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Thursday, 23 May 2019

Going to the Dogs: Alexander McQueen's Will meets Tullett Prebon

This Blog post from 26 July 2011 had hundreds of visitors presumably because it includes the name “Alexander McQueen”; the real story is what follows on from that and it is still pertinent in 2019 where UK  government policy (or lack of one) is making it even harder to pay down debt:
All the papers report that Alexander McQueen left his money to the dogs: £100 000 to Battersea Cats' and Dogs' Home, £100 000 to the Blue Cross sick animal centre, and £50 000 in trust for the lifetime care of his own pet dogs.

In a Will worth £16 million, it's not a lot, just rather sad. Why didn't he leave it to the Chancellor of the Exchequer?

Very few people now leave money to the State, voluntarily that is, though they used to. A Report out today indicates that we badly need them to.

Officially, public debt stands at around £900 billion or over 60% of GDP. But lots of things are kept "off balance sheet". In a report for the brokers Tullett Prebon, Project Armageddon, Tim Morgan factors them in:

Add the final costs of bank bail outs, of unfunded future public sector pension commitments and of payoffs under Blair-Brown private Finance contracts and the debt figure rises four times to £3.6 trillion representing £135 000 per household. [I am using The Daily Telegraph's reporting]

It seems inevitable that at some point, like when they die, the present generation (the Baby Boomers - people like me) should be asked to pay and, failing that, made to pay.

Only yesterday, I took comfort in the £200 000 equity in my flat, the mortgage down to a few thousand. This morning I have to subtract £135 000 from that - the burden of public debt per household. Of course, if you shared out that figure proportionately rather than simply dividing by households, it would be less. For Sir Fred Goodwin it would be more.

However unpalatable to the Tory faithful, Chancellor George Osborne is going to have to look hard at inheritance tax. I make one suggestion.

At present, there is an exemption limit and above that the State takes a percentage of the value of an Estate at death. I would modify that to a variable percentage. Just as the State imposes supertaxes on alcohol and tobacco in its attempts to discourage them or make their users pay for the social costs of their habits, so it should tax legacies it deems noxious at a higher rate than those it deems benign. Ninety five percent on legacies to cats' and dogs' homes

Felix Ehrenhaft and Paul Feyerabend

Click to Enlarge

This is a specialist bit of Blogging, originally published on 6 February 2012. It has had lots of visitors so I re-publish it in unchanged form to keep it available for specialists.

At some point when I was a graduate student in London (1968 - 70), Paul Feyerabend came to lecture, maybe at LSE maybe at UCL. Imre Lakatos was lecturing in London at the same time and on at least one occasion, Feyerabend and Lakatos argued together at the blackboard, each armed with a piece of chalk, and in front of a large audience. Both were remarkable lecturers and experts in showmanship.

I have just begun to clear out my papers from that period and doing so, came across a large envelope mailed to me by Feyerabend from Berkeley (where he was a Professor) and postmarked 1971. Inside, there is a Mimeo "Single Magnetic Northpoles and Southpoles and their Importance for Science. Ten lectures delivered at the University of Vienna during the summer semester of 1947 by Dr Felix Ehrenhaft ... with an appendix: Ehrenhaft in post-war Vienna". The Mimeo is described as a "tentative translation / 1967 PKF [Paul K Feyerabend]"

I browsed through the Mimeo. The seven page Appendix II, "Ehrenhaft in post-war Vienna" is written by Feyerabend and gives many clues both to the origins of his later preoccupations as a philosopher of science (science and charlatanism, for example) and to that teaching style which I remember from London. He writes for example of Ehrenhaft:

"His method of teaching was unusual also. It was quite possible, in physics, in mathematics, in astronomy to interrupt the lecturer and to ask for the clarification of a doubtful point (the situation was very different in philosophy and in the humanities where many lecturers rejoiced in giving sermons and where interruption was almost an act of sacrilege). But Ehrenhaft challenged us to criticize him and criticized us for just listening to what he had to say. I can still remember him exploding at one point and shouting at us: "Are you dumb? Are you stupid? Or do you really agree with everything I say?" The question was quite justified for there were large chunks to swallow. Relativity and quantum theory were rejected at once ..." [emphases in the original]

Later, discussing Ehrenhaft's effect on his students in Vienna, Feyerabend asks
"Were we corrupted by him?" and later concludes, " every physics department should at least have some Ehrenhaft among its members"

In this very brief selection of quotations, I think a lot is revealed about the origins of Feyerabend's teaching style, his theoretical contribution to the philosophy of science and some of the difficulties of his professional life.

Monday, 13 May 2019

Memory, Forgetting and the Internet

This was a review originally published on  28 July 2011:

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger’s Delete is an academic book (Princeton University Press) but it is simply written and methodically organised. It belongs to the emerging genre of books which reflect on the implications of digital technology / media for our lives.

The author (I will abbreviate him to V.M-S) is principally concerned with the fact that we can now store truly enormous quantities of information very cheaply, that we can retrieve it almost effortlessly using extraordinarily powerful technologies, and that we can potentially share it or access it globally. There is really no incentive to forget, lose or shred information; unless we do something about it, it can and will sit there forever.

V. M-S thinks we should do something about it. Historically, human lives can go on and societies remain viable because we can and do forget: literally, we forget because our minds can't remember everything and, metaphorically, we forget because information held in traditional ways degrades: even our cherished manuscripts succumb to "the gnawing criticism of the mice" (Marx). At both individual and social levels, forgetting is closely connected to forgiving - and moving on.

Forgetting used to be our "default" setting, says V. M-S, but that is changing: our default is now to remember - and to put ourselves in a position where others can remember for us, often with no more effort than typing a few words into Google. In a number of ways, we risk being unable to move on from, escape from our past.

V. M-S argues that we can and should reverse the trend but without giving up on the benefits which the digital revolution has brought us. In his chapter Five, he reviews half a dozen strategies for taming the negative consequences of our new World Memory, our digital Panopticon, among them - most obviously - the strengthening of privacy laws.

But in chapter Six, he advances his own favoured solution, beautifully simple but potentially enormously powerful. He argues that digital information should have an Expiry Date, after which it is deleted or - less drastically - shifted into long-term storage so that (for example) it no longer comes up on routine Google searches.

In some cases, individuals should specify an expiry date: for example, imagine having to tag the emails you have sent with a date at which they are automatically deleted.

In other cases, the Expiry date could be contractually agreed - when, for example, I agree to a seller's proposal that my personal data be held for not longer than six months after our business transaction.

Finally, the state might legislate in important cases.

Creating software to manage this would be easy and, in fact, has been done.

This simple strategy is intuitively appealing: one of people's worries about the Internet has been precisely that everything is there for ever and that there is little or nothing they can do about it. It also has in-built flexibility - different expiry dates can apply to different categories of information. And if I am convinced that my manuscripts should not be shredded, I could tag them to be kept alive "forever".

I would have welcomed more examples than V. M-S gives in what is a rather sparely written book. And I think that there is a much more overtly political story to be written than the one he has given us. Since he is now Oxford's Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation, that may be on some future agenda.

Sunday, 12 May 2019

How to achieve greater equality with lower taxes

This Blog from 28 February 2011 had a lot of readers. It’s a bit speculative, a bit of Devil’s Advocacy, but some of it I still think on the right (ie, left) lines:

I just finished reading The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

Though most of the more equal societies on their graphs have high-tax regimes (the Scandinavian countries most obviously), one does not: Japan. It is more equal before tax, not after tax, and in fact has a low tax regime.

This interests me because I think there is a progressive / left-wing case for low tax governments, at least in the UK.

The core argument is simple and pragmatic: the chances of a high-taxing government in the UK spending money cost-effectively are nil. The accumulated evidence is everywhere and on this issue the (right-wing) Taxpayers' Alliance has everything on its side. In the UK, everyone has a sound reason to begrudge government its money. Governments have proved themselves over decades to be self-indulgent and stupid wasters. High taxes have done nothing to promote equality.

There is no left-wing merit in taxing anyone, even the rich, in order to then waste their money.

But if you reduce taxes how do you then make a society more equal? Isn't redistribution of income through taxation the only route to more equality?

No. You can stop inequality at source. Here are some of the things you can do:

- You put a cap on income differentials. It becomes illegal to pay anyone more than ten or twenty times or forty times (take your pick - you are still an egalitarian at forty times) the minimum wage. This is the core of a low tax - low inequality world.

- You abolish regressive taxes like VAT and instead impose selective consumption taxes on luxury goods. Sumptuary laws of this kind existed under the Conservative governments of the 1950s and they could be brought back.

- You reduce income taxes all round and shift some of the (reduced) burden of taxation to inheritance taxes to damp down the inequality which passes from generation to generation. You aim to create a more level playing field.

- To discourage the benefits scrounging culture which post-1970s UK governments have fostered, you re-emphasise the original notion that benefits are funded from insurance-based schemes. Equality cuts both ways: the richer should pay their fair share and the poorer should be expected to contribute not scrounge.

- You deny charitable status (and its tax breaks) to public schools; possibly, you close them down.

Along these lines, you would be aiming to get the overall burden of taxation down to around 20% (a favoured right-wing figure) and the level of social equality up to levels not known since World War Two.

Of course, a left-wing government would be closing down different expenditure areas to a right-wing one. That would be the area of political difference.


© Trevor Pateman 2011 and 2019

Kleptocracies and Kleptocrats

Today The Sunday Times published its annual Rich List. As it happens, I’m also reading Guy Shrubsole’s new book, Who Owns England? Both reminded me of an old Blog, published here on 2 June 2011 (probably responding to that year’s Rich List) and now re-published more or less unchanged:

Half the world's nastier regimes are often described as kleptocracies. Those in power are motivated by a desire to steal money. So money coming in as foreign aid is siphoned off to private bank accounts and income generated from oil or mineral exports likewise. It's as easy as this:

An aid agency contacts the local Ministry of Finance and asks for bank account details so that it can shell out. Back comes the numbers of half a dozen accounts, no names, but actually: the President's personal account, his wife's personal account, his brother-in-charge-of-internal-security's personal account ... and ten percent to an account from which the Ministry of Health will spend money on the projects for which aid is being granted.

Much of the money will then be transferred abroad to countries like Switzerland and the UK from where it can be accessed if the Day of Downfall ever arrives - but also, just for shopping trips abroad to buy new houses, cars, yachts, shoes .....  See now Tom Burgis, The Looting Machine ( ). Nicholas Shaxson's book on tax havens, Treasure Islands also provides a lot of relevant detail.  

It's gone on for decades like that since the End of Colonialism and is part of the deal by which the West has kept oil- and mineral-rich regimes on side. France is one of the worst offenders: for fifty years, its governments have supported any regime in ex-colonial Africa so long as it is uncontaminated by any belief in Liberty, Equality or Fraternity.

But kleptocracies are nothing new. They have dominated world history.

I just finished reading Tony Faber's Faberge's Eggs, a careful and well-written study of the famous Easter Eggs which the Court Jeweller, Carl Fabergé, prepared for Russia's last two Tsars to give to their wives and mothers at Easter.

The Romanov family held on to absolute power in Russia for just over three hundred years - from 1613 to 1917. The veil they passed over their own kleptocracy was ingenious: since their word was law (that's what "Autocracy" means) whatever they did couldn't be stealing, could it? You can see where the communist idea came from.

Old style kleptocrats were less likely to keep their money in bank accounts, but they liked to keep a lot of it portable - just in case. So when in 1918 the Bolsheviks took the last of the Romanovs down in to the cellar of the House of Special Purpose in Ekaterinburg and lined them up to be shot, the Tsar's daughters obstinately refused to fall down dead from the bullets and required additional bayoneting and beating. Why? "The reason only became clear when Yurovsky [ in charge of the operation] began disposing of the bodies. The corsets of three of the grand duchesses contained eighteen pounds of jewellery, enough to make them armour-plated" (Faber, page 148). But the jewellery they had smuggled into their final exile was no more than a grain of sand from what the family really held.

Lenin famously sent out instructions to "Loot the Looters" - the modern equivalent would be "Freeze their Bank Accounts". And so by the beginning of 1919, "thirty-three warehouses around Petrograd were filled with antiques and other objets d'art", the contents of which were sold off over many years - notably in the USA -  to supply the new regime with much-need foreign exchange. There was much more besides, more valuable items, kept in secure vaults rather than warehouses.

Carl Fabergé's son, Agathon - a gemmologist - had been imprisoned by the Bolsheviks in 1917 and eventually saved his life only by agreeing to describe and value the jewels the Bolsheviks had amassed. He eventually fled to Finland and passed the rest of his life as a stamp collector - my own work as a stamp dealer often brings me into contact with material from the vast collections he accumulated.

Occasionally, kleptocratic families harbour real kleptomaniacs, though they might be able to pass a veneer over their habit. Faber writes this about Queen Mary of Teck, wife of Britain's George V: "Owners of private houses were said to dread a visit; they would prepare by hiding whatever they had that was valuable or beautiful, for they knew that if Queen Mary saw an object, she might well admire it with open covetousness, dropping heavy hints until the treasure was offered to her. She would take it away with her there and then" (page 194). [ For more insight into the Royal Family's Grandma Swag, Jane Gardham's Old Filth has some entertaining details of her war-time evacuation to Badminton].

Kleptocracies are nearly all family affairs - modern ones are often called "republican dynasties".

There is one important exception: the Vatican. This is an institution which has sucked blood out of rich and, mainly, poor over centuries and has accumulated fantastic wealth, much more opaquely held than that of, say, our own Royal Family* . But it cannot be passed on as in a family because of the rule of priestly celibacy. You only get life-time enjoyment. That's not the kind of enjoyment the rulers of North Korea and Kazakhstan and a hundred other regimes are interested in.

* On the Sunday Times Rich List, the Queen is currently in position 257 with personal wealth of just £300 million, including a stamp collection, jewels, cars, horses, shares and properties personally held (Sandringham, Balmoral and others). Excluded is the Crown Estate (valued at £6.6 billion but controlled by the Treasury) and the Royal art collection (valued at £10 billion)

© Trevor Pateman 2011 and 2019

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

Anarchism Defined

First published as a Blog post on 23 June 2011 when Greek anarchists were rioting. On a world-historical scale, Walter Scheidel's book The Great Leveller ( 2017) is very interesting on the topic of crude re-distribution of wealth.

Anarchists believe that there is such a thing as a Free Lunch. Yours.That really is the only belief anarchists have - but there are different kinds of anarchists.

In poor and unhappy countries, when public order breaks down, the first thing people do is loot what they can. This is called anarchy and this anarchy is understandable. The hugely unequal distribution of wealth and income in such countries is the result of  injustice supported by state repression. Looting brings about an immediate, rough and ready re-distribution. Unfortunately, shop keepers who aren't the worst criminals - and who may indeed be victims of the local regime's protection rackets - are usually the biggest victims. Occasionally, looters get into presidential and royal palaces - they did in Iraq thanks to US government encouragement and they did thanks to the Bolsheviks in Russia back in 1917 (Lenin's slogan, "Loot the Looters"). But in all cases, looting works in favour only of the young and fit - and generally male. 

 If you don't fall into that category, your only hope of getting something for nothing is to get it off the state and rely on the state to make others pay. In Greece back in 2008 -2011, this system broke down , it seems, because the state was useless at getting those others to pay. There were just too many tax breaks and too many tax evaders at the same time that the state was indulging the desire for something for nothing on an unaffordable scale. Borrowing to pay benefits which generate no new economic activity was doomed to come to a sticky end, an end delayed because  BNP Paribas and others went on lending to Greece way past the point when it became seriously sub-prime.

To those in receipt of "something for nothing" it does not always feel like that. A civil servant with a sinecure probably feels they have a job, but even in Europe and most obviously in countries like Greece and Italy, that feeling has quite often been transparently untrue. 

Those with inherited wealth - what used to be called "private means" - rarely consider that someone else is working to keep them in the style to which they accustom themselves "Private means" is really something for nothing, someone else's lunch..

Anarchists as we usually understand them can't get near those "private means" nor can they get into bank accounts held in the world's tax havens for the rich created (mainly) by the US and UK governments, and which owe their success to not being very fastidious about how the money they handle was obtained. Tax havens let you be an anarchist without being young, fit and male. 

There are a lot of those other kind of  anarchist  in the world.

© Trevor Pateman 2011 and 2019

Monday, 6 May 2019

Atheism and Secularism

This Blog published 5 December 2010 was incorporated into the opening chapter of my book The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016). 

Many years ago I was commissioned to write a short book on Atheism. I had already written a short What is Philosophy? (Edward Arnold 1987) now republished on my site, and thought I could deliver on Atheism. But I couldn't. I found it emotionally difficult.

You could, for starters, distinguish three kinds of atheism : ontological, epistemological and moral.

Thinking about what there is (ontology), you can argue that there is no need to postulate a god to explain the universe and so, using Occam's Razor ( Don't imagine more things than you have to ), don't postulate one. You can also argue that any well-founded ontology looses its robustness or coherence once you start adding a god into it. And so on. None of this interests me very much, though I read some of the books.

Thinking about how we know things (epistemology) you can argue that it's unknowable whether there is or isn't a god - which leads to agnosticism rather than atheism - or that there is no evidence pointing towards the existence of a god or that the evidence points the other way. For example, the Problem of Evil (the theodicy problem) suggests that even if there is a god, he, she or it isn't a good one or isn't a powerful one. There's too much evil in the world. This is a bit more interesting and I read quite a few books, notably John Hick, The Problem of Evil.

But my own brand of atheism, such as it is, says that it is wrong to believe in god. It's a moral question. I ended up with the following formulation: If a good god did exist, he or she would not wish us to believe in him or her any more. Too many crimes have now been committed in their name. To expand on that, there is now something indecent about believing in god. From a slightly different angle, there is something weak-willed about believing in god. It is too closely connected to hedging one's bets, since in general (though for no compelling reason) belief in god and belief in personal immortality are interlinked. Take away the promise or threat of immortality and there is not much left of Christianity. The Vatican would not be able to frighten anyone without immortality.

But whether or not someone is a theist does not trouble me very much. In fact, from the religious and theological literature I read from my teenage years on, I always came away with respect for those who live quietly pious lives - I say "quietly" because the lack of demonstrativeness is the core of the piety. And I think there can be non-theist versions of that piety: paying attention to someone, to something, is the natural piety of the soul.

What does trouble me is organised religions. With very few exceptions, they are dreadful outfits - mean spirited, cruel, corrupt, self-indulgent, full of hate towards women and children. The Vatican - a totalitarian bureaucracy - has demonstrated all that, continuously, for centuries.

So I want to clip the wings of organised religions and keep them out of public life. No state religions, no faith schools, no NHS hospital chaplains, no red carpets for the big wigs, no tax breaks, no immunity from civil and criminal law.

That makes me a secularist.

I am surprised how weak we are in our dealings with organised religion. Mussolini granted the Vatican recognition as a "state" because its bureaucrats wanted to put themselves beyond the reach of ordinary civil and criminal law. That is what the 1929 Lateran Pact is all about. Time to repudiate it. Send in the tanks. No Vatican State, just a church whose bureaucrats, like all other citizens, are subject to the laws of the country in which they live.