The past month has been a busy one in the City. With the end of the tax year looming, many people returned from Christmas to find that work projects had accelerated, and that new pet ones had materialised, in an effort to get things 'on track' for completion by the end of March. Having worked in several large institutions now, I am always surprised by just how much impetus an essentially subjective date can have. For a company dealing in billions of dollars of global revenues, whether a small six-thousand spend project gets finished in March or May is not a big deal. But stick an arbitrary cut-off date in and suddenly everything goes nuts.
To be fair, the date is not entirely arbitrary – my company, like many others, does need to file tax returns. But the net impact of the 'busy period' between January and March is not that more gets done, as some of my bosses seem to believe. It is simply that things slump when we hit April. If you demand more than people are used to giving, at some point there are consequences. But the 'budget year' effect seems to be accepted by the powers that be, almost as a matter of faith.
There seem to be many echoes here with government policy. Iain Duncan Smith's 'belief' that he was right about benefit claimants being forced into work, despite direct criticism from the official statistics watchdog, pretty much set the tone last year. Since then, the government has published a dodgy chart on flood spending, which was also criticised. And then the Prime Minister presented flood spending numbers in an equally 'precise' (ie misleading) manner, and was promptly publicly scolded by the head of the UK Statistics Authority. In a less sinister by similar manner, there are echoes in all the political hay still being made about austerity and its impact, while in purely economic terms the gap between the Coalition and Labour remains rounding-error small.
More and more, it seems like evidence – factual data from independent and impartial experts – is being ignored, even when those experts are appointed directly by politicians. The Office for Budget Responsibility has explicitly stated that austerity has hurt economic growth, and even produced a pretty chart showing that it will continue to do so over the next five years. But Osborne still talks about austerity 'boosting the economy'. Politicians argue about precise definitions of real wages in order to score silly political points, while the bigger picture – that the UK has just undergone the longest real wage cut since the Second World War, at least – gets largely ignored.
What is really troubling is that the politicians seem to be winning. The 'scrounger narrative', whereby those on benefits are castigated as sofa-stuck layabouts, has stuck in the popular perception. Yet senior civil servants at the DWP admitted in private to me last year that such people only represent a small fraction of total claimants. When church leaders highlight the damage the cuts are doing to households and communities, the government responds by insisting the cuts are 'moral'. Given that paying taxes isn't moral, or at least not according to the Chancellor, we can only conclude that hoarding personal wealth is the proper order of things. (Personally I find this deeply worrying, and may return to it in a later post.)
This is not the way a free, intelligent population in a developed economy should behave. Academics and other independent experts exist precisely because they are just that – independent and expert. When we relegate the troublesome burden of evidence to a mere side issue, the possibilities for potential abuses are rife. When we take leaders on trust, without evidence, we could all too quickly fall into the same traps that led to Iraq. Quite apart from my own hectic schedule, we must all take the time to make sure democracy works properly, and is never simply taken on trust. There should always be some burden of proof.