Tuesday, July 06, 2010

And death shall have no opinion


The dying of the light

The other day I heard a XXGenYer on the radio blithely quip that there would probably be no old age pension by the time she got to retirement age. What age might that be by mid-century - 103? She intended to invest for her retirement, at, like, some point. The words 'as' and 'if' slowly formed on my pursed lips.

Why would anyone think it was acceptable to deny fellow humans the guarantee of dignity and decency no matter what misfortune awaited them? Have we not read our Dickens? Just because we're all such firebrands for risk management these days, don't mean shit don't happen.

I heard about the Depression and the War from my parents. I was always aware that torment on a global scale could be ignited from almost nothing. War and depression have almost happened again so many times in the last sixty years. It's not cleverness that has contained them. It's luck.

The welfare ethic that developed in most western countries after World War 2 was born of an earnestness to alleviate human suffering. The proponents, although victors, had seen far too much of it to feel they could walk away without securing a fundamental change in the way we treat each other.

Is it really possible that this marked advancement in our collective consciousness could be completely dismantled within a generation or two by compulsive shoe shoppers who couldn't be arsed to speak out against the hostile takeover of our common wealth by private interests? Has anyone looked at the American example of health and aged care lately? Why don't people believe in universal welfare anymore?

The idea that you put a percentage of the money you earn into a state-run scheme that will take care of you if you are ill or live beyond your capacity to work for a living is, I suppose, unfashionably Marxist. 'From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs', is how he put it. He didn't include women because women didn't work then. They just starved, along with their children, if their husband died and couldn't provide for them. Or they were all sent to the workhouse.

Australia has a compulsory workers' pension scheme called Superannuation. I don't know anything about it because it came in after I left the country. It seems enormously complex, so I'm quite glad I don't have to learn it. I have gleaned that the Government doesn't run it. It is a profit-generating industry.

Today the Government announced some proposals for improving it. One of them is a directive to Superannuation fund managers that they 'must act in the interests of customers'. Would you trust your decrepitude to someone who needed to be ordered not to fuck you over?

The other proposal is that the Government set up a safe and simple scheme for the large numbers of people who don't understand what is happening with their retirement savings. Let's hope that one gets up. Since no political jurisdiction anywhere in the world has yet demonstrated it has the muscle to knock down the thugs who treat people's life savings like a poker stake, I'd like to see Australia get beyond 'please sir can I have some more' in its negotiations.

I have a British state pension entitlement, which I now won't get until I'm sixty-five but that doesn't matter much because I'm sure I'll have learned to live on thirty pounds, ten shillings and sixpence a year by then. The British National Insurance scheme I understand perfectly well. Every working person contributes a percentage of his or her salary to a national fund which pays for both the National Health Service and the State Pension. The employer pays a contribution as well.

The important thing about this scheme is that it pays for everyone who is sick, no matter how sick they are and it pays for everyone who is old, no matter how old they get. If you never get sick but drop dead at sixty-four, you don't get anything and neither do your descendants. This is the nature of universal welfare. It deals with the basic requirements of the living. The guarantee you have is that if you are ill, someone will try to fix you and if you get old, someone will feed you and wipe your bum. And you will not ever have to worry about how you're going to pay for it. Simple, although perhaps not pleasing to your vile and snivelling grand-nephew.

The inequality of NHS treatment is another matter and any friend of Pants will know that I've had plenty to say on that in the past. Bad administration and poor training are separate and distinct problems. Their existence doesn't dilute the basic soundness of the universal care ideology. If anyone really thinks private industry provides superior medical care, they might like to take a close look at the American model.

People in Britain and elsewhere in Europe where decent social welfare systems are more common than not, accept the fundamental principle. They give 'according to their means' so that the 'needs' of the universal 'each' will be met. An almost unnoticeable subtraction from their monthly pay will not only protect them and their immediate dearests but guarantee that they will not be sideswiped by some unexpected kin calamity - like having to sell their family house to pay for their father's triple bypass surgery. That's why they call it National Insurance.

I believe in it. I believe in paying a portion of whatever I earn to a state-run scheme that prioritises people's needs on the basis of equality. Call me old-fashioned but it seems like the most efficient and cheapest way of looking after everyone. In almost all respects in health and aged care, one size does fit all. One size of comfort, one size of nourishment, one size of compassion, one size of humanity.