Saturday, October 06, 2007

Unity on Marriage

Unity's post attacking the IDS-Cameron position on marriage consists of four arguments and one little aside about the Conservative Party.

Argument no. 1: LATs are benefit fraudsters and don't deserve to be rewarded.
Argument no. 2: The success of lesbian families undermines the importance to children of a father.
Argument no. 3: Selection bias is the cause of marriages being more stable than cohabitation.
Argument no. 4: Not all married couples have children.

Aside: The Conservatives are trying to pretend that they're a modern party but they're too old.

I hope if I've mischaracterised or misunderstood any of these arguments Unity will correct me but his was quite a long post so I've had to boil it down a little. I'll try to reintroduce some of the complexity in his ideas as we go along.

I'll deal with the aside first:

"Oh, and as a snarky aside, does anyone else think that Cameron’s efforts to put himself and the Tory Party across as young, fresh and modern were made to appear rather hollow every time the TV coverage - I did catch odd bits of it - cut away to from the speaker to show them addressing an audience that looked for all the world like a Darby and Joan club outing to an Old-Time Music Hall Show? That’s the trouble with Tory conferences, no matter how hard they try to project an image of modernity it all falls flat because most of the rank and file make the auditorium look like god’s waiting room."

I haven't seen enough of the other conferences to be able to make a comparison but Matthew Parris has. While he is a Conservative I think his days of blind partisan loyalty are over, if such loyalty ever really existed, and this analysis can be trusted in the absence of another estimate:

"Mind you, it’s not just me: these Tories really are getting younger. I conduct an informal grey-heads count at all three party conferences these days, and this year the oldest conference was indisputably the Liberal Democrats. Either the Tories are getting younger or the ones we used to see are now so ancient that they’ve stopped coming; but there’s no doubt that the Conservative representatives of 2007, if not in the first flush of youth, are at least young enough to find it worth tinting their roots."

All parties are ageing. My understanding is that fewer young people support the Conservatives but that within the 0.001% of each party's support that are activists (and might go to conference) the Conservatives actually have, if anything, more relatively young people. Look at university Conservative Associations - they're usually pretty large compared to the other major parties.

On 'Living Apart Together' Unity misrepresents Cameron. When he cited that particular phenomenon it wasn't an attempt to excuse the 'LATs'. Instead, the LATs are practical examples that suggest something is going wrong in the benefits system for some people (even if there is a mistake in Frank Field's particular calculations). You don't have to think that it is morally acceptable to cheat on benefits to think that a system where cheaters cheat by pretending to live apart must be poorly constructed.

The existence of the LATs suggests that a combination of the benefits system and potential punishment for benefit fraud (plus, for a precious few, a good old fashioned respect for the law) will be incentivising others to genuinely live apart. The 'reward' Cameron talks about isn't for those committing benefit fraud but for couples that honestly stay together. The hope is that such a reward would encourage others to behave that way.

Next Unity moves on to attack Iain Duncan Smith's report and its emphasis on marriage. I do agree with Unity that the Social Justice reports gets civil partnerships wrong and I don't think that they undermine heterosexual marriage. It seems quite possible they do exactly the opposite.

However, I don't think the success of lesbian couples is nearly as important to an analysis of marriage as Unity makes it out to be. The number of lesbian couples bringing up children is, I would expect, pretty small and those doing so probably have a lot else going for them. I am glad that they can do well but they are too small and unrepresentative a group to take meaningful lessons from that can be applied to the rest of society.

In particular, my simple knowledge of these things suggests that one of the lesbians will often take on a more masculine role within the family which may decrease the importance of the lack of an actual man. Single mothers cannot take both gender roles. Another, probably more important, difference could be that the children in a lesbian family will more often have a father who has not deserted and is still ready and able to play a helpful part in the child's life. A lesbian family is less likely to have been caused by a deserting father than a single parent family. Finally, for a lesbian couple to look after a child is still sufficiently rare that lesbians doing so will have known, when they decided to become lesbian parents, that they were taking on an exceptional challenge. This raises a selection bias of the sort that Unity makes much of later in his piece.

The success of lesbian families is not sufficient evidence to undermine the importance of a male presence in the family and even if it was absent fathers would still be a big problem. Absent fathers - the lack of a stable heterosexual relationship - are in most cases inseperable from single parent families. These face very real problems that Unity acknowledges.

Finally, Unity discusses selection bias and makes the case that it is the main cause of the superior stability of married families. The "social/behavioural changes over the last forty years" that he posits as another factor to explain's marriage's success alongside selection bias only seem relevant in that they might make the selection bias stronger over time if people are increasingly getting married because of genuine, rather than socially forced, commitment. As marriages were, in fact, more durable during the days of the 'shotgun wedding' it certainly doesn't suggest that marriage only encourages stability if it takes place for the right reasons.

Unity doesn't have any real evidence that "in reality most, if not all of the seeming statistical advantages of marriage over cohabitation, in terms of longevity of relationship and likelihood of a couple staying together, can be accounted for by self selection effects and social/behavioural changes over the last forty years."

The closest he comes is an Austrian example:

"Recognising’ marriage in the tax system through an additional tax allowance, effectively a financial incentive to marry, may well induce more couples to marry in the short term but over the medium to long term it is likely to prove counter-productive in the sense that any increase in the number getting married will be offset by a rise in the divorce rate. This is exactly what happened in Austria during the 1970s and early 80s, when the Austrian government responded to concerns about the country’s declining marriage rate by introducing a a modest cash incentive payable to couples entering their first marriage to assist with setting up home together.

This did have the effect of increasing, in the short term, the number of marriages - although only sufficiently to slow the overall decline in the marriage rate and not cause the trend to turn upwards, both on the introduction of the incentive and in the final few months (in 1982) between the announcement that it would be withdrawn and its actual withdrawal, as people married to take advantage on the financial incentive on offer. In between these two ’spikes’, the net effect of the incentive settled on the lowest age group (16-20), where the incentive was perceived to give rise to the greatest benefit by those taking up the government’s offer.

This would be all well and good were it not for the fact that the effect of propelling couples into marriage in order to obtain the incentive offered by the government led, predictably, to a significant rise in the divorce rate, especially amongst those marrying while under the age of 20 during the period in which the incentive was in effect."

It seems interesting but, just like the successful lesbian families, Unity builds a house of cards around it. That more marriages will lead to more divorces is almost a truism - "how many?" is the important question. Most under twenty relationships do not last very long. Did those who got married in response to the subsidy stay together longer, on average, than they would have without the subsidy? If we cannot work that out we cannot say anything about whether getting married has made their relationships more stable or not.

The problems with the Austrian system would seem to be due to a poor policy design. An ongoing tax credit like IDS has proposed seems more sensible than a lump sum subsidy. That will be there to encourage people to stay married, at the margin, as well as to encourage them to get married in the first place. It will also have less attraction to under twenties who are not starting a family and whose relationships we have less of a stake in as a society.

It's very hard to disentangle with the data quite why marriage is more stable than cohabitation. There would seem to be a series of quite plausible explanations of why encouraging marriage might encourage more stable relationships. Three examples:

1) By promoting marriage you send political signals (politics isn't all about direct policy levers) that your society values commitment. You can increasingly socialise an understanding that commitment, particularly to your family, is a good thing.

2) Ending a marriage is, ceteris paribus, a bigger step than ending a cohabitation. Relationships do sometimes end for transient reasons and both partners are, in the medium term, sometimes worse off for not staying together. While some relationships do need to end it is a good thing if people err on the side of staying together.

3) There is a public commitment at marriage that can bind people together. This is a hard one to explain but, at least to me, intuitively obvious when you see people getting married. The character of their commitment does change and become something more substantial.

In the absence of data sufficient to make the decision for us my judgement is that these two goods are more than worth what IDS and Cameron aim to spend on them.

Much of any spending on a married couples allowance will go to couples without children as Unity describes. I would actually prefer a "married with dependent children" allowance to better target the group where there is the biggest public benefit to stable relationships. However, the difference isn't as important as Unity makes out. Stable relationships before people have children will make children, when they do arrive, better off and might also encourage more children - something I would take as good although it's probably not worth starting the huge debate around demographics. Equally, parents are still important to their children after they have fled the nest. Parental support becomes less essential but remains very valuable.

All in all, while I'm glad Unity is engaging with this debate I don't think he has made the emphatic case against the IDS-Cameron agenda on marriage that he thinks he has.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Once Upon a Time in the West

I just finished watching Once Upon a Time in the West.

It's a great film, full of style and pathos. An anonymous hero, 'Harmonica', and a good hearted bandit, Cheyenne, battle Frank - initially a hired gun of a railway magnate but later his own man. Jill, newly widowed ex-prostitute and owner of a piece of land that the railway can make valuable, provides an anchor for these characters to swirl around in their search for wealth or revenge.

I heard in it a lament for a wilderness lost. While the heroes and villains battle with such ferocity their world is being undone by the steady advance of the railway, and civilisation. While the railway magnate, Morton, is a cripple any of the heroes can crush beneath their feet his world is the future and that of the heroes inexorably retreating into the past.

I'm not an expert on Westerns, and it is quite possible I have misread Once Upon a Time in the West itself, but I almost wonder if you can draw broader lessons about the appeal of the Western from this analysis. They provide Americans with access to a time where theirs' was a wild and empty continent. Historical films focussing on the medieval period can provide Europeans with a similar link to a rawer past more in touch with their pagan roots. For all the glories and comforts of civilisation we need to remember when life had harder edges. If we forget there is a horrible danger that we will be left with the soul of a bureaucrat; weak and fearful.

Update: Edmund & Henry have pointed out that my final sentence wasn't right.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007


I had grown accustomed to thinking that talk of Britain's declining seaside resorts was a product of unjustified pessimism. Go to a Norfolk resort like Hunstanton or an Essex one like Frinton and you'll see no lack of visitors. I've been in Hunstanton a few times way off-season and it still seemed alive, in-season it is packed. Good, less anecdotal, evidence for this is the mushrooming value of beach huts at these resorts.

I would guess that the rising population and affluence of areas within driving distance of these resorts (the rich South of England) has been enough to offset the increasing availability of foreign holidays. There are both more people and most are combining flying to the sun with a trip in the UK. Faced with a choice between Mallorca and Norfolk consumers have chosen both.

Blackpool, which I saw for the first time over the last few days, is rather different. It is a very sad city. There are hundreds of restaurants promising "burgers, kebabs and pizza" but almost none that offer an even moderate quality meal (the Indian restaurant Jali is a superb exception). There are some beautiful buildings left but I'd say roughly 80% of Blackpool's building stock needs almost total renovation or demolition. The famous Illuminations look cheap - like a small and rather tasteless town left their Christmas lights on. There is a strip club on the sea-front. While this might be commercially successful it suggests utter desperation for an area that, if it wants to be really successful, needs to attract families. The Winter Gardens are remarkable but seem like a relic from another age without a cultural scene to sustain them. While I was there the event being advertised at the Opera House, and the most famous name I saw in all the adverts for acts in Blackpool within the next few months, was Roy Chubby Brown.

Next year the conference moves to Birmingham. Birmingham is less pretentious than Manchester but I actually find it far more interesting. It has an energy to its private sector and was, a few years ago when I last spent a lot of time there, going through a construction boom with shiny new hotels and towers all around. The renaissance is still overly concentrated in the city centre but that is a fairly natural place to begin. It felt far more like a second city to me than Manchester ever has. Replacing the faded glamour of Blackpool with the energetic bustle of central Birmingham would be a great symbolic change for the party. It also makes electoral sense given the number of marginal seats around the West Midlands.

I was glad I saw Blackpool. I spend most of my time in either central London or the Home Counties and it is important to see the depth of the challenges other parts of the country face. Still, I'd rather see Birmingham where the Brummies are working to overcome their city's problems than Blackpool that seems lost in hopelessness.

On my last night in Blackpool I was walking from the Winter Gardens to the Jali restaurant next to the Imperial hotel where most nights at the conference ended. An old man stopped me in the street and asked when the conference would be ending. I answered that it would be in the early afternoon the following day. His response, expressed in tones that weren't quite rude, "Don't vote to come here again. Nothing but an inconvenience". He might have been a lonely groucher but I'm not sure. It seems possible to me that Blackpool's residents actually resent a rare injection of money into local businesses in desperate need of custom. Become sufficiently accustomed to failure and rare moments of success can feel like a disruption.

Back from conference

I'm back from my first Conservative party conference. It was quite the experience, a fun few days. Apologies for my absence.