Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The "Entitlements Debate"

Unlike similar sites overseas, in Australia comments to online pieces are usually pre-moderated: if you break the house rules, you are not published.

Well, I imagine yesterday must have been a busy day for the comments moderators of Fairfax Media. Have a look at this screen capture (apparently showing only op-eds/politics):

Click for a larger image

In my experience, highly commented pieces get something between 200 to 300 comments. You can see that there were two "entitlement" pieces above this range (one of them more than doubling it!).

Anyway, in my belief that one learns as much from the comments, as from the pieces themselves, I read most of the 377 comments to another of Peter Martin's pieces in the business section (not listed above): "The Painful Truth about Trying to Live on $35 a Day".

I'll pick a few of them for further comment.

After going into them, I'll point to a very good post by Matt Cowgill. If you are capable of rational thinking and believe most people are like you, you can skip the rest of my post: I dwell on irrationality.

Otherwise, you should read this first, and then jump to Cowgill's blog.

We Are Legion
The first comment:
 " 'the single Newstart allowance now barely meets the median rent of a one-bedroom flat in Melbourne and Perth'
"Since when is it expected that the unemployed 5% of the population should enjoy a standard of accommodation that is higher than that of 50% of the working population? The dole should be enough to cover the very bottom 5-10% rental range not the median rent.
"Kaz | Online | 09:49AM" (See here. You will need to click on "More comments")
"Kaz" is commenting on Martin's statement that in Perth and Melbourne, unlike Sydney, the whole of the Newstart Allowance plus Rent Assistance ($304.95 per week) would be enough to cover the median rent of a one-bedroom flat ($300 per week).

What caught my attention is that "Kaz" does understand the notion of median: in the case of rents, it means if the median rent is $300, then half the rents are less than $300, half are more, as correctly implied.

So, "Kaz" has some basic statistics knowledge. This, however, does not imply ability to reason: "Kaz" doesn't realize that paying $300 in rent would leave nothing for other expenses.

In its defence, one could argue that perhaps "Kaz" was angered, did not think properly and wrote too quickly. Fair enough.

But there's more: by implication, "Kaz" appears to believe that "dole bludgers" should move to cheaper accommodation. While "Kaz" does not say this explicitly, it is a recurrent theme and is said clearly by others:
"They should only get enough to cover rent in an outer suburb, 3 meals a day at home and rates. If they want anything more they should work for it. The survey above asks working people how much they live on a day. We deserve the luxuries because we work for it. "Tim | Sydney | 08:04AM"
But real estate agents/property managers have a fiduciary duty of care to landlords. To rent a place they require applicants to prove their income. That's what they are paid for. If they don't, they could be sued for lack of due diligence.

So, if you're not employed, basically you can't just move to another rented place. Unless your Mum and Dad agree to take you back, you're stuck in your place, paying what you were paying before you got sacked.

That might be news to both "Tim" and "Kaz", but it was said explicitly by many in that thread (the first I found was StBob | Melbourne | 08:55AM).

I could say more about "Kaz" and "Tim", but let's leave things at that.

The point is not to single two bozos out and ridicule them, even if they deserve it (and these two really do). The point is that these are basic failings in elemental logic, a lack of common sense and ignorance of how basic things work (like what one must do when applying for a place for rent).

That so many people fail so abysmally in this account, does not bode well for public debate on this matter, because the problem is much more complex than that.

Consider this:
  1. some commentators appear to be deliberately lying (see bbb | Prague 08:22AM and check here or here, to open tax calculators and make your own mind);
  2. some welfare cheating may be real (JSP Worker | 04:23PM), but how much of it (Margaret | Canberra 02:42PM), and what to do about it (Depressed | 01:34PM and 02:56PM, also see here)
  3. people talk about "dole bludgers" milking the system, but what about job agencies? See here. Are they actually helping job seekers to get a job? And also P | 11:53AM.
  4. a system of welfare payments that could not have been better designed to foster pettiness among welfare recipients: "WOW, the unemployed get paid MOAR [sic] to sit on their asses than I ever did to GET EDUCATED... what a system!" (Newstop | Sydney | 11:21AM); "Why shouldn't mothers WITH A JOB be paid some of their salary when taking time out to have a baby. Much better option than the baby bonus that hands out cash to any bogan that has a baby" (Money for working mothers, not dole | Sydney, 10:56PM). Note: I am assuming these two comments, however petty, are genuine opinions. As bbb's case shows, they may be just lies.
  5. a welfare system that seems designed to throw you into poverty before paying you: Phillip Green | Frankston 03:12PM.
  6. a welfare system where "customers" appear to be kept uninformed of their entitlements. See the discussion related to PBS, and health care card, where even supporters of welfare payments ignore that there is a health care card!

Cowgill's Post
Having said all that, I recommend this post by Matt Cowgill. He deals with numbers and does so comprehensively; for better or for worse, I deal with ideology.

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