31 May 2015, 12:17pm
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  • Briefcase and The Hardest Grafter – spectacles pitching the poor against each other

    Ah, the taste of bread and circuses, harbingers of decadence in the declining imperium bereft of leadership, vision and ideas. The ermine is not a bleeding-heart liberal. I even believe in making the distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor which is beyond the pale in right-thinking circles these days, because I believe Britain is probably rich enough to assist the former whereas the latter will expand to consume all resources – witness the bizarre goal of eliminating relative child poverty of the Labour administrations, which is going to lead to serious misery in this.


    I am out of touch with pop culture, and loathed the concept of ‘reality TV’ ever since DxGF tried to make out there was some merit in the original Big Brother that she was addicted to – I stuck about 10 minutes before deciding this was shite robbing me of minutes I’d never live again. The description of two current/proposed ‘reality’ TV shows gives me a chilling feeling that we are going back to the days of cockfighting and circuses having dwarves and other sorts of gawpery that I’d thought we’d left behind decades ago. There’s nothing wrong with reality TV exploiting people who are compos mentis and who have other choices when they sign on the dotted line. Violating the latter condition for spectacle makes me queasy for what it says about our respect for others.

    I know part of the point of art is meant to hold up a mirror to us, so that the ideas and thoughts can resonate with the messages locked behind the firewall of our subconscious, transforming unvoiced fears into safe signals so we can know ourselves better. One of the drivers behind the search for financial independence is the fear of becoming poor. It pushed me to go through a period of elective privation to escape the Man, and underlying many of the tradeoffs in FI/RE is elective privation now against unelective privation later.

    It’s not surprising that after a period of economic retrenchment mining this seam of fear is rewarding for story pitchers. Take the American CBS show The Briefcase, where two families short of cash are given a briefcase of ~$100,000 and instructed to share it with the other, as sort of financial version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Over on this side of The Pond the BBC is looking for Britain’s Hardest Worker – to pitch a bunch of these against each other and the winner gets £15k. At least our American friends are both more generous and in theory every participant can win!

    According to the Beeb

    The series will tackle some of the most pressing issues of our time: why is British productivity low? Is the benefits system providing many with a reason not to work or hindering their working opportunity? Is the hidden truth about immigrants simply that they work harder than Brits – and we need them as much as they need us – or are they simply prepared to work for a lower wage? And have the young simply not inherited the work ethic of older generations or have working conditions just got too hard? Who in Britain still knows how to graft? It’s time to find out.

    The Ermine Bullshit-athon failed scanning this because it isn’t designed to process a signal more than half ordure so I had to take it in manual

    “You lot on the couch out there – you know that jobs are getting worse and many of you fear in falling out of a comfortable living in this generation or the next. Projecting your fears upon others is an easy way to relieve the pressure. Let’s take your mind off the fact with this exploitative drivel where we pretend hard unskilled work is the route out of poverty, because as we all know that is so true these days 1.”

    Now the PR release does raise some interesting questions. As Merryn Somerset-Webb describes in the FT (h/t Monevator for the link)

    The 16 hours bit is because that is the number of hours our system insists that you work in order to claim in-work benefits, something that has nasty implications for UK productivity


    If you incentivise people to work part time you get a lot of part time workers with unsatisfactory careers (and low productivity). And if you use the tax system to show that you favour housing above all else you get very expensive houses and as a knock on, possibly lower levels of productive investment than you would like.

    so the BBC’s thesis that the tax credits in-work benefits system that helped Gordon Brown get unemployment down might have pole-axed UK productivity has friends in other places. It may even be true – the endless special cases and indeed the historic pro-natalism of the tax and benefits system creates some strange distortions in what types of lifestyles it promotes – witness the truly bizarre spectacle of comfortably off people bitching ‘S’not fair’ 2  to Osborne’s removal of child benefit from higher-rate taxpayers some five years ago.

    I’m not at risk of being subjected to either programme, and I’m very happy to say that I’m not paying for the BBC version of it, but I feel uncomfortable with the divisive image that’s being held up to me by these programmes and the popularity of other poor-shaming TV shows like Benefits Street. One of the changes that I see in British society is an increasing stratification by income, though in other ways we have become far more tolerant and accepting of diversity.The most egregious example of this stratification is shown in the proposal for the city-state of London, where an Ermine was born and raised. This  is a place where people figure you need an income more than 10 times the UK average income to live. I grew up in an (admittedly south of the river) part of the city in Zone 2. Although I could buy a flat in the area I’d struggle to buy a house.

    These programmes feed on the fear of falling down the financial pecking order, as some of the distortions we have enjoyed relative to the rest of the world are being flushed out by globalisation and automation. We need insight, analysis and leadership to navigate these changes as best we can. Not bread and circuses to distract us from it. Yes, I’ve taken the piss at length from the middle class who have been acting dumb selling off their house for school fees and holidays, and carping they can’t afford Silly Bandz for their children. That’s because one can live perfectly well without school fees and Silly Bandz. But I draw the line against going further in the line of entertainment. In an increasingly financially stratified society I suspect that many well off people never come across people who are really poor, because we live increasingly separate lives. That’s fair enough, but to gawp at such fellow humans on TV without having the humility to remember that there but for the grace of God you go seems to be a retrograde step. The poor may always be with us, and I don’t know the answers – mindlessly throwing money at the problem doesn’t work, but taking the piss by gladiatorially setting some against others in the name of entertainment demeans both the watchers and the watched IMO. A respectful philosophy is good – NoMo PoMo.  Merryn Somerset-Webb’s analyisis and the positing of questions, yes. Cheap TV, er, no. Nietzsche has some sage advice for prospective viewers

    when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you

    It’s always good to be open to alternative points of view, so here is a Torygraph article telling us that this is an excellent insight into the heart of darkness that is the feckless poor that we should ogle not because it says something about us but because it says something about the reality of the human condition in Britain. Maybe a couple of hours with the Trussell Trust would be a better way to get the inside skinny rather than sitting on one’s backside being ‘entertained’ by other people’s desperation. And since everybody else writing about this sticks up a picture of the Jennifer Lawrence I am going to too, even though I haven’t read/seen Hunger Games 🙂


    Rupert Myers of the torygraph doesn’t seem to understand the role of having choice in whether something is exploitative when he compares this with other reality TV. If The Hardest Grafter rings me up offering a place they will be met by a long string of the finest Anglo-Saxon cursing them and the horse they rode in on. If they ring up someone poor enough for it to be an attractive option then that someone doesn’t really have a choice. The reason all those Lefties draw the analogy with Hunger Games is not that the participants of this show have to kill each other. It’s that they don’t really have any ‘king choice as to whether to volunteer for the spectacle, because the chance of an upside win compared to a zero is worth shooting for. Compared to that, all the other reality TV bozos who ended up eating kangaroo testicles electively chose to do it among other good options of spending their time. I presume that when Rupe read Law at Emmanuel College Cambridge he was introduced to the role of metaphor and allegory in a narrative. Heck, as a decent writer he’s been known to indulge. Don’t be a punk, Rupert.


    1. The JRF indicate (PDF) that work is a route out of poverty for about half of households – low skilled work and having dependent children don’t seem to be conducive to that
    2. to save anybody the bother, yes, ‘snot fair to SAHM households. In a similar way that finding myself subsidising my well-off colleagues’ family holidays through their universal child benefit across 28 years of my 30 year working life wasn’t fair.

    Never mind just these programmes feeding off the fear of sliding down the pecking order. Fundamentally what drives enormous amounts of behaviour (e.g. people to think you need >10x average salary to live – http://firevlondon.com/2015/05/30/minimum-salary-required-in-london-500k) – is the fear of losing relative position/status. It’s fundamental human psychology, and thus makes lots of sense for TV producer types to make shows about it.

    Fundamentally what drives enormous amounts of behaviour (e.g. people to think you need >10x average salary to live – is the fear of losing relative position/status.

    That’s an interesting observation (that seems backed up by much strange behaviour to my eyes). I cracked this stranglehold because I felt I had little choice – it was either go nuts and take serious health hits or get out. I never feared losing status and/or meaning, perhaps that is easier after the process of individuation is well under way.

    Part of the story of certainly the early retirement part of FI is driving a silver stake through the heart of this life-force vampire. If you want to live different from other people, you have to do different.

    1 Jun 2015, 9:32am
    by Neverland


    We’ve been her before and not long ago

    In the mid 19th century Britain as the old rural caste system broke down and people moved to towns for work in the newly opening factories at the same time as the British Empire was at its largest stage

    Britain had for 200 years previously operated a communal/feudal system for social relief based on the Elizabethan poor law which gave each poor person a right to statutory relief. This was based on the idea that poverty was regarded as the natural condition of the working class, which meant labourers (The fluctuations of harvests, the disruptions of war and the fine line between subsistence and penury were seen as inevitable and difficult to change)

    In about 1840 the workhouse was introduced for the poor to make claiming state relief undesirable with the guiding principle of ‘less eligibility’ – that workhouse conditions should be worse than the lowest living standards of the independent labourer – as its central tenet

    Key ingredients

    – increasing immigration (in this case from country to towns)
    – increases in wealth falling into fewer hands
    – large expense of looking after those disadvantaged by changes in the economic environment
    – increasing internationalisation of trade and commerce

    I like that. I like that a lot. Not, of course, in what it means, but in what the analogy explains – or at least reminds us of a previous rhyme in the weft of history. Thank you for the insight!

    @Ermine- I can’t begin to comment on this as I’ll end up sounding like ‘disgusted of Milton Keynes’. A better idea for ‘entertainment’ though would be watching the people who came up with this idea stripped of their credit cards, expenses accounts and jobs and following their ‘journey’ of survival.
    @Neverland – you’re right we have been here before- but we got Dickens et al not this shite.

    Had shows like this been on radio in the 1930s, my parents likely would have qualified. Would they have auditioned? Uhhh…probably not.
    Being poor did not mean you lost your self-respect or human dignity. At least it didn’t back then.

    1 Jun 2015, 12:35pm
    by Neverland


    “Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.” “You speak of — ”said Egremont, hesitantly. “ The rich and the poor.” Sybil, Disraeli, 1845

    The rich and the poor live cheek by jowl in the major cities of the UK now, as this is where suddenly the middles class want to live

    In actuality because of the sheer cost of housing in the private sector you get a minority of people on state assistance living far better than people on 3rd and 4th quartile salaries which fosters a string em up mentality among the worker bees that the tories are only too keen to exploit

    @Ray – indeed – and the programme makers may get that stream of Anglo-Saxon from other quarters. Some of why this disturbs me is not so much what it says about the subjects of the programme. It’s about those of us on the other side of the flickering screen.

    There is an excellent piece on Jack Monroe’s blog about the hardest grafter, detailing what any unsuspecting participant might be letting themselves in for.

    2 Jun 2015, 8:49pm
    by Cerridwen


    Hopefully the petition will win through, but sadly I suspect it will only serve to boost the viewing figures.

    I have been thinking about the difference between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor (because of course there is one) and I suppose it comes down to the fact that we associate deserving with the will to help yourself, hard work and persistence in the face of difficulty. Criminality and basic “bad blood” is just as often associated with wealth as it is with poverty so the presence, or lack of, basic virtues such as honesty are not the determining factors here.

    What makes a person slip down the “undeserving” path rather than struggle up the deserving one – genetic fecklessness? 🙂 I don’t know but there’s two things for sure: being poor(ish) on benefits is never an enviable lifestyle choice and there’s a very large group of people who are powerless to make any kind of choice themselves and that’s the kids.

    Thanks for bringing this to our attention (said with head in hands).

    13 Jun 2015, 5:42pm
    by Simon @MyRichFuture.com


    The rise of “poverty porn” on our screens is something we should be ashamed of. But people are obviously tuning in.

    Gotta say I hate the circus-freak-style programmes that masquerade as documentaries.


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