Friday, 30 September 2011

Bun deal

Today I spent £1.39 on four burger buns that I knew, before I handed over my money, that I would have to throw away. I knew this because as I handed them to the lady in the shop she looked a little concerned, she checked the date, and she said 'they look ok, but if they're not suitable then bring them back and we'll give you a refund'.

I know what milk smells like when it's gone off, even despite being nowhere near it's expiry date. It smells like milk.. and as soon as I smell the milk, I have to throw it out because it's 'gone'. So I never smell the milk. I put it in my tea, and it's ok. If someone says 'I think the milk might be off' then I smell it, and it is off.

So the burger buns were, obviously, off. I smelt them and they smelt funny. I sliced them in half and the texture wasn't right. I threw them away. I was never going to take them back to the shop.. I wasn't even ever going to tell the lady that I'd rather not buy them in the first place. Sometimes, I'm so dreadfully British it really rather hurts, Henry.

So here is my question... did I help the economy at all?

Well, I think I added to GDP, which is good. It was a small local shop, not a supermarket, so that's good too. I'm fairly well off, and can afford to save money, so it's good that I spent some.

But, of course, nothing has been achieved here.. except a redistribution of my £1.39 between a variety of people... some probably poorer than me (the girl in the shop) and some probably richer (the managing director of the company that made the buns). There's no VAT on burger buns, but the taxman still grabs a cut of everyone's profits and wages - so some of my money will go to help ensure that very wealthy pensioners can continue to draw state benefits.

But, like I say.. have we really achieved anything?

Have we, in fact, caused harm? The bun maker made and/or the shop sold buns which were possibly not fit for consumption. After all, the lady didn't express concern or assure me I'd be OK for a refund with anything else I bought. There was clearly poison in them there buns... and I paid for them, and even if there had been rotting kitten feet inside I'd probably have decided that, for £1.39, it wasn't worth the bother of returning them. What kind of message does it send to all these people that I'm OK just to hand over £1.39 of the wage I should have been hard-earning at the time I'd ducked out to buy burger buns.. (or, 'working from home' as it's often known.) without getting anything like commensurate value? Have I been had? Or am I at fault for not helping them improve by pointing out that flogging me shonky buns just isn't on?

No value has been created, yet everyone has been rewarded.. except me, and I'm entirely ambivalent. Yet, to most the people who add things up and cast their opinions.. there was good here. There was production, distribution and retail of something. There was a free market exchange. There's been tax collected and wealth redistributed. Many boxes were ticked, and I had my burgers in a sandwich instead.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Out with the old...

I want to try and explain, concisely, why I have a problem with public sector pensions.

Well, they are unfair. That is to say, it is unfair if one group of workers get a level of income underwritten by the state where another does not.. simply by virtue of who their employer is. If, say, Vodafone offered a great pension to it's staff, and HM Government agreed to underwrite the liabilities even if Vodafone itself couldn't pay them... well, there would be something of a kerfuffle.

If, by the way, you think that private pensions should be brought up to public sector pension standards then, well, you're a bit of an idiot. Why? Well whilst we could well say that Tesco or Barclays should be able to do this, you might want to have a word with the guy who runs that little shop on the corner and see how he feels about setting up a final-salary pension fund for his staff.. and ensuring that he lives long enough, and remains solvent enough, to ensure it's always properly funded. You could, of course, award him tax-raising powers so that he can, on a level playing field with the government, ensure that his liabilities are met.

But here's the thing... I don't think public sector pensions are necessarily unaffordable. I think that if the state wants to guarantee a level of retirement income for people then, so long as we all vote accordingly for that policy, it's a great thing. I'm suspicious of many things the state does, but looking after old people who've paid into society throughout their lives is fine with me. It's something we should all want to participate in.

But there's the thing. We ALL want to participate in it. If society, the state, is going to agree to provide this awesome benefit, then it should provide it to everyone.. irrespective of their employer.

So.. let us not talk of dragging down public sector workers to shonky private-style pension provisions. Let us not have a really really boring squabble about whether one lot is paid more than the other, or works harder, or is nicer to bunnies. Let us establish a national pension scheme which is open to everyone, and which all employers are required to allow their employees to join. Let's set, as far as we can, the same retirement ages for everyone. Let's cap the amount an individual can get out at a level we're all agreed upon (say, for the sake of brevity here, the average wage). Let's set contribution levels and a strategy for using/investing the contributions with a view to it not needing any direct injection of funds from future taxpayers (though, of course, it may well have invested in assets which future taxpayers benefit from and thusly pay for).

This would create a monster pool of money, and deciding what to do with that would be something of an issue (and, let me be very clear, politicians should have no say in it.. and the whole thing would operate entirely independently of general taxation). But let's gloss over the niggles. Because whilst this would be complex, and expensive, and bloody terrifying.. it would be FAIR. And we can all get together and have ourselves a little vote to decide whether we want to do it.

If not, well close down all the unfunded defined benefit state schemes.. at least for new members.. and let's all move on in the same shit leaky boat.

Rationally Irrational

Well Tabloid Watch takes a pop at Richard Desmond for this new 'Health Lottery', but I'm mainly delighted to have yet another reason to hate Eamonn Holmes.

Of course, it's fairly pathetic to see Desmond constantly using his 'news'papers to hawk whatever other shit he's selling (Channel 5, shonky lotteries, timeshare apartments in Cleethorpes?), but if people are dumb enough to fall for it them he'll be smart enough to keep doing it. Alas, Mr Tabloid Watch, you're pissing in the wind.

But, oh... that smug self-important windbag Holmes, whoring himself out to this rather unsavoury cause*, how I love to hate him. Look at his face, LOOK AT IT, how much do you want to punch him already.. and he's not even said anything mind-alteringly egotistical yet.

*of course, I've little time at all for those who complain about how much goes to 'good causes' from these things. Anyone who enters a lottery, be it the 'National Lottery' or the 'Eamonn Holmes is an Annoying Twat Lottery', because of a love for 'good causes' is an idiot. If they were not an idiot, they'd forgo the minuscule odds of winning some proper money and give the whole quid to their chosen good cause. As it is, lottery participants are lottery participants because they want to win some money, so the only figure they should be interested in is the percentage of the ticket price that goes into the prize fund. The money that Richard Desmond pays over to the 'good causes' would be better labelled 'marketing costs'.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Personal debt.. let's blame it all on the Tories

The Green Benches: Personal Debt set to grow £566bn under the Tories (OBR)

Now, I am no fan of personal debt. Tough economic times almost certainly will lead to it rising.. incomes necessarily fall, and as we try to maintain our standards of living the money has to come from somewhere. We just hope to be able to catch up again in the future, or die before we have to. It's our own domestic Keynesianism.

But, what Eoin does here is take personal debt under the final year of Labour, and show how it's projected to rise under the Tories. All correct, all deeply unfortunate.

He doesn't show us how it rose under Labour.

His source document helps a little. Look at chart 1. The bottom line is debt as a percentage of income (a more helpful measure than the absolute amount of debt, I'm sure you'll agree). That also shows that the proportion will grow over the next five years. It shows, in fact, that it will grow back to what it was in 2007, at the end of a dramatic rise which started on or around 2002. Remind me again who was running the country then?

And, let us go on, between 2002 and 2007 there was no recession. There was no global financial crisis. It was boom. In our little domestic Keynesian world this was the time we should have been saving for a rainy day. So, if we're calling Giddy Osborne a 'glorified loan shark', what does that make Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling? At least Giddy is overseeing unsustainable domestic borrowing in a time when there's an argument that we need it.

Eoin then gives us a chart showing a fall in net household worth as a percentage of income. Again, that's possibly undesirable... but it takes into account much more than household debt. That would also include a decline in asset values such as houses. Personally, I think a fall in house values is a bloody good thing which everyone on the left should be delighted about. For clarity, however, I would not for a minute suggest that this means the data Eoin shows is all good, it's not.. it just doesn't serve his purpose very well.


When I was a child the various branches of the family on my mothers side would all spend time in a family cottage, owned by my grandmother, in a (then) small seaside village on the west of Ireland.

The house had a kitty. The kitty was a cracked old Kerrygold margarine tub, and every day all the mums/dads would put money in it so that we could do the daily shop. There were usually between 10 and 15 people in residence, so that was something of a task.

Granny and our great aunt, who was always there, didn't have to put any money in the kitty. They were old and they'd long since paid their share in cash terms - and they did plenty else to keep the house running smoothly. They went to mass eight times a week to pray for the rest of us, amongst other things. And they played a lot of golf, which probably helped somehow.

Anyway, I digress. We children didn't have to put any money in either. We didn't really have any. Instead, we had to do our share.. we did the washing up, we kept our rooms tidy, we behaved ourselves, we buggered off to the beach when we were told to (oh, the trauma of childhood).

That's how our little society worked. We all knew that, and we all played our part as best we could. Those with money put in money, those without did something else.

The remarkable thing about the kitty was that it was just left there, on the kitchen cabinet, always with a healthy amount of money in it... but it was sacred. We were kids, and we'd happily nick 50p off each other if the chance came, and beg for extra spending money at every opportunity from our parents, and generally do things that kids do. But never, in all my years, did anyone even contemplate nicking 50p from the kitty.

Now, there's a point to this. The Green party believe that the UK should have a 'citizens income' that is, an amount of money, paid for by taxation, that everyone gets.. just for being a citizen. I like this idea. I like the idea of scrapping dozens of complex benefits and tax allowances and simply saying 'here, have this, and the rest is kinda up to you'. Although it opens up many issues and questions, it's a wonderful elegant idea.

But, it must come with a responsibility.. to be a citizen.. to contribute. If one can't contribute with money (i.e. tax) then one must contribute with something else. Now, that might be raising children, or it might be working in the community. Let's not confuse it with 'community service', it's not a punishment. Let's not treat it as finding idle work for the feckless. Let's not have people doing things for the benefit of people or companies well able to pay someone a wage. But let's have local communities, at the lowest possible level, saying 'wouldn't it be nice if we could get this done', and having people, citizens, offer their time to do it.

A little from the left, and a little from the right.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

An actual post about someone who did it wrong

Ok, this is what I'm talking about:

Dr Eoin Clarke is, I am led to understand, a doctor of Irish feminist history. I'm not going to denigrate that, because I'm not a doctor of anything.. and I think that feminist history is a worthy thing to study.. and I'm half Irish. All that is fine by me.

In the linked post, our doctor discusses how much tax various companies pay. It's not his area of expertise.. he freely admits:
I am not suggesting anything untoward not least because I am no tax expert.

(his emphasis, there)

He goes on:
Cadbury, Diageo and other companies paid incredibly little tax for various reasons that I do not wish to bore you with
Now, given his earlier statement I have to wonder if he's not going to bore me with the actual reasons for the things he is concerned about because, being 'no tax expert' he doesn't really understand them?

But here's the point.. Eoin wants to talk about how companies don't pay enough tax. That's a fair topic, because many don't. What he's done, however, is choose a selection of companies who didn't pay a lot of tax in the given years. Except Arcadia which paid tax at the full rate of 30%, which he does not draw attention to. He's used these companies as an illustration that something is wrong. With the exception of Lloyds, which didn't pay tax because it lost money in the year before (a feature of tax) he won't tell us why. Are there good reasons for the lack of tax, or are there bad reasons? If he wants me to conclude that something is amiss, he really needs to tell me.

More pertinently, what about all the other companies? What about the ones he didn't pick? Isn't this a bit like saying that too many people are choosing to be serial killers, and proving his point by talking about Fred West, Peter Sutcliffe and Jack T. Ripper?

I think that Eoin is trying to make the reasonable point that the UK corporate tax system allows some companies to avoid making a fair contribution to the maintenance of the very society in which they make their profits. He just does it badly. He doesn't mention the somewhat major point, which is made in the story he cites as his source, that his Barclays numbers are comparing apples and oranges.. global profits against UK tax. I have to assume that he doesn't think that if Barclays made money in the USA then it should be paying UK tax on it, so what does he use those numbers for, if not to mislead anyone who's not paying attention? When that Barclays story first broke there were a lot of people not paying attention and tweeting about the story.. spreading a bunch of uninformed dribble. How, precisely, does that achieve anything?

Put yourself in the shoes of someone with the power to influence UK tax policy. If someone comes up to you in the street and says 'Barclays made £6bn of profit and only paid £113m tax on it, what are you going to do about that'. Do you a) say 'gosh, that's awful, I'll have my people investigate this' or b) say 'you're an idiot, you obviously haven't invested more than three seconds in trying to understand this, so I'm not going to waste my time'.


Come on people, if you want anyone to listen then at least do the fucking reading.


Who am I, and what does it all mean?

I've recently decided, or realised, that I'm a liberal marxist or, perhaps, a left communist. I've got there through a process of elimination, rather than by choice or design.. and it might not be the right answer, I've still got to do all the reading.

So, what do I believe in? Or, perhaps pertinently, what do I not believe in?

Well I don't believe in 'The State', I think it's big and ugly and wholly incapable of meeting the needs of a diverse society, even where it wants to. Sadly, I don't really believe that it even wants to.. there are too many 'people' involved, and they ruin everything.

Nor do I believe in 'The Market', for much the same reasons.

I believe that most people are inherently self-interested. That is nature. It seems odd that so many on 'the left' espouse Darwinism, yet seem to then reject the idea that a people who have come to be through natural selection will generally put themselves and their families above others. It's nothing to be ashamed of.

I'm very critical of 'the left' where they seek to control and regulate human behaviour and where they have a tendancy to believe that they know best how people should live their lives. I'm critical of 'the right' for a belief that we are all equally equipped to make rational decisions in our own lives that will all accumulate to deliver a prosperous utopia.

Let us speak frankly, I am critical of anyone who takes a political position and follows the dogma instead of looking at the facts and the outcomes. I am critical of the way that people twist things to their own agendas and seek to create and perpetuate ignorance because it suits their perspective. Perhaps this seems obvious, it IS obvious.. but the more attention I pay to political journalism and bloganalism the more I see that this kind of thing is the norm. How come so many people can see Richard Littlejohn for the disingenuous fraud that he is, but can't see that Johann Hari is the other side of the same coin? How come so many people can't see that politics is dominated by a very narrow group of people with a very narrow range of opinions and that the theater they all put on is a sham battle of irrelevant and phony differences when they all fundamentally subscribe to the same core idea which is that they're in charge and they know best? We live in a profoundly inequitable world, and it's been a collaboration of mainstream left and right politics that has gotten us here, not a contest.

This is sub-sixth-form bollocks so, for now, I'm going to stop. Nobody is reading it anyway.


... and the story begins.