Labour: Is It Really ‘Anti-business’?

In the closest and most hotly-contested election for a generation, politicians are going to throw a lot of mud at each other. The Conservatives and their supporters have mastered this art very well: they believe that if they take a line and repeat it often and loudly enough, it will become the prevailing view, even if there is little evidence to support it. They’re trying that now. By screaming that Labour is stuck in a ‘seventies mindset’ and is ‘anti-business’, they hope to undermine Labour’s economic credibility.

To be fair, Labour is fighting on its most radical manifesto for a generation. Vested interests have a lot to fear from us. Labour has committed to break virtual cartels that exist in energy and transport markets; crackdown on corporate tax dodgers and exploitative zero-hours contracts; control speculation in land and housing and a large uprating in the minimum wage.

Will these measures cost businesses? Only those who are bad corporate citizens. Good businesses already pay fair taxes and wages. Good businesses add value to our economy through innovation and hard work, not profiteering. Good businesses welcome real competition.

Labour is a vibrant, democratic political movement and we exist to serve the people of Britain, not the CEOs and shareholders. Except in the City of London, people have the vote, corporations do not. Our aim should not be to prioritise business over other concerns for the sake of it (or, as with the Conservatives, because Monaco-domiciled businesspeople have given us large donations) but to help business as partners in the British economy. Labour has every interest in helping business create British jobs, innovative new products and services and drive investment. And that’s exactly what the next Labour government will do.

Would an anti-business party commit to keeping Corporation Tax rates at the lowest in the G7 economies? (Rates that are too low, in my opinion) Would it slash the business rates that are crippling small enterprises? Would it fight so hard to keep Britain in the European Union citing ‘trading benefits’? Would its Business spokesman introduce the Small Business Saturday campaign?

Every businessperson from the start-up entrepreneur to the billionaire shareholder has nothing to fear and everything to gain from a Labour government as long as they are committed to social responsibility and playing by the rules.

These are the people corrupt interests want you to imagine when they throw claims about ‘anti-business’ approaches around. They don’t want you to think of HSBC, which was caught hiding its clients’ money from billions of pounds of tax liabilities (and then given a ‘get out of jail free card’ from the same Tory ministers who say we can’t afford extra NHS funding). They don’t want you to think of Amazon, which has been shameless in its abuse of employment rights and tax regulations. And then there’s Rupert Murdoch, who has been allowed to do more or less as he likes because of his ownership of four national newspapers. Ed Miliband has so far been very bold in making that point, but the attacks on him from those with interests in this rotten section of the business world are only going to get fiercer as polling day approaches.

As the attacks intensify, Labour must not waver. Some figures from the old days of New Labour have called for ‘concessions’ and a more moderate tone. In other words, they call for abandonment of some of the more radical proposals. I think that would be a huge mistake.

British politics today is a world away from the scene that existed 20 or even 10 years ago. Today, the electorate has become tired of leaders who are too scared to act to end injustices inflicted by the wealthy and the powerful. It is all too easy to criticise the problems created by modern capitalism. But empty words and bland generalisms will no longer cut it with the voters. They want a government that is not afraid to act. I hope Labour is bold enough to be that government.


Momentum Gathers Behind Citizen’s Income Policy

When Governments across the world are broke, and public hatred of the unemployed remains high, it seems like an odd time to float the idea of a Citizen’s Income. Yet the policy of the state paying a basic income to every citizen has become more popular than ever. Switzerland will hold a referendum on the policy this year; a citizens’ initiative is being held to force the EU to consider it; and the resurgent Green Party of England and Wales has adopted the idea as its flagship manifesto offering. The latter is particularly exciting, as the Greens are poised to eclipse the Liberal Democrats as the fourth most popular party in Britain.

But isn’t “paying for people just for being alive” (as critics brand the policy) an economic impossibility? How could the state afford to dish out £3,600 per year, the current level of Income Support benefit, to every citizen? Is a citizen’s income just a far-left daydream?

In Switzerland, economists and politicians agree that that a Citizen’s Income is viable. They only argue as to whether it is desirable, often on the grounds that people should not ‘get something for nothing’. I think that drawing profits from speculation in property, currency and shares might also be described as getting something for nothing, but that doesn’t seem to concern these people. And in any case, a Citizen’s Income is also useful in that it can drastically reduce the size of the welfare state: unemployment benefit, child benefit, the basic state pension, child benefit, student loans, and income support can all be reduced or abolished altogether, something many right-wingers have been dreaming about since the welfare state came into existence. Overall, a Citizen’s Income would render £171 billion worth of benefits and administration unnecessary, reducing the welfare state to as little as 30% of its current size.

In order to calculate the costs of a Citizen’s Income, its UK supporters have proposed the following rates:

  • £56.25 per week for under 18s. This would be paid to parents instead of Child Benefit and Child Tax Credit.
  • £56.25 per week for 18-24 year olds. This is equivalent to the ‘youth rates’ of key benefits like JSA.
  • £71.00 per week for 25-65 year olds, equivalent to standard rates of JSA and Income Support.
  • £142.00 per week for the over 65s, identical to the flat rate state pension that is being introduced anyway.

Together with £3 billion a year for running costs and administration, the total costs would be £261 billion- a net cost of just £90 billion per year.

OK, there’s no ‘just’ about £90 billion, but it is a surprisingly low figure given how ambitious the scheme is. That money could then be found with surprising ease: by abolishing the Personal Allowance and 0% National Insurance bands altogether, meaning that workers would pay normal tax rates from the very first pound they earned. Ordinarily, that would be a hugely regressive move: the Personal Allowance exists to mitigate the benefits trap. As means-tested benefits are withdrawn quite sharply as one’s earnings increase, it has been known for some people to be better off on benefits than working with a low income and benefits ‘top up’. By removing taxes on very low wages, and now with the ‘Universal Credit’ policymakers have aimed to make it worthwhile to work on very low wages. They have had very limited success.

Source: the Guardian

However, Citizen’s Income would immediately solve the benefits trap by ensuring that every extra pound earned through work would translate into 68p (after Income Tax and NI) in a worker’s pocket, as Citizen’s Income is not means tested. This also means that part-time work becomes a viable option for those who want it. Thus the Citizen’s Income empowers people to shape their careers around their needs, not those of a complex and often self-contradictory benefits system.

It has been argued that this financial freedom could be abused. Why would people work if they could live off the Citizen’s Income, which won’t be withdrawn for failure to find work? Won’t it be a magnet for immigrants? To the first, I would answer that it would be tough to survive on £71 per week in the long-run, as any JSA claimant could testify. True, there would be some who decide not to work, but they would not have a comfortable existence. And as previously explained, it would always be worthwhile to work: in a region of rural India where a Citizen’s Income was trialed: the employment rate actually rose. Also, a top-up unemployment benefit could be introduced to reward the unemployed who are seeking work. To the second, it should be noted that those supposed ‘benefits tourists’ with the determination to milk the system can do so already. All these tabloid reports of benefits tourists aren’t describing migrants sleeping on the street and being denied access to existing benefits! In any case, payment of the Citizen’s Income could, as the name suggests, be made conditional on British citizenship.

The Citizen’s Income is a revenue-neutral idea that could provide a substantial boost to low earners and sure up support for a welfare system based on solidarity and universality. The only barriers to its introduction are political, and not necessarily from right-wing opposition. Alaska, hardly a beacon of socialism, already operates a limited Citizen’s Dividend of around $1,000 per person per year from its sovereign wealth fund. All that would actually be needed to make the policy a reality is the opening of people’s minds.

For further reading, please see the Citizen’s Income Trust 2013 report. American readers may be interested in the Basic Income Guarantee Network.

A Wealth Tax in the UK?

Today, income inequality is so extreme that the interest alone on the accumulated wealth of the richest few exceeds the growth of many economies in which they live. In other words, by owning so much already, the rich are now absorbing all of the growth generated by many of the world’s leading economies, and more. It’s not even a case of active exploitation any more: the only way a multimillionaire could avoid perpetuating her/his build up of wealth is to stick her/his millions under a mattress. Or deposit it in Barclays. This is why economies with apparently healthy GDP figures, like the UK and US, are delivering rising living standards only to a tiny minority.

The Simpson’s Mr Burns on wealth inequality

Logically speaking, the only way to end this spiral into virtual feudalism is to redistribute not only income (as inequality of wealth is now so great) but also wealth too. That was relatively easy from the 1940s to the 1970s. But in today’s globalised society, wealth redistribution through the tax system- when capital is highly mobile and capable of skipping between competing tax regimes- is easier said than done. It’s not even easily said when the majority of politicians (but fewer and fewer economists) are attempting to ignore the issue.

The Green Party has proposed that Britain follow France, Norway and the Netherlands, and introduce its first tax on accumulated wealth, rather than income. The “Wealth” or “Solidarity” Tax would apply to all British residents with assets (of any kind) worth £3 million or more. The rate would vary (it would presumably be banded) between 1% and 2% per year. Green Party policymakers estimate revenues of £21.5 billion and £43 billion- greater than the entire transport and defence budgets respectively.

I think the idea deserves consideration, even if a 2% wealth tax is quite steep for a medium-sized economy to pursue without international co-ordination. Although I don’t hold with the notion that tax rates must fall through the floor or the wealthy and talented will leave the country, there are limits to practicable tax rates. Without exchange controls or an internationally co-ordinated wealth tax rate, we’ll find that there would be little wealth left in the UK to be taxed at 2%.

Not that a wealth tax itself is an impossibility. The Netherlands, for example, has a marginal top rate of Income Tax of 52% and levies a wealth tax of 1.2% on all investments above €21,400. While this is quite heavy, the Netherlands is seen as one of the most “business friendly” (a phrase which is often code for “anti-worker” and “pro-inequality”) economies on Earth. Assuming that Britain could raise even £10 billion a year with a similar rate, one in eight pounds of planned spending cuts could be cancelled altogether.

Not that the policy has any significant prospect of fruition. The most influence the Greens could yield in the next parliament is as a band of two or three MPs negotiating with a minority Labour government. The list of policy concessions made by Labour would not be long.

Farage: Pay Me More When I’m an MP

For a supposedly ‘anti-Establishment’ figure, UKIP leader Nigel Farage says and does a lot of things that exemplify Establishment life and opinion. He attended an elite private school; attained substantial wealth as a stockbroker; and was (until very recently) a proponent of a flat rate of income tax- a move that would see upper class high-earners like him save thousands of pounds at the expense of Minimum Wage earners. The latest proposal this self-styled ‘man of the people’ has bestowed on the world is that British MPs should be given a 50% pay rise if Britain withdraws from the EU.

At the same time, Mr Farage said that he would announce later this month which Kent constituency he will run for Parliament in next year’s General Election.

So at least he would be in Westminster just in time to receive his proposed £100,000 salary.

To be fair, there is some basis to Farage’s argument, even if it is transparently self-interested. He pointed out that headteachers and GPs often earn around the £100,000 mark, so MPs pay should match, given that they perform similarly important public services. On this matter, Farage is in rare agreement with the late firebrand trade unionist, Bob Crow, who said in an interview that working class youths would only aspire to a Parliamentary career if it paid as well as other ‘successful’ careers. I have some sympathy with this view, but it raises the problem of an even more privileged clique of MPs becoming further removed from the economic realities that face the 98.5% of their constituents who earn less than them.

As for Farage’s claim that MPs should be paid more upon Britain’s withdrawal from the EU because then Parliament would “actually [run] this country”: it’s nonsense. The workload and powers of MPs would hardly increase in practice. This is because all EU laws and directives have to be ratified, and corresponding legislation passed, by national parliaments anyway. Moreover, a Select Committee exists for the specific purpose of scrutinising EU law (meaning Parliament already scrutinises all EU law). Admittedly, that Committee is packed with ‘anti-Europe’ figures who provide minimal scrutiny, but the function nevertheless exists.

In short, MPs would do the same work: the only change they would notice is that the legislation they worked on all originated from domestic sources.

Farage’s future constituents in Kent wouldn’t want to give MPs a 50% pay rise for doing exactly the same work.

Official: It’s “Perfectly Legitimate” to Discriminate Against Benefits Claimants

An individual private business will make commercial decisions. If they actually decide they don’t want to have somebody on housing benefit in the future, that’s a perfectly legitimate thing for them to do.

Kris Hopkins MP (Con)

Kris Hopkins, Minister for Housing, gave an interview to the BBC’s Panorama programme last night in which he defended the blanket bans on, and evictions of, tenants claiming Housing Benefit (HB) by private landlords. Under the Coalition’s cuts to the benefit, payments are capped and now go into tenants’ bank accounts rather than directly to the landlords.  Unsurprisingly, this has led to some tenants falling behind on their rent, which has led to the exclusion of all HB claimants from much of the private rented sector.

Who’d claim Housing Benefit these days? Between crude caps that exclude you from half of the country; heartless property barons arbitrarily making you homeless; and ministers endorsing your treatment as a second class citizen, you’d only ask for state help if you absolutely had to. (Err, wait a second…)

It’s inevitable that landlords will only rent to people who can afford the property. That is “legitimate”, and it is up to government to expand the social housing sector to ensure that the poor are adequately housed. However, the exclusion of anybody who receives Housing Benefit from a property is not a valid business practice. Although those on HB are, by definition, poor, the majority are perfectly capable of setting aside the money for rent. Even when seriously hard-up, most tenants will prioritise rent above all other expenses up to food. That’s because keeping a roof over one’s head is much more important than keeping bailiffs from taking the sofa.

I must say, Coalition policy about HB reveals a lot about their attitude. The cuts to the benefit were not about hitting the “scroungers” to support “hardworking families”, whatever the Tory rhetoric was. The majority of HB claimants are in work. No, this is an old-fashioned campaign to attack the poor, regardless of their employment status.

Whilst it is not impossible for a family on HB to find a home to rent, it is becoming more difficult. Look online at a rentals website, or in the property section of a local paper (if you’ve still got one) and many adverts will say “Sorry no DHSS”. This is infuriating on two counts. Not only is there the social exclusion of benefits claimants, often the working poor, but there is the term. If the landlords were that “sorry” they wouldn’t impose that particular condition. Much the same principle applied when the “no Blacks, no Irish” caveats were ubiquitous before the 1960s. (Also, the DHSS, or Department for Health and Social Security, which used to pay out HB, hasn’t existed since 1988. I know it’s a petty complaint, but I think people should get their facts straight.)

Anyway, a number of those receiving HB are pensioners or disabled. Is the Minister for Housing seriously supporting discrimination against those who, for perfectly “legitimate” reasons, do not earn their own income?

I don’t like to think the worst of people, but there’s little to suggest Hopkins is concerned by the injustices he has helped to create. If he was, these “no DHSS” polices would be banned.

Hands Off Our Charities

Just when you think that the Coalition’s attitude and policies on welfare cannot get any worse, they manage to surprise you with something even more horrible.

Now some parts of the Government are attacking charities.

In the past week, we learned that a “senior aide” to (Work and Pensions Secretary) Ian Duncan Smith threatened the head of Trussell Trust that his charity could be “shut down” for its supposed political opposition to the Government. Trussell Trust runs most of Britain’s foodbanks, whichhave now sprung up in almost every town in the country.

This comes hot on the heels of a successful call by a Tory MP, Connor Burns, for the Charity Commission to investigate Oxfam for a poster warning about the “perfect storm” of economic conditions and benefit cuts and the consequential surge in poverty in the UK. Burns said that Oxfam was guilty of partisan campaigning. Oxfam countered that discussing poverty “should not be a party political issue”.

It is disappointing that the Conservative Party, having done much to demolish the invaluable Welfare State in the past four years, now appears to be turning on the organisations which fill in the gaps left by their policy programme. If the foodbanks weren’t there, we’d be faced with a growth in crime as desperate families sought to feed their children. Or worse, we’d be faced with a surge in homelessness or even starvation. So it’s fortunate that there are no serious moves by the government to impede the work of foodbanks. However, the hostility towards them has been amply demonstrated in the past, with ministers refusing to accept EU aid for foodbanks.

My understanding of the classical right-wing view of the welfare system is that it should be run by charities, funded by donations rather than taxation. To that end, many Tories have worked well with charities. Whatever you think of the idea, at least they are consistent in their approach. Unfortunately, their representatives in the Government seem to be hostile towards both the state and charities.

Courtesy of “Downtowngal” under Creative Commons license

If it is alleged partisanship by the charity sector that annoys the Coalition, their anger is unjustified. Oxfam would campaign against poverty-inflicting measures if it was a Labour government imposing them. The same applies for a UKIP or Monster Raving Loony government, for that matter. All that these charities have pointed out is that poverty is on the rise, and certain decisions by the Government have contributed to it. Yes, it’s political. Charities are political; their very existence says that there is a need the rest of society is not fulfilling. However, it is not party political.

Do Conservative MPs want to intimidate charities into keeping quiet about the hardship that is befalling so many people? Even if they can, that won’t blinker the public. The signs are everywhere, visible to all without the need for campaigns, studies or statistics. For example, I’ve noticed that there are many more homeless people on the streets.  It is now rare to go a day without coming across somebody lying on the pavement in a pile of dirty blankets, totally cut off from the rest of society. I don’t know if this is a widespread phenomenon, but authorities have responded with cuts to emergency housing services; studs on the ground to deter rough sleepers; the removal of streetside benches; and the infamous Bedroom Tax to price people out of social housing. And homelessness is just one symptom of a sick society which is neglecting its people.

The public will notice increased rough sleeping; the opening of a local foodbank; and the anecdotes about people living in crumbling flats. They don’t need it pointed out to them. So proponents of the ‘austerity agenda’ shouldn’t worry about the public learning of the new social problems Britain is imposing on itself. They should focus on ensuring that the public don’t care. It can be done: remember how easy it was to turn the welfare system into a toxic issue? And that is what the rest of us must guard against.

If Rent Caps Are “Venezuelan”, Call Me Chavez

The Labour Party has launched its campaign for the local and European elections (to be held in 20 days’ time)… With proposals for national legislation. Setting aside the implicit dropping of even the pretence that local elections should be about local issues, it marks the first recognition of the millions of homerenters who have had such a raw deal since the deregulation of 1988 and the post-2000 housing cost explosion.

Ed Miliband is proposing that the standard 12-month contract that exists in the private rented sector (PRS) be replaced with a 36-month one, in which rents may only be increased annually and subject to a cap based on the average rent change. Given that about 75% of rented houses that would make up that average would be capped according to said average, there is the risk of distortion. Anyhow, these caps and longer contracts would be complemented by a ban on letting agents’ fees, eliminating the £500 fee tenants usually have to pay for the privilege of being ripped off.

Although these proposals do not constitute the full state intervention and rent caps which are required in the housing market, they are the first big improvements in the PRS seen in generations. The needs of Britain’s nine million renters are finally getting the political attention they deserve. This has terrified interests which have made a fortune from the rip-off rentals sector: letting agents, landlords’ associations and the Conservative Party have accused Labour of planning to wreck the housing market, of economic illiteracy and of perusing “Venezuelan” socialism. Of course, One Nation Labour’s brand of neoliberalism-tainted socialism is not even in the same postcode as the “Bolivarian” or “21st century” ideology of Hugo Chavez and Co.

But the tiny elite of landlords, banksters and Tories should be wary of moderate reforms which slow their accumulation of obscene unearned wealth. If public anger with their perpetual exploitation grows, they’re going to want more than controlled rises on already expensive rents, for example.

Although the transformation of the PRS is still a long way off: proper security of tenure; Living Rents; restricting buy-to-let; eliminating amateur landlords; and non-profit market leaders are all absent from Labour’s reforms, we’re still lightyears ahead of the total ignoring of the PRS of which the political class is guilty.

This is a great start.

A Rational Perspective on Equality

Most societies, particularly in the West, have become more open and equal over the past century. Sometimes we forget just how much. The youth of today have grown up in a culture where, by and large, the concept of government or ‘respectable’ society discriminating against anybody on the grounds of their gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation is virtually unheard of. A whole generation has emerged to which the idea of a black President, or a woman CEO is entirely normal. It seems almost incomprehensible that things should ever have been different. In the UK, women are likely to be allowed to serve in the army on the frontline for the first time in history.

That fact is an indicator of how rapidly the world has moved forward in just a decade or so.

This is not to say that equality has been achieved: far from it. In the UK and the US, women are on average payed around one-fifth less than their male counterparts. Our culture has been polluted with a serious ‘pornification’ trend, with which advertisers and the media are complicit (how a disgusting book like Fifty Shades of Grey became an acceptable part of mainstream culture is beyond me). Meanwhile, homophobia and racism still exists in our schools and beyond. Gender stereotypes still impose roles on each gender, leading to unenlightened policies like the victimisation of Grayson Bruce, a North Carolina schoolboy who was banned from carrying a ‘My Little Pony’ lunchbox.

Work still needs to be done if we are to achieve total equality. Much of it is cultural, and cannot be legislated away. For example, the “Ban Bossy” campaign, which argues that the application of the word bossy to young girls discourages them from pursuing leadership roles in society, will only succeed if the public accept their message, not parliaments. In some countries, there have been moves to accelerate the advancement of historically disadvantaged groups through “affirmative action” or “positive discrimination”. In the UK, most positive discrimination policies exist to promote women (unlike the US, which often has measures to promote ethnic minorities).

In the Labour Party, we have All Woman Shortlists, which means that the leadership of the party has, since the 1990s, instructed a proportion of local Labour parties which have a ‘reasnoable’ chance of getting their prospective parliamentary candidate (PPC) elected that they can only select a woman as their PPC. The policy has been incredibly successful, with Labour a lot closer to attaining a gender balance in Parliament than other parties. Furthermore, in Young Labour, there are provisions that male candidates are excluded for key roles every other term.


At the risk of sounding controversial, I do not support positive discrimination. At least, not in general.

Discrimination is discrimination, and two wrongs do not make a right. I am a strong supporter of equality, and that means that everybody should have an equal chance. What positive discrimination means is that those groups who were not historically subject to discrimination now stand less chance than those who were. In Young Labour, a man can only stand for Chair in one out of every two terms, but a woman can stand in any term. I recall last year’s London Young Labour Conference, where there was vigorous competition for seats on the executive committee by the males, but any female who stood automatically won a seat because of the quota. That can’t be good for democracy.

If we believe in real fairness, we should be seeking balance rather than discrimination. For example, rather than imposing quotas for 40% of members of a company’s board to be women, as is being proposed by the European Union, why not require boards to comprise 50% women and 50% men. Some women object to quotas on the grounds that they want to win that promotion, or that seat on the committee on their own merit. They could hardly feel patronised by quotas if men were subject to the exact same rules.

I accept that my view is controversial, but I feel that equality cuts both ways. The only role positive discrimination has is at most a transitional one, until there is no need to artificially adjust each group’s prospects. As an ardent feminist, I think the fight for gender equality can only be considered truly won when there is no difference at all in how men and women are treated.

AMP Radio Incinerates $5,000

CBC has reported that a Canadian radio station burned CA$5,000 (£2,700) as part of a competition to promote the station.

AMP started the contest last Tuesday, calling it “the ultimate social experiment.” All listeners who voted would be entered into a draw for the $5,000. If “Bank” won the vote, one name would be drawn to get the money. If “Burn” prevailed, well, the cash would go up in smoke.

Listeners were invited to vote by tweeting the station with the hashtags #Bank or #Burn. Some 54% voted to burn the money, an option that the station explained worked on the premise that “If you aren’t guaranteed to win, why should anyone else?”. The station proceeded to post a video of the money being burned in a crematorium.

Unsurprisingly,  the move has provoked a massive outcry. To burn money at all, let alone such a large amount of it, is absolutely reprehensible: if one needs money so little that you feel able to burn it, then there are billions of people who need it more than you do. They only acceptable course of action in that case is to ensure that the money goes to some of them. There is no difference between taking a match to legal tender and deliberately depriving the homeless person you walk past on the way to work of blankets.

What is also disturbing about this competition is the rather vindictive principle behind it. The competition did not constitute gambling- it didn’t cost anything to enter- but the majority of entrants decided to deny others the prospect of winning (and throw away their own chance in the process). Not only is that entirely irrational, it’s nasty. Certainly, nobody deserves to have $5,000 fall into their lap, but that doesn’t warrant throwing away the money. Of course, my socialist instinct would be to give all the entrants $1, or to give them all 50 cents and donate half the money to charitable causes- although there are obvious practical arguments against that!

If there is good fortune to be had, somebody may as well have it. But the Twitter-dwellers who voted to burn the money are not to be blamed- however illogical 54% of them were. The organisation which presented them with this false choice is wholly liable for this ethical offence. AMP Radio went about creating publicity for itself in what was undoubtedly a novel way, and it has succeeded. They say that “all publicity is good publicity”. I doubt that. I think that having millions of people condemn an organisation is bad for its long-term interests.

Corporate America and Religion

Are corporations entitled to religious freedoms? Are they capable of being religious at all?

The US Supreme Court is to consider a case brought by two Christian-owned businesses, Hobby Lobby (equivalent to Britain’s Hobbycraft) and Conestoga Wood
(a cabinetmaker), are pleading exemption from part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) on the grounds that they have  exemptions under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood argue that provisions in ACA forcing them to fund contraceptive healthcare for their employees breaches the businesses’ “religious freedom”. In order to shirk their responsibility to their employees, they are citing existing exemptions that exist for churches and RFRA, a 1993 Act passed to protect Native American individuals.

Of course, this illustrates the flaws of the US model of healthcare funding, however much of a step forward Obamacare is. As long as employers are directly liable for their employees’ medical treatment, they will have an incentive to wriggle out of as many costs as possible. And now, it seems, some employers will try to impose their morals on others. In the unlikely event that the US moved towards an NHS-style single payer healthcare system, these questions would be irrelevant. The employers would pay a simple, standard levy, everybody would have comprehensive health coverage and that would be that. Unfortunately, this is daydream material: such a system is a long way off being implemented in the US.

The idea that corporations are entitled to the same religious freedoms as people is ridiculous, and you would think the courts would agree. But let’s remember we’re taking about a legal world in which corporations are regarded as people. All an organisation can ever really be is a concept: an artificial construct created to regulate and control the activities of certain people at certain times to produce some benefit for some other people. In other words, a corporation is the sum of its employees’ labour. But the mistake that Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood have made is to fail to distinguish between owners and the owned entity. When owners incorporate a business, the state grants both certain privileges. The biggest of those being that the corporation can transfer assets to the owner, but never liabilities (not without the owner’s agreement, anyway). But business owners cannot have their cake and eat it: the flip side of this detachment from their corporation is that it is no longer their personal fiefdom. They must take into account other factors in their business.

What right do these owners have to dictate how their corporations’ employees live? That is what they are doing, by accepting their obligation to provide healthcare to their employees, but dictating which treatments they will pay for on the basis of their own moral standards. If the owner of Hobby Lobby is unhappy with “her/his” (actually Hobby Lobby’s) money being used to provide contraceptives to others, then they shouldn’t employ anybody. Even then, some of the money they pay in business taxes will pay government employees’ wages, which they are able to spend on contraceptives, pornography… Almost anything they like. Is Hobby Lobby going to plead exemption from paying taxes as well?

Let’s see what the Supreme Court has to say.