Monday, January 30, 2012

The morality of taxation

Mehdi Hasan has a good line from Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr in his piece calling for higher general taxation.

"I like paying taxes," the US supreme court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once remarked, "with them I buy civilisation."

Hasan goes on to argue that the budget deficit could and should be closed largely by taxation, rather than cuts in public spending.

There are three points that this raises. The first is that the structural part of the budget deficit (i.e. that part that we can't just leave to economic growth to sort out) is about £61bn. Total income tax receipts in 2010/11 were £153bn. That's an awful lot of additional taxation, especially at a time when the talk is all of neo-Keynesian financial stimulus. Hasan correctly identifies that a large cause of the deficit was plummeting tax receipts, but to carry on to say that the solution is sky-rocketing tax rates seems to me a bit of a stretch.

The second is here:

Third, poll after poll shows overwhelming public support for a tax on bankers' bonuses; a mansion tax on multimillion-pound properties; a windfall levy on the oil and utility companies; a Robin Hood tax on financial transactions; and a one-off wealth tax of 20% on the richest 10% of households (which would raise a whopping £800bn and, according to YouGov, is backed by three out of four voters).

That people are in favour of tax increases that don't affect them shouldn't be too much of a surprise (but, Jesus, a one-off confiscation of 20% of the total assets of 2.2 million households? I suspect that this won't be making its way into any mainstream manifesto...).

And the third is this:

Perhaps we can update Justice Holmes's mantra for our age of austerity: I like paying taxes, with them I pay down the deficit.

When Oliver Wendell Holmes made his civic minded declaration about the awesomeness of taxes, US Federal tax receipts made up 2.71% of US GDP, with State taxes pushing the total burden up to about 7%. If my tax rates were so low, I'd probably be a bit happier when I saw the state's take off the top of my income.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Cognitive problems

In a piece on feminism in the Guardian Suzanne Moore makes the following interesting point about the cognitive difficulties lefties face when it comes to being 'pro-choice':

This is uncomfortable territory for lefties, because if the state should control everything, then no-one can be said to have 'choice' at all.

Oh no, wait. That would be a ludicrous extrapolation based on a fundamental misreading of left-wing politics. What she actually says, with regard to feminist Tories who oppose the sexualisation of children is this:

This is uncomfortable territory for Tories, because if everything is left to a deregulated market, then everybody is up for sale.

Which is, unsurprisingly, a ludicrous extrapolation based on a fundamental misreading of right-wing politics. But then, it's easier arguing against fictional versions of your opponents.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A slightly odd objection

One of the mooted solutions to the West Lothian Question (a question that, while it would be superceded by Scottish independence, would be rendered more acute by any sort of Devo-Max outcome from the Scottish referendum) is that English MPs alone should be entitled to vote on matters that have been reserved to the devolved Governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. English votes for English laws.

There is, obviously, a problem with this. What happens if the UK Government is unable to command a majority in England - even worse, what happens if the opposition (for which, read the Tories) are able to command a majority in England? As Vernon Bogdanor puts it:

There would, therefore, be one government for English domestic affairs such as education and health, and another government for UK-wide matters, such as economic policy, social security, foreign affairs and defence.

Well, yes. That's the inevitable result of devolution. Democracy is messy and, as we are seeing now, leads to compromises and coalitions. That's not a great argument for getting rid of it though.

Fifteen minutes of fame

I'm probably not the best person to talk about Elly Nowell's decision not to accept an offer to read law at Magdalen College, Oxford. For a start I went to a public school, and for a second thing I went to a college that does not immediately overwhelm you with the grandeur of its buildings (it's rugby team, on the other hand...).

But her 'rejection letter' does raise a couple of points that I think are quite serious.

I realise you may be disappointed by this decision, but you were in competition with many fantastic universities and following your interview I am afraid you do not quite meet the standard of the universities I will be considering.

While you may believe your decision to hold interviews in grand formal settings is inspiring, it allows public school applicants to flourish and intimidates state school applicants, distorting the academic potential of both.

The first is that one of the main reasons that Oxford and Cambridge have an over-representation of independent school students is that they are overwhelmingly more likely to apply. State school students are put off from applying (either by their teachers, or by themselves) in part precisely because of this sort of attitude - old buildings are elitist and snobby: this isn't the place for me. Oxford has been working very hard at trying to dispel this image, but if Nowell's attitude is representative then nothing short of flattening two thirds of the University (or only holding interviews at St Anne's) will be enough, though why, if Nowell has such a dislike of grand architecture, she applied to Magdalen is a bit of a mystery.

It's reminiscent of the Laura Spence affair, and as we can see from the University's response, every bit as unfair and misleading.

An Oxford University spokeswoman said: "Despite what the candidate said, we would point out that the actual admissions figures speak for themselves: of the seven UK students who received offers for law and joint school courses at Magdalen, only one was from an independent school."

The second point is that if she really believes that intimidating surroundings and formal settings are such a handicap to state educated people, I only hope she's not intending to become a barrister.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Straightforward messages

From behind the paywall, Danny Finkelstein nails the key problem that Labour have in getting their economic message across:

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that Labour has no policy, or that its policy is incoherent. My point isn’t even about whether its policy is wrong or right. It’s just that it has made a policy that was already complicated — let’s put up borrowing in order to cut borrowing — even more complicated — we are against the Tory cuts but we accept them.

Complicated messages - even worse, apparently contradictory messages - don't get listened to. And if people aren't listening, they aren't being persuaded.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

I didn't leave the party...

The defection of Luke Bozier to the Tories caused something of a mini-stir over the end of the weekend. Not really because of any great inherent significance in a former bag-carrier switching parties (brilliantly lampooned by Sadie Smith) but more because of the reaction of lefties to the news. This ran the gamut from baffled rage to furious contempt, none of them really addressing the central point that Bozier was trying to make.

I became a member five years ago, in the final days of Tony Blair's leadership. Back then, New Labour was still the intellectual heart of the party. A pro-business attitude and a commitment to revolutionising our creaking public services made sense to me...

Ed proudly declared that New Labour is dead; how tragic. With it, the passion for reform that made our party electable has gone. So too has the pro-business, pragmatic approach to wealth and enterprise.

But the Labour Party - which has comfortably turned back into Old Labour - no longer speaks for this country. And it no longer speaks for me and the sort of Britain I want for my children. And that is why, today, I am joining the Conservatives.

Why is anyone surprised at this sort of sentiment? Tony Blair made a great play of having changed the Labour Party - he even changed the name. At the heart of this change was the sort of pro-business rhetoric pursued (even in the dying days of the Labour administration) by figures like Peter Mandelson. It was a conscious abandonment of the old Kinnockite and Footite Labour movement, and was resented as such by many of the old guard in the Labour Party.

Those days are now over - the death of New Labour is not an accusation hurled at Ed Miliband by his opponents, but the Labour leader's avowed position. When Miliband was chosen as leader, Neil Kinnock exulted that he had his party back. So why should anyone be surprised that someone who was attracted specifically to the Blairite re-invention of the Labour Party should feel disenfranchised by the repudiation of that re-invention? Luke really didn't leave his party - his party left him, and rejoiced that it had done so.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Diane Abbott

David Cameron keeps on being proved right about Twitter (although, obviously you should all follow me @partyreptile). If there were ever an MP you would predict would be caught up in a row on Twitter, a medium that positively encourages speaking without thinking, Diane Abbott would be at the top of your list. And, sure enough...

Inevitably, it was Guido and Harry Cole who made the running with it, on the straightforward basis that it was, unarguably, a racist thing to say (and, c'mon, it just is. It identifies an entire race with a single characteristic. It's textbook) and that if roles were switched and a white Tory MP had said this about black people, then he'd be out on his ear. That line of attack (citing the Public Order Act...) was echoed by Paul Goodman over at ConHome, though he went further than a call for an apology, and argued that she should be sacked.

The defences were fairly predictable as well - Abbot herself initially said it was all taken out of context, and was actually part of a discussion of 19th Century colonialism (which was flat out untrue incidentally, and a particularly dumb excuse when people could just go and read the exchanges for themselves on Twitter). The New Statesman went for the other old stand-by when ethnic minority people are accused of racism - this isn't real racism (a variant of the Polanksi defence "it's not rape-rape"). Samira Shackle's argument goes as follows (though it's something you ought to be familiar with by now):

1. It was all out of context; and
2. Black people can't be racist, because they're not the dominant group.

This latter argument being made most succinctly by Cameron Duodo back in the mists of time, when this blog was young, fresh and updated more than once a week. It is, obviously, balls. Tell Kriss Donald that he could not possibly have been a victim of racism because he was white.

Yet, for all the coverage of this very minor little storm in a teacup, only Toby Young seems to have looked beyond the crass racial generalisation to see what it was that Diane Abbott was actually trying to say. And it's, well it's worse than a crass racial generalisation. Abbott was responding to a comment by a young black journalist to the effect that talking about 'the black community' was unhelpful, because there was no such thing - there were instead many different communities: West Indian British have different goals and problems to West African British - their differences are as important as their similarities.

Abbott's response - that white people just love to divide and conquer - is remarkable, especially coming from a Member of Parliament. The immediate message is, obviously, to adhere to communal identity politics with solid reliable leadership (i.e. herself), but the subtext is the threat that, if you don't stick with this, the white people are just waiting for the opportunity to pounce, and play one group against the other. That is, that white people are the enemy, and all black people need to ally themselves against the common threat.

The better argument against Abbott is not that she used a lazy, racist generalisation but that what she actually meant by her lazy, racist generalisation was a pernicious stirring of inter-communal dislike.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Slightly unfair criticism

2011 was a pretty tough year for Australian cricket (2012 is at least starting out a bit brighter). When Allan Border was appointed Australian captain in thr dark days of the mid 80s, he asked Ian Chappell for a bit of advice. "Whatever you do, don't lose to the Poms," was the succint advice. Not the best of years then. This sort of trauma can lead people to avert their eyes - which is the kindest explanation of this piece from Ben Dorries in the Australian Courier Mail. Because its subject - the relative failure of Test batsmen in 2011 - suffers from a bad case of elephant-missing:

More Test cricket is being played these days but in 2011 there were only two players (Indian veteran Rahul Dravid and Sri Lanka's Kumar Sangakarra) who amassed more than 1000 Test runs for the calendar year. And only three others scored more than 900.

Compare this to some of the huge hauls of past years like Pakistan's Mohammad Yousef (1788 runs in 2006), the great West Indian Viv Richards (1710 runs in 1976) and Ricky Ponting's 1544 runs in 2005.

The problem with this analysis is that Test cricket wasn't played more in 2011 than usual - the reverse in fact. The number 2 Test side, South Africa, played a mere 5 matches in 2011; the number 1 side, England, played 8. By way of reference, Yousuf played 11 Tests in 2006, averaging 99; Richards played 11 in 1976, averaging 90; and Ponting played a whopping 15 in 2005, averaging 67.

There is, luckily a good way to adjust for the disparity in number of matches played - averages. So, lets look at how a couple of the players that Dorries couldn't quite bring himself to mention fared in 2011:

Ian Bell: 8 matches, 950 runs @ 119
Alastair Cook: 8 matches, 924 runs @ 84

Aussie batsmen may have had a shocking 2011, but it wasn't really a global phenomenon now, was it?