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Tuesday, 17 July 2018

World Cup 2018: New Year's Day and the Holiday Season is Over

That's that, then.

Another World Cup, done and dusted. The French have been crowned champions, the narratives have all tied themselves up, and the trophies are all handed out. In addition, the podcasts making sense of what happened have been recorded, so we're officially done with soccer for the next three weeks or so. I'm a little sad that I'm going to have to find new topics to write about here in the blog, but such is life, I suppose.

The Guardian's Football Daily, the Totally Football Show, and Game of Our Lives have all given their thoughts on the action on and off the pitch, but I wanted to reflect on the passing of another tournament.

This is my seventh World Cup, and my sixth that I've watched from start to finish (I came late to 1994 despite it being held in the US). Much like Ted Mosby's triennial rewatch of the Star Wars trilogy in How I Met Your Mother, it becomes a useful way of marking the passage of time.

In 1994, I'd just finished my first year of high school, and glimpsing how the Italian fans celebrated getting to the finalist me on a path of fascination with Europe, which would lead to me living there several times as an adult. It also made me fall in love with football, and all the pageantry and silliness surrounding the World Cup.

In 1998, I was finishing my first year of college, and still on a number of paths I'd started down four years earlier: for example, my German teacher indulged my interest and told me I should be supporting her hometown team, Eintracht Frankfurt (and to this day, I do check their results in the Bundesliga every week).

When 2002 rolled around I was a few months into my first job, and my first stint living in Britain, hired because I could speak German. I watched the final in a pub in London with the brother of an Irish friend I'd known in Germany.

For 2006, I'd just started my second job, and stint in London - quite literally, as the tournament started on the first Friday after I began the job. That's a particularly sweet memory not just because Italy won it, beating France on penalties, but also because I thought I'd sold a story (it turned out not to be, because the publisher was weird and dodgy). I guess that's a metaphor for how Italy did afterwards, as I don't know that the promise of those early days of June 2006 bore out, either in football, my personal life or my professional life.

In 2010 I was still in the same job, but a little stalled, on all fronts. Yet there were the stirrings of some progress, which would bear out the following year when I switched to my new job in telecoms. The other abiding memory is being in Bordeaux with friends during the group stage, and seeing the French national team implode, even as Italy could barely muster a draw with New Zealand. I remember being so unsatisfied with the final, both the level of play and the quality of Spain as winners.

For 2014 I was once again embarking on a new chapter in my life, having just transferred over to California with work and discovering the joy of streaming matches on my computer at work. I watched the final at my mom's house, enjoying my stepdad's pleasure at seeing Germany win, but my clearest memory of that tournament is rather the Brazil-Germany semifinal, which I watched in an Irish pub on Castro Street in Mountain View with a British friend. The best thing was how the Brazilians in the pub, shellshocked from their team's humiliating defeat, started singing and dancing and generally having a party - since they were all there anyway.

And this year? 2018 was marked by my job loss at the end of the previous year, and my departure to London for a few months. It's also marked by my having found a new job while the tournament was going on, including being greeted at my interview by the hiring manager who said he'd been watching the group stage match between England and Belgium. The final I watched in a hotel room in Crescent City, CA, during a road trip of a few days with my dad where we took in Oregon and northern California.

So where will I be in 2022? Going by previous years, it wouldn't be inappropriate to guess I'll be embarking on whatever my next step is going to be after this one, but who knows? I expect I won't be anywhere near Qatar, unless I move to Europe again at some point in the meantime. And as for who wins, there's no basis for it but I might as well guess now that France won't defend its title, and nor will Croatia get to the final again (Brazil is the last team to reach consecutive finals, win or lose, in 1994, 1998 and 2002).

Looking at my final World Cup post from four years ago, I held out hope that 2022 would be stripped from Qatar and given to the US, but now that NAFTA is set to hold the 2026 tournament, it's unlikely to get taken away from the Qataris, so it'll be interesting to see how that all turns out.

The last thought here is sadness that the tournament's over, but a little relief too, as I get to go back to normal life (such as that is, given that I'm having to start turning down freelance jobs as well). It might seem strange, but I'm glad the World Cup doesn't come along more often, as the large gap between each one lets me better take stock of what's changed and what hasn't. Rituals like this, which let you mark the passage of time, are important and good ways to chart how the rest of the world has changed too - after all, in 2014, I don't think I'd have expected the political situation we have now.

So roll on World Cups every four years, and European Championships in between. And in the meantime I'll be consoling myself with the Champions League and club football. After all, the Premier League starts on 10 August, so less than a month to go!

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

World Cup 2018: It's Going Home, or, 1996 and all that

So despite my previous post, I'm not in much of a gloating mood to see England go out. As I said, I have complicated feelings about them, and so while I can't properly get excited to see them win, I also can't get too depressed to see them go out. And I have to give them credit for getting this far, after years of, to be honest, rank underachievement.

It's funny that the Lightning Seeds song, Three Lions, was dusted off and resurrected for this World Cup campaign, as not only does it date from the last tournament in which England reached a semi-final, but it's also from the first tournament where I followed England. Those are names to conjure with, you know: Paul Gascoigne, Alan Shearer, Teddy Sheringham, David Seaman... maybe not as revered as the Class of 1966, but still recent enough that they haven't faded into history as untouchable icons the way Jack and Bobby Charlton have, or Sir Bobby Moore, or Geoff Hurst...

That's also the first (and last) time I saw London completely spellbound by the national team, to the point of knowing how the game was going by the sounds I heard as I walked outside on the street. I'm sure it would have been like that this year, although I get the sense that the mode of celebrating wins and goals this time around has been communally, at pubs, and throwing all your beers in the air when something good happens.

From there England became a quarter-finals team. That's the stage at which they left the next three World Cups, in 1998, 2002 and 2006. They had slightly more mixed fortunes in the European championships, going out of the group stage in 2000, losing in the quarter-final to France in 2004, and not even qualifying for 2008.

1998 is my other abiding memory of that England team of the 90s, capped by watching their 2-2 draw against Argentina at my friend Sean's house, a game that still resonates in the English psyche now. Michael Owen's run to score a wonderful individual goal, David Beckham's tussle with Diego Simeone and his sending-off, Sol Campbell's disallowed header that would have put them through...

Somehow, something changed in the squad with the turn of the millennium. Gascoigne and Shearer and the like were stars, but they weren't STARS, the way Beckham became, and it's possible the players started to believe their own hype too much. In my last post I mentioned an incident, which occurred in the 2006 quarter-final against Portugal, where David Beckham and Wayne Rooney both left the pitch in tears, wound up to the back teeth by Cristiano Ronaldo's play-acting and the Portuguese gamesmanship more generally - but also a sense that they weren't being allowed to play as they wanted.

Even now, 12 years later, I look back on that display with distaste. Not because of the crying, per se, but because those were spoiled children's tears. Paul Gascoigne's tears in the 1990 semi-final were an emotional outpouring at being denied a spot in the final (and one that I didn't see, as I wasn't following football back then) - Beckham and Rooney were crying because things didn't go their way.

But even before then, I remember how cock-sure England and its fans were in the run-up to the tournament. Mars bars changed their names to "Believe", and Michael Owen confidently predicted he'd pick up the golden boot, despite not scoring and tearing his ACL less than a minute into the third group match against Sweden, which ended his tournament. After England went out, a shell-shocked friend confessed he'd really thought they could do it this time, which always mystified me - it didn't look that different a squad than the one I'd previously seen in 2004.

But enough about the past - what about this England? I don't know if they played that amazingly well this year, thinking about it objectively. They were deadly on set pieces, and Harry Kane is well-positioned to bring home the golden boot (the first English player to do so since Gary Lineker in 1986), which speaks for itself, but in the games I saw, they never looked that incisive in front of goal. Which isn't necessarily a criticism of England, because I think a lot of teams struggled with that, but it's a clear weakness to be addressed.

By the way, I'm aware of the 6-1 drubbing of Panama, and know that logically it can't have only consisted of penalties and set-piece goals. But without taking anything away from England, Panama was a terrible, terrible team, and England has always benefited from these early mismatches.

Which is, incidentally, the other point worth highlighting about this team, as opposed to previous tournaments. Between 2002 and 2016 there was always something a bit ponderous and yet still lackadaisical about them. The worst example was (again) 2006, where the team came in with high expectations from themselves and their fans, bolstered in particular by the famous 5-1 victory against Germany in Munich, but were dull, plodding and not at all fun to watch in the first two matches against Paraguay and Trinidad & Tobago.

I remember at the first game the embarrassed looks on the faces of Gary Lineker and the rest of the BBC commentators when the cameras cut to them at half-time. England had looked so bad, so unlike the swashbuckling heroes that they always fancy themselves, that it was as if a team of ringers from a local pub had somehow infiltrated the England camp and made it onto the field at Frankfurt - that was probably the moment that the next ten years were decided for the team.

So, to come back to this England squad, I have to single out in particular Gareth Southgate for praise. He's done a good job of building on the good work done by his predecessor Roy Hodgson (and his one-game predecessor Sam Allardyce), but seems to have also done a good job of creating a cohesive team, rather than stuffing it with all the big names and egos - after all, one of the criticisms leveled at Hodgson was his seeming inability to stand up to star players who were probably past it, like Wayne Rooney in 2016.

And I have to give special credit to Southgate for preparing England for its first World Cup penalty shootout win. He is, after all, the man who missed the decisive penalty back in 1996, so it makes sense that he'd have them train on that specific aspect of the game.

I found myself consoling a friend after the match today, one of the ones who was insisting I get on the England bandwagon. Not wanting to gloat, I instead suggested that he look at this as a great achievement (which it is) and as a chance for England to build into a team that really can challenge in the years to come (which is also true). In fact, as I was talking to him I was reminded of another team from 2006, one that seemed to burst out of nowhere with feats of athleticism and team cohesion. I'm referring to Germany, of course, which made it to the semi-finals that year and in 2010 before winning in 2014.

That's not a bad template to follow, and if England can replicate that run of form, then it really will be coming home.

(To be followed by a humiliating group stage exit four years later, but hey...)

Monday, 2 July 2018

World Cup 2018: Fuck Your Brexit, England

I was going to post something tomorrow, after the round of 16 ends (or oitavos da final, as you'd say in Portuguese), but it struck me today:

I don't particularly want England to win. In fact, I'd be happy to see them crash out tomorrow.

This is kind of a difficult thing to say... not because I've previously wanted them to win, but I suspect I'm going to piss off a bunch of friends (assuming they read this blog).

To unpack this for a second, I like English football, and a whole bunch of other things about England (I'm currently listening to my third album by an English band in a row today). I like being there, and the country has provided the bulk of my work experience, including randomly pulling up three months of work earlier this year, when I'd just lost my previous job (at a UK company). I also like my British friends, many of whom have impeccable taste in movies, music and books, among other stuff.

But there are other considerations. It's fashionable to say that you need to separate the people from the government, that football rises above these considerations, and that it's a harmless form of patriotism.

But uh, fuck that.

England is the only country participating in this World Cup that voted to kick people like me (i.e. Europeans) out. Even as bad as things are getting here in the US, I'm not currently in danger of being deported or losing my ability to live here. Russia may be a shitty kleptocracy, but it hasn't thrown up any further barriers to my living there in the last couple of years. France, Germany, Belgium, etc? They'd all be moderately happy to have me, even if I talk funny.

And you know where this idea of leaving the European Union came from? This impulse to stop people coming in and "taking their jobs" or whatever? It wasn't the government - it was the people. Or more appropriately, one faction of the Tories tried to shut up the more vociferously racist and xenophobic wing of their party by holding this referendum, and discovered to its surprise that actually a majority of Brits wanted to leave, and to kick out other Europeans in the process.

I have a long history of rooting against England, of course. If you're a foreigner in a particular country, it can be fun to have some #bants by rooting against a different team than what everyone else is supporting. And the team has veered between dour and calamitous in the years since I moved there - a far cry from the heroic and slightly manic 2-2 draw with Argentina in 1998. Standout moments include England failing to qualify for Euro 2008 (despite having actually played with some flair in a couple of matches), or the "Gazza's tears" phenomenon taken to an illogical extreme by David Beckham and Wayne Rooney crying in impotent frustration as they got outplayed by Portugal in 2006.

More to the point, there are knock-on effects to stuff like World Cup wins. In his wonderful Game of our Lives podcast, David Goldblatt talks about how England's loss to Germany in the 1970 World Cup may have led to the shock Conservative election victory four days later, on 18 June, suggesting that a successful quarterfinal might have helped the national mood and lessened voters' desire to dump Labour out of power.

It could be nonsense, but with the current climate in the UK, it's not hard to see that a UK win would immediately be seized on by Theresa May and her current Tory administration for positive PR value, including in the negotiations against the EU over separation. Compare this with two years ago, when England lost abjectly to Iceland just days after voting to exit the EU (leading to jokes about leaving Europe twice in one week).

Am I saying I'd like doom and gloom to descend on England, that green and pleasant land where I've spent much of my youth? Not really. But it's not a good time for complacency and unearned good feelings. I'd like to see the UK remain good and angry, and unwilling to give the Tories an inch in the Brexit negotiations. Not that I'm confident of things changing if Labour were to win a snap election, as Jeremy Corbyn isn't that keen on the EU either. But putting the likes of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove out of a job would be a step forward.

So if England lose tomorrow, or later in the week, or whenever, I won't particularly celebrate, but I also won't be too distraught. Because, while I'm sure very few people pulled the lever for Brexit because they explicitly wanted to kick me or my relatives out of Britain, this is a decision that directly affects me, and my family, and I'm not prepared to let it go.

Also, screw the Welsh national team, who also voted to leave, but while we're at it, thumbs up to Scotland and Northern Ireland, who voted to stay.

Friday, 29 June 2018

World Cup 2018: First Round Statto

Now that the first round is done and dusted, and we're through 75% of the tournament (sob), we know who's going to face off in the knockout rounds. The big story is how none of the five African teams managed to get through the group, making this the first time since 1982 that no African team has entered the knockout stage.

I want to make some joke about having a lot of time on my hands these days, but the sad fact is that even if I were still working a 40-hour week I'd have put together these stats, because I'm curious about how deserving each confederation is of its respective places. So, without further ado:

Confederation Played Points per game
UEFA 42 1.7
CONMEBOL 15 1.9
CONCACAF 9 0.8
CAF (Africa) 15 0.7
AFC (Asia) 15 1.0

I calculated each confederation's games, wins, draws and losses, and used those to determine how many points each confederation got per game. Some of this is a bit muddied by the fact that European teams faced each other, meaning that draws got counted twice (because each draw generated two points overall, one for each participant). What you see is that the South American teams were the most successful, followed by Europe, and the remaining three confederations quite a bit farther back.

There are some factors at play here, in that Panama and Costa Rica both fielded older teams, and Panama's has no experience of the World Cup, while Egypt (for example) is perhaps overly reliant on Mohamed Salah. And in the case of Senegal, while the team was undoubtedly screwed by the fair play rule, falling behind Japan on the number of yellow cards it got during the previous games, it's also undeniable that it failed to kill off the second game against Japan, when it blew leads twice.

The Asian teams helped themselves by pulling out wins at complete random, including when they were already eliminated. Saudi Arabia, so abject in its first game against Russia, found it in themselves to beat Egypt in their final, meaningless game, while South Korea dragged Germany out with them. 

What's really interesting is how well the South American teams did. Only Peru has crashed out so far, and it still managed to win its final game, although it's also true that Uruguay is the only team from the region to have taken maximum points. But even with the slightly disappointing showings from Colombia, Brazil and (especially) Argentina, South American teams have been more successful than European teams. In fact, between the middle of Matchday 3, when I started this calculation, and the end, UEFA teams dropped from 1.8 points per game to 1.7, owing to the losses by Iceland, Serbia, Germany and England, as well as France and Denmark's draw and Switzerland drawing with Costa Rica.

All these calculations are in service of determining whether the allocations for each confederation are fair or not, but it's hard to tell on the results of a single World Cup group stage. But at this point, I'm finding it hard to argue after all that the European teams are making up the numbers more than the African or Asia or Central/North American teams. 

Still don't think expanding to 48 teams in 2026 is going to be a good idea, though.

Monday, 25 June 2018

World Cup 2018: Not Tired Yet

We're coming toward the business end of the tournament, and I can say that it's been a fun one, what with all the dramatic late goals and all the scoring from set-pieces. Today Saudi Arabia took flight and beat the heavily fancied Egypt and their talisman, Mohamed Salah, which would have been impressive if the game had meant anything. And then both Spain and Portugal were held to draws by Morocco and Iran, respectively, paradoxically ensuring that the two European teams went through.

Tomorrow's games are a little more finely poised, with only one of the eight teams, Peru, already eliminated. The big surprise of the tournament could come if Argentina manages to lose against Nigeria, which would ensure its elimination.

It's fair to say that the big teams didn't really get into gear for the first round of games in this stage, with the big teams drawing (as Brazil, Portugal and Spain did), losing (as Germany did) or laboring for an unconvincing win (as in the case of France and England). Normal service was resumed, to an extent, in the second set of games, but the main favorites from before the tournament haven't looked like world beaters so far.

What I found notable was the immediate exit of a bunch of teams from the smaller confederations. As of yesterday, the following teams had already lost two games and been eliminated:

UEFA: Poland
CONMEBOL: Peru
CONCACAF: Costa Rica, Panama
CAF: Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia
AFC: Saudi Arabia

(South Korea isn't on that list because, despite losing its first two games, it still has a hope of qualifying for the next round through an arcane set of tie-breakers)

Looking at that list, with or without South Korea, it's hard not to come back to the discussions in my previous blog about the wisdom of expanding the tournament to 48 teams in 2026. My concern initially was that it seemed pointless to add even more European teams, when they already account for 14 of the 32 teams participating this year. With 55 members, it's the second-largest confederation (after Africa's CAF, which has 56), and it has not only the largest pool of former champions but also the three most recent champions (Italy in 2006, Spain in 2010, Germany in 2014).

It stands to reason that if you add 16 teams to the World Cup, the bulk of those is going to come from Europe, because those teams are more likely to have the stars that global audiences want to see. It's hard to imagine the European confederation, UEFA, allowing for more representation from Oceania, Africa and Asia, when it could get its own marginal teams in, and avoid big names like Italy and the Netherlands crashing out (again).

However, it's also hard to argue that Asia or Africa, or indeed North/Central America, deserve the bulk of the expanded places either, with the performances listed above. Much was made of Morocco's strength before the tournament, in addition to Egypt being highly fancied, but in the end both made barely a ripple and scored two goals each. While I would like to see teams from outside the two main regions (Europe and South America) win the World Cup someday, it's clear that the gulf is as wide as it's ever been, particularly since all the good players throughout the world get snapped up by European teams quicker than ever.

Expanding the tournament also risks devaluing the places, as South America (CONMEBOL) already consists of just ten teams, of which five made it to Russia, with fifth-placed Peru winning its playoff against New Zealand to book its spot. Given that Peru is one of the already-eliminated teams, it's hard to argue that New Zealand would have added much more excitement (though in their defense, when they qualified eight years ago they left after the first round as the only unbeaten team in the tournament).

I suppose that when the World Cup goes to 48 teams, they'll be able to abandon the playoff system, but again, should CONMEBOL get more places? Fifty percent of the confederation qualified this year, so should we just let all ten of them in for 2026 and save them the trouble of qualifying?

These are little more than thought experiments, in the end, and presumably when the World Cup expanded to 32 teams, there were naysayers who thought the quality wouldn't improve. Though it's worth saying that the expanded format hasn't actually led to more competition from the other confederations - so they may have been right...?

PREDICTION CORNER

All of the above may look short-sighted if Mexico goes ahead and wins the tournament. It may be football-induced euphoria, but given their win against Germany, their current pole position in the group, and the fact that they need to win or draw to ensure they progress, they look like going all the way, with a bit of luck from other groups. Specifically, they have to hope that Brazil wins its group, meaning Mexico would face Switzerland next. I can see them beating the Swiss, and then facing either Uruguay or Portugal, and in case Portugal pulls out a Ronaldazo for the ages, I can see Mexico beating them as well, and from there, who knows?

In this scenario, Germany would likely face Brazil in the next round, and probably go out, but beyond that it's hard to guess who else will make it past the round of sixteen. Though I do suspect that Argentina can make it, given they're Nigeria's bogey team. And while I'm hoping that both Japan and Senegal can make it to the knockout stage, I expect Colombia to be too strong for Senegal.

I'm also hoping we continue this run without 0-0 draws! Apparently this is the longest the World Cup has ever gone without one, so it'll be interesting to examine why - whether it's because the defending is so poor or the physical demands are too much.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

World Cup 2018: Merry Football Xmas

I wanted to open my inaugural blog of this World Cup with some pithy comment about this being a once-in-four years event that doesn't turn awful, but the initial images of Vladimir Putin watching the game in the VVIP box with FIFA president Gianni Infantino and (I guess) the Saudi king maybe doesn't support that. But it does make me think that it's kind of a shame the US didn't qualify, allowing the current US president an excuse to meet with his paymaster and benefactor in person (again).

But maybe it's a bit early in the tournament for so much politics. Instead it's fun to note, as others have done already, that these were the two lowest-ranked teams in the tournament, with Saudi Arabia at #67 and Russia at a lowly #70. Which wouldn't bode well for 2022, when the World Cup will take place in Qatar (#98, behind such luminaries as India and Uzbekistan). Though as it turns out, Russia thrashed Saudi Arabia 5-0, so these rankings can perhaps be considered a moving target.

Not that I'm expecting Qatar to do a job on whoever they face in their opener, unless someone even worse, like North Korea or Thailand, contrives to qualify. Though North Korea does have a long and storied history of qualifying for tournaments and beating stronger opponents, so Qatar should hope for a team from Oceania to be able to pick up any points four years from now.

None of this bodes well for 2026 either, by the way. That tournament, shared between the US (#25), Mexico (#15) and Canada (#79), is set to expand to 48 teams. On the face of it, more teams = more football, which should = more fun, but in practice just means more terrible, terrible teams to waste everyone's time. The one positive is that it supposedly means powerhouses like Italy or the Netherlands will have a harder time failing to qualify, but given how my beloved Azzurri have stunk up the tournament since winning in 2006, not making it in this time should be a blessing in disguise, as it forces the Italian FA to figure out how to improve, rather than just papering over the cracks.

The other point about expanding the World Cup by 16 teams is that it doesn't exactly promise a more open tournament. UEFA will likely insist on getting the bulk of the new spots, even though it currently accounts for 14 of the 32 places. You can argue that the level of football is higher in Europe than any other confederation except for South America, but it's hard to argue that any of the teams that failed to get through the playoffs would properly be challenging for the trophy this year.

Coming back to Russia for a moment, I was hearing a lot of chatter about how this was a pretty bad national team. They apparently managed to lose seven matches in a row at one point, coming within an ace of sacking their current coach, and having to recall a 38-year-old Sergei Ignashevich to fill in for a bunch of injured defenders. This is also their first World Cup win since 2002, after having failed to qualify for 2006 and 2010 and posting two draws and a loss in 2014. The last time they made it to the second round was in 1986, when they played as the Soviet Union.

And yet that 5-0 scoreline indicates something. It could be that Russia's better than we've thought, or it could be that Saudi Arabia is worse than we thought. Whichever the case may be, Saudi Arabia, on this evidence, is surely out, though I wouldn't be surprised if they scrape a draw against Egypt, particularly if Mohamed Salah is still far from match fit. Russia, on the other hand, has managed to pick up those important three points, which means earning a draw against Egypt and/or Uruguay will be enough to progress.

However, like the French Revolution, all will become clear in time. I was planning at first to go full-on crazy, and make sure I'm up at 5am for all the relevant games, but today's 8am kick-off has convinced me that I should probably chill out and just catch what I can. After all, I'm now effectively self-employed, so the more I goof around the less time I have to, y'know, earn money. But rest assured I'll still be here with ill-informed opinions, and thoughts stolen from the multitude of football podcasts going on during the tournament.

Truly, this is the most wonderful time of the year.

Monday, 4 June 2018

Some Thoughts on Welfare and Criminal Justice

Among the fun stuff I've had to do since losing my job and all that jazz is the admin-stuff related to getting access to healthcare and unemployment benefits.

I finally had my interview today with the County of Santa Clara social services office, who thought I was still gainfully employed, in part, I guess, because I hadn't yet applied for unemployment. The healthcare part itself wasn't so bad, because the lady on the phone with me seemed considerate and knowledgeable. But the signing up for unemployment stuff was a little weird.

Let me clarify. It's not weird that it asks if you're looking for work, or if you're willing to give up your  private contracting work if offered a job. And it's not weird for them to ask questions to ensure that you actually need the money, and aren't planning on swindling the state.

What I find interesting is the undertone of some of the questions around whether you deserve to receive benefits. The word "deserve" doesn't appear in any of the web pages I had to fill out, but it was implicit in the whole process, somehow. Just desserts, for lack of a better term, are at the heart of how the country looks at benefits and poor people, so I wanted to talk a little about that today.

"Just desserts", incidentally, is what Republicans seem to think people on food stamps buy when they go to the store. Desserts, steak, all the expensive stuff - I've seen someone complain about this on Facebook, and I've been in a car with someone complaining about this IRL. It's probably the heart of my argument here, much more so than the questionnaires and interviews I went through today.

The argument from these two people (and I have no reason to think they're alone in saying this stuff) implies that the people on food stamps shouldn't be buying expensive stuff. I'm the first to admit I don't know how food stamps work - but it stands to reason that if you're buying grass-fed filet mignons every night, your food stamps won't last very long. It also stands to reason that if you're a generally smart person, then you probably know that stretching your food stamps by buying only Cheetohs and ramen is a ticket to obesity and bad health.

As I say, I don't know how the SNAP benefit (to give it its proper name) works, and I assume that someone has figured out a way to cheat. But I get the sense that Republicans, and right-wing people in other countries, would rather see a thousand people starve or suffer malnutrition than have a single family game the system. Which is allied to that Protestant, or more precisely Calvinist, work ethic, where if you're poor it's a sign of God's displeasure and you're going to Hell. So when they go to the store and see someone buying "all the expensive food", as my two interlocutors so vaguely put it, they're filled with this righteous rage that someone's eating well while they themselves have to scrimp and save and go to Ranch 99 or something.

This idea of deserving what you get is also at the heart of our judicial/penal system. Australians, in my experience, seem to really love implying that if you go to prison you get whatever you deserve when you're in there. Murderers, rapists, kiddie-fiddlers - all deserve no consideration of their human rights or anything like that. But that viewpoint ignores people who commit less serious crimes, and who aren't hardened, serial offenders. After all, in this country at least, you can still go to jail for relatively minor crimes like narcotics possession, and some places strip you of the right to vote forever. Other places still actively use convicts as unpaid servants and laborers, in an interesting reading of the Thirteenth Amendment banning slavery.

Maybe it's a bit provocative to equate convicts with people on benefits, but it's not hard to see the same attitudes at work against both groups. The idea seems to be that if you've slipped up once, you are a failed person and can't ever rejoin proper society again. And I agree that for some crimes this is true - which is why we have things like life imprisonment.

But for convicts, we have to think seriously about whether punishments fit crimes, and whether we're interested in rehabilitating convicts at all. If we aren't, how can we honestly call ourselves a just society, when a violent (but not necessarily deadly) crime strips you of the right to vote forever?

And for people on benefits, we need to find a better way to get them off benefits than taking their benefits away. It's like unemployment figures: the official rate ignores those who are under-employed and those who have completely given up on ever finding a job again. You can slice those numbers to tell whatever story you want, but if your welfare rolls go down because you've booted a bunch of people off unemployment and food stamps, then you haven't actually solved the problem.