Recently, in his Autumn Statement, George Osborne justified cutting welfare benefits in real terms by what could be termed the Cul-de-Sac Contention. He argued that Mr Worker, who rises early and drags himself out to work, feels a justified resentment when he passes the house of Mr Shirker, his unemployed next-door neighbour and spies the bedroom curtains still closed. He fumes as he pictures this idle fellow snoring beneath the duvet whilst he stomps through the chill winter air to earn his daily bread, the crust of which will be torn off and handed to this feckless slumberer as benefits by the ever-indulgent state.
Who can begrudge this good citizen his fury? That he must work and give so another can snuggle and take. It is a situation not to be tolerated. He demands, or so Mr Osborne assures us he does, that the government wakes this freeloader up and gives him some coffee to smell. Mr Worker then reflects that he’ll have to pay for the coffee and decides it is unnecessary. Nevertheless, the Tories are sure that Alarm Clock Britain wants Snooze Button Britain to be jolted out of their cosy dreamworld. A cut there shall be.
Putting aside for a moment the merit of a position which allows government policy towards one person to be based on the views of their neighbours (maintainers of high hedges, yappy dogs and yappier teenagers could all find themselves in trouble if this methodology was fully implemented) let us consider the position of Mr Shirker bearing in mind that he is unemployed and therefore living on limited means.
Let us construct a different scenario. This time when Mr Worker leaves his house he no longer notices Mr Shirker is still in the land of nod but instead finds him performing some pre-dawn calisthenics in the front garden - bending and stretching himself into tip-top condition before embarking on a full day of energetic job-seeking. Why Mr Worker might even allow himself a twinge of sympathy for Mr Shriker and bestow on him an encouraging nod.
Yet it is precisely this job-seeking which he should be discouraging. Because job-seeking is nothing more than the scandalous squandering of the state’s money. In this modern world, if Mr Shirker is to put his full energies into the hunt for gainful employment then he will require access to newspapers, to a telephone, to a computer, to the internet, to a printer, to stationery of reasonable quality and to stamps. These do not come cheap to a person of limited means.
But should Mr Shirker obtain these pre-requisites it may very well be only the start. As surely as cannabis leads to crack, bad economic decisions can easily become calamitous ones. He might be invited to interview! Now the expenses balloon out of all control in a process Mr Osborne will be familiar with from his own government’s borrowing. A smart suit, a slick haircut and transport costs. Good money being chucked cavalierly after bad.
It is here I sense a shaking of the head. Wiser persons than me explain I should understand that what I am portraying as Mr Shirker’s selfish job-seeking is, in fact, a shrewd investment which will be repaid manifold when he lands a position and can join Mr Worker in his virtuous morning commute.
And this might be true if it had not been revealed last week in Prime Minister’s Questions that a person who has been unemployed for over six months stands only a two percent chance of actually getting and holding down a job. Two percent! What sort of level of stupidity would it be for a man of ever more limited means to invest so heavily in a scheme which yields him a beneficial return only one time in every fifty? Even holders of sub-prime loans, Greek bonds and launch day price stocks in Facebook would look at such a speculation askance.
Instead, Mr Shirker would be well-advised to triumph that other virtue of which the Tories are so fond of for people other than themselves – thrift. And what could be more thrifty an activity than sleeping? No need for quality stationery, no need for the internet, no need for a new M&S shirt and tie. Every snuffle a saving and every snooze a sensible stretching of limited resources. Osborne shouldn’t be insisting Mr Shirker get up and get on his bike (another wild extravagance that the figures prove will almost never pay for itself) he should be advising him to invest in fluffier duvets and well-plumped pillows for the long term. Indeed if Mr Shirker knows what is good for him for every pound Osborne cuts from his benefit he will spend another hour in bed. It’s such a sensible economic decision in these austere times that the least the chancellor could do is pop round on his way to work and tuck him in.