24 November 2010

Can retrospective legislation ever be ‘fair’?

Herewith some brief notes on some of the issues which arise in connection with recent terrible proposals concerning pensioners. I could and should be able to write much more about this and to get it published; only lack of financial support prevents me from doing this. People coming to work here on a voluntary basis would to some extent enable us to do more.

In the Daily Mail of 17 November there is an article about how governments etc. are letting down pensioners by providing them with no way of getting an income out of their savings.

The author of this article suggests that pensioners might be allowed to invest in special bonds paying a ‘decent’ rate of interest, but that the investment should be limited to a maximum of £20,000, so that ‘wealthy’ pensioners would not be able to benefit unfairly by getting an income which they did not really ‘need’. As usual, ‘need’ is defined in a way which implies that no one receiving more than about the level of income support can possibly be in ‘need’ of more.

Of course, most people with some capital must have suffered from the credit crunch, as the powers-that-be wanted them to do, since we know that the aim of modern society is to prevent those who have above average ability from acquiring any freedom of action to go with it.

In another article in the same issue of the Mail, about how pensioners can ‘sensibly’ get more income from their savings, investing in ordinary shares is described as ‘dangerous’. However, it is a lot less so if you have realistic information about what you are doing.

Over the years, we have invited many people to come and live near us so that they could do some work for us on a voluntary or paid basis, and also get the benefit of the information which we receive and discuss, which is relevant to investment and other financial matters.

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The Pensions Minister Steve Webb, defending the raising of the age at which state pensions will be payable, especially for women, has argued that everyone was living longer, so it was ‘only fair’ that they should start to receive their pensions at a later age. This, however, presumes on the modern view of pensions as a ‘contract between the generations’. Originally people were supposed to be paying, with their contributions, for the income that they would eventually receive, which would be paid out of the income of a fund to which they had contributed. In such a situation, of course, the fund would go on being there even after any particular person had stopped drawing from it, for the benefit of future pensioners, and it would be constantly amplified by the contributions of those who did not live long enough to draw on it at all.

In fact, this fund never existed; see the book The Great Pensions Swindle previously referred to. Nevertheless, people were paying contributions into a supposed scheme which had undertaken to produce a pension bearing some relationship to the cost of living, or to the average wage, at a certain definite age, and this was something which people took into account in deciding whether to pay contributions into this scheme or not.

If it was wished to change the age at which pensions would be paid out, on old-fashioned principles it would be necessary to start a completely new scheme which only applied to people who started paying contributions after the new scheme had started. Retrospective legislation, or retrospective change in legislation, is unprincipled, but this is an idea that has been lost sight of.

Ros Altmann, the Director General of Saga, the association for over-50s, has criticised the postponement of the pension age, especially for women, not on the grounds that it is (in effect) retrospective legislation, but because the changes are too rapid and do not give those who are approaching retirement age ‘enough time’ to think about how they can arrange their affairs to compensate for the change.

One might think that an association of people over 50 would have old-fashioned enough ideas to stand up for principles, such as the principle against retrospective legislation. However, the majority of those who are over 50 now have spent most of their lives under the auspices of the modern ideology. In order to have been born before the onset of the Welfare State in 1945, a person would need to be over 65.

18 November 2010

Open letter to a former associate – an Oxford classics graduate

We were sorry when you went away. You know we had a high opinion of your abilities and you were a tremendous asset. Since you left things have gradually got better in certain ways (not because of your having left, of course), and we regretted that, having been with us for so long through many difficult years, you left before we could provide you with even the advantages with which we are now able to provide people.

Building up in so antagonistic a society has been very slow and painful, and above all we find it extremely difficult to get people to work here for any length of time. We have to pay what seems to us quite a high hourly rate for any work we do get, and I always regret it when we pay people who are nothing to do with us, when we would prefer to think that we were helping to improve the position of someone who might be permanent.

If you were to move to Cuddesdon I think we could help you to become increasingly prosperous financially, and we are always aiming to help people here to become property owners. When I remember the sorts of things which you did when you were here before, and appeared not to mind doing too much, I think that any of these things would be extremely valuable to us now, and they are particularly difficult to get people to do, as everyone nowadays seems to be thinking in terms of pretentious and ostensibly highly skilled things, which they are not in fact good at.

We remember that you are a car driver and that could be very useful.

I hope you will consider coming. We would try to make things as good as possible for you if you did. Also please mention us when you are talking to anybody else. I think there are a lot of people these days struggling to get by on pensions, benefits, or otherwise, who could supplement their income fairly painlessly by coming to live nearby and doing a few hours a day of regular work (or more hours, up to full time, if they wanted to).

10 November 2010

A teacher from the Dawn of Time

As I was precocious and read a lot, when I was ten I was certainly as familiar with the pre-1945 world as someone born ten years earlier than I was. This was a very different world, qualitatively, from the post-1945 world. However, in spite of the apparent advantages of the pre-war world, the current ideology must have been incubating within it, and I did not get any support except from people who were a good deal older than I was, more like 40 years older than ten.
When I went to the Society for Psychical Research I was initially supported by Sir George Joy and Helen Verrall (Mrs Salter) in plans which others opposed on account of my lack of social status. And those who were most instrumental in my being promoted to the Lower Fifth when I was thirteen, a maths mistress called Miss Bookey and the Reverend Mother, were both something like 40 years older than I was. All three of us were living in a world view distinct from the current one, but the modern ideology was already active and soon asserted itself.
Celia Green with her parents,
William Green and Dorothy Green, c.1947
Miss Bookey enacted the role of the teacher who could see what opportunities would be good for her inexperienced pupil, and exerted herself to bring them about. You could call this paternalism in the old-fashioned sense. I never experienced anything like this attitude again.
Miss Bookey started to teach me when I was eleven at the start of the Lower Fourth year (second year of grammar school). She appeared to be enthused by my exceptionality and was quoted as having said admiring things about me (e.g. that I was ‘luminous with intelligence’). At the same time she appeared actively to like me.
I remember an incident which, subsequently, I took as an indication that she already had it in mind to get me into a higher form. I asked her for some information about geometry which was not provided by the thin and very introductory book used in that form. ‘It isn’t in your book,’ she said. ‘In the higher forms they use a much larger geometry textbook. Wouldn’t you like to be working from the larger book?’ She peered at me as if trying to read my mind. ‘Oh yes, I would,’ I said uncertainly, wondering what was the relevance of this. Was she going to offer to lend me one of these books?
Nothing appeared to come of this at the time, but some time later, probably about a year later, the Reverend Mother proposed to my father that I should be moved up a year, and when this had happened Miss Bookey (who did not teach the Lower Fifth which I had entered) came up to me in the playground looking very happy and pleased with herself, and asked me how I was getting on.
‘Oh, it’s wonderful,’ I said, ‘Everything is fine. I am just amazed that I am still getting As. I really thought that when I moved up I should be prepared to get Bs and Cs at first.’
‘Oh no!’ she said. ‘You could never get Cs.’ And we parted on that note of congratulatory admiration.
I remember also, as an incident that somehow expresses the outlook of a bygone age, that when I had been told I was going to be moved up a year I received a message from the Reverend Mother asking whether I had done any maths in advance of that which had been done by the form I was in.
I went to the Reverend Mother’s room and said that I was afraid I had not, and (a bit apprehensively) that I hoped this would not make any difference to my being moved up into the Lower Fifth. The Reverend Mother was, like Miss Bookey after the move, looking very happy and pleased with herself. ‘Oh no,’ she said laughingly, putting on an act to a teacher who was sitting in the room. ‘It won’t make any difference to that. But it might affect whether you move up to the Upper Fifth. I was wondering whether to move you up two years straight away.’
Actually I had constantly asked my father to help me get started on later chapters in the maths textbooks, as well as on topics that were completely beyond them, such as trigonometry and calculus, but he had always refused on some pretext or another, such as that I could not do calculus until I had done more algebra first.
In languages, my father had been unable to hold me up, as he could not prevent me from proceeding to more advanced reading. He had given me some initial help in visiting Foyle’s Bookshop to pick out the very easiest readers, although there were sometimes signs that he disapproved of what I chose to read.