Shredding

If I had to pick one trivial* stat that summed up the Bush administration more than any other, it would be the rise of 600% in the cost of paper-shredding for the government. Whether that’s because of heightened secrecy in the operations of public servants, or because handing out fat contracts is very nearly this administration’s raison d’ĂȘtre is for you to decide.

(*non-trivial stats would include amount of fear generated per head of population, and ratio of denials of torture issued to people tortured)

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Communitarianism

Radio 4 had an interview with a guy (I’m being vague – I didn’t hear who or what he was, but it was definitely a man) who had been investigating the various beliefs of the British public. It is generally assumed that Brits are liberals, willing to defend the individual’s right to free speech and other liberties, but ready to provide a hand (through state intervention) to help those who are struggling. The research highlighted that this is really more of an ideal (no great surprise there), but one contingent on an element of communitarianism.

The thesis was that we’re willing to grant people rights, but they have to show that they deserve them by participating in the community. That participation can be pretty minimal. The interviewee pointed to the history of Chinese people in the UK; they have a tendency to keep to themselves in a number of Chinatowns, but that’s seen by the rest of the community as more of a preference than a harmful insularity, and more importantly they’re good neighbours. As trivial as that sounds, it is distinct from some Islamic communities, which (regardless of what the truth actually is) are seen to hold themselves separate and in some senses ‘better’ than the community at large, and also aren’t seen to ‘play the game’ as part of society.

This certainly struck a chord with me. I’m not naturally a Conservative voter, but I can sympathize with their frustration that so many people don’t play their part (regardless of Thatcher’s claim that there is no such thing as society). It’s difficult to image the transformation in any society if, for example, all criminals decided to go straight, or slackers decided to work harder, or everyone decided to volunteer just an hour a month to a cause. It’s an illusory hope, based on the idea that an individuals could improve their lot just by applying themselves, but a seductive one nonetheless.

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Pensions

Every country shares a problem with pensions, which is simply how to ensure that they are provided at the required levels. Whether that’s a state pension or a social contract that makes people understand that they’re on their own, each government needs to find a way to keep a large majority of its populace fed and housed sufficiently in their retirement that they won’t cause problems (and, we hope, with more altruistic motives than that).

It’s interesting, then, that the US and UK have decided upon different solutions to this problem (primarily individual based in the US, state based in the UK), yet have both run in to similar operational issues. Both countries have decided that the best way to encourage retirement saving is to have lots of options, be they employer-based schemes, self employed pension plans, 401k plans, IRAs, personal pensions, stakeholder pensions, and the list goes on. Admittedly I’m an oddity, having lived in 2 countries, but right now my wife and I have 10 pension plans between us, not including any government provision. And that’s not because we’ve been working the system; almost all of this has come about because of job moves.

I understand why all these things have developed (politics is a game, and a handy way of winning the game is to introduce new cards), but in the mess of options the point of such plans has been missed. That point isn’t for people to have a pension plan, it’s for them to have savings. To do that I need a place to put my money – let’s call that a ‘pension plan’. I need to be able to pay money into my plan, I need surety that it will be safe (not a guarantee of return, necessarily, but a promise that I won’t suffer due to the managing company’s bankruptcy, for example), and I need transparency around the fund’s balance and performance.

And that’s it. I’d like favourable tax treatment, and contributions from my employer, and low fees, and a bunch of other things. I’d accept limits on how much I can withdraw, and when, and some element of compulsion. But none of these things are necessary. What I don’t need at any point is more than one plan.

Update: Forgot to mention that this was sparked by this article on the flaws in 401k legislation.

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