Of all of the factoids bequeathed to us by departing treasurer Joe Hockey, the most dangerous is that the Australian population can be divided into two:"lifters" and "leaners".
Hockey was following in the footsteps of United States presidential challenger Mitt Romney when he used the words in his first budget speech. Romney had claimed the US could be divided into "the 47 per cent" who were dependent on the government, and everyone else who did the work.
Hockey's opposite number in Britain, George Osborne, made the same point about "strivers" and "skivers".
"Two groups need to be satisfied with our welfare system," Osborne said. "Those who need it – who are old, who are vulnerable, who are disabled, or have lost their job. And there's a second group – the people who pay for this system, who go out to work, who pay their taxes and expect it to be fair on them too."
Hockey and Abbott made it crystal clear which side they backed. Days before Abbott was rolled they unveiled a new slogan: "Backing Hard-working Australians".
Lifters versus leaners is a dangerous notion because it seems to contain an element of truth. Many of Hockey's other claims could be dismissed: that "higher income households pay half their income in tax," that Australia might "run out of money" to pay for health, welfare and education, that "the poorest people either don't have cars or actually don't drive very far in many cases". They were just Joe being Joe.
But the idea that a majority of taxpayers work hard to support a large minority of dependents strikes a chord with many of us who pay tax, all the more so because the treasurer sends us "tax receipts" at tax time showing how much of hard-earned is spent on "welfare", on other people...
Except that it isn't like that. Only in the short-term does money flow from "givers" to "takers", from lifters to leaners. Over a lifetime most of us are both. We fund pensions while we work and then receive them when we retire. At any moment we can lose our jobs or lose our health or become disabled. Later we can recover. We can move from being "lifters" to "leaners" and back again.
All it takes is luck. But we seem to be hard-wired to not recognise the role of luck in our lives and to attribute what happens to either our skill and hard work or to our general uselessness.
Andrew Leigh outlines fascinating instances in his new book, The Luck of Politics. Leigh was an economics professor before entering parliament and becoming Labor's shadow assistant treasurer.
He says that in a series of experiments students were asked to play games and randomly made either "lucky" or "unlucky". In Monopoly the "lucky" ones were given $200 for passing go and a double roll of the dice. The unlucky ones got $100 and could only a single roll. Pretty soon the lucky players began taunting their opponents, banging their pieces and eating more food from the snack bowl. They behaved as though they were superior even though they must have known they were not.
And almost everything that happens to us is a result of chance. Joe Hockey would almost certainly not be the member for North Sydney were it not the result of a principled decision by his predecessor to retire early before he was eligible for the parliamentary pension. Leigh would not have got preselection for the seat in Canberra's north had the Australian National University (and his house) been located in Canberra's south.
All it takes is a tiny difference in a chromosome for someone to be born a woman instead of a man and be less likely to get promotion, or to be born shorter and be less likely to become a politician.
British economist John Hills reckons that in Britain at least most people get back roughly what they put into the welfare system. The wealthier are leaners as well as lifters because they are more likely to live longer and take advantage of subsidised health care and tax breaks on investments. The poor get don't get to put in much, but don't get to take out much either.
His book is called Good Times, Bad Times: The Welfare Myth of Them and Us. It's a myth Hockey might like to consider as he ponders what it's like to be treasurer one day, on the political scrapheap the next.In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald