The Overton Window

Talk to anyone of a similar generation to the sadly departed UK’s Duke of Edinburgh (husband & consort of HRH Queen Elizabeth) and they bemoan the lack of quality in the political ruling class we seem to have these days. I’ve been fascinated by this generational comparison of politicians for quite a while & I conclude our elders have a point, a very strong point.

So what the heck has the Overton window got to do with all this? A quick recap – the overton window defines the concept of politicians announcing policies that are deemed acceptable to a mainstream population at a given time. Policies which fit within a window of acceptability such that the politician keeps his or her job or is re-elected rather than introduce policies which would actually work, make a difference or address a problem with creativity and bravery.

Troubling as this is, let’s now ladle on an even darker side to this concept – create debate about a story today to deflect attention from the long term all important story so that the people still believe freedom of speech is intact.  

I think the US philosopher, Noam Chomsky, put it best in 1998 ‘the smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion but allow a very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate’

Now let’s consider some current issues that exemplify where the ruling class encourages us to fiddle while Rome burns…

Property Planning Permission & Consents

In the UK and across the developed world, applications to build or develop are generally publicly announced and available online. Campaigners fixate on a specific application and try to gather local support for their opinion – normally negative. Town hall meetings are convened and strong views shared. Whatever the decision, the participants go home feeling at least they were heard.

The overton window was opened wide enough for lively debate on that one application. But the real issue at hand is hidden almost completely from view. In this case, the fact that many developed countries have a dire shortage of housing stock. Supply and demand are heavily out of kilter so prices have risen too high as a result and home ownership or rental contracts have become unattainable for too many people.

The only way through this is an aggressive new homes policy. This will drag down existing property values but open up home ownership to new generations. Politicians generally feel that this enters the ‘too controversial’ area of policy – they fear that by facing up to the problem publicly they will lose votes and support from the mainstream population who they believe will oppose almost any new development or, god forbid, a drop in the value of their own homes.

So what happens? Well, much less development goes on than is needed, debate is encouraged on the local not national issues and the problem gets kicked down the street. In the UK, this has been the status quo for around 40 years…and if you looked at a chart of house price increases; surprise, surprise the majority of gains experienced in the last 100 years have arrived in the last 40 whilst the number of people who can’t buy has gone up 1200%!

Instead of facing up to the need to build a lot of new homes, we encouraged misinformed local dissent as an outlet for people to feel heard. 

Most of us live in houses built since industrialisation and the rail networks arrived. Most of our cities, towns and villages have been developed in the last 150 years. Most of us have seen photos of the same area we live now but with fields and forests not ford cars and fresh coffee. We seem to be happy with the development that already happened (which was generally far more controversial) but somehow angry at a repeat of the same thing happening again even though this means there is nowhere for our children to live.  

That takes me onto the next & many would argue the most controversial examples of the overton window in practise. For this section of the blog I need to narrow my lens to the UK. For that I apologise to those of you lovely readers resident somewhere else.

Education

For those of you like me who have spent considerable time living and working overseas or educating your kids privately, you will recognise that a British state provided education is 2nd world at best and 3rd world in parts.  For those who haven’t experienced a comparative you may be forgiven for living under the assumption that the UK has a world class state provided education system. It doesn’t.

Ever since the 1980’s when the disparity of outcomes for 16 and 18 year olds became so far apart from European and global neighbours, successive UK governments have changed the examination systems to gather up a larger cohort of school leavers who depart with at least a semblance of decent grades.

This in no way means that their pastoral, communicative, sporting or creative education has improved at the same rate as seen elsewhere but the impression left by the exam results announced (and the singular focus of government upon them) makes it look that way. The overton window opened to allow public opinion to believe that by children gaining miraculously better results than their parents, somehow the system had been fixed when in fact the real issues remain and have grown.

Politicians count on the majority of Brits having no reference point overseas and therefore issues such as irrelevant rules & bureaucracy, teacher pay, school budgets, catchment area problems, lack of musical, creative and sporting opportunities are all allowed to continue…   

Health

If education is 2nd world then the last year has demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that the UK healthcare system is pretty much broken. British people were encouraged by government ministers to clap their hands for the NHS during the start of the lockdown in 2020.

This was the very definition of narrowing the spectrum of public opinion whilst the deep-rooted problems remained in the background. For reasons that you’ll read below, Governments for 2 generations have simply not been brave enough to face up to the people and address the simple fact that a service created in 1948 to offer accident and emergency coverage free at the point of care was never designed to be offering a cradle to grave panacea to an ever increasing shop window of ailments and diseases to an ever ageing population.

But, instead of sitting with the public and addressing the elephant in the room, the overton window debate was about waiting lists, nurse pay, junior doctor working hours, management structures. All relevant conversations I grant you, but hardly getting close to dealing with the main problem; that the NHS cannot possibly provide free at the point of care healthcare to 70million people for an average of 80 years per person.

Tax & Votes

And all of this leads me onto the really, really big ones – Tax & Votes. Tax lies at the very heart of the overton window con trick. I ask you to indulge me now for a few minutes.

Imagine a business that has millions of customers. One day the CEO issues a dictat that 80% of its customers will no longer need to pay for its products and services. On the same day, he announces that 20% of its customers must pay 5 or 10 times more for their products as they did the day before. Madness isn’t it and suicide for the business concerned. But, ladies and gentlemen that’s the UK tax system laid bare in front of you. The vast majority of the working population earning less than £38,000 a year (the average salary in the UK) pay virtually no tax whilst consuming almost all of the public services made available. I kid you not, there are tens of millions of people paying less than £10,000 per year of taxation who yet ‘demand’ the same access to public services as citizens who pay £100,000 a year or corporations paying £100m…

It is statistically accurate and common-place that a dual income family both earning the UK average income consume between 5 to 10 times as much value in public services every year as they pay for in tax. Simple maths tells us that this simply isn’t sustainable.      

Logically, when a country needs to raise more money, for example to bail itself out of a cataclysmically bad economic impact of lockdown, you might imagine it would go to the majority not the minority for the money. But, umm, no.

And here it is people – going to the majority would risk all the same votes that elected those leaders in the first place. Instead, let’s float some spurious stories about large corporations & ‘rich’ people who plan their tax burdens with precision within the law. Let’s start a debate about those people and raise public ire whilst hiding the real debate that the majority who really should be paying more don’t really pay much at all. When you think about it we’re conditioned aren’t we to imagine the very idea that the majority should pay much more, not the minority is unacceptable.

How crazy is that? Ever since the 1980’s, governments realised that by taking more and more people out of the tax net, votes were easy to win. Life-long republican, tory, right wing voters often state that as long their party stands for low taxes for the majority they will continue to vote as they always have. And yet, these voters have stood and watched as public services fail them, their children and their elderly year in, year out.  

So I want to complete the circle and return to the actions and views of our elders. Even as recently as the 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s western democracies were willing to take unpopular decisions for the greater good of their populations and even humanity per se.

Propaganda existed for sure but the big debates were placed into the open and the popular mainstream votes were risked at many times in these decades alone. We’ve lost this culture completely.  If the Overton window was really opened wide enough to address the problems we face then politicians know that their votes will be lost and their careers curtailed.

2020 stripped the thin veneer mask off so many parts of our lives and we have a duty now to protest, to march to be heard: to ensure our politicians finally fling that window open and collectively work with us to address and solve the issues which lie at the heart of the decline in so much of our daily lives.

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