A little background on British social outlook. I was listening to BBC Radio 4 on the drive up from London to Olney. Radio 4 is the BBC’s primary news channel and is the model for NPR, though with far less classical music (that’s the remit of BBC Radio 3; or used to be). On the Today Program, which is analogous to All Things Considered/Morning Edition, there were several interesting articles. First a debate about the acceptability of a Gerald Scarfe cartoon which was published after the Israeli election on Holocaust Memorial day and depicted Ehud Barak cementing a wall of Palestinian body parts with bloody morta. The caption was “Cementing relations with the Palestinians.” The question posed was, "should the editor of the Sunday paper which had initially published it have apologized (which he had) or is harsh political cartooning just that and the recipients need to grow thicker skins?" The debate really showed up the soft anti-Semitism prevalent in the British media and, consequently, in the rest of the country. It did, however, make me think are we in the States too ready to dismiss the claims of the Palestinians?
Next, an article about a proposal by the UK goverment to limit the maximum permissible interest rate for payday loans. The article began with a little history concerning anti-usury laws; their biblical background, including a passage from Ezekiel read by a lady with an outstandingly posh accent – why Ezekiel when a New Testament passage might have been better? The juxtaposition seemed intended to marginalize any religious view point. Then another little cut at the Jews in the subsequent history where Christians were still banned from lending but Jews could lend. A junior member of the civil service group which currently has jurisdiction over payday lenders was debating with a member of a consumer rights group which was proposing not only an interest rate cap, but a total maximum including fees for any loan based on the borrowed amount. One of the civil servant’s arguments was an entirely reasonable explanation that when taking out a smal,l short term loan for a few days, one should not expect to get the same rate as for a larger loan such as a mortgage with a longer term of the order of years, and that to compare the APR of the two loans was not a valid comparison. His analogy to represent the nightly rate for a hotel room as an annual rate and to claim the rate is excessive. The presenter immediately pounced and said, “So you’re saying 4000% APR is perfectly fine.” The grand irony is that the civil servant had indicated his department was open to and, in fact, was advocating a cap on maximum rates, while the woman from the consumer rights group was proposing only slightly more aggressive restrictions, either of which would have been an improvement over the status quo…but the presenter was more concerned with generating conflict.
This morning there was an article about benefit reform. The debate was about the implementation of restrictions on benefits to prevent their use for “vices” such as alcohol and cigarettes. The claim was made that to impose such restrictions was infantilizing the recipients and not allowing them to be adults and make their own choices. The argument from the government representative was that in a time of austerity we need to more accurately target the benefits and restrictions would be sensible. The counter argument from a benefits rights advocate was to make benefits like a salary and allow people to treat them as such. Her statement “otherwise we may as well just go to food stamps like America” was the petulant response and “society will go to hell” was the implication. No questioning why those taking public benefits should not be allowed to spend other peoples’ money on anything they like. No questioning whether making a safety net into a salary is a good idea or not. I am amazed at the lack of awareness or questioning of the social system in UK. Once you’re part of it it’s hard to see beyond the event horizon….Differ