Yesterday in the UK, large numbers of public sector workers went on strike to protest about the changes that the government wants to make to their pensions. I was catching up with this by watching Newsnight, and a peculiar rhetoricical tactic became apparent from the government representative. Apparently unrelated to this, I have recently started what I hope will be a fruitful collaboration with a pure mathematician. In a meeting the other day, I was struck once again by the different prism through which mathematicians see the world, apparent through the questions that my colleague asks about ecological phenomena.
In the spirit of seeing things mathematically, I thought I would have a go at applying some basic set theory to the Newsnight debate. Well, that’s probably a little too grand – basically, I’ve produced a pair of Venn diagrams.
This first diagram represents government rhetoric: it is unfair for the generous public sector pensions to be funded by taxpayers (implicitly: public sector workers ⊄ taxpayers). And more specifically, those who suffer most during the strikes – especially those by teachers – are that (tautological, as I am now acutely aware) demographic most beloved of politicians of all stripes: ‘hard-working parents’ (i.e., teachers ⊄ hard-working parents).
In reality, of course all public sector workers are also taxpayers (in fact, about 20% of those working in the UK are public sector employees; PDF of the Office for National Statistics source for this here). And do you know what? Plenty of public sector employees are also parents. Some of these are even – shock! – teachers. And I don’t doubt that at least a few of these work hard. (NB – the incomplete union of hard-working parents with taxpayers is intentional, but more to capture the cash economy than the wealthy tax dodgers!)
I don’t pretend to understand pensions, I can barely muster the interest to open the annual statements I get regarding mine, and certainly I’m not in a position to offer any kind of analysis over whether we really are heading for a crisis that can only be averted by making us all work longer for a lower pension at the end. But, setting up false dichotomies to make political points ought not to pass without challenge.
And with that – I’m off on my hols!