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Monday, 28 February 2011

Equality and Low Taxes?

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.


Living on Benefits in the 1960s

This is autobiography.

In 1962, after lodging with my mother's brother and his wife for a year, my mother (then aged 54) and I (14)moved to 16 Sheridan Road, Lower Belvedere - administratively in Kent but really in south east London.

I will describe the accommodation in detail.

The flat occupied the ground floor of a Victorian red-brick terraced house, divided into two flats with a shared front door and hallway, with stairs leading to the upstairs flat, occupied by a London docker and his wife, Mr and Mrs Gerrard.

The first room off the hall was quite spacious with west-facing double sash windows, making it light. This was my mother's bedroom and remained so until she died in 1978. It had no heating - there was no electric socket. For some time, it was without floor covering, but my mother had a dressing table and wardrobe. At some point, we were given a large carpet and I think my mother later added an armchair so that she could sit there on sunny days.

The next room off the hall was my room until I went to University in 1965; I used it intermittently thereafter. It also had no heating, again because there was no electric socket, though there was an old gas lamp still supplied with gas - I lit it on a couple of occasions but did not dare risk regular use. There was no floor covering. There were large windows facing east and in winter this room was very cold with ice sometimes forming on the inside of the windows. I had a wardrobe and built-in cupboard.

I studied for my A levels in this room, sitting on a stool and using the top of a chest of drawers as my desk, and if it was cold, I wore my overcoat. In this room I memorised large parts of Samuelson - my A level textbook of economics.

The third door in the hallway led to the living room, a small damp room with a small window looking into the back yard. There was an electric socket allowing this room to be heated and to house a wireless.

It was on this valve wireless that I heard the news of President Kennedy's assassination. I recall this as the last time that I consciously prayed. I continued through my teens to be interested in religion but ceased to believe. My mother read her Bible regularly and when modern translations of the Bible appeared (the New English Bible), I gave them to her as birthday presents.

My mother's brothers and sisters gave us a dining table and two upright chairs, two armchairs, a sideboard, and a china display cabinet. To begin with, we had newspaper on the floor to stop the draughts through the boards and later we were given some lino. I think that it was after I had gone to University that my mother acquired a TV.

She never acquired a telephone, but there was a public booth opposite the house and, in time, she learnt to use this. But when at the age of 18 I collapsed with an allergic reaction to the antibiotics (sulphonamides) prescribed to me for bronchitis, she fetched the doctor by running to his surgery.

A cupboard off this room was the pantry and in warm weather a bucket of cold water was placed inside to help keep milk cool.

A door off this room led to the kitchen, which I painted and tiled soon after we moved in. There was a deep sink with a cold tap, a gas cooker, and a contraption (I forget the name) which used gas to heat water either for boiling clothes or for supplying hot water to the tin bath kept in a corner. I had a bath once a week. This organisation of the kitchen did not change in the 16 or so years my mother lived in the flat.

Outside, there was a pair of brick-built toilets, one for each of the two flats. As there was no light, after dark you took a torch.

In about 1963, the Headmaster of Marlborough College, John Dancy, published a book The Public Schools and the Future which I read. As you do when you are an angry young teenager, I wrote to him expressing my scepticism and in reply received an invitation to stay at Marlborough for a few days, accompanied by two or three of my fellow Bromley Grammar School sixth formers. In exchange, we were expected to accept a return visit and a boy called Charles Hicks lodged with me - he had my bed and I slept on the floor. I think my home must have been a talking point, because another Marlborough boy, Redmond O'Hanlon, asked to swap with Hicks. My mother said no.

The rent was about thirty shillings (£1.50) per week and my mother had a basic income of about £5 per week at this period. Because my father did not pay his court-ordered maintenance, and because my mother was much of the time not fit enough to work, we were supported by the National Assistance Board (later the Ministry of Social Security). In addition to their support, from the age of 15 I received allowances from Kent County Council for school uniform and a Free Dinner pass. I also worked in my school holidays, beginning when I reached my 15th birthday in July 1962 and took a summer holiday job with the London Trustee Savings Bank in Fleet Street. I forget how much I earned though the figure of £3 something comes to mind, about half of which went on train fares.


Added 24 July 2018: I have now published a memoir of my childhood I Have Done This In Secret (degree zero 2018), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones and other booksellers

Sunday, 27 February 2011

The Big Society? Discourage Dog Keeping

It would be an interesting piece of social history to trace how people living in densely populated urban areas came to believe that it was appropriate to keep dogs in their homes as pets and to "take them for a walk" each day - a euphemism for taking them out to shit on pavements, promenades and playgrounds.

So many people are addicted to the dog habit that here in Brighton a walk along the promenade is a dance around both dogs being walked and the shit they have left behind.

In London the other day, working just off elegant Vincent Square, I discovered that the pavement perimeter of the square appears to have no other function than to allow Domestic Servants to walk their employers' dogs, morning and evening.

As for going for a walk in the country, it seems many people are unable to take a walk unless attached to a dog. It's a bit like being uneasy in social situations unless attached to a cigarette.

The ruthless ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces has produced an enormous improvement in the quality of everyday life - buses, trains, cinemas, restaurants, pubs are now so much more pleasant.

A similar result could be achieved by taking a much tougher line on dogs in urban areas. They should not be allowed into any public open spaces. Keeping them out of children's playgrounds is not enough. For similar reasons, they should be kept off all seafront promenades and beaches (Here in Brighton we have "Dog Friendly Beaches". You wonder what our councillors are on).

Dogs should be banned from high streets, bus stations and railway stations. These are places which should be people -friendly, not piss-and-shit friendly.

And dogs in urban areas should be taxed. The squeezed middle should be squeezed on this one.

Meanwhile, those with dogs and small children might like to reflect on the fact that dogs do maul children to death and that it is not a nice way to die.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Bread and Circuses: the Royal Wedding

I have just finished reading Nicholas Shaxson's Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World which explains how big corporations and very rich people avoid and evade paying taxes in the countries where they operate or live.

Some of them will have recently received invitations to the Royal Wedding: not paying taxes marks you out as important enough to attend this sort of event.

Now I am in the middle of reading Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone.

The Royal Wedding is one of those things which is not better for everyone. 1900 guests at the wedding, 600 at the lunch, 300 at the more intimate evening do. It's the kind of circus designed to make other people feel inferior.

Nor is it the sort of thing which is going to help William and Kate establish themselves as a happily married couple. The big bash did not do it for Charles and Diana and it is a foolish assumption that it can do it for anyone.

From now until the Big Day the Royal Wedding will provide a steady supply of cheap stories for newspapers and TV. They need such stories; many of them can no longer afford to employ journalists.

PS: No sooner had I posted this, than up popped Google with four targetted ads, the last one for "Royal Handwaving Flags", in 100% polyester, so that the lower orders can afford to wave them.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Valentine's Day

This is when young couples, and not so young couples, go out for dinner and, for two hours, do not use their mobile phones.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

He's a Bastard and I want all his Money

This is my title for an anthology of divorce petitions. The "He" is justified by the fact that (in the UK) 90% of all divorce petitions are filed by women.

Fault based petitions are just that: they are places where wives find fault with their husbands. They are the continuation of marital conflict by other means. They should be abolished.

Divorce should be granted on the simple application to a court from either party to a marriage. To stop frivolous applications, an application should automatically trigger an assessment of financial means, needs, entitlements and children's parenting needs - an assessment conducted not by warring solicitors but in a context of independent arbitration and mediation.

If there are grave matters to be dealt with, like domestic violence, that is a matter for the police not the divorce courts.

Only by abolishing the "fault based petition" can one stop the squandering of family resources on solicitors' fees at the stage of marital break-up when people are least reasonable and most reckless.

Wives simply assume that the bills they run up will, eventually, be paid by the Bastard they are divorcing. It does not occur to them that this may also reduce the Bastard's ability to provide financial support to his children.

Men don't contest divorce petitions - that's the rule in the UK. It's partly chivalry and partly financial prudence which stops them doing so. Judges regard petitions as either hilarious or distasteful and rarely pay any attention to them in settling financial and custody matters. But they are nice little earners for solicitors. Which is why we have them.

If you want to divorce your husband or wife, you should not have to damn them in legal language. Nor should you have to wait two years in order to be permitted to behave in a civilised manner.

Adultery? It should not be a ground for a divorce. All other grounds for divorce ("unreasonable behaviour") should be abolished. The only civilised ground for divorce is that someone asks for one.

How I got my first Passport

This is autobiography.

My first application for a passport was refused. That was in 1964. I was 16, about to take my A levels. Afterwards, I had got myself a job for the summer, working in a Swedish hotel - the Hotel Siljansborg, Rättvik. It would be my first time abroad, apart from a day trip to Boulogne at the age of 11, done on a valid-for-one-day- only disposable passport (yes, such things existed).

I needed consent from both my parents. My father, from whom I was estranged, declined consent and my passport application was refused.

I went to see my mother's solicitor in Dartford, Mr Hewitt. He knew all about my father's antics: my mother had obtained a separation in 1961 on grounds of mental cruelty and neglect to maintain. Subsequently, my father still neglected to maintain either my mother or me.

The solicitor, three piece suit and upright bearing, picked up the phone after listening to me and dialled the Foreign Office. When the phone was answered, he stood up. He got to speak to someone - he had their letter to me in front of him - berated the person at the other end, threatened to write to the Under Secretary of State, pointed out that my father by failing to provide maintenance for me had effectively disowned me anyway - and after a couple of minutes, put down the phone. "I think that's done it", he said, smiling, "Come back if it hasn't".

He charged me a couple of guineas.

I don't think it would be that easy nowadays. Probably, also, I was lucky to engage the sympathy of a good solicitor and a bit of a showman.

I write this now because in a forthcoming Blog I want to be more sceptical about solicitors.


Added 24 July 2018: I have now published a memoir of my childhood, I Have Done This In Secret (degree zero 2018), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones and other booksellers

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Ruby Rubacuori, Berlusconi and the Vatican

The real villain in this pantomine is still hiding behind the curtain. Step aside Signor Berlusconi and allow us to see Herr Ratzinger!

It will provide a case study for some enterprising journalist or Ph D student to demonstrate how in this costume drama (nurses' unforms, police outfits ...)the Vatican, as is always the case, has subordinated its supposed principles to its perceptions of who has power and who is most likely to enhance its own power.

The Vatican is pro-Berlusconi. First, he has largely ensured that Italian legislation toes the Vatican "moral" line. Second, his opponents are too "secular" and "liberal". Some of them might want to reduce the influence of the Vatican in Italy and might want to scrutinise more carefully its cover-ups of sexual and financial scandals.

In consequence, the Vatican (and its media) have largely remained silent about the entertaining private life of Signor Berlusconi and its more important public consequences - like 'phoning up to claim that Ruby is a relative of Mubarak's (she isn't) and that therefore the Police Chief of Milan must let her out of jail, pronto. Which he did.

Only in the last couple of weeks has the Vatican felt obliged to register an opinion. Not a thundering editorial in its newspaper, not a denuniciation from the pulpit, but some strangulated squeaks of disquiet from the the Pope's understudy (Signor Bertone).

My recent reading has included an academic study of the Vatican's relations with Germany during Hitler's rise to power and subsequently. I blogged about this previously.

The war time Pope Pius was in earlier life Pacelli, the papal Nuncio to Germany. Pacelli was a good diplomat who avoided moral judgement whenever possible. This is not to say that nothing outraged him. In particular, female gymnastics and modern fashion:

"Any gymnastics wear for girls that provocatively accentuates their shapes or that is inappropriate for the female character must be avoided... Gymnastics for girls must take place in halls or places that are not open to the public" (quoted from Hubert Wolf - Pope and Devil, page 63).

"Catholic morality ... must with disgust resolutely and unconditionally condemn and reject the currently dominant fashion with its tendentious exposures and accentuations of physical forms ..." (page 64)

When the resolute and unconditional condemnation flows from the Vatican press office, its target will not be Signor Berlusconi but those modern forms of gymnastics, lap dancing and pole dancing, and their scantily clothed practitioners whose activities "engender concupiscence".

Under cover of this "moral" assault, and if all goes to plan, Signor Berlusconi will be able to exit, smiling, on his way to the next bunga bunga party. Ruby will be left behind, centre stage perhaps, doing penance.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Bank Holidays, Public Holidays : Memo to Vince Cable

To: The Rt Hon Vince Cable MP, Secretary of State for Business Innovation & Skills
From: Someone Self - Employed

I have been thinking about the letter your Correspondence Unit (CU) sent me on 27 January 2011 (ref JW230099) in response to my email of 5 December.

A few points occur to me:

(1) "There is no statutory entitlement to time off for bank holidays" your CU writes. So the dates of bank holidays announced by your department [ that's right, isn't it?] are advisory. They advise employers when to shut down. This sounds like a thoroughly bad idea. The public sector follows your advice and the service sector doesn't. Employees don't get a look in. This is a pity, especially as you have chosen such an ill-assorted set of dates - most when it is likely to rain - on which to advise employers to shut up shop.

(2) My local hospital A and E department is open 24/7 and 365/365. Everyone expects that to be the case. It doesn't mean that A and E workers are on duty 24/7 and 365/365. They work shifts and rotas, and take time off in turn. Would it not be a good idea to treat this as the norm for any large organisation? Would it not be better for BIS if you expected employers to think in terms of justifying deviations from this norm rather than see it as an exceptional case?

I am sure that Tesco would sign up for 24/7, 365/365 but you would have a lot more difficulty persuading GP surgeries or local government refuse collection departments. This is becaue of the culture which government has created in which public sector organisations start from the assumption that they should normally be closed and only grudgingly open.

(3) I am all in favour of people celebrating things. They manage to do this on November 5th, when there is no bank holiday, and likewise on other days which matter to them. If the government wants to encourage certain celebrations, why doesn't it simply name the days and recommend the dates rather than try to shut down business at the same time?

(4) I am quite sure most people will want to select December 25th as one of their holiday days and a sensible employer will close on that day in response to that popular demand. (That is one of the lessons of A Christmas Carol). But very,very few people care about Good Friday and Easter Monday, especially when they fall in March, and it seems strange that you persist in encouraging those shut downs.

(5) There is a purely economic issue which your colleague at the Treasury might like to think about. Bank holiday shut downs generate numerous inefficiencies and additional costs. Frustrated drivers in traffic jams cause accidents and additional demands on the emergency services. Refuse collection collapses and workers have to be bribed with double or treble time to catch up the backlog. Because British culture is about getting pissed on any excuse, public holidays are followed by workers returning to the office with a hangover. I suspect all these costs ( and there are many more) take a considerable economic toll. Have you thought of costing them, I wonder? or is this one for the Treasury?

Keep up the good work!

PS: On Google, the phrase "Bank holiday washout" currently returns over 21,000 results. The score varies seasonally. Check again in the Spring.

May Day! May Day! - Joined up government on public holidays!

At the end of last year, I dropped a line to Vince Cable at the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) suggesting that it would be better for workers (not to mention better for BIS)if all public holidays were abolished, freeing workers from the tyranny of employer shutdowns on unwelcome dates. Workers would still have their statutory entitlement to 28 days holiday; but they would have more control over when to take those holidays.

BIS replied on 27 January 2011, "Over the years there have been various suggestions from the public for changes to bank holidays, however the current pattern is well established and accepted"

A week later I read in the papers that the government wants to move the May (Day) bank holiday to October. Looks like we have a case of joined-up government here.

My proposal still stands: Abolish the lot.

Public holidays demean workers by making them take days off if their employer is one who decides to shut down for the days decreed by the government (advised by the Church of England's astrologers and the Keepers of Royal Wedding diaries).

Public holidays disrupt public services, at considerable cost to the public, because nowadays it is primarily public sector organisations - town halls and such like - which impose shutdowns on bank holidays. Tesco and my local kebab shop ignore them.

Insofar as public holidays benefit anyone, they always benefit the same people. There is never a day when the shops and restuarants close and the town halls stay open.