Wednesday, December 7, 2011

More on that emotionally manipulative doco

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, November 6.)

TV3’s RECENT prime-time documentary on child poverty in New Zealand had exactly the intended effect. Viewers were aghast at the evidence of sub-standard housing and preventable illnesses such as scabies and school sores. Anguished writers of letters to the editor wondered how this state of affairs could have arisen in a country once considered the best in the world for raising children.

In one respect, the viewer reaction was encouraging. It was a reminder that we are still a decent, compassionate society.

The problem is, the programme represented a very one-sided view. Its message was that the welfare state has failed our poor – and so it has, but not in the way that documentary maker Bryan Bruce wanted us to think.

The welfare state is now part of the problem. Originally designed to tide people over hard times, it has created a culture of long-term dependency, helplessness and entitlement.

There is ample evidence that dependence on benefits, more than any other factor, causes the poverty trap that Bruce professes to despise. Yet the solution he proposes is more welfare spending.

The documentary ignored the risk that more spending on benefits and state housing would serve to make a welfare-based lifestyle look more attractive and end trapping up even more people.

Neither did Bruce concern himself with the inconvenient fact that more welfare spending increases the burden on the diminishing productive sector of an already weak economy.

Socialists never bother to ask where the money comes from; they are interested only in spending it. But consider this: New Zealand in 1972 had 26 working people for every beneficiary. Today that ratio is down to 7 to 1 (in fact 3 to 1, if you include superannuitants).

This was a disgracefully simplistic, emotionally manipulative programme, but fortunately not everyone was fooled. This newspaper published letters from people who had grown up in state houses and pointed out that the mould Bruce was so appalled by in some of the homes he visited could be avoided simply by proper ventilation – in other words, opening windows – and wiping away condensation. But of course it’s far more dramatic to present state house tenants as the helpless victims of Dickensian indifference and heartless, right-wing politicians.

I agree with Bruce on one thing: child poverty is deplorable. But the problem is far more complex than this slanted programme would have us believe. As I wrote on my blog, a film maker could just as easily produce a documentary proving the exact reverse of Bruce’s thesis – namely, that the welfare state and the culture of dependency it encourages are the cause of, rather than the solution to, the poverty and deprivation that Bruce finds so intolerable.

* * *

I KNOW NOTHING about cricket beyond what I read in the sports pages. I managed to navigate my way through childhood without ever playing the game and it remains a mystery to me.

However I was intrigued by a recent article in Britain’s Spectator magazine, prompted by the death of English cricketer-turned-journalist Peter Roebuck, which examined the abnormal suicide rate among former cricketers and asked: “How is that cricket drives so many players out of their minds?”

The best answer it could give was that top players devoted themselves wholly to the game and were left feeling lost and bereft when their careers ended. With no team at the centre of their lives, many didn’t know what to do with themselves and succumbed to drink and depression.

It certainly seems true that cricket, being a game that lasts days rather than hours, requires players to spend a disproportionate amount of their life with other young men in pavilions and hotel rooms. I wonder whether this results in some being emotionally stunted – trapped in an eternal adolescence of high-fives and howzats – and thus less able to cope with the rigours of ordinary life. Certainly some first-class cricketers give the impression of being unusually self-absorbed and perhaps even mentally fragile.

Spending a large part of your life in the company of other blokes, especially at a time when you’re biologically programmed to search for a long-term female partner, just seems downright unnatural.

Of course I didn’t grasp any of this when I decided never to play cricket, but I’m pleased that I made the right choice.

* * *

ANOTHER outbreak of Acute Sensitivity Disorder has made headlines, this time in Britain. Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson said on TV that striking public sector workers should be shot – taken out and executed, preferably in front of their families.

It was a typical Clarkson line, clearly intended as a provocative joke. But even the Poms have lost their sense of humour.

The BBC, intimidated by unionists’ howls of outrage, apologised. Worse still, so did Clarkson.

When political correctness stifles humour and free speech in the country that once gave us such outrageously irreverent and wickedly funny programmes as Monty Python’s Flying Circus, we should all be very afraid.


The probligo said...

Karl, there are so many who promote the "anti-welfare" debate.

There is not one that I have as yet found who can present a realistic alternative that retains an element of humanity.

Changing society so that having some 20% of the population living in conditions like Tonga, Bangladesh or Zimbabwe might resolve the welfare state problem but would not be acceptable to this country. Or would it? What would you promote as an answer to the "culture of long-term dependency, helplessness and entitlement."

Lindsay Mitchell said...

"There is not one that I have as yet found who can present a realistic alternative that retains an element of humanity."

Did you notice Karl's statistics showed that 30 years AFTER the creation of Social Security (which included most of today's benefits bar the DPB) there were still relatively few people reliant on them?

That is because the values of personal and family responsibility were significantly stronger. The re-invigoration of those values is the answer to the "culture of long-term dependency, helplessness and entitlement."

The probligo said...

As it happens, yes I did notice that Lindsay. Did you notice that it is now some 80 years since social welfare was introduced.

The debate on "inter-generational dependance" takes on a measure of respectability when considered from that point of view.

Your point that "the values of personal and family responsibility were stronger" has validity. Making the statement does not give a path that might be followed to produce the desired outcome. How is about a solution that provides for better educated unemployed; makes as much sense and does as much about the problem.

And so that you know, my now adult children (I have 5 moko) were brought up with a good sense of appropriate consequences.

Kiwiwit said...

I guess you could call the welfare state 'compulsory altruism', if that is not too much of an oxymoron. The system of taxation and redistribution through welfare is enforced by the state's exclusive legal mandate to use violence (and if you don't believe this, then let's make taxation voluntary tomorrow and see what happens).

So, the moral argument in regards to welfare is whether it is right for the state to threaten and use violence against some people to force them to support others (whether such people are deserving or not may change the weight of the argument but not the principle).

I believe that a rational, moral society is one where families and communities look after those less fortunate than themselves. I also believe that a rational, moral society is one where no man or woman is forced to work for the benefit of another (or another's children).

I don't believe these two things are mutually exclusive, but so long as the taxation and welfare system is based on the threat of violence, it will lack any real moral mandate in my view, no matter how many heart-rending documentaries appear on TV.

rivoniaboy said...

"And so that you know, my now adult children (I have 5 moko) were brought up with a good sense of appropriate consequences".


Richard McGrath said...

@The probligo: I can think of an alternative to the welfare state (i.e. the coercive redistribution of wealth, and the idea that people have a right to the assets of others purely on the basis of "need").

That alternative is charity and private welfare, where people can participate in the voluntary redistribution of wealth according to individual priorities. Where people can employ others, independent of the welfare system, without exposing them to the ravages of the IRD.

Where families can supervise their own welfare system - housing their unemployed children and step-children in exchange for their labour - as we are doing in our household - without imposing a drain on the productive.

How's that for humanitarian?

Simo said...

Can't understand the relevance of your rant against welfare dependency, when the doco was advocating these things:
1. Free after hours medical access for children.
2. Medical services available at schools.
3. Free healthy meals at schools.
None of these would seem to me to encourage dependency.

On the topic of dependency, can you point me to some of the 'ample evidence' for it that you mention? The issue of dependency gets talked about a lot but not without many facts to back it up. I wonder if it is just a myth that commentators like you enjoy repeating because it gets people riled up.

It's also ironic that you discuss welfare dependency in connection with the issue of child health. If we don't do anything to improve child health, the result will be MORE dependency if anything, since the kids will grow up sick and likely be long-term sickness beneficiaries. Prevent child illnesses and we will reduce welfare dependency.

Finally, do you really think the solution is as simple as wiping away mold and opening windows? That seems unlikely to me for several reasons:
1. the mold could be inside the walls, not just on the surface.
2. the mold could be an indicator of dampness which creates health problems, rather than itself being a health hazard.
3. Opening windows in winter will make the place cold and make kids sicker.

Simo said...

To Lindsay Mitchell and Richard McGrath: your advocacy of family responsibility and private charity has the following obvious problem. What about those with no family or family unwilling or unable to help, and who don't get helped by private charity? Do we just them struggle and starve? The problem with private assistance is that it is patchy, unreliable, and inconsistent.

Lindsay Mitchell said...

"On the topic of dependency, can you point me to some of the 'ample evidence' for it that you mention?"

Have a look at this MSD research.

"Analysis of longitudinal benefit administration data for New Zealand has shown that by the time children born in 1993 turned seven, half had been supported by one of New Zealand’s main social assistance benefits at least once. While this was a transitory experience for many, approximately one in five children in the 1993 birth cohort spent at least five of their first seven years of life supported by a main benefit (Ball and Wilson 2002)."

That's the frequency of benefit dependency.

And for the duration look here:

"On average, sole parents receiving main benefits had more disadvantaged backgrounds than might have been expected:

• just over half had spent at least 80% of the history period observed (the previous 10 years in most cases) supported by main benefits"

James said...

Simo...go look at history. Private charities were helping people who weren't family members hundreds of years ago....and long before the state muscled its way into the welfare game seeking political capital.

Odd fellows,friendly societies....they did a sterling job in the time the industrial revolution 's wealth creating magic lifted the majority of the really poor out of their squalor and into forming a new phenomenon....the middle class.