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Lack of Political Courage

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From an interview to be published in the next issue of the ‘LRB’:

One of the most expensive programmes in France, the retirement system for railway workers, was established in the years after World War Two. Its powerful Communist trade union negotiated a very good deal, particularly for train drivers. They could retire at the age of 54 on full salary until their death. At the time it was a very reasonable deal. These men normally started working when they were 13, and they had been working on steam trains all their life, which was physically difficult and dangerous work. When they reached 54, they were exhausted. Their life expectancy after that was about eight years. The pension was therefore not all that expensive for the state. Today their sons and grandsons have the same deal. But they leave school at 16, they go to work on the TGVs, where they sit on comfortable chairs, air-conditioned in the summer, heated in the winter, and the most demanding thing they do is push a button; they retire at 54 on full salary and their life expectancy is another 24 years. It is now a ridiculously expensive programme. But it would take political courage to say: ‘Look, the circumstances have changed. We still believe you should retire on a good pension, but not at 54. We can do it at 64. You don’t like it? Get a different job.’ It is a politically difficult decision, but it’s not a sign that there is something wrong with the principle of the social-welfare state. What makes it a problem is the lack of political courage. The reason it was affordable for so long is that Europe was incredibly wealthy relative to its expenditure. After World War Two it was a very young continent with a booming economy and could afford to pay itself. Legislation did not always line up but it did not matter. You just covered the costs somehow. This is no longer true. However, Europe is still incredibly wealthy. There is no reason why people should not be able to live very good lives within the EU, in the private and public sectors, young and old. It is a question of political decisions.

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