9 december 2013, everyone's a winner

The derivation of policy from short-term political imperative has a long and (ig)noble history, but there does seem to be a bit of an english wave at the moment, from benefits cuts achieving no savings, to free school dinners for those of a certain age, to energy bill cuts (or freezes). Proving all those training courses wrong, there will shortly be such thing as a free lunch, providing you are under 7, but not if you are 8 and your parent(s) can't afford it. In a similar vein, the strong incentive that rising fuel bills gives to people to radically reduce their energy use, through technology and culture change, has created two big problems. One is fuel poverty, for those who can't afford to heat their homes, the second large profits for big energy companies. Policies to address this might include a targeted subsidy for the former, and windfall taxes for the latter. Instead, £50 will simply be wiped off everyone's bill, paid for by all taxpayers, regardless of energy use. This seems designed, as does the opposition's rather wobbly price freeze, to make everyone a winner (including those 5-7 year olds' mondeo mums). However, an important side-effect is undermining the incentive framework behind reducing energy usage, just as it begins to bite. Harder to crack is the country's ever-rising benefits bill, but here's one left-field idea that just, might (go on) be worth consideration. Forget universal credit, think universal income. The swiss are soon to vote on giving every adult about £1,700 a month. Crazy ? By giving absolutely everyone the minimum needed to live (deemed in the uk about £5,000 a year), this would at once remove the whole need for most of a complex benefits system and bureacracy whose latest venture (and there are many) wasted £140m on a failed IT project. Given the uk's working age population, this would cost some £200bn - not a billion miles from the current benefit budget of £135bn, of which around 5% is bureaucracy. Once you're paid anyway, all the incentives are to work, at whatever level, to increase your income. OK, there are a very many unknowns and approximations to work through, but this might just be one radical policy prescription that hits the precious political expedient of making everyone a winner.