Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The elderly don't necessarily need tax breaks

I have a number of requests for president-in-waiting Barack Obama, but one in particular: Could you please stop pandering to old people? That's right, "old people." One of the very few good things about reaching this advanced point on the pathway of life is that I don't have to use euphemisms for my own demographic.

I can't criticize minorities - that would be racist, because I'm white. I can't criticize women - that would be sexist and misogynistic, because I'm male. I can't criticize those who have made other "lifestyle" or "preference" or "identity" choices - that would be intolerant and hateful because I'm part of that hopelessly vanilla category now called "straight."

But, I am part of the aging boomer generation that may not be quite old enough to start collecting from the Social Security lockbox, but old enough to qualify for "active adult" housing - you know, the kind that communities love because it doesn't bring in any loud parties or expensive-to-educate kids. So, I don't have to say "senior citizen." I don't even have to say "elderly." I can just say "old."

And I have some news for The Chosen One. Old people don't deserve an income tax break just because they're old. But that has not stopped Obama from promising us that when he is president, any old people making less than $50,000 a year won't have to pay any more federal income tax. This, of course, is based on the usual caricature of old people. They're all on fixed incomes, living in tiny one-room shacks, reading (if they can see) by candlelight, faced with the agonizing choice: If they spend their pittance for the month on food, there will be nothing left for heat or medicine. They all - every last one of them - worked hard. They all played by the rules. They must be granted (drum roll, please) dignity, in their declining years.

One of the biggest knocks on The One We've Been Waiting For is that he lacks foreign policy experience. I'm starting to think he needs some basic training in economics and demographics as well. Yes, there are poor elders - some of them may indeed not have enough to cover the heating bill and their medications. But anybody who is that poor, no matter what his or her age, already doesn't pay any income tax and is probably getting tens of thousands of dollars a year in public assistance.

The reality is that old people, as a demographic group, are better off financially than any other age group - and it is not just those who have retired with fat pensions or millions in investments. It's true of those at the middle- and even lower-income levels. It makes sense. When your bills decrease, it doesn't matter so much if your income decreases. The vast majority of old people don't have a mortgage to pay anymore. Their kids are grown up and gone, which means their food bills, car insurance bills and college bills have dropped dramatically or disappeared. I know - it's happened to me, and it's like getting a raise without getting a raise.

In short, the most agonizing decision most old people have to make is about which fast-food joint offering senior citizen discounts they're going to for breakfast. Or, which bingo game they want to attend in the evening.

Even some liberal economists know that raw income rarely tells the whole story. Somebody can be making less than $50,000 a year, but have substantial assets that are producing $45,000 a year in interest. Somebody retired can be on an alleged "fixed" Social Security income, but be living in a house worth $750,000 or more.

The most maddening thing about this and other handouts that politicians like Obama are constantly offering is that they know somebody has to pay for it, and it won't be them. In other words, this has nothing to do with caring about old people - if they did, they'd dig into their own pockets. Their implication is that this will all be paid by multibillionaires like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, and multimillionaires like John and Teresa Kerry and Deval Patrick - plus all the money we'll save by ending the war in Iraq and not needing a Defense Department because the whole world will love us.

Sure, some of it will be paid by rich people. But it will also be paid by people making maybe $65,000 with kids on their way to college, with a mortgage still to pay and no Medicare for health coverage. People, in other words, much more in need of a tax break than elders.

Don't tell me this is a knock on old people. Society shows them respect in multiple ways. But they don't need to be patronized. Old does not automatically mean poor. These days, it is more likely to mean rich. Anybody who aspires to be president ought to know that.


Society's challenge: to build character

The first headmaster of Stowe school, J F Roxburgh, declared his goal to be turning out young men who would be "acceptable at a dance and invaluable in a shipwreck".

A mixture of courtesy and courage used to be essential to the idea of a British citizen's character. Brits were the sort of people who knew both how to survive a blitz and queue politely. Similarly, Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scout movement, aimed to induce in his young charges "some of the spirit of self-negation, self-discipline, sense of humour, responsibility, helpfulness to others, loyalty and patriotism which go to make `character' ". He described his movement as nothing less than a "character factory".

But in the postwar shift towards a less constrained and judgmental society - "character talk", in Stefan Collini's phrase - dropped out of public discourse, except when considering someone's suitability for high office. The idea of good character came to sound old-fashioned and patronising. "The reason we find the concept of character difficult is because of class conflict in British society," says Matthew Taylor, former head of strategy for Tony Blair. "There was a sense that good character was handed down from a patrician class to the great unwashed." Thinkers and politicians across the political spectrum are trying to revive "character talk".

Taylor is pushing the idea of "pro-social behaviour" recognising, he says, that changes in personal behaviour are essential to successful policy in everything from climate change to obesity. David Cameron last month called for politicians to tackle issues of "public morality". Against the backdrop of the impoverished east end of Glasgow, he insisted politicians had to drop "moral neutrality". He criticised the political classes for "a refusal to make judgments about what is good and bad behaviour, right and wrong". Some people on the left are also starting to argue that character might matter as much as resources in improving life chances. Bestselling books such as Lynne Truss's Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of Everyday Life speak to a generalised anxiety about the breakdown of positive social norms of behaviour.

But it is important to keep this in perspective. Most of the time, most people are perfectly pleasant. British society as a whole is not "broken" in any meaningful sense. Of course, it is notoriously hard for politicians to get traction in the area of behaviour. They often fall into the trap described by the philosopher Jon Elster of "willing what cannot be willed". And Cameron is certainly taking some risks with his incursions into morality.

By insisting that individuals should take a share of responsibility for their obesity or poverty, he is thinking his way towards an integration of his ideas on responsibility, morality and "broken Britain" that may lead him towards a consideration of character formation. Conservatism and character seem natural political bedfellows, given traditional right-wing concerns with social order and reducing state dependency. What is more surprising is the number of people on the centre-left who can also see the point of a new focus on character.

For them, the concern is less with general social interaction - although they worry about that, too - than with the character of a small, influen-tial and expensive group that Blair once labelled the "deeply excluded". Since character is an unfashionable concept, it is important to be clear what it means in this public policy context.

The three key ingredients of a good character are: a sense of personal agency or self-direction; an acceptance of personal responsibility; and effective regulation of one's own emotions, in particular the ability to resist temptation or at least defer gratification. Progressives are realising that, thus defined, character is intimately linked to The specific concerns of progressives can be divided into three themes: the link between character attributes and life chances; the life chances "penalty" being paid by the children who do not develop a good character; and the growing demand for good character in the labour market.

Recent claims about social mobility in Britain grinding to a halt are exaggerated, but it does seem that the likelihood of a person being upwardly mobile is increasingly influenced by personal qualities such as confidence and self-control. Julia Margo, associate director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, has assembled an impressive body of evidence linking character to life chances. Her work, which draws on that by Leon Feinstein at the Institute of Education, shows that measured levels of "application" - defined as dedication and a capacity for concentration - at the age of 10 have a bigger impact on earnings by the age of 30 than ability in maths.

Avner Offer, professor of economic history at Oxford, likewise describes how "commitment devices" can help individuals to manage their own desires. In his book The Challenge of Affluence: Self-Control and Well-Being in the United States and Britain Since 1950, Offer provides a vignette of a familiar self-control challenge. "A young student ponders whether to spend the evening revising at her desk or to go out with friends.

How much to sacrifice tonight for a remote future? When to stop having fun, but also when to stop being serious? Conventions, expectations and institutions have built up gradually over decades and centuries to form a stock of equipment available to deal with her problem . . . sources and strategies of self-control, both cognitive and social, take time to develop." Offer argues that "personal capacity for commitment" is inculcated in institutions such as the family along what Margo calls "paths to socialisation".

Character is made, not born. Offer argues that consumer capitalism, by providing a constant flow of novelty, undermines these sources and strategies. It is harder for us to stick to our commitments in a society bombarded with advertising temptations and saturated with the idea of individual consumer choice. This seems implausible: after all, as Margo's work shows, plenty of people do end up with good character traits - and, if anything, it is the more affluent who do so. Nonetheless, Offer is surely right to argue that the "stock of equipment" that makes up character is of vital importance in the construction of a successful life. The second concern is that children who fail to develop positive character traits are less likely to succeed - and these children come overwhelmingly from low-income homes.

The political right used to argue that poverty is caused by weakness of character; the left is now realising it may be the other way around. "Over time, poverty has become more associated with differences in character development," Margo told me. "So while in the past a poor deprived child would have about the same chance of developing a good character as a more affluent one, our research suggests that children who were born into deprivation in the 1970s as opposed to the late 1950s were much less likely to develop good character than more affluent groups." The family is the main "character factory" - and Margo's work shows that some families are much more effective manufacturers than others.

We need a better understanding of what is going on in these failing families. Some evolutionary biologists point to genetic inheritance and it is clear that some character traits are inherited. Traditional left- wing analyses, on the other hand, highlight material deprivation. But the weight of evidence is that good parents provide good insulation against inherited negative traits - and that being a good parent has little to do with having a good income.

Stephen Scott, professor of child health and behaviour at King's College London, has conducted a range of studies showing how the behaviour of parents influences the life trajectories of their children, even when genetic predispositions are taken into account. "There's an interaction between your genetic predisposition and the way you turn out according to the way you're raised," says Scott. "When it comes to being antisocial, aggressive, stealing and lying, the interaction is a big one. If you have poor self-control and a rather twitchy, irritable temperament and you're brought up in a harsh way, it's bad news. For that group, the rate of criminality aged 17 is about 40%. But if you have that twitchy character and you're brought up in a reasonably calm, soothing way, you will do well."

If low-income parents are doing less well on this front - as it seems they are - the question of how poverty interacts with parenting becomes important. Scott is emphatic here. "Financial poverty is a factor, but not a central one," he says. "I am fond of saying: poverty of what? And actually it seems to be poverty of the parent-child experience . . . that leads to poor child outcomes rather than poverty of a material kind." Consistent parental love and discipline is the motor of the character production line and not all children are lucky enough to receive it.

A poor start in life, in terms of character development, reduces educational performance, which obviously lessens labour market opportunities. But - the third concern - lack of good character has a more direct influence on job opportunities too. In Aesthetic Labour and the Policy-Making Agenda: Time for a Reappraisal of Skills, Chris Warhurst and his colleagues at Strathclyde University show that an increasing number of employers are following the advice of Rocco Forte, who when asked the secret of providing great service in hotels, replied: "Hire nice people."

As the economy shifts towards service jobs, the person increasingly becomes part of the product. This means that "soft skills" such as social confidence, patience and kindness grow in importance. Ironically it is often the children of the middle classes who make the best servants. In Glasgow, studied in detail by Warhurst and his colleagues, 80% of jobs are in the service sector, but the people living in nearby places such as Easterhouse aren't getting them. "The danger is that many people in deprived areas are being denied work because of a lack of cultural capital," says Warhurst. "In Glasgow, 50% of jobs are now filled by commuters from the middle-class suburbs."

What helps to form good character? Margo says there are key ingredients that make for success: "It is regular time with the same adult over an extended period, so you respect them and learn from them. Which is why things like the Scout movement are so effective, because you're progressing, you're ageing through the institution. And there tends to be a very good staying-on rate for the adult workers, so you have a lot of interaction with the same adult over a long period of time."

Baden-Powell and all of us involved in the Scout movement - I've recently "come out" as a Scout leader - would agree. Character is an old idea with contemporary relevance. A considerable number of pressing social problems - obesity, welfare reform, pensions, public disorder, educational failure, social immobility - are all, in part, questions of character. It is a treacherous political terrain but one in which governments are increasingly entangled. Anyone who is interested in creating a successful liberal society is interested in character, too, whether they admit it or not. Good societies need good people.


Paedophile Imperialism

The British government is exploiting the odious Gary Glitter to smash freedom of movement and hector governments in the Third World.

The reckoning is still to come. Having been freed after serving 27 months in a Vietnamese prison for committing obscene acts with two girls then aged 11 and 12, 64-year-old Paul Gadd, otherwise known as `pop-star paedo' Gary Glitter, was due to arrive in the UK this morning. Unfortunately for a media and political elite eager for an easy crusade, Gadd's heart has been fluttering. As I write he remains holed up in Bangkok, refusing to travel, citing ill-health and a possible heart attack.

Yet that hasn't stopped the British political elite and sections of the media clamouring for new laws and restrictions to keep the likes of Glitter under their watchful eye. If his case `proves' anything, it is that the paedophile panic, so passionately indulged by our leaders, is a threat to the sanity of society and to civil liberties, too.

Since being found guilty in Britain in 1999 on 54 counts of possessing indecent images of children, Gadd's stardom has leant itself easily to infamy. After serving his four-month sentence in a British jail, he unsurprisingly left the country. Yet from Spain to Cuba to Cambodia, wherever he went the press followed. Over the past nine years, Gadd has become nothing less than the poster-boy for the paedophile panic; he has been transformed from a convicted sex offender into the strange-looking, pot-bellied symbol of the global paedophile threat that stalks all of our children.

Given the hysteria his return is likely to provoke, his heart-attack ruse in Bangkok is perhaps understandable. Others argue that his reluctance to board the flight has a malicious intent behind it: his real plan, we are told, is to abscond and continue his vile ways across the globe. To think otherwise of this no doubt horrid individual is difficult. From the stencilled arch of the eyebrows, once an innocent Glam-rock style statement, to the strange tufty beard and shaved head, he now looks every inch the demon.

And courtesy of the media's 10-year obsession with his every move, his is also the face that can launch a thousand illiberal measures. The campaign to paint him as a one-man threat to the world's children has been so comprehensive that the British government can threaten to introduce severe new international measures on the back of his sordid sex life. Consider the government's revised Foreign Travel Orders (FTOs), which will potentially ban convicted sex offenders from travelling abroad.

UK home secretary Jacqui Smith felt moved enough by Gadd's return to make what amounts to a policy statement: `We need to control him, and he will be once he returns to this country. It would certainly be my view that with the sort of record that he's got, he shouldn't be travelling anywhere in the world.' (1) Or as the newspaper columnist Deborah Orr put it, this is an opportunity not to be missed: `Glitter's case is a perfect opportunity for Britain to start practising what it has recently been preaching.' (2)

What has Britain been `preaching'? The possibility of banning convicted sex offenders from travelling abroad was originally part of the New Labour government's 2003 Sex Offences Bill. This meant that police, providing they could gather evidence that a particular individual with sex offence convictions intended to travel abroad with the intention of committing further offences, could apply for six-month travel prohibitions. Yet as a recent report by End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and the Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes (ECPAT) informs us, only two FTOs were applied for between 2003 and 2006.

ECPAT's Christine Beddoe argues: `At the moment the Foreign Travel Orders that we have in place are not being used very much; the police say they're a bit unwieldy, there's too much administration.' (3) And one way to make it easier to use them - as both ECPAT and the Home Office have proposed - is to remove the need to prove intent to commit offences overseas. In short, the fact that someone has been convicted in the past of a sex offence ought to be evidence enough to prevent him from travelling abroad.

The ability to ride roughshod over such quaint notions as rehabilitation and `doing one's time' - the idea that once someone has been released from prison he is free and equal again - rests on the presumed exceptionality of the paedophile. The motto of contemporary society is: `Once a child abuser, always a child abuser.' These are not deemed criminals, but slaves to uncontrollable passions, individuals forever in thrall to a sexual demiurge. And on the back of keeping these monsters on a leash, the authorities have been rewriting important aspects of the criminal justice system and seeking to undermine free movement.

One doesn't have to be a friend of the paedophiles or a supporter of the odious Glitter to be concerned by these latest moves. It is worth bearing in mind that there are currently 29,000 individuals on Britain's Sex Offenders' Register, and their crimes range wildly from a thirtysomething teacher having an inappropriate fling with a 15-year-old student to far more serious sex offences. Under the current rules, police must suspect a considerable risk of reoffending overseas before imposing a Foreign Travel Order. Yet if the FTOs were to be freed from the need to prove intent, any one of these 29,000 people could be effectively jailed within Britain's borders on the whim of the authorities, despite being ostensibly `free citizens' who have served their sentences.

Some will say, `So what, they're only paedophiles' - even though the vast majority are not paedophiles. But that is to miss the point. Smith's proposals represent an assault on important ideas of justice and on the culture of liberty itself. The argument that we must monitor, put on a register and restrict the movement of everyone who has committed a certain kind of offence undermines the idea that convicts must be allowed to re-enter society upon serving their time. And if the government creates for itself the power to impose FTOs on one-time offenders whom it does not like, who will be next? Football fans can already have their passports confiscated if it's suspected they will get up to no good overseas. What about the tens of thousands of young Britons who travel to Pakistan every year? Best keep them at home too. Increasing the power of the state to determine who can and cannot leave the country takes us into Soviet-style politics.

Just as the pursuit of nightmarish paedophiles gives shameless politicians a chance to fight the `good fight' domestically, so the campaign against so-called sex tourism represents its transfer to the international sphere. Indeed, be it terrorism, or now child abuse, the politics of fear is one export that Western governments have a monopoly in producing.

So alongside travel bans on convicted offenders, ECPAT is also keen for the authorities to enforce measures to monitor unconvicted British nationals abroad, lest they be tempted to indulge in some sex criminality. It is encouraging closer cooperation between anti-abuse non-governmental organisations and the UK government, and is calling for the presence of British police in certain sex tourist hotspots (Australia already posts police forces in some Far East countries). Think of it as Child Abuse Colonialism. As ECPAT puts it, if sex tourism is to be tackled, the British government needs to `reverse the ideology that if abuse happens overseas then we should simply let the governments "over there" deal with it' (4).

Underpinning such an assumption is that other countries, in particular Thailand and Vietnam, are incapable of maintaining their own rule of law. Whether it's due to their being too `corrupt' or simply a result of their poverty, as an ECPAT report argues, apparently Britain needs to intervene at some level to help clean up the paedophile problem in these unwieldy nations.

This is dangerous stuff. Activists and officials seem keen to use the politics of fear to meddle in other, apparently untrustworthy states. Internationalised, the paedophile panic paints other countries as cesspits of abuse and slavery, and it permits the massive simplification of genuine problems of child exploitation. The ECPAT report notes the case of a British national called `Martin' who bought a 12-year-old girl for $800 in 1991, yet it does not interrogate the level of economic underdevelopment that underpins such an exchange between a wealthy Westerner and an impoverished Easterner. This is not to diminish the moral abhorrence of Martin's act; rather it is to refuse to reduce it to morality alone. Under the newly globalised paedophile panic, complex social and economic problems are simply reduced to a good versus evil battle, where it's the British authorities versus the paedophile, the British state versus untrustworthy legal systems `over there'.

As the media's eyes focus on Gary Glitter and what he will do next, those of us concerned about justice, freedom and social sanity might do better to keep an eye on the Glitter-obsessed Home Office.


Australia: Girls, 14, 'rolling condoms on to plastic penises'

EXPLICIT sex-education lessons in WA schools are upsetting Muslims and Catholics. Prominent WA Muslim imam Abdul Jalil Ahmad called the lessons, where girls as young as 14 are rolling condoms on to plastic penises, "pornography in the classroom''. Peter Rosengren, editor of the Catholic Church's The Record newspaper, said such lessons were indicative of society's over-sexualisation of children.

A female Year-10 student from Rossmoyne Senior High School sparked the controversy after coming home distressed, following her participation in a class, as part of the Australian Medical Association's Dr Yes program. The 15-year-old's father, Axel Cremer, was furious his permission had not been sought. "It's outrageous,'' Mr Cremer said of the program, that is taught by medical students to about 10,000 children each year at about 150 public and private schools statewide. "My concern is the ethical standards and moral values of an education system that believes it has the right, without my permission, to get my daughter to put condoms on plastic penises.''

Rossmoyne principal Leila Bothams wrote to Mr Cremer, saying the school would have contacted him, but she had been unaware the program was being run for Year 10s.

Mr Cremer, who is a Muslim and whose daughter is also Muslim asked how many other parents statewide had not been consulted. He said the issue was not religious, but was about moral values. His other non-Muslim daughter was also outraged. Mr Cremer acknowledged students needed to know about sexually transmittable diseases and unwanted pregnancies, but said there were other ways to teach this.

Imam Ahmad said the lessons were "completely evil'' and should be banned by the Government. "That's pornography in the classroom,'' he said. Secular philosophy about sex education was problematic because it only focused on preventing pregnancy and disease, when it should also involve morality.

Mr Rosengren said as a husband and a father he also believed there should be consultation with parents. Issues within sex education -- relationships, intimacy, trust, fidelity and gender -- were the most important aspects of people's lives.

Education Department deputy director-general Margery Evans said the content of the program was consistent with the department's health and physical education syllabus and there were no plans to change it. It was "regrettable'' offence had been caused. But the ``isolated incident'' should be seen in context of thousands of students who had benefited from the program over its 10-year operation. AMA federal president Rosanna Capolingua said demonstrations were necessary because condom failure was often due to a lack of understanding about how they were used



Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.

American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.

For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For times when blogger.com is playing up, there are mirrors of this site here and here.


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