Friday, December 12, 2008

We have a new private residential college up in the Galician hills, in the spa town of Mondariz. They’re holding presentations throughout the region right now and Pontevedra’s was last night. So, when I got the leaflet in my post-box at midday yesterday, my immediate reaction was this was yet another bit of poor Spanish planning and/or mis-timed marketing. But then I got to pondering whether the opposite wasn’t, in fact, true. There are two principles at play here. Firstly, generally speaking, the Spanish abhor planning as it vitiates spontaneity. Secondly, any commitments made here always come with the unspoken rider ‘Unless something more interesting crops up. In which case you won’t see me.” So, if the college had sent the leaflets out a month ago, very few folk would have put it on a calendar or in an agenda. And sending it out on the actual day allows anyone really interested to drop whatever other commitments they might have had in order to attend. Anyway, I tested this out with a Spanish friend over lunch and she had no doubt at all that the last-minute-delivery strategy would be the most effective with her compatriots. In fact, she laughed at the very notion of any Spaniard taking any notice of something 2 or 3 weeks in the future. Only maƱana is in the future. And no-one knows what that holds. “Tomorrow? Why, I may be myself with yesterday’s seven thousand years.” Said old Omar.

In 1983, there were 740,000 people claiming incapacity benefit in the UK. Now there are 2.6 million. Even one of the more mendacious governments in history admits that more than one million of these are not really disabled and should, therefore, be registered as unemployed and have their lifetime benefits curtailed. I raise this not because this is currently a live issue in the UK but because I wonder what will happen in Spain over the next 5 to 10 years in the context of benefits for the disabled. The central government recently announced an increase in these, though I think it’s left to the regional governments to decide who gets what, on the basis of what they can afford. This, of course, is a country where there’s a widely held view that it’s admirable of you to get yourself into the position of doing little and living off someone else, whether this is your parents, the local or national government, or Germany. So there has to be a risk the incidence of depression and chronic back ache will now soar to UK levels. Especially, I would have thought, during a prolonged recession. Will the local governments have more political will than the British government in anticipating and preventing – or at least minimising – fraud? Or will they all – as on many other things – differ in their approaches, meaning that we end up with what’s considered in the UK to be the most heinous of things – ‘a postcode lottery’? And will anyone care, if it suits the local administration? A final word – in truth, someone else’s – on the UK situation: “The upshot is that taxpayers are being defrauded by a disgraceful conspiracy of shameless layabouts and gutless politicians, while the virtue of self-help is destroyed by the vice of a something-for-nothing culture.” So, could it happen here? I rather fear so.

Spanish prisoners who’ve served much of their sentence can be allowed out under a regime called here el tercer grado, ‘the third grade’. As the word grado also means ‘degree’, this always leads to confusion in my mind. I can never decide whether the prison authorities are being lenient or exceptionally harsh.

Pontevedra town council recently introduced their latest – notice I don’t say ‘a new’ – one-way traffic scheme in the city. Just in time for the Christmas shopping rush. Needless to say, this led to a good deal of confusion and quite a lot of accidents. But this may have had less to do with the new system than with the decision to put traffic cops at every junction. As a Spanish friend once said to me, there’s no snarl-up that can’t be made worse by putting one of these clowns in the middle of the road with a whistle in his or her mouth.


Guiri said...

Cadiz is famous for its deaf ex-shipyard workers.

Graeme said...

“The upshot is that taxpayers are being defrauded by a disgraceful conspiracy of shameless layabouts and gutless politicians, while the virtue of self-help is destroyed by the vice of a something-for-nothing culture.”

That must be a reference to the "financial services industry", or have I missed something?

Colin said...


I'm left unclear as to what you mean.

There are two dubious activities here:

1. Defrauding your fellow citizens to get a lifetime of undeserved benefits, and

2. Earning obscene amounts for the generation of wealth is/which might be largely illusory or chimerical.

Both seem to me to be immoral but only the former is illegal - putting aside the obvious frauds that surface.

Do you think illegal benefit claiming is OK [for whatever reason] or just not as bad as earning an obscene salary in a legal enterprise?

Or do you agree both are morally wrong and think that both should be made illegal. If so, how in the case of salaries? A cap?

Colin said...

Sorry about the syntax. I ca't get the hand of Wordpad, which is all my new laptop has . . .

". . .which is/might be . . ."

Graeme said...

Well despite the fairly flippant nature of my original comment there is a serious issue here Colin. I almost never see those who rail so freely against benefit fraud talk of the very significant fraud perpetrated by often much wealthier people concerning that tiny detail that is paying taxes. It's hard to get accurate estimates but it's generally acknowledged that teams of inspectors put on the case pay their way very very quickly. So we are left with the question of why fraud by the poorer sections in society attracts so much attention and resources, whilst other potentially greater frauds do not. The phrase you quoted could easily be applied to various situations, and I haven't even mentioned the monarchy. The idea of those who supported the economic model of the last few years talking of a "something for nothing" culture is just a sick joke. Oh, and I almost forgot the political fraud. Perhaps many people ended up on disability benefits because of the determination of British politicians to reduce the unemployment figures by any available means?

Colin said...

Well, I guess it depends on who you talk to and what you read. Private Eye, for example, does a good job of attacking the tax-dodgers, personal and corporate.

And I imagine a significant proportion of the working and tax-paying population would be as hacked off with both fraudulent benefit claimants and tax evaders.

Or does your 'bad rich' group also include tax avoiders - those rich enough to pay ex tax inspectors to acquaint them with the numerous loopholes and the expensive tax avoidance schemes?

One problem is, of course, folk naturally take a different view of people who never work but cheat their way to a lifetime of income and those who work, generate wealth and then do what they can - legally and/or illegally - to minimise what the state takes back from them. The more of the benefit fraudsters there are, of course, the more the honest taxpayers resent funding them and the greater the temptation to join the evaders/avoiders or at least sympathise with them.

This is the problem with a government either negligently or deliberately allowing massive benefit fraud to happen. It is corrosive of social bonds and of the social contract. Even the left-of-centre Prospect has been saying this for some time now.

My original point was that Spain has a chance of avoiding this, if she really wants to. But the task will perhaps be greater here than it was in the UK, especially as there may be 17 different approaches to the challenge.