beliefs of the ‘tavern of the taverner’ that spell a bad fate for the poorest people

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“I can never live on it and neither can this country… Austerity has become a necessary evil… The unemployed will only work if they are forced to.”

No, it wasn’t the sound of the pub, but some of the often unspoken assumptions that underpin policy making and the reporting of those policies. Two very different reports published last week, one from the BBC, the other from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), one explicitly, the other implicitly, show the importance of these buried beliefs in shaping our lives and perceptions.

The first report, by journalist Michael Blastland and economist Andrew Dilnot, was commissioned by the BBC’s board to review the corporation’s coverage of economics following complaints from leading economists. Blastland and Dilnot recognized the quality and seriousness of the BBC’s output. They found no evidence of “systematic political bias” but found something in many ways more insidious: an unexplained acceptance of certain assumptions about how the economy and public finances work and what is “good” and ” evil”.

Perhaps the worst of the implicit assumptions is the “instinctive” belief that public debt must be “bad, full stop”. The question of how much debt is bad, and in what context, is rarely discussed. But, as the report suggests, looking at debt as a proportion of GDP, rather than in absolute terms, or in the context of how much repayment costs, could change attitudes. And while debt today looks high if we look at just the last decade, it looks relatively low if we look at the past 70 years. “Different historical frames give a different sense of ‘high’ and ‘low,'” according to Blastland and Dilnot.

Was the austerity imposed after 2010 a price worth paying for lower debt? The trade-offs are considered too rare

Whether debt is “good” or “bad” depends on the alternatives. Was the austerity imposed after 2010 – reduced benefits, falling real-term wages, library closures, cuts to public transport – a price worth paying for lower debt? The trade-offs are considered too rare.

After the Covid pandemic, it was decided that the government should borrow more to ease the pain of the economic defeat. It was a political decision. So was the decade of austerity. But all too often, “debt under control” is presented by politicians, and accepted by journalists, as an economic necessity, not a political choice.

The irony is that another of the unspoken assumptions of BBC broadcasting, Blastland and Dilnot, suggests that more public spending is a good thing. They argue that this is also a controversial view that is often portrayed as absolute truth. But, because “keeping debt under control” was seen as a necessity rather than an option, the cuts in public spending over the past decade were also seen as inevitable.

Such belief is embedded in a common metaphor used by journalists – presenting the national debt as the same as household debt. Indeed, former BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg’s claim that the government’s “credit card” was “maxed out” led to the original complaint about the corporation’s cover-up and ultimately the Blastland and Dilnot report.

The analogy is false because “states do not tend to retire or die or pay their debts in full” as individuals do. Households also can’t print money (legally, anyway) like governments can. But it is an analogy that justifies the severity. Just as families need to cut their budget and get rid of “mutants”, so does the nation. The leisure centers and libraries and buses and benefits go there.

Not only are hidden assumptions underpinning reporting, but the issues deemed significant are often defined by class or other biases. Consider a tax. The poor have a low income but have to spend a higher proportion of it on basic needs; the opposite is true for the rich. Thus, for the less well off, indirect taxes (such as VAT) have a proportionally larger impact, but for the rich, direct taxation, such as income tax, is more important. But tax coverage, and not just on the BBC, is dominated by discussions of income tax; when VAT is mentioned, it is usually “reported from a business perspective”.

Likewise, with public transport. Buses are much more important to poor people. There are more trips by bus than any other form of public transport and these services are largely generated by public expenditure through concession fares and subsidies. Trains, however, get more media attention. “Why do you think that might be?” ask Blastland and Dilnot.

The cumulative effect has been to encourage people to work, but also to push them into endless low-paid jobs

If the BBC report explicitly reveals hidden assumptions, the IFS report, on Britain’s benefits and tax credits system, does so implicitly, but less disastrously. The report traces the result of successive waves of welfare changes since the late 1990s. The cumulative effect has been to encourage people to work, but also to push them into endless, low-wage, part-time jobs. Today there are greater incentives for the unemployed to move into low-paid part-time work than there are for part-time workers to move into better-paid full-time work.

The influence of “conditionality” – the advantages of job hunting – is particularly to make this process worse. Politicians are constantly talking about creating a highly skilled, highly educated, highly paid workforce in Britain. The reality is that policies pursued by successive governments have resulted in almost the opposite, encouraging, in the words of the IFS, “precisely the kind of work that tends to bring little or no benefit longer term for skills, labour. market and wage linkage”. Also ensure that an increasing percentage of those who are working receive benefits because their wages are so meager.

The welfare system, the IFS notes, is made up of a mix of rules and regulations that arise from a variety of aims. Underneath this patchwork, however, there are some basic assumptions: that the unemployed must be forced to work; that any work is good work in itself, however poorly paid, however poor the conditions or however bleak the prospects; that poverty and lack of work are the result of moral failures in the individual, not policy failures in society. Such assumptions are so deeply rooted that policy makers and journalists notice little more than fish notice the water in which they swim.

The pub tunnel one can usually ignore. The pub was at the heart of Whitehall, in broadcast studios and on the front pages of newspapers, rarely ignored. Especially because their assumptions continue to shape our lives.

• Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist

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