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Helen and Tony – #agoodquestion

A friend of mine, Helen, writes of a conversation towards #agoodquestion she had with her friend Tony. Check www.tinyurl.com/goodqgooda for more on #agoodquestion.

Tony describes himself as a libertarian – fiscal conservative.

I am … gosh, what am I? broadly left-wing but with occasional wild opinions that confuse the hell out of those surveys designed to tell you what party you support.

We went to the pub to have a general chat and look for good questions.

We plunged in with talking about small / big government. A quick sidetrack over what such relative terms meant, helped me clarify that I thought I was in favour of small government for issues best dealt with locally, but big government for those best dealt with globally – environmental change, being a good example. Funnily enough we were both broadly in agreement that products should better reflect an overall cost of use – ie plastic bags should be taxed to represent, not only the cost of their manufacture and raw materials, but of their long-term effect on the global environment. We differed only in how this was best done. Tony felt that the WTO and other agreements should be able to organise this, I doubted they could.

Next we got onto ways of governments shedding responsibility…. predictably we plunged into health. I was advocating a National Health Service, Tony was suggesting that Singapore’s method of making you ‘pay in’ to a scheme which you then drew down on (and if you didn’t it was added to your pension) should be considered. I felt this would help people like me, but be bad for people with health issues connected to poverty. We danced around this for a while – arguing about what governments should or shouldn’t interfere in.

Where it got really interesting was with housing and travel. We broadly agreed on the problems around housing in London. But where I felt we should build more social housing to craete mixed communities throughout the capital, Tony’s solution was this: get rid of all rail subsidies and sell off all social housing within the capital. People would be forced to move out of London, develop industries outside, invest in data infrastructure (supported by government much more cheaply than supporting rail), house prices in the capital would fall and then stabilise, salaries for key workers would rise etc etc. Why wouldn’t that work as a natural correction?

I was flabbergasted, but actually impressed by being forced to think of a completely different logic. “That’s a good question!”

So both of us agreed that a political party adopting this was as likely as Rick Mayall’s Alan B’Stard winning an election. But if you believe in genuine free market economics as a natural correction to low wages subsidised by state money (via benefits), then I could actually see his point. The human cost would be huge, but its chance of actually cooling the housing market (and potentially even having an environmental impact) was a lot better than fiddling around with the status of 100k non-doms.Crazy – but with a really interesting idea at its heart.

My question to him went back to discussions about the health service: how do we deal with the fact that the most severe health issues are correlated to poverty or age – ie to those who can’t afford to pay for care when delivered privately? Meaning that privatising the heath system delivers little in savings if we expect to still pay for the poorest in society.

We talked about a potentially staggered, means-tested series of health care costs but agreed it might cost more to administer than it saved.

We didn’t sort anything out, but I enjoyed talking so openly and amicably with Tony. By the second pint things got a bit silly as we discussed benevolent dictatorships and the economics of islands…

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