Alex’s book

UK Troppo reader Alex Deane has just published a book, and writes to tell me he quoted extensively from some of my blog posts about values. The book is called The Great Abdication: Why Britain’s Decline Is the Fault of the Middle Class, and the Amazon blurb describes it this way:

The middle class provides British society with its stability and strength. According to Deane’s contentious thesis, our middle class has abstained from its responsibility to uphold societal values, and the enormously damaging collapse of our society’s norms and standards is largely a result of that abdication. The institutions of political and social governance provide a husk of functionality and mask these problems for those that do not wish to see, or do not care. To restore Britain to something resembling a substantively functioning country, the middle classes must reinstate themselves as arbiters of morality, be unafraid to judge their fellow men, and follow through with the condemnation that necessarily follows when individuals sin against common values.

I’m not at all sure why Alex is quoting me though, unless it’s as an example of someone deserving condemnation for sinning against common values.

The common values Alex seems to want to promote are those solid middle class virtues of thrift and self-reliance. Who could argue against motherhood propositions like that? But it isn’t obvious to me how Alex manages to argue that these values are in decline, either in Britain or Australia. You might have made a respectable case for it in the late 70s, but what with all the deregulation, privatisatisation and “third way” mutual obligation jiggery-pokery that’s been in vogue ever since I reckon you’d be hard-pressed to maintain a claim that the average Pom or Aussie is less self-reliant than 30 or even 50 years ago.

And even though thrift and self-reliance are no doubt virtuous, their flip side in the aspirational middle class is a fearful, scrabbling, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses acquisitiveness and accompanying narrow-minded, censorious, patronising complacency that isn’t virtuous at all.

In fact I can’t help wondering, like the great Nabakov in a recent comment box contribution, why advocates of solid middle class values “never mention another major cultural, social and economic push of the last few decades – the whole Thatcherism/Reaganomics “loadsamoney”, “no such thing as society”,’Me Generation’, ‘greed is good’ thang – as another possible instigator of amoral and socially irresponsible behaviour.” I agree that thrift and self-reliance are important values, but so are tolerance and the fair-go principle of maximising equality of opportunity.

Of course, I may well be doing Alex’s book a grave injustice, because I’m only judging it from the Amazon blurb. But that certainly doesn’t sound promising. Anyway, I guess I’ve given Alex’s book a plug; any publicity is good publicity, they say.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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observa
observa
2021 years ago

“The common values Alex seems to want to promote are those solid middle class virtues of thrift and self-reliance. Who could argue against motherhood propositions like that?”

Try here
http://libertyunbound.com/archive/2005_06/bradford-save.html

observa
observa
2021 years ago

Interestingly enough, it was in the early seventies that our national savings ratio began to decline. With oil shock inflation, it didn’t take long for the thrifty to work out that real interest rates were negative. Also with the rise of liberal progressive, ‘cradle to the grave’ nanny statism, why bother? The gummint will take care of me rather than my offspring. What happened to the offspring we may all well ask? No problem the gummint is now bringing in guest workers to carry the load.

The emphasis of the latest Budget looks like a small glimmer of awakening in the ether. The usual suspects are in complete denial of course.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2021 years ago

observa

I may be wrong, but I don’t read Alex as arguing about economics and savings rates. In any event, the article you link really highlights my point that people aren’t less thrifty today than previously per se. They’re simply responding rationally to prevailing economic conditions.

Moreover, our society DOES involve significant savings-equivalent behaviour. For example, people in Australia plough quite a lot of their income into mortgage repayments on the family home and in many cases rental properties as well, as a form of savings for retirement.

In a rather more government-reliant sense (and therefore possibly part of what Alex is getting at), the broad community support for universal Medicare coverage (and associated benefits like PBS) is really a disguised form of saving: – people accept a higher rate of tax than would otherwise be the case so that money is put aside and saved by the government to provide back to us if we get sick. Similarly with compulsory occupational superannuation and now Costello’s Future Fund.

If this is the sort of thing Alex is on about, he’s no doubt correct that people today are tending to opt in some limited respects for a system where government makes provision for a rainy day on their behalf, instead of individual self-reliance and thrift. Moreover, the loss of choice and a degree of waste from “churning” are arguments for reducing government’s role and returning to a more individual-based model. But there are also arguments pointing the other way (mostly equity-based), and fairly clearly Australians overwhelmingly prefer (and in fact demand) universal health care coverage.

Health care and superannuation are clearly aspects of the Australian system where signnificant elements of community preference for reliance on government rather than self-reliance are evident. But on balance the degree of such reliance has fallen since the late 1970s, and the probability of wide public support for reasserting middle class values of self-reliance to the extent of supporting abandonment of Medicare, PBS etc is very low. Nor quite frankly is it an outcome to be devoutly wished for IMO. But maybe that’s just my marshmallow-like social democratic streak prevailing over the social darwinian element. I don’t see enormous virtue in condemning the unfortunate sick and elderly (or even those who are merely profligate or lazy) to a life of poverty-stricken misery in the interests of promoting rugged self-reliance.

observa
observa
2021 years ago

Ken,
Thrift may be be a measure of self reliance and hence the savings ratio is an aggregate indicator of both. Saving for saving’s sake will be counterproductive in the long run if not used for investment, which should increase income capacity.

I take your point about ‘forced’ savings like super which are a form of aged self-reliance. Also the Govts stance to save now for its PS retirement liabilities is another form of forced third party saving on behalf of those individuals.

There is a problem with believing that paying any interest on borrowings is saving. It is merely a transfer payment of income to domestic or overseas lenders. Borrowing for investment is entirely rational, where that investment produces returns above the interest rate charged. If you borrow to purchase income earning assets(factory, farm, capital equipment), then the cost/return sums are quickly transparent. This is true for overseas borrowings. Not so for investments where the return is only realised when you sell. eg negatively geared real estate, existing share scrip and the like. If demographics produces a wave of bunched selling, the individual historic return you counted on(and borrowed on)could prove illusory. This will be true for both your private and public investments(SGL). That is the fly in the ointment for baby boomers now, who haven’t replaced themselves with the fit and the strong, nor perhaps the capital the new generation require.(where have all the tradesmen gone?)

The response now is the beginning of a panic to get all hands on deck from 15-65 yrs of age. The great thing about this is that many of those who were marginalised (partially disabled) are now in great demand. Unfortunately some who have gotten used to a certain subsidised lifestyle are in great demand too. They are beginning to be demanded by an all hands on deck nation. IMO, the luxury of the liberal progressive nanny state was a statistical aberration, which was afforded by a demographic glut of youth. The demographic reverse downswing will be just as significant.

Mindy
Mindy
2021 years ago

Observa – I think that the gummint will look after me ideology is rapidly declining, because people are starting to realise that it won’t and/or can’t. Most Gen Xers I know are planning to be self sufficient in their retirement, when we finally get there (after the retirement age is lifted to 95) because of the commonly held belief that there will be no pensions or welfare net to fall back on.

It would be interesting to read Alex’s book and find out what exactly he’s talking about. Is he blaming the middle class for being aspirational and not just making do with what they had?

observa
observa
2021 years ago

Did you see the half dozen Phillipino mechanics on one of the current affairs shows the other night? They were working for a large Holden dealer under guest worker visas, after the dealer couldn’t get any locals despite offering $400/week over award. They normally earned about $50/wk back home. Now they sent home 25% of their wages, keeping $400/wk and their board paid on 3 yr visas. At the end of that time if they keep their noses clean, they can apply for permanency. They all spoke good English and ‘Loved it here!’ The future of immigration, but unfortunately we’ll have to compete with the rest of the West for them.

observa
observa
2021 years ago

Mindy,
GenX probably won’t have to worry so much about their retirement support as the baby boomers. Your problem will be supporting us as dribblers, but once we’ve dropped off things will settle down to normal again. The upside will be that if you’re entrepreneurial, there’ll be plenty of cheap businesses up for grabs. Lots of underutilised capital and all you’ll have to do is decide how many young immigrants you want to allow in to divvy up the spoils.

James Farrell
James Farrell
2021 years ago

I guess we’d better read more than the blurb before condemning the book, but anything with a sensationalist title like this – how/why this or that group is destroying/undermining/imperilling values/society/freedom etc. – needs to be treated with suspicion. It sounds like the usual diatribe that connects welfarism and harm minimisation policies to moral-relativist philosophies, and these in turn to the hedonism and self-centred attitudes of baby boomers. Tighter welfare eligibility and zero tolerance will emerge as our only salvation.

observa
observa
2021 years ago

Actually James, I thought the budget was fairly well receieved as a reasonable shift to emerging realities. We have about a decade to move along the new path of ‘the times they are a changin’.

Dave Ricardo
Dave Ricardo
2021 years ago

“why advocates of solid middle class values “never mention another major cultural, social and economic push of the last few decades – the whole Thatcherism/Reaganomics “loadsamoney””

Actually, lots of them do, especially English conservatives like John Gray. They view the rise of the barrow boy class – all new money, no respect for traditions and institutions – under Thatcherism, with extreme distaste.

The old Tory reaction to the rise of the new moneyed classes and their values, or lack of them, which have filtered down by example to the middle classes generally – in fact, Thatcher held them up as an example to follow – is pretty widespread.

David Tiley
2021 years ago

Mindy’s note – “Observa – I think that the gummint will look after me ideology is rapidly declining” – is interesting. I suspect it was never really true.

All the boomers I know are well aware that life on the pension is pretty grim. I suspect that the people who have the decent incomes and the long term jobs have been building their property and share portfolios because they know very well that comfort will have to be paid for. The people who never had decent incomes, or who got whacked in some of our oh so necessary economic shocks, know very well that the only thing that will save them is the value of the family home.

observa
observa
2021 years ago

“The people who never had decent incomes, or who got whacked in some of our oh so necessary economic shocks, know very well that the only thing that will save them is the value of the family home.”

David, home ownership is very important to working class economic wellbeing, particularly in retirement. The middle/high income earners recognise this fact with their extra home investment strategies nowadays and this has a crowding out effect for the battlers. One way to ameliorate this crowding out demand, would be to tax real capital gains on the family home and catch the high end returns here. Real capital gains for most working class owners would be negligible when mortgage interest, rates, maintenance, etc were allowed for as per negatively geared investment homes. Also with super choice rearing its head, the average wage earner would be best served by investing their super in their family home. A riskless private strategy and a sensible social strategy which reduces social security rental assistance payments long term. It would be administartively simple to allow all super and first home buyers grants to be funnelled into the family home to reduce mortgage payoff times. These amounts would be quarantined if you sell and be applied to the purchase of the next home. If not they would return to a super fund of choice. Reasonable limits could be set on super amounts available for this purpose to limit the top end of town. These are the sorts of sensible policies the ALP needs to work on for its constituency. Let’s face it, home ownership for battlers is motherhood policy stuff.

David Tiley
2021 years ago

Aside from anything else Obs, pension + own home = survivable just; pension- rent = not able to afford broadband (gasp, horreur..). A joke but you know the kind of margins I am talking about.