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Natalie and Graham – #agoodquestion

A friend of mine, Natalie, writes of a conversation towards #agoodquestion she had with her friend Graham. You can read more about #agoodquestion here, and more conversations here.

Graham and I used to train at the same boot camp and the only sense I had of his political leanings came from seeing the occasional facebook post from which I had drawn the conclusion that he was a flippant conservative (the worst kind) so there would be no difficulty finding areas of difference. The first thing I learned was never to think you know anything about a person from what they put on facebook. It turns out that what really irks Graham is lazy assertion backed up with little evidence and flimsy argument – so he challenges it regardless of political hue. I admire that and was embarrassed to realize how quick I’d been to jump to conclusions. I too find myself frustrated by poor arguments on important issues because they weaken the position. So immediately we’d found some common ground. From that point on the conversation was fascinating, the most interesting conversation I’ve had in a very long time in fact.

There were differences but they were nuanced; often we favoured different means to reach the same ends. I’m not going to write up everything we talked about because the conversation, planned for one hour, lasted for three but the conversations that revolved around our #goodquestions were:

Natalie: Is it important that the state provides a safety net? What do we mean by that? And what’s the best way of doing it?

Graham believes, as I do, that the provision of a safety net is an essential role of government. He is concerned though that there are measures in place to ensure that that safety net doesn’t turn into a hammock. My feeling is that any system of scale won’t be perfect and is unlikely to be able to support everyone that needs it whilst also being impossible to abuse. I would far rather that a tiny proportion of people (and it is tiny) benefit unduly than a single person falls through the holes and doesn’t receive support when they need it. I don’t think Graham disagreed with that. I went on to suggest that perhaps a system based on the principle of a basic (citizens) income might be a better approach than the complex system currently in place. Graham got his calculator out and worked out that for it to be even remotely affordable the basic income would be so low that it would still need to be backed up with other benefits, which, I agree, would make it a pointless exercise. I’m not yet convinced that it couldn’t work but I am inspired to do more research and make some better arguments. We acknowledged that our personal experiences have had a significant impact on our political views in this area (one of us has seen genuine abuse of the welfare system at close quarters whilst the other has seen close friends in dire need failed by the system).

Graham: Given the choice between two scenarios which would you choose? Scenario One – the bottom ten percent get 5% richer and the top ten percent get 10% richer so inequality goes up, or Scenario Two – the bottom ten percent get 2% richer (so not as rich) but the top ten percent get no richer at all so inequality goes down?

First of all we both acknowledged that this was a thought experiment rather than a direct choice that was likely to present itself in the real world. I have read (but was, and remain, entirely unable to cite) research that indicates that inequality within societies, separate from the actual levels of poverty and wealth, has negative impacts on social cohesion and the health and well being of individual citizens. For this reason I would go with scenario two. However it really depends on the difference that the additional 3% can make to the poorest in society. If scenario one is the only way to lift the bottom ten percent out of poverty then it has to be scenario one. If the poorest person in the society of our thought experiment could be lifted out of poverty with the 2% increase though, I’d stick with scenario two.

We also talked about tuition fees. Graham was angry that Labour had made a manifesto pledge to reduce tuition fees to £6000pa. I raised an eyebrow. His reasoning was that because tuition fees are only paid by those above the income threshold it is only the relatively wealthy that will benefit from the reduction, in other words it’s a boon for the wealthy being presented as a step towards a system that is fairer for the poor. I furrowed my brow. My concern is that it is not the fee or even the debt itself that is a barrier that will exclude people from higher education but the idea of that debt. For someone from a lower income household the idea of taking on that level of debt can be totally off-putting. Graham took my point and agreed that there might be better ways to talk about it but he also pointed out that an awful lot of that off-putting language comes from the liberal media protesting about tuition fees. I’m not quite sure how I feel about this yet but certainly it’s something I want to look into and I am prepared to come to the counter-intuitive conclusion that tuition fees may in fact be the fairest way of ensuring that anyone can access higher education.

And then Graham said something that really surprised me – he’d vote for a policy to provide free adult education for all so that anyone that opted out of education as a child could come back to it as an adult, and to facilitate career changes later in life. Yes, I said. Yes. This got us thinking. We share a whole set of values but approach them from very different perspectives – so what policies could we agree on right down to the detail? What would a manifesto that we could both vote for look like? We ran out of time but will definitely be meeting up again to figure that out.

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