"a letter from the hearse chasers"
May 19, 2015 2:25 AM   Subscribe

He had been found dead at his flat some three weeks earlier. And the family only found out because a slightly dodgy looking genealogy company got my stepson's address wrong. Bear in mind as well that the approach this company took to telling my stepson his father had died was through hinting that he was going to be quids in.
Jamie K. on the reality of austerity in the UK: when the first notification of the death of a family member comes not from the police or the coroners office but through a form letter of a company wanting to sell the illusion of a big inheritance payout.
posted by MartinWisse (24 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
Thus spake that spiritual giant, Saint Margeret of Thatcher:

"There is no society"
"There is No Alternative"

And in the generations that followed, of Blair and Cameron, it came to pass.
posted by Mister Bijou at 3:38 AM on May 19, 2015 [10 favorites]


We didn't bother contacting the company, but my stepson got straight in touch with the coroner, who said that they couldn't find a phone with contact addresses and so they had turned to the genealogists. These turned out to be a firm of lawyers who track down relatives of the unclaimed dead by arrangement in the hope of getting chargeable probate work. Apparently they and Stoke coroners office have some sort of arrangement.
For an extra fee, you can find out where they hid buried the body.
posted by double block and bleed at 3:51 AM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


.
For all of us.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:52 AM on May 19, 2015


I dunno, I'm prepared to go so far as drawing a distinction between handing a function to the private sector and handing it over on manifestly inappropriate terms to the first pack of shysters you can find. It's the latter that seems to be the problem (and I acknowledge that it has often seemed to be the preferred strategy of those responsible for privatisation).

If we write off this sort of thing as the inevitable consequence of living in Thatcher's Britain, the coroner's and the police escape the criticism which is surely their due and which might conceivably have some effect.
posted by Segundus at 4:52 AM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


It seems to be taken for granted that the private sector can complete a given task more efficiently, but I rarely see a discussion of where that efficiency comes from. I'm sure the proponents of privatization would like to think it comes from innovation, but it seems to me just as likely, if not more likely, to come from corner cutting due to the fact that a private company is subject to less oversight.
posted by Nothing at 5:06 AM on May 19, 2015 [18 favorites]


OMG, the fake handwritten notes and bogus e-mail I've received since my mom died. This stuff is not just happening in the UK. I am probably guilty of assault and joyous battery, but when they started showing up in person, I lost it. Get off my yard. I don't think they are going to file on me.

How devoid of any moral sense can you be to let someone else make you think that is a way to earn a living. Maybe desperate, with kids to feed, but still, I'm trying to feed my own here as probate drags on.

It is multiple entities here, trying to take when you are low and we seem to be in a respite because of the application of rock salt. They melt like slugs.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 5:18 AM on May 19, 2015 [6 favorites]


I'm prepared to go so far as drawing a distinction between handing a function to the private sector and handing it over on manifestly inappropriate terms to the first pack of shysters you can find.

I'm not.

Because every single privatisation in the UK has involved exactly that - handing a function over, on manifestly inappropriate terms, to the first pack of shysters, who then proceed to gouge as much money as they can from the function while reducing it in scope, size, quality and safety.

Every time.
posted by motty at 5:19 AM on May 19, 2015 [29 favorites]


I've been waiting for someone to explain to me how private companies whose sole purpose is to maximise value for shareholders will therefore deliver better services at a lower cost than public sector bodies with no such obligation to turn a profit.

Usually the response is some variation of 'the public sector is bloated and inefficient', with no explanation of why that is necessarily the case, or why simply making improvements in the public sector provision isn't a viable option.

I suspect the real reason is partly ideology, and partly the fact that once you've sold something to a bunch of crooks, you're no longer accountable when public services go into a death-spiral.

And now we seem to be facing 5 more years of Conservative hack-and-slash followed (probably) by some kind of New-New-Labour government that has bought into exactly the same free-market ideology.

I don't have high hopes for the future of public services in the UK at all. I expect they'll just hand the whole country over to Serco at some point.
posted by pipeski at 5:26 AM on May 19, 2015 [28 favorites]


I've been waiting for someone to explain to me how private companies whose sole purpose is to maximise value for shareholders will therefore deliver better services at a lower cost than public sector bodies with no such obligation to turn a profit.

I've worked in both public and private sectors, and the pattern I've seen is that the private sector can do things faster and sometimes better, but not cheaper. The public sector is slow, but in my experience it was a cheap sort of inefficiency and there were sometimes a lot of benefits to taking the time to do things right rather than the manic push for speed that is common in the private side of my field.

Having the state shed functions, as described in the FPP, saves money on some budget line items, but at the cost of effective provision of services that are unlikely to be performed as well or with any accountability by the private sector.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:43 AM on May 19, 2015 [6 favorites]


Somewhere along the way we've lost sight of the real debate. Some things are better delivered by the market, some aren't. It's perfectly reasonable to question where the line should be drawn and no doubt the line shifts over time depending on technology, outlook, morals, and so on. But the problem with privatization, at least since the early 90s, is that the debate is no longer about what the market can or should deliver, but rather whether the state should or should not deliver a service by its own means.

Few believe that prisons, for example, should not be a state function, but many think that prisons should be contracted out to be privately run. They will use arguments about efficiency and innovation, but wholly ignore that such arguments only work in the presence of market forces. A private company delivering a contract to the state has no greater need to be efficient or innovative than a public provider doing the same thing: there are no competitors and the pay outcomes are the same regardless. If they want a greater yield from their contract they can simply worsen the service as the customers aren't going anywhere.

Whenever a Government wishes to "privatize" a service by contracting it out or selling it off, know that they are doing nothing more than opening it up to profit. Government contracts are not a market in the full sense of the word and seldom bear the benefits that markets can (though not always) deliver. For example, the last Government sold Royal Mail and let many private investors (including me) get a cheap stake of a monopoly provider. If they were really bollocks-out market believers they would have removed universal service and allowed any provider to carry letters. They didn't.
posted by Thing at 5:49 AM on May 19, 2015 [14 favorites]


These turned out to be a firm of lawyers who track down relatives of the unclaimed dead by arrangement in the hope of getting chargeable probate work. Apparently they and Stoke coroners office have some sort of arrangement.
I'm getting a bit of a Bleak House vibe here. If nothing else, today's Britain offers a modern Dickens the kinds of opportunities not seen since, well, the last Dickens.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:01 AM on May 19, 2015 [5 favorites]


'Profit' is a name we give to a form of economic inefficiency. If a company can deliver a service at a price which includes their margin, there is no reason why a public body cannot deliver the same service at the same price, minus the margin. There are times when it works out that accepting the economic inefficiency of profit allows you to motivate people to find greater efficiencies elsewhere in the process, but fundamentally there is no reason why this must be the case, and the peak theoretical efficiency of a for-profit body is always lower because that profit must always be extracted and baked into the accounting, the price/cost.
posted by Dysk at 6:10 AM on May 19, 2015 [26 favorites]


We didn't bother contacting the company, but my stepson got straight in touch with the coroner, who said that they couldn't find a phone with contact addresses and so they had turned to the genealogists.

In the past, these situations were typically handled by state employees who would do the tedious detective work needed to find next of kin, if any. They still are, in many places - the documentary "A Certain Kind of Death" (warning - very graphic) shows them at work in Los Angeles, and quietly but powerfully refutes Thatcherist nihilism.
posted by ryanshepard at 6:15 AM on May 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


...every single privatisation in the UK has involved exactly that...

I agree that most have been lamentable, and the post-Thatcher ones are probably among the worst. But on the other hand I remember the days when I could only get one model of phone, could only get it from one provider, and had to go on a long waiting list for it.
posted by Segundus at 6:15 AM on May 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


A private company delivering a contract to the state has no greater need to be efficient or innovative than a public provider doing the same thing

Oh god this. And no, franchise renewal on a ten year cycle is not competition.
posted by cromagnon at 6:20 AM on May 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


But on the other hand I remember the days when I could only get one model of phone, could only get it from one provider, and had to go on a long waiting list for it.
I remember those days too, and even at a young age wondered why the post office couldn't provide a better service. Turns out it was because those in charge didn't give a fuck about those they were serving.

Profit isn't the only motive, it's just the only one the ghouls in charge can understand.

We need better ghouls.
posted by fullerine at 6:37 AM on May 19, 2015 [5 favorites]


But on the other hand I remember the days when I could only get one model of phone, could only get it from one provider, and had to go on a long waiting list for it.

The waiting list for new phone lines in the 1970s had an interesting cause. The original infrastructure of the telephone system in the UK assumed that phones would always be somewhat of a luxury for domestic users. Only the relatively wealthy would be willing to pay for one and there was no provision at all for the potential millions of home subscribers.

However, economic growth in the 60s and 70s was so strong for those on lower incomes that telephones came within reach and the number of people wanting a phone far outstripped the capacity of the exchanges. The Post Office engaged in a massive process of modernization which caused tremendous backlog, hence the tales of having to wait six months for a new phone line. The backlog was cleared before privatization, and the fruits of the modernization were sold off.

I understand that France suffered a similar problem for precisely the same reasons.
posted by Thing at 7:03 AM on May 19, 2015 [10 favorites]


Nothing: " I rarely see a discussion of where that efficiency comes from. I'm sure the proponents of privatization would like to think it comes from innovation"

It's pretty blatant around here that it is going to fall on the backs paychecks of the people actually doing the work.

pipeski: "Usually the response is some variation of 'the public sector is bloated and inefficient', with no explanation of why that is necessarily the case,"

This is a dog whistle for "public sector employee unions are too powerful so lets cut them off at the knees by contracting out all their work". Plus the contracting out process is step up in such a way as to make it extremely difficult to unionize the contractors.
posted by Mitheral at 7:11 AM on May 19, 2015 [7 favorites]


Usually the response is some variation of 'the public sector is bloated and inefficient', with no explanation of why that is necessarily the case.

In theory, it's because the public sector is a monopoly. If one car manufacturer put all the rest out of business, they would lose their incentive to improve the product. Look at how many ISPs are offering better deals now that Google Fiber threatens to disrupt their local monopolies.

Government contracts are not a market in the full sense of the word and seldom bear the benefits that markets can (though not always) deliver.

...And in practice, "privatization" just replaces the public monopoly with a private one, with all of the drawbacks and none of the benefits of a publically-owned utility. A state-run mail service may be inefficient and stagnant, but at least the people whose taxes pay for it are the same ones who benefit from its services. A market-based solution, with FedEx and UPS and Roadie all competing to be the best delivery service and taking money only from customers, also works. But if the USPS became privately owned without changing its monopoly status, only its new owners would benefit and everyone else would lose.
posted by Rangi at 10:33 AM on May 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


I've been waiting for someone to explain to me how private companies whose sole purpose is to maximise value for shareholders will therefore deliver better services at a lower cost than public sector bodies with no such obligation to turn a profit.

This is basic capitalism and frankly it's been show pretty conclusively to work in most cases, as least compared to everything else that's been tried in reality. As long as there aren't excessive barriers to entry, if there is an efficiency that can be exploited, there will almost always be someone willing to accept slightly less profit than no profit at all. It fails in the case of a service that you want to ensure reasonable coverage across the board (mail and health care, for example). It can fail when there's a physical or legal monopoly (phone/cable companies and some area's taxi services). It can fail when safety regulations aren't strong enough to constrain dangerous activity in quest for profit (Deepwater).

But in general, what's good for shareholders is also good for the company and is also good for consumers. There is perhaps a growing problem that companies are now being incentivized for immediate profits at the cost of long term stability and profits because of rapid trading, but that's a separate issue. Public sector "companies" tend to be monopolies and have little to no incentive to improve because of it. Competition and reward for performance lead to good results for consumers. Historically, public sector jobs have also implemented poorly thought out worker protections (making workers effectively unfireable after a year, for example) that has led to some of the justifiably bad reputation that the public sector has.

As a P.S. to Mitheral, I support unions and strong worker protections, it just has to be done wisely and across the board so that companies that aren't required to treat their workers well can't easily out-compete those that do.
posted by Candleman at 11:20 AM on May 19, 2015


But in general, what's good for shareholders is also good for the company and is also good for consumers.

Oh hell yeah, I love me some planned obsolescence and less tasty food which is also less nutritious and may actually poison me from time to time. I love it when I try and cancel a service and the only person I can talk to is someone whose whole job is to find any way they can to stop me from doing so, including accidentally hanging up. Nothing pleases me more than visiting a place where there are no shops, because a massive supermarket on the edge of town put them all out of business, but now the supermarket isn't there any more because it wasn't profitable enough, so everyone has to travel even further to shop.

Tell me more about how the race to the bottom is good for consumers.

And you know, maybe it is good for consumers, whatever those abstract things are. In the long run.

Just not for people.
posted by motty at 5:34 PM on May 19, 2015 [8 favorites]


I love me some planned obsolescence

So vote with your dollars and buy from companies that don't practice it. If you spend more money you can get things that last longer. Most consumers will chose to spend less money on lower quality goods so that's a lot of what it provides. Or they don't have the money to purchase higher quality goods, but that's a problem of income distribution, not an indictment of how the goods are produced.

less tasty food which is also less nutritious

So buy better food. My local grocery store, which is one of the lower end national ones, still carries quite a good amount of nutritious and tasty food. It just costs more. The average consumer in the first world has access to more variety and better quality food than any other point in history.

Ask someone that grew up in the Soviet Union about whether they'd prefer to shop in grocery stores there or in capitalist society. Or about food safety there.

Can you demonstrate socialized food production working at scale anywhere in recent history? Capitalism is like democracy, it's terrible, other than the alternatives in practice. The Nordic model is about the right mix, IMO, with government control of the places it makes sense but a very efficient free economy elsewhere. Note how well those countries tend to rank in quality of life and happiness. Part of the problem in the United States is that many things are not actually free market, like cable TV providers.

Nothing pleases me more than visiting a place where there are no shops, because a massive supermarket on the edge of town put them all out of business, but now the supermarket isn't there any more because it wasn't profitable enough, so everyone has to travel even further to shop.

Markets find inefficiencies. Not every business or town remains viable. If there was local demand for stores, someone would reopen them. But having witnessed what you're describing happening in my rural midwestern relatives' town, the majority of the people will drive an extra 40 miles roundtrip to a different Walmart rather than pay higher prices locally, so the local shops stay closed. And while it's painful for residents to admit and deal with, sometimes towns have no longer have the local economy to keep going.
posted by Candleman at 9:47 PM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


The Nordic model is about the right mix, IMO, with government control of the places it makes sense but a very efficient free economy elsewhere. Note how well those countries tend to rank in quality of life and happiness. Part of the problem in the United States is that many things are not actually free market, like cable TV providers.

Compared to Nordic countries, the US's failing is most certainly not that there are too few free markets, it's an astounding lack of sensible regulation and enforcement thereof.
posted by Dysk at 1:08 AM on May 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


That late Soviet supermarket is more the result of currency control and the ongoing failure of the overall system than a problem inherent to centrally planned economies. That said, I do prefer a market socialism to communism as practiced in the past.

The invisible hand isn't the magic that the far right makes it out to be, but it can be helpful in allocating goods if it's not a totally free hand.
posted by wierdo at 8:23 AM on May 20, 2015


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