Planners from hell Britain’s rock ‘n’ dole

The Next City
September 21, 1998


Pop stars in Britain carry a lot of clout. Just ask Tony Blair.

While campaigning for office, Blair surrounded himself with such luminaries as the rockers from Oasis, Pulp, and Blur. As a result, his Labour Party looked young and vital, and the phrase “Cool Britannia” began popping up everywhere.

But when the government proposed a series of measures unpopular with Britain’s youth — such as making wannabe pop stars leave welfare and get a job — a pop star backlash ignited. Blair and his government suffered a string of verbal attacks from the very people he had so carefully courted, including Jarvis Cocker, lead singer of Pulp, and Alan McGee, owner of Oasis’s label Creation Records.

Cocker, who survived for eight years on welfare before hitting it big, publicly denounced the new government. And McGee, a member of the Music Industry Forum, which advises the government on culture issues, said, “If we want the benefits that music brings — the money, the cultural diversity, the respect from overseas — we have to allow the musicians to eat.”

In the face of this criticism, Blair — once a band member himself — reversed the welfare decision and created a new plan, popularly dubbed “rock ‘n’ dole,” that will allow struggling musicians to collect welfare while receiving education and training. Under the plan, tomorrow’s stars can enrol in a structured full-time education and training option or, alternatively, an “open learning” option, under which the government will require them “to keep a detailed diary of the work they are doing, such as rehearsing, practising, or songwriting.”

While some call the whole idea a licence to loaf, Blair insists that only “qualified” struggling musicians will be permitted to take part.

Rondi Adamson

Inflating hate crime

EVERY YEAR, USUALLY IN THE SPRINGTIME, the Toronto Police Intelligence squad releases what has come to be known as its annual “hate crime” report. Unbeknownst to the public, however, the statistics in these reports have serious problems, including being wrong by a factor of over a hundred. In February for example, the Globe and Mail wrote: “A total of 187 hate crimes were reported in Toronto last year, a seven per cent increase.” In reality, no one has been tried for a hate crime in Toronto in over 10 years. According to the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, the entire country has had but four hate crimes in the past 25 years, an incidence so low as to be statistically insignificant. How did we get from statistical insignificance to 187 hate crimes in a single city in one year?

The answer lies in the police’s invention of a criminal offence. For the record, the Parliament of Canada — not your local police department — decides what constitutes a crime in this country. According to the Toronto Police Services Board, an official watchdog agency, these statistics do not represent hate crimes at all but far more common offences, such as assault, that, under the Criminal Code’s Section 718.2, allows a judge to impose an increased penalty if hatred motivated an offence. Despite their apparent similarity, a hate crime and a hate-motivated crime bear no legal relation to each other. The former is an extremely serious criminal offence with constitutional implications involving rights to free expression, while the latter is a mere sentencing provision for other crimes.

Curiously enough, all the groups that originally asked the Toronto police to begin recording potential hate-motivated crimes — including the former Metropolitan Toronto’s Anti-Racism Access and Equity Committee and the former City of Toronto’s Mayor’s Committee on Community and Race Relations — share a common political goal. They are working to repeal a Criminal Code provision requiring the Attorney General’s permission to lay hate crime charges. This provision, designed to prevent vexatious or frivolous charges, prevents anyone from using the Criminal Code to silence political opponents. To justify their demands, these antiracism groups point to the massive increase in the number of reported “hate crimes,” an increase that just happens to coincide with the very year (1993) that Toronto police began keeping records at their urging.

The groups characterize their request as nothing more than “tightening up” the existing hate crime law. But should they succeed, they would be able to initiate their own hate crime proceedings, effectively converting police “hate crime” units into a form of “speech police” who ferret out and silence incorrect political opinion. Editorial cartoonists, radio talk show hosts, religious leaders, and theatre producers would all find themselves facing the threat of arrest.

K. Alan Fenton

Chinese baby boom

CHINESE COUPLES WHO WANT A BOOMING FAMILY WITH MORE THAN ONE CHILD — just one more than one, mind you — can now break out the cradle a second time.

China’s one-child-per-couple policy has given way to a new two-child policy, which allows many of the 50 million people born under the old procreation rule to have two children. (People with siblings cannot take advantage of the new regulation.) The Chinese government created the one-child policy 20 years ago to curb what seemed like out-of-control population growth.

Even before that policy, fertility in China had abruptly decreased. But that decrease has created another demographic nightmare — a rapidly aging population, a concern anywhere, but an even greater one in a low-income country like China. Experts predict one in four Chinese will be elderly in 2020, with an acute problem especially in cities, where birthrates seldom rise above one child per mother. Work forces are already shrinking as huge numbers of people retire. In Shanghai, for example, 17 per cent of the population is over 60 years old. Su Songxing, a population expert at Shanghai’s Academy of Social Sciences, warns that “the cities have a major welfare crisis,” adding that, in some places, “the conditions for allowing parents to have more than one child are clearly in place.”

Rather than increasing the population, others propose that the Chinese government promote migration from rural to urban areas. China has hundreds of millions of surplus farm workers who could easily rectify any urban labor shortage. Enter China’s visceral regional bias, which pits city people against country folk.

Shanghai’s mayor, Xu Kuangdi, complains that the Chinese government is undermining the “quality” of the Chinese people, as Shanghai’s numbers decline while the peasants’ ranks increase. He has lots of company, says Gu Baochang, a population-policy researcher at Beijing’s Demographics Information Institute, who notes that many senior bureaucrats have raised the “quality” issue and that cities reject migration as a solution to population problems. “They want their own people to reproduce more.”

Officials at the State Family Planning Commission acknowledge that pressure from cities has created a more lenient attitude toward two-child families, at least for only children who want to marry one another. But this new leniency applies, they say, only to cities that have a proven one-child policy history. And Chinese officials vociferously deny that concerns about the quality of China’s population have promoted the changes.

“It is not our policy that city people are better than farmers,” says Wang Guoqiang, a commission spokesman, who points out that, after all, “the Communist revolution began in the countryside.”

Rondi Adamson

Too much cooperation

WHAT DOES A RURAL ELECTRIFICATION ADMINISTRATION DO when there’s no more rural electrification to administer? Anything it wants. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Dealers founded the REA back in 1935, using it to lend money to co-ops in the U.S. countryside. The idea was to bring power to the 89 per cent of rural America that lacked electricity. But it didn’t take long for mission creep to set in.

The agency’s first new step came in 1949, when it revised its raison d’être to include the improvement of farmers’ phone service. In the ’80s, it crept into another form of telecommunication, spending millions so that rural folks could watch satellite TV. Around the same time, REA started working with local chambers of commerce and similar groups to promote rural economic development. It also launched the Associate Member Program, financing electric co-ops’ forays into other fields, from wastewater treatment to medical care.

These days, it dabbles in almost everything: Propane, computer equipment, air conditioning — you name it, the REA’s been there. Except it isn’t called the REA any more: The authorities have rechristened it the Rural Utilities Service, a nice, vague name for an agency in perpetual search of a mission. Testifying before Congress in 1997, RUS administrator Wally Beyer described his employer as “the federal government’s point agency for rural infrastructure assistance.” Which, of course, can mean almost anything.

These days, virtually all of rural America is electrified. Telephone service is also near universal, rising from about 38 per cent of farms in 1949 to over 95 per cent today. “In a rational world,” antitax activist James Dale Davidson wrote of the old REA, “the government would declare victory and begin closing shop. In the decidedly irrational world of Washington, however, the program lives on.”

Davidson is absolutely right. Yet in an important way, he’s also wrong. The former REA is not behaving irrationally. No one expects a business that succeeds in its original mission to “declare victory and begin closing shop.” IBM did not shut its doors when the word processor overtook the typewriter. A business adapts; it introduces new products; it moves into new markets; it struggles to survive. Government agencies do the same — they just do it with public money.

So the RUS has moved into areas that no one would claim the market has underserved. When the U.S. government’s low-interest loans allow co-ops to outcompete local businesses by selling, say, propane at cut-rate prices, the agency isn’t advancing rural economic development; it’s crippling it.

Jesse Walker

The overtime gendarmes

WORKAHOLICS PLANNING A MOVE TO FRANCE HAD BETTER THINK TWICE. As part of a program to bring the work week down from 39 hours to 35, without pay cuts, by the year 2000, France’s job inspectors have been raiding corporations and shaking up employees who dare to stay late at their desks.

The socialist government hopes that this policy, passed in May of this year, will help reduce France’s 12 per cent unemployment rate — the idea being that the shortened work week will spread scarce jobs around. Labor minister Martine Aubry, who created the plan, has a “profound belief” that it will create hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Earlier this year, at a subsidiary of the Alcatel firm, which was working to complete a major contract on time, executives were astonished to find job inspectors in their midst, taking names and demanding to know why employees were working past 7 p.m. At another firm, a subsidiary of the defence firm Thomson-CSF, about 1,500 employees face fines of up to $80,000 each, as well as potential jail time, in the wake of an “after hours” raid.

Over 400 employment and solidarity ministry inspectors carry out the raids — often following tips from labor unions. The inspectors cannot be accused of slacking off on the job: In the course of their official duties, they have gone so far as photographing car licence plates in company parking lots and monitoring personal computers to make sure that employees aren’t taking work home.

“Several thousand” violations have been reported at four or five companies, according to a ministry spokeswoman. “They are test cases, really,” she adds.

Rondi Adamson

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