Wednesday, 30 April 2008

The 42 Day War

I’ve spoken before about the needs of the many outweighing those of the few. Specifically, is it acceptable to infringe the liberty of individuals in order to make the lives of the greater public better, or safer? Last time I was talking about restrictions on underage drinkers on our streets. This time I’d like to comment on something altogether more serious – detention without charge for suspected terrorists.

There is a running debate in the corridors and chambers of Westminster and across the pages of our newspapers, about the Government’s proposals to extend the powers of the police to detain suspects for a longer period of time before charging them. Currently a suspect can be held for 28 days, but the plan is to increase this to 42 days. Note that this is in cases of suspected involvement with terrorism only; the limit for all other offences is 4 days.

The increase is being touted on the basis that Police need, and have asked for, more time to properly investigate such cases. They argue that in circumstances where, potentially, suspects may have contacts overseas or links to international terrorist groups, where computers need to be searched or multiple locations visited and witnesses sought, the 28 day limit imposes a risk that they are forced to release the suspect before their searches are completed.

Gordon Brown is reportedly preparing to make concessions in response to unrest among Labour MPs and opposition hostility to the 42-day proposals. But I find myself backing Gordon this time. As the former head of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, said last week, “Al Qaeda would not hesitate to blow away a city. That’s why we need 42-day detention”.

Those opposing the 42-day limit claim civil liberties and human rights violations will ensue, and that imposing such rules would leave us with detention laws more onerous than those of other European countries. Some state that the extended time limit is unnecessary anyway, as most investigations conducted under the 28-day system have needed far less than that amount of time. Others fear that the extension might be perceived as a racist move targeted at the Muslim population.

These are weak objections. Let’s suppose a terrorist suspect is detained, and the Police find on day 28 that they need more time, but according to the law the suspect has to be released.

Suppose he is innocent, and not a danger. If he had been held for a further 14 days before that decision was reached then, regrettably, he would have lost two weeks’ liberty. One person, two weeks of unpleasantness.

Suppose he is guilty, and a clear and present danger. And suppose further that on his release, fearful that his plans for a terror attack might be thwarted, he flees the country or worse, accelerates his plans. Conjecture, I know. But if such a man is another 9/11 or 7/7 attacker-in-waiting then we are no longer talking about a loss of liberty for one. We are talking about a possible loss of life and limb for many.

I’m sorry, I truly am, that innocent people might temporarily have their lives turned upside down. But it is a small price to pay for society as a whole to be safer, and we should face the issue head on. No one will forgive us for making civil liberties excuses when people lie dead on our streets, the victims of a terrorist who could have been stopped.

In extremis for the sake of emphasis, but NOT an unthinkable scenario. If the Police want 42 days, give it to them, and if you want to talk about human rights then remember those of the potential victims of terrorist atrocities.

Monday, 28 April 2008

The Right to be Different

Boys sentenced over Goth murder

I blogged earlier about this case and promised to return to it when sentencing had been handed down. Today the main teenage perpetrators of this heinous murder were given prison terms of 18 and 16 years. For a pointless and savage crime this is, in my humble opinion, barely the minimum acceptable tariff for these lowlifes. But Judge Russell should be commended for at least trying to fit the punishment to the crime, and for explaining (as best as is possible to young men of such low intellect) the error of their ways.

I fear that there is little that explanation will have achieved, however. I grow increasingly convinced that logic and a sense of what is right, what is wrong, is devoid in certain sections of our youth. That the only way to deal with this element is to remove them from society. That's a sad conclusion but a considered one.

There is a small but dangerous part of our (mostly male) young population that has no comprehension of morals, no empathy, respect or tolerance for others, no desire to be persuaded of the wrongness of their hatred, no vision of what it is to live and let live. They have no intention of spoiling the notion that they themselves are all that matters, their right to fun transcends all others' rights. They measure themselves by the gains they can make at the expense of others.

I don't care if it takes a 100 more prisons to keep these worthless individuals off our streets. Build them now and make no apologies.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

When you shake a politician’s hand, count your fingers

We are repeatedly told by the government that their good management of the economy over the last 11 years has ensured that we are in strong financial shape as a nation. And there is a lot of evidence that the economy is fundamentally strong, with relatively low interest rates and good employment numbers. Whether or not you put that strength down to Gordon Brown’s abilities, there are some questions you might want to ask. And like any financial advisor I’d caution that past performance is no guide to the future.

“NBP, you old cynic!” I hear you cry. Well it wouldn’t be me if I was prepared to accept everything the politicos tell me. If our economy is well placed to weather the current financial storms, then please tell me:

Where is all the VAT from food cost increases going?
Where is all the Duty and VAT from petrol and diesel prices going?
Where is all the VAT from increases in domestic and industrial fuel going?

The treasury is dependent on big increases in prices of staples like petrol and food. Yes, the stuff you can’t do without. The drivers of real inflation. Without these increases and the tax take on them, the UK budget deficit would be widening even further.

Again, we have doublespeak from our leaders. Almost in the same breath they opine empathy with the hard pressed motorist, householder and shopper whilst at the same time relying on the relentless rise in the tax take on everyday essentials.

I’m sure there’s a case to state for spending those billions on fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And doling out benefits to fraudsters always happens anyway. Angst is easy to muster, but I’ll try to resist the temptation. There is a lot that the government needs to spend a lot of money on – Health Services don’t run themselves, especially inefficient ones. So I thought I’d see if I could find a resource that would tell me where our taxes are spent.

Well the first thing you find when you start to look at government spending is that a lot of it comes from money the government doesn’t actually have. In the 2007/08 financial year the UK public sector recorded a £7.6bn deficit. We have routinely run a deficit since 2002-3 and it is getting worse. In fairness Labour did preside over a percentage decrease of borrowing (against GDP) from 1997 to 2002, but even that measure has been getting worse every year since. Economic experts at the helm? Hmm.

Anyway, that minor diversion aside I picked up this chart which shows, at the broadest level, how the government intends to spend the approximately £600bn of income it will collect in this financial year.

Very high level. I’ll be returning to the subject of where our taxes are spent in more detail in a later blog. However, while looking through the various source of government information on the net I happened across an entry in Hansard about a bill brought before the Houses of Parliament over 2006 and 2007. Called the ‘Government Spending [Website] Bill’, it was introduced by Baroness Noakes (gawd bless ‘er) with the aim of making ‘provision for a website to enable public access to information about government expenditure’. “There has to be a website”, she said, “it has to be publicly available, and it has to be searchable. In essence, once it is up and running, citizens can go online to find out, for example, how much the government have spent with individual suppliers…or on particular things, such as travel and entertainment.”

There was debate in both houses, right through to a second reading in the Commons in June 2007. Then the bill was dropped, and I can find no further mention of it, nor of any government intent to introduce a similar resource for the public. How strange.

I wouldn’t suggest that the government doesn’t want you to know where it spends your money. But neither can I say that they are falling over themselves to make it easy either.

The finances of the country should not only be available to all at the broad and the detailed level, but our leaders should be prepared to explain them at both levels.

I shall return…

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Remove sock, take aim, FIRE!

You don’t have to look far in the world of politics to find some of the ‘B’ in this blog’s title. Almost by definition, politics is about not quite telling the truth, not really revealing your intentions. And occasionally, outright lying.

Take dear old Gordon for instance. Back in his halcyon days as Chancellor he brought in his Tory-killing, poverty-stomping 10% starting income tax rate. Millions of people would be all but taken out of the tax system, goodness and light would prevail all around. Fast-forward a few years and the lovable old Scottish dear thought up an even better ruse. Axe the 10% tax rate and reduce the basic rate from 22% to 20%. What a masterstroke. The first reduction in the basic rate of income tax in, well a bloody long time. (OK, 75 years – I looked it up.) And you thought the Conservatives were the party of low taxation! But there was a subtext: Gordon’s strategy was to succeed Tony Blair into No.10, and here was a headline-setting way of helping along that process. From brilliant Finance Minister to brilliant First Minister, sheer class.

But it seems Gordy had merely pulled out the twelve bore and taken aim at his pinkies.

What he failed to consider (or if I’m less generous, knew but ignored) was that certain low-paid types would actually have to contribute more to the tax system from this change. Yes, I know – memories are short and those people can be forgiven for forgetting he gave them the 10% rate in the first place. And I know it’s the middle income families that are supposed to be leached for ever more cash. But once people cottoned on, the master stroke started to look more like a millstone.

So you have to ask, why’d he do it? Why did the Iron Chancellor, outstanding economical wizard and World Leader in waiting make such a hash of it? And why did his backbenchers, and the opposition, take so long to spot what was going to happen? Could it be that Gordon and his pals were putting self before nation? No one started to raise the issue almost until pay packets started hitting doormats. Yesterday, after weeks of denial, provarication, then finally submission dressed as concern, the big G announced some (weak) measures to fix the problem. But without admitting there was a problem to start with, or that it was one of his making.

Now what you have here is a serial collection of errors, but you would have a hard time getting the government to admit as much. And that failure to admit mistakes is the ‘bollocks’ in the politics. Instead of the truth we get spin, interpretation and deceit. When all along we’d have settled for the truth, now we have had to watch them squirm to get it we’re even less impressed than if they’d just come clean in the first place. In fact if it weren’t for Labour MPs’ rising panic that with local elections only weeks away the party could take a trouncing, the issue might have been buried. That just smacks of political self interest. And the 'opportunistic opposition' are no better. These numbers have been in the public domain for months, but it's only when they smell political blood that the Tories mention any defects in the proposals.

Voters are curious animals though, and no matter what harm you might think Gordon and his crew have done themselves with this debacle there will still be people ready to forgive, forget and put a cross in the Labour box. It will be very interesting to see what message is sent to the Government in the local elections. Even more interesting to see what they spin it to be.

(Thought: a similar thing seems to be happening with Hilary Clinton, who abjectly LIED about her landing in Bosnia under sniper fire, only to pass it off as a ‘mispeaking’. Do the waving minions at her rallies not consider this just a little disingenuous of the potential new leader of the free world?)

Well perhaps we’ve seen the last blunder of the Chancellor/Prime Minister over tax. Once bitten, twice shy eh?

Maybe not. National Insurance Upper Earning Limits have been increased dramatically, meaning a lot of what some people have gained in the income tax rate reductions will be lost again in NIC payments. Nobody seems to have noticed that one yet...

Have a good day Gordon!

Monday, 21 April 2008

Laughing all the way to the Bank of England

So the banking sector is getting a bail out from the UK taxpayer. 50 big ones – billions of pounds that is.

Now consider the following scenarios:

1) The mortgage debt that the banks are being allowed to exchange for government bonds is not ‘damaged goods’ in any way. It is, and always was, worth substantially all of its value in the banks’ balance sheets before the credit crunch.

2) The mortgage debt that the banks are being allowed to exchange for government bonds is ‘damaged goods’. It is worth substantially less than its value in the banks’ balance sheets before the credit crunch.

Choose a scenario, any scenario. OK, you picked 1). Does the fact that these mortgage assets are unimpaired tell you that in reality the credit crunch was, and is, largely an illusion – in the UK at least? When the banks stopped lending to each other for fear that they wouldn’t get their money back (because the collateral was in danger of disappearing), were they just deluding themselves – and the rest of us paying higher and higher rates to borrow money? And will mortgage rates really come down now that the treasury has stepped in with such an unprecedentedly large slice of public lending?

Right, so scenario 2) looks possible. The mortgage debts really were losing value, widespread negative equity and house repossessions amass were just around the corner (although neither seems to have happened yet, and if they do then we have a chicken and egg situation). So if the banks have bad assets, what does the government think it is doing swapping taxpayers’ money for them? £50bn of taxpayers money. It’s like a ‘get out of jail free’ card for the banks. Invest in poor assets, get bailed out by Mr & Mrs Taxpayer when you have to write them down and no-one will lend you money as a result.

Northern Rock was a shock to the system and the government does not want any more financial blood on its hands (heaven knows it has enough trouble trying to convince people they’re better off now the 10p tax rate has gone). But I fear it has lead to an over-reaction and a rush to intervention in the market place where time, and the return of good old capitalistic common sense, would ultimately have prevailed. The government wants to be seen as the saviour of the lowly mortgage borrower, but its rescue vehicle is a big truck full of dosh from the national coffers.

Somebody’s laughing, and I bet they work in banking.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Credit crunch. Financial meltdown. Recession. Depression. Worst economic outlook since the 30's.

The effects are here to see - property slump, stock market volatilty, mortgage availability drying up. No-one seriously denies that the economy in the UK, like that of our former colonial friends across the water, faces some real challenges right now.

Most pundits lay the blame at the door of the US (and to a lesser extent British) banking sector, which was seemingly only too willing over the last decade or so to lend money to, as it turned out, uncreditworthy housebuyers.

The newsreels scream of impending doom, TV economists are wheeled out on every news programme to make us squirm with prophecies of job losses, house repossessions, rampant inflation and economic doldrums.

People love to frighten people. And people love to be frightened. Underneath all of the paranoia and despondency, what is really happening? Is there a solid economic reason for the gloom? Or are we talking ourselves into it - a self-fulfilling prophecy?

There's an awful lot of psychology at play here, and some physiology as well it would seem.

So has the credit crunch come about not because of real, but perceived losses in the UK/US housing markets? If a bank starts to consider some of its mortgagees are looking shaky, fair enough - it should write down its assets. But if a fellow bank overreacts to this and writes its own debts down too, perhaps beyond what is really financially and economically necessary, then a domino effect can start. Like the butterfly causing the hurricane, the entire system starts to work itself into a frenzy of impairing its investments. Talk of a trillion dollars worth of asset 'realignment' must surely show that either the analysts have been using their calculators wrongly for an awfully long time, or that perhaps the tail is now wagging the dog.

Markets don't work in isolation from the rest of human life. When times are good, people (including analysts and brokers) can get swept along with the bonhomie and markets rise. Every now and then someone realises that things aren't quite so great and there's a 'correction', a burst of shortlived pain while the market takes a reality check. But when panic sets in - such as when queues start to line up outside of Northern Rock as depositors freak out at rumours that their cash is at risk - then things can go pretty bad pretty quick. The herd instinct comes to the forebrain and like lemmings we hurl ourselves over the edge. The more the pundits hit the gloom button, the more we believe it.

Now I'm not saying there is not really a financial problem happening right now; clearly the market needed a correction. But ask is there not some incongruity here between what the commentators are saying and what the indicators reveal?

Of the write-downs of mortgage assets, what proportion have actually gone bad?

In this hard pressed UK economy, why is unemployment falling? According to the chief economist of the Chartered Institure of Personnel and Development, "Even allowing for lags between output, jobs and unemployment the UK labour market is still behaving as though the economy were chugging along very nicely rather than on the verge of a significant slowdown,"

OK, the stock market has been on a rollercoaster ride. But it stands today at over 6,000 - not the best it has ever been but look at how stocks have moved over the long term and it's hardly a disaster. And here we are, in the middle of a financial crisis.

It's so very difficult to see where the current problems will end up, but I firmly believe that in large part they were started by the snowball effect, one bad story begetting another until the finance world became paralysed with fear. A bank falls, the others look around to see who will be next. The contagion spreads until it happens again. In panic, the hatches are battened down. Interest rate cuts are not passed on to consumers as the banks hoard profits to cover book losses, losses that may never have materialised in the first place. Governments get involved, as morally they feel they must. But their very intervention pours petrol on the flames, confirms to the doom-mongers that they were right all along.

That's the psychology, and it will take an outbreak of common sense to bring us back to normality. My guess is that it will take some months. Bad news stories take so much longer to die than good ones.

And the physiology? Apparently researchers at the Cambridge Centre for Brain Repair have correlated high testosterone levels in city traders with competitiveness and willingness to take risks.

So the next time your portfolio takes a plunge, perhaps it's because your broker just took out a subscription to FHM!

Sunday, 13 April 2008

A Drain on Society

The UK press is today rife with vitriol aimed at the mother of Shannon Matthews, in custody and under suspicion of complicity in the kidnapping of her daughter. Allegations abound, including questions about family attempts to obtain access to community funds given to help in Shannon's recovery. It is even reported that the trustees of the Find Madeleine (McCann) fund were approached for cash. However this case, absorbing though it is from a criminal law point of view, is raising at least as many questions concerning the lifestyle supposedly led by Karen Matthews and her partner.

Of course facts are difficult to come by, and as a NoBollocksPolitician I am loath to speculate where facts are lacking. But there are important questions to be answered and facts to be sought - not particularly about this family but in more general terms about how public money is used in the support of low income households.

Looking across the news stories today at the comments left on the newspapers' sites by readers, there is little doubt that there is a broad swathe of disgust felt at the level of allowances and credits claimed by certain members of society. In this instance it is reported (unverified) that upwards of £400 per week was being paid to this parent to support herself and the 7 children she conceived with five fathers. Her current partner (also in custody on suspicion of downloading child pornography) worked as a fishmonger in a supermarket.

There seem to be two principles in conflict, once again. First is the 'inalienable' right of people to have as many children as they wish. If you've read my earlier posts you'll know of my concerns about burgeoning population growth, so will be unsurprised to hear that I have issues with this 'right'. Nevertheless, there are no laws, customs, conventions nor restrictions on anyone wishing to raise large families regardless of any ethical considerations that can be brought to bear.

The second principle concerns the rights of parents with large families to claim money from the state for their upbringing, most critically when the parents do not work or have low incomes. Put another way, does the state (that is, you and me) have any right to deny such parents a slice of the national tax-take?

Clearly, when children have arrived no matter what the ethical leaning of the parents, they have a right to at least a fundamental level of welfare. There are few among us who would wish to see children out on the street, homeless and unfed, for want of basic financial support from the taxpayer. No-one wants a return of the workhouse. What is really at question is whether the state should encourage - deliberately or indirectly - citizens to conceive children that without taxpayer support they could not look after. Such seems to be the case here, but the Matthews family is far from being unique.

Many of the comments posted on the news sites today suggest that child allowances, children's tax credits and other government handouts should be limited to the first 2 or 3 children, so removing any financial incentive for further pregnancies. It might seem absurd that people would tailor their procreation according to its effect on their state benefits, but such people do exist. Frankly, they are not the kind of people I want society to support and indeed, society is made much the poorer both financially and socially by policies which do so, in my opinion.

The government should address this, but it is a very touchy subject. The rights of the individual are almost always put before the rights of society as a whole. Why? Because societies don't raise a stink with the newspapers when they feel hard done by, societies don't declare human rights violations and claim legal aid to fight them, and societies don't track down their MPs and harangue them with unremitting tales of angst and indignation at their hardships. Individuals do though, and collectively individuals who feel slighted and bother to turn out to vote can bring about an end to your being an MP. Wider society on the whole tends to grumble and put up with it, and as a result can often be ignored.

I can't come up with any other rational reason why a government should not move to end this iniquity, at least none that isn't linked to retaining votes from benefit claimants. It's not even a tendency limited to our socialist politicians - there are few opposition MPs who wish to rock the benefits boat. I wouldn't suggest current benefits should cease. But prospective parents should be aware that the child benefit has a limit and that having lots of kids will not bring in extra cash. This requires legislative change, but first it needs political courage and a renewed perspective on what social justice is all about. Fairness in society is not just about leveling the playing field, redistributing wealth. It should also encompass giving to those who truly deserve, and taking only the minimum required from the hard pushed, if silent, taxpayer.

This is an issue on which it is easy to feel moral outrage, but I would wager that there's a few bob to be saved if limitations on claims were introduced - not to mention the more important benefits to kids who are brought into this world to be loved and cared for, rather than as a means to a bigger disposable income for their parents.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Spread a Litter Love

A lot of people talking about litter lately. Bill Bryson and his 3-year clean up plan. New fines for drivers throwing litter from car windows.

When I was a schoolboy I had a teacher who once promised a shiny 50p piece to any member of the class who could ever catch him dropping litter. No one ever did.

When I was at college, one day a tiny old lady watched as my friends and I threw empty chip wrappers on the floor. This plucky old dear, half our size, came to us and asked us why we didn't just put them in the litter bin yards away. Shamed, we picked them up and walked to the bin. I have never littered since.

So what does it take to persuade our public that littering is wrong? What is the difference between my biology teacher and the little old chip lady, and the thousands who blithely throw cigarette butts from their cars each day?

I think part of the answer lies in accountability, in cause and effect. Like the 5 young boys I caught kicking down my fence a week ago, most litterbugs think absolutely nothing about the consequences of their actions. To them there's never a choice to be made between right and wrong, because there is no-one to pull them up when they make the wrong choice. If there is no punishment you stop thinking you are committing an offence. And the more people who think this way the more it becomes acceptable to others. How often have you seen someone walk from a shop with a packet of cigarettes, open them and immediately drop the wrapper to the ground? It simply doesn't enter into their heads that its wrong. If everyone else is doing it why shouldn't you?

Little old chip lady had a very different ethos. To her there was a pride in living in a civil, clean neighbourhood. She saw that if you foul your own doorstep you diminish the joy of living there. She saw that the effort expended to 'keep it clean' really wasn't a great deal more than to leave a mess. The biology teacher had a similar credo, though his was possibly more borne out of ideology. Nevertheless he rejected the 'it's not my problem' attitude that he saw his pupils so regularly engaging when they discarded their Mars bar wrappers in the street.

So, to the cure. Is it punishment, shaming, fines? Or is it instilling that sense of pride in your surroundings?

Current culture has travelled along a line to where it is today. There are plenty of commentators on social change so I'm not going to repeat them, but I believe it's fair to say that we have become very much a 'consumer' society. Consumers not only in the sense of being on the buying side of the retail counter, but also in the respect that we seem to consume to a far greater degree than we create. I recall a line from an old song, 'Living only to consume...' There are certainly some of us that fit that bill. Take a look around your local fast food burger outlet and, forgetting for a moment the inequities surrounding the production of the food, the exploitation of the staff and the environmental impact (see earlier post) - all of which show a liaison between insensitive vendor and insensitive purchaser. What you see is also a sea of litter kindly donated by the patrons. Living to consume.

You can't fine someone into a change of mind. The process has to start earlier than that. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for imposing penalties on those offenders that simply don't get the message. But we have to be putting out the message too, and that starts in childhood and should be strong enough to be a solid, shared ethic through life. If a policeman stops your child outside the sweet shop and tells him to pick up his Snickers wrapper and put it in the bin, you should support him. Even better, you can vote for and fund the policeman being there in the first place. Better yet, you can educate your kid from the beginning that litter dropping is wrong. How do we expect our adults to take a pride if they grew up with no-one setting the right examples?

Here's my vote for more old chip ladies and more biology teachers.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

2 + 2 ≠ 5

Suppose you had a planet, let's call it Planet Worth.

The planet could sustain a certain amount of life, and would be run by a particular species. We'll call them Ruinians. The Ruinians have for many thousands of years managed to survive reasonably well; they have developed agriculture, democracy, methods to enhance their fertilty, methods to prevent fertility. They have had some wars and diseases, sure, and at times they have had some pretty serious setbacks. But by and large they have increased in number, they have got healthier, live longer, consumed more and find themselves now at a point where they are starting to challenge the ability of Planet Worth to provide them with resources quite as easily as in the old days.

The Ruinians have not been totally unaware of this situation developing and many have started to make some noise about it. But some are making noise -albeit with good intentions - about the wrong things. They are talking about choices, but some choices aren't being put on the table.

Time to stop talking in riddles.

The planet has some good, useful stuff in it. Like coal, and oil and gas. The Ruinians know they aren't going to last forever (known it for a century or more), and they know that despite this they are consuming these materials at an ever increasing rate. Our old friend supply and demand tells us that when Ruinian Crude hits $108 a barrell, there's a fair chance it's because lots of people want it. Back in economics class we learnt about substitute products, and how they start to become attractive when the original gets scarce. And the petrol Mr and Mrs Ruinian put in their tank is starting to attract some substitutes. Enter biofuels.

Now the only trouble with biofuels is that they don't grow on trees(!) You have to plant huge fields of them, you have to convert and refine them to make them into usable fuel. And if you are using that land for fuel then you can't use it for anything else.

Remember the arguments for curtailing global population growth that I was banging on about earlier? Now we have a second reason to need less people - you can't make people and biofuel crops and feed-crops all co-exist in the same field. Not even Doctor Who has that one sussed.

Another thought, that makes the 'Westernisation' of Planet Worth tricky. Western Worth is hooked on animal produce - they love their hamburgers - and, you guessed it, you need land to raise animals. No, not the lovely farmyard scenes from the nursery books, I'm talking hectares of land turned over to cattle herds to serve the growing millions of fast food lovers the world over. Space. So little of it. So many demands for it.

Now, in the Ruinians newly enlightened times it shouldn't take much working out that if they want to have enough food and enough energy for everyone then they have to:

  • make sure that 'everyone' is not a growing number
  • replace the fossil fuels with renewables, including setting land aside for biofuel crops, and
  • stop gorging themselves on inefficient foodstuffs. Using land to raise meat uses 3 times more resources that raising crops for direct consumption
I think the Ruinians have a good chance of pulling through, because they did their sums and realised that you can't get a quart out of a pint pot; you can't make 2 + 2 = 5. They have a fix on their planet's value.

Do you know what your Planet's Worth?

Friday, 4 April 2008

Astronomer needed...

Another lenient sentence. Any astronomer out there who can tell me what planet this judge is on, please let me know.

How can any rational person, let alone a judge for heaven's sake, equate less than 4 years of imprisonment with the taking of a human life? Forget about the message this sends to our youth, or to those who doubt that knife crime is a big issue. Forget about the devastation of this man's family, or the wasted thousands of putting this farcical judgement through the legal system. Just explain the logic to me, explain the thought process than concludes with a punishment so woefully, so inadequately fitting of the crime.

I can detect not one lonely iota of common sense in this sentence.

I hope this judge has the decency to step down from the Bar. She is not worthy of her profession.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Taxation, or Taxidermy?

Tax. That chunk of pay that you earn but don't get in your pay packet.

Some principles and some questions.

We British have the French to thank for Income Tax and Clement Attlee for National Insurance. The government introduced income tax in 1799 to fund the war with Napoleon; in 1946 the Labour government led by Attlee brought in NICs. We've been paying them ever since.

The basic principle of income taxation - and there is really no difference any more between NICs and Income Tax - is that everyone pays towards the 'upkeep' of the country according to their means. (The raising of government income through 'council taxes' levied according to the value of your house follows a similar logic). This is the tenet of 'wealth redistribution', the aim of making society 'fairer'.

In the West, and increasingly in the rest of the world, the capitalist system continues to stand as the fairest and most efficient economic model. Sure it has its inequities and failings, but the tenet that 'he who works hardest lives best' broadly works. Meritocracies tend to thrive compared to planned economies.

Are these two principles at odds?

For one thing, is it actually fair to expect the person earning more money to pay more tax? Does he consume more of the nation's resources? Does he drive more, need more defence, cause more administration in the offices of government, require a better health service, more active policing, more schools or libraries or town halls or traffic wardens? He may even help to employ more people by his spending, or tend to use the health service less as he relies on more expensive health insurance.

Should the person on a lower income have a right to expect his better paid compatriots to give over part of their wealth for his benefit?

Not questions that are often asked, and if I'm to maintain any sense of realism not questions ever likely to be asked by any politician also hoping to win a large number of votes. But think about it. It might not seem charitable to suggest that the poorer members of society ought to pay more and the wealthier to pay less, yet this is where the 'meritocracy' principle is at odds with the principle of 'wealth redistribution'.

Those that create the most wealth also pay the most tax - they are forced to give wealth away; those creating the least wealth have the wealth of others given to them. If you equate the acquisition of wealth with working harder, this means that the harder you work the more you will be required to give away.

Now I accept that this is a simplification, but not a gross one. If it had a stronger element of fairness about it, income taxation would not have to be mandatory and deducted at source. Do you think the same level of taxes would be paid if they were voluntary?

OK, there are those members of society who will never earn above the average through no fault of their own. There are those who do not have the abilities of others, and you shouldn't have to live a miserable life because you weren't born with the abilities or aptitudes that are in demand and pay good money. I have no truck with the redistribution of wealth to allow such people a reasonable standard of living.

And it is hard not to agree that people earning seriously big salaries shouldn't expect to chip in a extra few quid. If you're earning a million a year then perhaps you won't feel that you have to turn the heating down if the taxman wants a few thousand more.

The people in the middle ground seem to be the ones most put upon. 'Middle England', the 'Middle Class'. Call them what you will. These are the people who contribute the most tax into the system. They are the ones paying 50p+ in the pound when they enter the 'upper tax bracket', a band of income that was once reserved for the 'rich' but which now accounts for millions of people. They generally get very little relief (MIRAS went years ago, the married couple's allowance likewise, and child tax credits are like rocking horse crap to people at this income level). But they are the people who pushed themselves through college, work long hours, have to continue to study and learn to retain their qualifications and employability.

Contrast their lifestyles with people earning half their gross pay. You'll find little to differentiate them. The lower earners still have the new cars, the foreign holidays, the computers, dishwashers, nice houses, Wiis and HDTVs, gym membership and big bills at Morrisons.

In an equitable society your lifestyle improvement should come with extra effort expended, and that's a link that taxation policy refinements over 200 years has broken.

As is my tendency, I exaggerate to make a point. But squeezing the guy in the middle is not good politics because the more voters who get hit with tax, the more your votes are in jeopardy. Our masters should realise that to many of us taxation seems more like taxidermy - an age old method for getting stuffed.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Fancy a good read?

I'm not sure how I came across this book, but I'm glad I did. I know it's been reviewed to death on countless other blogs so I won't bore you with a lengthy rehash. If you enjoy coming at familiar issues with a new slant, and logic's your bag, then I urge you to give it a spin.

Steven Levitt is an economist - but not the dusty academic type. He uses statistical tools to 'data mine' his way through the most unusual sources of information. He is ably and wittily assisted by journalist Stephen Dubner and together they take a fresh squint at modern day life.

The book concentrates on a relatively small number of subject areas and gives enough argument and detail to do them justice. The topics range from 'What makes a perfect parent', through 'Why do drug dealers still live with their moms' to 'Where have all the criminals gone?' There is much here to interest the NoBollocksPolitician because the whole book is founded on facts and their logical interpretation, devoid of opinion, spin and contortion to fit a party line. Levitt and Dubner are also not afraid to skirt close to the edge of political incorrectness (for instance with their analysis of naming conventions of black parents compared to white), but they are undeniably working only with the truth and do not rush to an interpretation of the facts. I respect that. It's the true application of the 'scientific method', and they even go as far as including in an appendix the opposing views of a fellow economist, acknowledging their mistakes as well as countering with new research.

The centrepiece of the book is, for me, the examination through scrutiny of demographic data, criminal conviction rates, policing statistics and economic records how crime was apparently brought down from epidemic proportions in 60's inner-city America to its unprecedentedly low incidence today. Politicians in all major cities, led by New York, claimed responsibility. The new 'Zero Tolerance Policing' approach was often cited a the answer . But the causes can be strongly correlated with the changes to abortion laws 30 years previously. The argument that the crime rate fell because the criminals were never born in the first place is a compelling one.

If you like your ecomonics to be topical but unconventional, and you like that 'wow, that just makes perfect sense' feeling, get this book.

I'm not affiliated with the authors but if they should read this they can feel free to send me any royalties they don't need :)

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

UK Population to be 65m by 2016

Further thought on an earlier topic.

When I was born, in 196...ahem, cough, the UK population was 54.3 million souls.

Today it is somewhere over 60.7m.

According to the ONS it will be 65m in less than 8 years, 71m by 2031.

In the space of 50 years we will have crammed nearly 11 million more people into this green and pleasant land. (At least deodorant retailers can expect a boom.)

How will we feed them?
How will we house them?
How will we employ them?

The birth rate exceeds the death rate by nearly 6% per year. Net immigration continues to rise. We are all living longer lives.

Last I looked the country wasn't getting any bigger. Wondered why your kids can't afford a house? Heard of supply and demand?

When do we start to concrete over Dartmoor, the Highlands, the Fens?

There are some more unsavoury truths to consider again. The immigration debate is a hot one right now and you can make up your own mind on who should or shouldn't come into the country. I am left wondering, though, whether our political masters had a scintilla of foresight when they signed up to the open-border with Europe.

Think, what is the most popular language in the world? It's Mandarin. But if you are a non-English speaker learning a second language, by far the most likely tongue you will choose is English. It's the lingua franca of the commercial, scientific and arts world. And with your new language, with the opportunities in all these fields that it can bring you, where are you going to go? With any sense it's the States or Australia. But you might just choose Blighty, if you don't mind the weather. And millions have.

About now you might be inclined to withdraw from reading this, suspecting I have politically incorrect leanings. You'd be mistaken though, and you'll have to trust me on this. I seek only to present facts, and I credit myself with the intellect to reject racism as the vile slur on civilisation that it is.

The demographics of our nation, shifting so swiftly and significantly as they are, concern me.

The debate about just how many people our 94,000 square miles can accomodate has to start, and the squeamishness of our representatives to address the hard facts must be overcome. The UK is getting smaller, and issues of population growth need to be talked about. We leave it too late at our peril.

(Data: Office of National Statistics; CIA)