in no-mans land, crouched in their shell-holes and desperately hoping the bombardment isn't as bad as last time.

So what of the Doc's specific arguments?

First, that £100k pa definition of rich- is it a "fraudulent bogey figure" as he alleges? True, nice round six figure numbers are shaped for headlines, but according to HMRC, only 1% of adults had incomes over £100k in 2006-07. We reckon that's rich to most of us.

Second, what about integrity? Doc argues that the TPA should not be publishing individual details of the 818 Town Hall officials who get paid over £100,000 pa, unless they publish their own salaries too. He says he "cannot take anyone seriously who sits at the “your salary is too big” table without declaring what they earn themselves." He demands Tyler publish his own emoluments, and he produces a pay and rations expose of leading TPA personnel and supporters (even if it is somewhat light on facts and somewhat heavy on Dave Spart style speculation).

To which we say, settle down Beavis. We reckon there's a rather big difference between the TPA and the Town Halls: the TPA raises all its money from voluntary donations, the Town Halls raise the vast bulk of theirs from taxation. And we reckon that if government is going to take away our money under compulsion of law, we have a right to know exactly what they spend it on. Especially how much they pay those in charge.

Third, is Doc right that the public sector is no worse than the private in terms of employing blithering idiots, failure, and rewarding failure?

We can all agree the private sector has its share of all three - eg the T5 fiasco and payoffs for failing fat cats - but we reckon there are some crucial differences.

For one thing, the private sector mainly operates in the market. Private sector operations therefore only get any money if they can sell stuff to customers. True, the customers may sometimes later regret buying, but they can at least then withdraw their custom. And their cash.

Customers have no such power in the public sector. Their money is taken as taxes, and to all intents and purposes that's it: they have to accept whatever they're given by way of service, however shoddy.

It's a crucial difference. What it means is that in the private sector, successful operations are rewarded, and failing operations are punished: indeed, failing operations can be snuffed out altogether. That is a highly effective mechanism for ensuring that, on average, the businesses that serve us are the ones that work.

In the public sector, there is no such mechanism. Failing schools and hospitals get paid whatever, and can just go on failing. Customers may try to go elsewhere, but the chances are they can't. Parents are forced by lottery to send their kids to the most appalling sink schools. Patients can be consigned to filthy third world hospitals. Crime victims must spend their lives cowering indoors hoping for the best. It is frankly disgusting.

What's that? Oh yes, the Commissars can order deep cleans and compulsory numeracy hours in primary schools.

Except of course, they don't work. As soon as they issue one set of orders, unforeseen problems elsewhere mean they have to countermand them. In 21st Century Britain, state control is a recipe for lumbering blundering failure.

The thing is, the Doc knows all this - you only have to read his blog. It's just that like other public servants, he's out there in no-mans land, feeling increasingly battered and unloved. And over the weekend he clearly snapped. Still, we're a broad-shouldered forgiving type, so we'll allow him the odd dyspeptic rant or two, even when it's directed at us (the TPA itself is somewhat less accommodating).

But he has underlined an important point. Tackling our bloated underperforming public services is certainly going to involve a noisy and uncomfortable struggle with those who work in them. Better gird up our extremities.

PS Doc also says: "The TPA has but one bland belief. Taxes are too high, and should be reduced. In their prominently displayed mission statement the TPA says: Taxpayers' Alliance Mission Statement: We will oppose all tax rises. That is it. No exemptions. No explanation. No penumbra. No analysis other than that in which the conclusions have been pre-defined. Tax is a bad thing." Hmm. The TPA's actual mission statement is set out here, and reads "The TPA's mission is: to reverse the perception that big government is necessary and irreversible; to explain the benefits of a low tax economy; to give taxpayers a voice in the corridors of power." But rather than accuse Doc of using what he refers to as an "inflammatory out-of-context quote", I'll put the misunderstanding down to his failing eyesight. Which presumably also prevented him reading such beefy TPA research reports as Moving Britain Backwards, Dynamic Model of the UK Economy, Better Government report, Flat Tax: Towards a British Model, The Case Against Further Green Taxes, HM Prison Service is failing: a new approach is urgently needed, etc etc - see here for more links.

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