Thursday, June 21, 2012

Cameron's hostage to fortune

Whether or not Jimmy Carr is a hypocrite, by condemning his tax avoidance as 'immoral' David Cameron has left one hell of a hostage to fortune (although it's probably worth repeating that, contra the Guardian et al, there's nothing to suggest that DC's father was involved in tax avoidance).

As Hopi Sen says the obvious next step is for the tax arrangements of prominent Tory donors, MPs and even ministers to be held up before the Prime Minister for him to pass moral judgement on them. It's a bit late now for Cameron to pull the "we don't comment on individuals" line, because that's precisely what he's just done.

What makes it all the more galling is that there was a perfectly good way for Cameron to respond, which avoided this pitfall while also pushing the Government message on tax avoidance. The Government is acting a bit like a boxer falling behind on points - so keen on throwing punches tocatch up that it risks leaving its jaw exposed. I mean, do they really want the press on the hunt for every example of low-level tax management that people linked to the Tories have done? Do they want to be endlessly trying to explain that while that sort of avoidance is desperately immoral and wrong, this sort is just fine?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The hypocrisy of Jimmy Carr?

David Aaronovitch has a typically good article in the Times today (£) arguing that tax avoidance is a moral issue, rather than a legal one. He makes a particularly interesting analogy too:

What I am saying is that it isn’t just up to the law or the government to set our ethical and moral boundaries, any more for taxation than for fidelity — partly for practical reasons. In the Times report yesterday the tax avoidance consultant, Mr Lyness, boasts that whatever legal road blocks the authorities can erect, he will always find a route round them. There needs to be something else.

The law is an inherently blunt instrument, and Mr Lyness is right. He and his ilk come in earlier and work later than their counterparts in HMRC. No matter how complicated tax law is made to try to prevent large scale avoidance, the bomber will always get through. Aaronovitch ends up relying on a good old fashioned shaming to put things right:

Failing that — and this is yet another reason why I would like to see Scandinavian-style public declaration of tax returns — they should be shamed and ridiculed by the rest of us.

I'm not sure to what extent he'd advocate similar treatment for fidelity, but there we are. Mutatis mutandis and all that, and I suspect that tax avoidance probably is now considered a greater moral failing than infidelity by many. There is, however, one aspect that I don't think I agree with:

The predictable response was that the comedian Jimmy Carr, who had satirised aggressive tax avoidance not too long ago, had proved himself to be a roaring hypocrite by engaging in it himself.

This hypocrisy accusation also surfaces in the Telegraph, by both James Delingpole (who should pull his damn finger out and get on with Coward in the Woods) and Tim Stanley, and I don't agree with it. Jimmy Carr's entire angle on life is that humour is hermetically sealed, and that jokes exist in and of themselves, without needing to tell a wider truth. Janice Turner interviewed him a while back, and this is what struck me most:

“You don’t pick a comedy style,” Carr says, “it picks you.” And he discovered he did not want to share his life experiences or relate some comedic truth. “I just think of funny things and whether its true or not doesn’t make any odds to me. Offensive or inoffensive? Don’t care. Just: is it funny?”

It's a pretty bleak view, but I think it does insulate him from accusations of hypocrisy. Jimmy Carr's stand-up isn't a reflection of his true beliefs and opinions. If it did, he'd have more to worry about than accusations of hypocrisy...


West Indies batsman Chris Gayle leaves the field after being dismissed against England at The Oval.
The Slow March

On the whole, I think that the DRS has been a very good thing for cricket. Back in the dim and distant past, umpiring shockers could blight an entire career, with some players seemingly magnets for the sort of decisions that make you sell your kit and take up tennis. I remember poor old Nasser having a terrible time in Pakistan in 2000/01, in one game getting sawn off lbw off the middle of the bat in the first innings, and caught behind off his pad flap in the second. Go further back, and you'll find England winning the Ashes in a six match series in Australia without getting a single lbw decision in their favour in the entire series.

Neutral umpires helped stop some of the rot, but even without bias (unconscious or otherwise) mistakes are a feature of umpiring. If a way can be found to reduce these, so much the better. The difficulty with the DRS is that so few people seem to understand what it's for. It's there to correct clear mistakes by the umpire - not to re-assess what the 'correct' decision is from first principles.

The Chris Gayle dismissal yesterday was a perfect illustration of this. Gayle had just changed up from first gear to fifth, on a pretty flat deck, and had all but hit Tim Bresnan out of the attack. Graeme Swann was brought on as a change of pace and, as you can see from the Hawkeye analysis at the Telegraph, bowled full and straight - every one of the five balls he bowled at Gayle would have hit the stumps. Good thinking this, because Gayle doesn't move his feet much, and just props forward in defence to the spinner. The fifth ball pitched just outside the off stump, went on with the arm and hit Gayle in front of the stumps. Bat and pad were jammed together, and the only question was whether it hit the pad first then bat or both at the same time.

Tony Hill thought about it, then lifted his finger. Gayle knew that he'd hit it, so called for the review straight away. On the replays it wasn't clear which had been hit first.

Now, in the Caribbean, opinions are clear on what should have happened next: it wasn't clear, so benefit of the doubt goes to the batsman. Not Out. Here's how Nagraj Gollapudi describes it at Cricinfo:

A hush immediately enveloped at the Oval as Kumar Dharmasena, the Sri Lankan third umpire, deliberated on the decision. As the minutes ticked, the intrigue only deepened. Hot Spot displayed two spots but the replays remained inconclusive about whether the ball hit pad first or bat. Some television pundits said that the time Dharmasena had taken to arrive at a decision meant Gayle should have been given the benefit of doubt. But Dharmasena ruled in favour of Swann. Hill raised his finger for the second time.

But here's the thing. While there is nothing in the Laws of the game to the effect that the benefit of the doubt should go to the batsman, it is very clear in the playing conditions for the DRS that the benefit of the doubt must go to the onfield umpire. Dharmasena didn't rule in favour of Swann. He ruled in favour of Tony Hill. When Gayle's decision was referred, the question wasn't "was he out?" It was "was I definitely wrong to give Gayle out?"

On that basis, if Dharmasena couldn't tell for sure whether it was out or not, what that means is that he can't say that Tony Hill was definitely wrong to give it. Not enough evidence to overturn onfield decision; decision stays. It was a tight call to give Gayle out (and I just wonder if it would have been given in Kingston), but it wasn't an obvious mistake - and that's what the DRS is there to correct.

Parish notices

There's nothing worse than an apology for not posting (and God, I should know - half my posts seem to be apologies). So, no apology, but here we all are again what?

Politics is all a bit dismal just at the moment - mid-term blues with none of the usual sussurations about a possible early election. But that just leaves space for things other than politics! So, on with the trivia, miscellania and other bric-a-brac that clutters up my mind.