Thursday, August 31, 2006

Secure? Come off it!

This article in the Spectator (free registration required, will disappear behind subscription wall at some point) points to the Information Commissioner's report on "blagging" for personal data.

Basically, you can buy non-sensitive (but nevertheless confidential) data like ex-directory phone numbers for less than a hundred quid, and highly sensitive data like police records for at most a few hundred. As well as stalkers and estranged spouses, customers for these services include debt collectors, insurance companies, and journalists.

Frankly, I'm not surprised. An organisation like DVLA is about bureaucratic efficiency, not keeping personal data confidential. So it doesn't keep data very confidential. To do that, you need a culture that takes data protection seriously - I am a lot less worried about MI5 keeping a file on me than the local council doing the same thing, because MI5 isn't going to sell the file to a muckraking journalist without direct orders from Downing Street. Doctors and banks also understand this kind of thing.

This makes the governments plans to share information across the government very dangerous indeed. There are three reasons why information-sharing makes this kind of crime more dangerous.

1) Any given breach of security will yield more information. I can get a non-public address, a date of birth, and a national insurance number from a single hit on the national ID register, rather than having to blag three different government agencies.

2) A culture which believes that data sharing is the right thing to do is not one which values data protection. When "Mr Wooley from the Department of Administrative Affairs" phones up the Child Support Agency to ask them how much child support John Major is paying Edwina Currie, then telling him what he wants to know is a shining example of joined up government. Except that "Mr Wooley" is actually working for the Daily Mirror. (He could still be working for the Daily Mirror even as a real DAA employee - junior civil servants are badly paid and therefor easy to bribe.)

3) If data is shared between government officials, then it is only as secure as the lowest common denominator. This is particularly worrying with children's medical records - which Ruth Kelly wants to be shared with other government bodies dealing with children as part of her super-duper child protection database. A database which more than 300,000 petty officials will have access to.

Basically, if the government can't keep sensitive personal data secure - and they can't if everyone in the government has access to it - they shouldn't store it in such vast quantities. But this takes the biscuit. The government knows that the press can (and does) pay crooks to dig dirt on celebrities. They know that the child database will be about as secure as all the other databases that the crooks get their data from. They are even prepared to do something about it. And yet they still think that children of mere mortals should have sensitive personal information conveniently aggregated for the crooks' viewing pleasure.

When you have your fifteen minutes of fame, expect the journalist who contacts you to know your full name, national insurance number, and daughter's favourite icecream flavour. It doesn't mean that they are working for the mafia - it just means that they paid £500 or so for extra background on the story.

Or we could scrap ID cards, scrap 1984-for-kids, and get the Information Commissioner to explain the principles of data protection to Tony Blair and Ruth Kelly.

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Sandra lets the side down...

Along with a further 21 Lib Dem MPs. Gavin Whenman has been covering this earlier and far better than I , including a letter to Sandra Gidley.

The EDM is badly written. Necrophilia should be illegal for the same reason as paedophilia; one party is unable to give consent [unless you wrote explicitly in your will that you wanted necrophilic acts to be carried out on your dead body]. It is debatable whether necrophilic pornography should be illegal if the allegedly dead person featured is not, in fact, dead. I would argue that this shouldn't be illegal in the same way as grown women dressed up as naughty school girls shouldn't be illegal. As Gavin argues, violent people will probably carry out violent acts whether or not they have access to violent pornography and people can view violent pornography without carrying out violent acts.

Worse still, although the EDM title mentions necrophilia explicitly, the text demands that internet sites are banned 'which are likely to incite people to do harm to others'. Which is as vague as it comes. Never mind S&M, it could apply to anything.

Conclusion: a big bravo to Gavin and a huge illiberal thumbs down to 22 Lib Dem MPs... (who are supposed to be, ummm, liberal an' all)

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Apologies to LibertyCat

For getting here first with this classic - an article by Naomi Klein complaining about people using natural disasters to make money. Fair enough, you say, but note the 'end of article tagline':

Naomi Klein's book on disaster capitalism will be published in spring 2007

Boom... Boom...

Over the sea to Skye...

In response to the Times leader accompanying the serialisation of Greg Hurst's biography of Kennedy where they claim:

The disclosures will make difficult reading for Liberal Democrats. They are entitled to feel queasy that they were being led through at least one general election, the Iraq war and other pivotal events by a figure whose, largely secret, drinking made him unreliable...

...observant readers will note the date for the inclusion of this song into the Liberator songbook.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Fraternity and Conservatism

Top Cameroon Danny Kruger has an important article in Prospect magazine (hat tip: Conservative Home). The heart of the piece is an excellent discussion of "fraternity" or "community" and how it realtes to the other core modern values of liberty and equality. This is something that all Liberals (with a small l or a capital one) and Conservatives (likewise) should read and will probably learn from - my criticism should be taken in that context.

To me, the most surprising thing about this article is that Kruger thinks that an emphasis on "fraternity" or "community" in Conservative rhetoric is something new. Though the detail would be different, I find it hard to believe that any of Edmund Burke, Benjamin Disraeli, Winston Churchill, or John Major would have disagreed with it - indeed Kruger cites Burke in his support.

Kruger's big mistake is to assume that the two-party, left-right model of British politics is an useful model for political ideas. He describes politics as a battle between a right that believes in liberty and a left that believes in equality. In fact, the two-party system lasted less than 30 years, from the collapse of the Liberals in Labour's 1945 landslide to the 6 million Liberal votes of 1974. In any case, the Tories of this era accepted Labour's statist "equality is fraternity" ideas that Kruger rightly criticises. Advances in liberty (notably the legalisation of homosexuality and abortion) tended to involve free votes or private members' bills.

In fact, there is a Liberal tradition in British politics that is neither "left" nor "right" except in so far as we have formed tactical alliances from time to time with one side or the other. If the Left owns equality, and the Liberals own liberty, it should come as no surprise that the Conservative tradition owns fraternity. Kruger identifies several institutions which promote fraternity: unions, churches, families, small shops, Army regiments, professional associations, traditional pubs (complete with warm beer), and sports teams. Apart from unions, these are all things which traditional Conservatism sought to defend, and most have been bastions of one-nation Tory voting. Kruger also points out the link between fraternity and the small-c conservative mindset - community institutions depend far more on things like respect for tradition, tolerance of institutional eccentricity, and a sense of duty than either the free market or the welfare state.

So if Cameronism is all about a return to Conservative values of time immemorial, why is it so controversial? The first reason is that it is not Thatcherism. Margaret Thatcher was not, by any means, a small-c conservative. Her rhetoric dealt far more with liberty than fraternity - and by and large her policies reflected this. A young Conservative friend of mine used to talk about three factions in the Conservative party: "wets" (One Nation Tories), "dries" (Thatcherites) and "s**ts" (extreme social conservatives who supported groups like the Monday Club). Thatcher the PM was a dry. Thatcher the legend was a s**t. The natural state of British Conservatism is wet - and Cameron reflects this.

The other reason is the tendency to look to America. The Scotsman, approvingly linked by Conservative Home, criticises Cameron for failing to emulate the "world's two most successful conservative politicians" - George W. Bush and John Howard. The Bush administration is clearly an attractive model to Conservatives - but it is a foreign one. Small-c conservatism is traditionally sceptical of copying foreign ideas wholesale when perfectly good British ones are available. It is also unclear that Bush is particularly successful (he lost the 2000 election, and only won by a whisker in 2004 despite winning a war), or that his approach to politics is a good one. Most of the votes that get Bush to 50.5% come from Southern racists and religious nutcases - i.e. people who don't need to think about liberty, equality and fraternity becuase they want to bring back the ancien regime. Being British doesn't make Cameron's brand of Conservatism any less Conservative.

Returning to Britain, what should our response as Liberals be? Firstly, we should carry on being Liberals. If the Conservative party is downgrading the politics of Thatcher the PM, then there is all the more need for us to be willing to make the case for liberty - because nobody else will. There are plenty of votes to be had in being the party of limited government, and nobody else seems to be after them. Even more importantly, there is a political need for politicians who are willing to challenge the natural tendency of the government to waste our money and tell us what to do.

Secondly, we need to remember the mistake that Thatcher made - namely forgetting about equality and fraternity altogether. Liberalism is about liberty, equality and fraternity (although the preamble calls it "community"). So, at its best, is Conservatism (though it interprets all three in a different way). So, too, is the traditional Labour movement of unions, co-operatives, friendly societies, and a political party to represent their interests. That is not surprising, given that we are all heirs to the values of the French revolution, which are also the values of the American and British revolutions. While I belong to a tradition that places liberty first and Kruger to one that places fraternity first, we all need to remember that unless you cherish all three very bad things can happen.

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Why Cameron can't win

While not front-page news, the Taxpayer Alliance poll does tell us something about why the Tories can't win elections.

Tax cuts are important. Voters like tax cuts. Throughout history, centre-right parties have won elections by promising to cut taxes. This is the one centre-right talking point that someone like Blair can't steal - because the core purpose of the Labour Party is to "invest" money in public services.

The most important issues that voters answering a right-wing push poll come up with are crime, school violence (i.e. crime), the effects of the benefits system (i.e. crime), and taxes. Despite the sound and fury it generates, crime is not a partisan issue. All three parties accept the basic principles of common-sense crime policy: that crime is bad; that crime is caused by criminals, who are bad; that prison is a very expensive way of keeping bad people off the streets; and that policing can prevent crime, which is good. Talking about the other pet issues of social conservatives is a vote-loser (the median voter may agree with the Tories about Europe, but thinks that only wierdos talk about it all the time). So all a right-wing party has left is tax cuts.

The British Conservative Party can't credibly promise tax cuts. The poll confirms that nobody would believe them. And they can't change this perception by talking about how they would pay for tax cuts, because that would mean proposing to cut the good stuff the government does.

There is no earthly point in a centre-right party that does not propose tax cuts. Electing a metrosexual icon as your party leader isn't going to help - particularly if he is the former spin doctor of one of the country's great tax-increasing Chancellors.

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I would call them cretins, but I suspect they know exactly what they are doing

An "independent" lobby group calling itself the Taxpayer Alliance has commissioned a poll with some results which the major media found bizzarely newsworthy.

The Sunday Times headline is typical: "10 million want to quit overtaxed UK." Darell Huff provides some sensible questions to ask a lying statistic, so let's have a look.

Who says so?
The Taxpayer Alliance. Do they sound unbiased to you? We all know how easy it is to skew a one-off poll by asking biased questions. Would an advocay organisation really waste money commissioning an honest opinion poll when they could get better press coverage with a push poll?

How do they know?
By asking people if they have ever considered emigrating, towards the end of a poll in which they rile them up against this country and its political institutions by asking a lot of questions about how awful politicians are. Even if the poll wasn't bad, I fully expect that a lot of people have had idle speculations about leaving the country - I know I have. 6% of the population have plans to leave the country, according to this poll. Excluding immigrants returning home, only about one third of 1% actually will in any given year. (ONS data here, see table 1.3 for outflow by citizenship)

Did someone change the subject?
Yes. 80% of the population think taxes are too high. Thank you Captain Obvious - nobody likes paying taxes, although they will happily hound you out of office if you don't give them the schools, hospitals, roads etc. that these taxes are paying for. And 6% decide to emigrate, then don't. But these facts don't have to be connected, and almost certainly aren't - most emigrants head for similarly overtaxed countries with better weather (and an awful lot of them are retired or semi-retired, so tax is less of an issue).

So the emigration figure is bogus. The other results of the poll aren't exactly newsworthy - people think that politicians are liars (wow!), that Tony Blair is a smarmy git (double wow!), and that the public services need to be more efficient (no - really?).

So why the hell does the Sunday Times consider this front-page news?

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Hello again, everyone. This cat has spent too long curled up in a basket sniffing catnip while the world around him went to the dogs. This stops now - please pull my tail if I don't post regularly in future.


Sunday, August 27, 2006

Multiculturalism is dead; long live multiculturalism...

At least some of the weekend papers were making something of Ruth Kelly's comments about multiculturalism. This piqued my interest because I had just read my dad's copy of Londonistan by Melanie Phillips. I'll admit that I read it with the intent of 'knowing thy enemy' since I enjoy Daily Mail bashing as much as the next person, and the review following is therefore entirely biased.

Londonistan makes a several stranded argument. These strands range on the sensibility scale between 'quite right', 'that's interesting and I'm sure you're wrong but it's worth further investigation to find out why' right through to 'a clear ten on the tinfoilcoveredcolanderwearingometer'.

The book accuses the British government of allowing extremists like Abu Hamza (he who watched too much Peter Pan in his youth) to operate pretty freely within the UK. Further, Londonistan claims that the government has continued to pander to extremists even after 9/11 and 7/7, has been weak in defending 'western' values like freedom of speech, has pretended that Islamist terrorism is nothing to do with Muslims and any disagreement from this line has produced condemnation as 'Islamophobic'. Melanie Phillips argues that the government has done this for three reasons:

  • The misapprehension that if they let extremists do exactly what they pleased in the UK, they'd be so grateful they'd leave the UK alone. Certainly, they'd go and kill people but they'd be funny foreign people in countries most of the UK population couldn't place on a map... so that'd be ok then
  • The British culture has been hijacked by a 'victim culture' where all behaviour is acceptable if carried out by the minority group since bad behaviour is a reaction to oppression by the majority group. An example of this is the upwelling of anti-Israel/pro-Hizbollah feeling in the UK. The government dare not defend British values for fear of oppressing minority cultures and generating more terror
  • British culture is morally bankrupt and thus doesn't know what values it should be defending. Values have become universalist and secular, focusing on the equality between cultural norms, multiculturalism and minority rights taking precedence over majority rights. This is a result of a Gramscist (he who did for small glasses and big hair what Marx did for beards) takeover where minority rights are deemed to be superior to those of the majority in order to destroy bourgeoisie values and create the cultural conditions for the revolution. Gramscism has led to moral decadence.
Now some of this is interesting and requires further investigation, some of this is entirely agreeable to a sensible liberal... and some of this is really getting into 'pencil and underpants' territory with a hint of tinfoilcoveredcolanderwearing.

The first argument I found interesting. It definitely warrants further investigation to determine if the government/intelligence services were really that cretinous. So biorayometer readings are pretty low on this one.

The second argument varies in credibility. A major component of statist thinking is 'labelising'. Original socialism viewed society as a clash between classes. Contemporary intellectual statists deal with a wider range of categories than class such as race, sexuality and gender. If there isn't an existing category then one is created (fattism - I jest not). The problem with labelising is that, to quote Stuart Jeffries quoting Amatya Sen:

To consider someone simply as a Muslim, then, is to deny lots of other interesting things about them - nationality, locations, class, occupation, social status, language, politics, Frisbee skills, inside leg measurement. Worse, says Sen, simplistic classifications nourish terrorism: "An Islamist instigator of violence against infidels may want Muslims to forget that they have any identity other than being Islamic. What is surprising is that those who would like to quell that violence promote, in effect, the same intellectual disorientation by seeing Muslims primarily as members of an Islamic world. The world is made much more incendiary by the advocacy and popularity of single-dimensional categorisation of human beings."

The solution is not to consider people as members of multiple, equally simplistic categories. People are fascinating and multi-faceted; not a travelling agglomeration of numerous labels like a parcel dispatched by a neurotic sender. Once you accept labels are a convenient tool to aid discussion and not a description of real people, you realise many debates in the media are absolutely pointless. What is the purpose of discussing what 'career women' should or shouldn't do if you accept that 'woman' is a simple biological classification of a large group of very different people.

So I accept Melanie Phillips' critique of these statist beliefs but I disagree with two things. First, after rejecting these beliefs she proceeds to do exactly the same thing herself. It is very hard to condemn the grouping of people into oppressed, homogeneous minority groups, accordingly reject a global Jewish conspiracy, yet implicitly claim a global Islamist conspiracy to subvert British culture. You can claim that some people have this agenda but overarching conspiracies require a large, well-organised and homogeneous group.

Second, some of her examples don't support her argument. I don't believe that the British government avoided making a direct link between Islamist extremists and Muslims to 'appease' extremists or because it was pandering to 'victim culture'. They were probably just trying to stop a riot. I'm happy to make the distinction between Muslims and terrorists and Melanie Phillips repeatedly makes this distinction, but there are a lot of people out there who don't. For your average mob, distinguishing between a terrorist and dark skinned bloke with facial hair is probably expecting too much... especially if they can't spell. There is real evidence that if you're a dark skinned, bearded guy you can get a tube carriage all to yourself just by wearing a padded jacket.

I'm also sceptical about Melanie Phillips belief in a 'delegitimisation' of Israel such that it is 'now seen on par with apartheid-era South Africa' and that this has 'settled on the British psyche as fact'. I think she makes the 'Westminster village' mistake. This is evident when she switches between talking about 'much of the media', 'the British public', anti-war marches and 'at a social level, dinner party conversation is now likely to throw up not just the same kind of demonisation of Israel but prejudiced remarks about Jews being too powerful...'. Many of the people who went on the big anti-war marches were marching against Blair. The pro-Palestine placards were brought by 'rent-a-mob'. The two groups are not ideologically connected. The British public are probably less ignorant about foreign policy than some of the American public since we're a small island and it's more likely we'll have left at some point even if that was on holiday to Ibiza. But listening to local radio phone-ins, discussion focuses on local issues, public services and anti-immigration rants. People are neither pro-Israel nor pro-Palestine. So however biased the media - they're talking amongst themselves. Conversation at dinner parties in London to which the Oxbridge-educated journalist author of several books is invited are not representative of opinion in Britain. They're not even representative of opinion amongst 'liberals and left-wingers' or 'the British intelligentsia'. Melanie Phillips has pretty much devoted an entire chapter to complaining about George 'leotard' Galloway and BBC staffers.

I've dealt with the 'moral decadence' point before: a 'liberal society' is one in which the government does not prevent you from drinking and shagging random people, not one in which you have an obligation to do so. Multiculturalism in the strict sense of 'multiple cultures' is, likewise, a no brainer. Britain has never been a single culture featuring:

long shadows on county [cricket] grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist

Britain has a myriad of cultures: goths have a culture and chavs have a culture. The Welsh certainly have a culture with their own language and television programs. If multiculturalism is, as suggested on Wikipedia about an encouragement of art, food, etc. from other cultures then do we really want to kill multiculturalism? Is Vindaloo really THAT bad?

But she really loses the plot around Chapter 8 where she writes 'in America, the churches have been in the forefront of the defence of Western values'. She talks about the Judeo-Christian tradition which led to our belief in fairness, democracy, liberalism, free speech, etc. One of her suggestions for tackling 'Londonistan' includes reintroducing morning assemblies. Let us be clear here: British evangelical Christians I have spoken to cringe at any association with US politicised Christianity. This is because evanglical Christianity is about spreading the good news about God, encouraging others to be open to receiving God. US Republican bible-bashing defeats the entire point - evangelical Christianity encourages people to choose to have a personal relationship with God. If you try to force religion upon them when they're not ready, then they're unlikely to be open to the word of God and salvation anytime soon. For further details, see here or here or here. But really, all you need to know about the US 'culture wars' is google 'John Ashcroft' and 'statue'.

I'm even more incredulous at her claim that our western values such as tolerance or human rights arise from our Judeo-Christian heritage as she does here. If you want to complain about the excesses of cultural relativism, then you shouldn't be culturally relativist. If humans have non-culturally determined commonalities then there are only so many ways to organise a human society and these traditions would have arisen somewhere else if they hadn't in the western world. The question is then 'what is the best way to organise a society? and given that other humans share many of our fundamental feelings and experiences, how should we treat them?'. These are political philosophical questions. There are better and worse answers and these are what we should be defending. Religion should keep out of government. The purpose of government is to help create the conditions in which the light side of memes such as religion, art, culture and science can flourish. It is not to determine what these should be.

Once you accept that any survey of the British public will turn up unsavoury, scary and plain loopy opinions, that some Muslims are perfectly decent and some are as tinfoilhatwearing as parts of Melanie Phillips' book (just like any sample of the UK population) and that the purpose of government is to facilitate productive activity then the solution to 'Londonistan' is clearly to institute policies that apply equally to everyone, and vigorously defend this overarching framework that allows people the freedom to worship, exchange views and conduct their lives without violence. In order to make it perfectly clear that the state is not an appropriate forum to grandstand about personal morality or religion, I would be in favour of disestablishing the Church of England and ceasing state funding of all religious schools (whilst permitting private faith schools) [it's worth mentioning that I'm not a secular 'no headscarves at school' nut. I really don't get why headscarves and school uniforms have become a battleground - surely people can apply a bit of flexibility and common sense to this... you know, tucked-in headscarves ok, discrete necklaces ok, huge pink mohicans/enormous chains/trailing scarves so that the school bully can strangle you in the playground = not ok]. The enemies of western values are then simply defined as the people who don't want to see this framework. This appears to include Melanie Phillips.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

What have your parents ever done for you...

Tristan writes in my comments box:

  1. You are less likely to invest knowing that the state is going to take half your wealth when you die
  2. And unless you scrap income tax, inheritance tax is a double tax
  3. Would you tax someone because their parents gave them genes to be intelligent? They didn't have to do any work for that. Or perhaps being attractive?
I started responding, but my response became a post in itself so I thought I'd include it here.

  • If the system is set up correctly then people should have incentives to save for retirement and then spend all their life savings after they retire so they die with zero wealth OR bequest the extra money to charity. This is a difficult one since people often don't know precisely when they're going to die, but IMO this is primarily a pensions management problem. Assuming people won't save assumes that you can't set up a system to encourage people to save and then spend most of the savings before they die. The government will still get a fair bit of money in inheritance tax even if the general trend is towards large-scale spending of estates in retirement and charitable bequests.
  • Covered in the comments box. First, reducing income tax counteracts this to some extent. Second, if previously earned income shouldn't be taxed again then if I employ a plumber the government shouldn't tax his income because I've been taxed on my income already.

The third point requires a bit of a story.

Liberals believe in equality of opportunity. This means that everyone (ideally) should have the same opportunities in life. This means it's unfair if John Smith's parents are poor so he can only attend a school in special measures whilst Fred Bloggs' parents pay for him to attend Eton. John Smith and Fred Bloggs may have equal merit but John Smith doesn't have the same opportunities as Fred Bloggs. In reality, it's difficult to ensure this and its probably better if Fred Bloggs has lots of opportunities and John Smith has some, than both John Smith and Fred Bloggs have few opportunities.

To ensure equality of opportunity, the government should try to ensure that John Smith has access to a good school despite the fact his parents are poor. But the government needs to pay for this so needs to levy some taxes somewhere. The idea is to ensure these taxes are as fair as possible (obviously). Inheritance tax is a fair tax and fairer than income tax.

If we tax very wealthy people (Tristan's 'envy taxes') then this might be unfair. If John Smith works very hard after leaving his sink school, starts a business selling cows on brightly coloured treadmills to environmentally conscious urban dwellers who want fresh milk/greener electricity and after working 26 hours a day, 7 days a week for several years makes millions... then we're penalising John Smith for his hard work and bright ideas just because it annoys Fred Bloggs who's now working flipping burgers in McDonalds. Further, if John Smith knew he was going to be taxed through the nose, he may never have set up MooPod (TM) in the first place.

But we don't know if John Smith made his millions with MooPod because he was hard-working or because he has an IQ of 145 whereas Fred Bloggs has an IQ of 101. Around 50% of John Smith's IQ came from his parents and thus whatever proportion of his millions is directly due to his 44 point higher IQ is 'unearned income'. If we knew at birth that John Smith was going to make £44 million more than Fred Bloggs directly due to that 44 point IQ difference then the fairest thing would be to levy a 'gene tax' of £44 million to be repaid over John Smith's lifetime. This would mean that John Smith and Fred Bloggs start on a level playing field and any money John Smith earned above that earned by Fred Bloggs was due to the application of his skills for the benefit of society and his hard work. If we levied the 'gene tax' at birth based on average amounts of money earned as a result of particular skills (like IQ) then people would still be encouraged to display enterprise and hard work because the 'gene tax' would be a one-off payment unrelated to how hard they worked during their lives.

Unfortunately, a future government would find that it's 'gene tax' screening programme was more of a disaster than the current government's ID cards scheme. Because we can't decide if John Smith set up MooPod (TM) because he had a higher IQ or because his father instilled a work ethic in him from birth... or even because of a chance encounter with a cow on a treadmill during a school trip. Further, John Smith may have used his IQ of 145 to earn several million but Maria Jones (IQ of 150) may set up a band, fail to make a break and end up living in a caravan and busking. Hence, levying an average charge based on IQ would be deeply problematic - Maria Jones would never be able to pursue her dream to play the digeridoo professionally but would have to work for an investment bank to pay back her 'gene levy'. Further, if we try valuing people's genetic inheritance at birth, some parts are really subjective (like attractiveness - Brad Pitt does nothing for me) and how do we value football skills as opposed to IQ.

Now imagine that Joseph and Jane Bloggs die and leave Fred Bloggs £500,000. This is unequivocably absolutely nothing to do with Fred Bloggs' work ethic, his IQ or his talent at playing the harmonica using his toes. All he had to do to earn that money is sit waiting for his parents to die. This income is entirely unearned. Unlike John Smith's millions, there's no question whether Fred Bloggs sudden good fortune is due to his IQ (his 'unearned' income), his determination, vision and hard work (which may or may not be genetic but is 'earned'), his upbringing including his peer group and/or his life experiences. It's relatively easy (compared to the 'gene tax') to determine how much unearned income Fred Bloggs received from his parents. Further, Fred Bloggs receiving this money acts counter to equality of opportunity. Fred Bloggs has opportunities due to receiving this money which John Smith never had because his parents were poor.

The moral of the story - since you have to levy some taxes then taking the unspent and ungifted parts of estates in huge inheritance taxes is one of the fairest places to levy them.

Further reading: The Undercover Economist which I faintly remember talks about gene levies with reference to Tiger Woods.

Monday, August 21, 2006

So tell me Mr Byers...

why is inheritance tax:

"a penalty on hard work, thrift and enterprise"...

When the people who would benefit from the removal of inheritance tax are the children of the deceased who have to do precisely NO hard work, show NO thrift and display exactly ZERO enterprise in order to acquire their welcome windfall (well, ok, the person dealing with the estate has to fill in some forms).

If you really wanted to encourage hard work, thrift and enterprise AND social mobility then you'd put UP inheritance tax and use the extra to reduce income tax. But then, Mr Byers, it's really all about middle-class voters and not about hard work, thrift and enterprise at all...

There's more about this at Fisking Central [It's worth mentioning that using a hike in inheritance tax to fund a reduction in income tax would counter Mr Byer's argument that inheritance tax double-taxes wealth that has previously been subject to income tax].

Sunday, August 20, 2006

And the purpose of this article is...

The thing I love about the Daily Mail, especially the weekend edition, is its inclusion of newspaper articles that make you cross-eyed with their sheer vacuousness, lack of newsworthyness and general sense of 'why was this published... exactly? And the point they're trying to make is?'. Case in point... The mind boggles:

Eighteen months ago Lorraine Standing, 47, led the kind of comfortable middle-class life many women would envy [Erm, no].

Married to Andy for 21 years, she lived with their three daughters in a large four-bedroom house in Ashford, Kent, complete with playroom and games annexe. Between 46-year-old Andy’s job as an advertising manager and Lorraine’s career in customer services, the couple earned a good income. Christmas presents included an MG from her husband while holidays were taken at their apartment in Turkey [And if she'd been living in a council estate in Croydon and owned only a widescreen TV, some garden gnomes and a Fiat Uno with go-faster-stripes then s****g some other guy behind her husband's back would have been a'ok because there'd have been no danger of losing her games annexe. Nothing like showing that in Daily Mail world the British class system is alive and sneering].

The couple enjoyed entertaining and their home was filled most weekends with friends enjoying dinner or summer barbecues. In fact, the Standing family’s speciality was an annual champagne and strawberry bash for around 50 guests in their garden [And the point is? That as a result of being able to get 50 people to scoff strawberries on her lawn she should have been as existentially fulfilled as the Dalai Lama? After all, the meaning of life according to Deep Thought was not 'the barbeque' and Jesus did not tell his disciples to go and purchase property in Kent. Not that I'm condoning her having an affair - I'd have suggested using the infatuation as a warning that she really was VERY, VERY dissatisfied and it was time to examine her life, take stock and make changes].

And here endeth the moral lesson (well, not quite, there's paragraphs of it)...

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

What Muslims Want: Further Reading

If you saw my post yesterday about 'What Muslims Want', Jon Snow's Dispatches program and want to read more discussion there are some interesting posts at Pickled Politics, Under Progress, aNaRcHo AkBaR and Rolled-up Trousers.

Special note of Picked Politics coining of the word 'Chavlims' with reference to two exceptionally inarticulate chaps featured on Dispatches.

Further note that George Bush is not believed to be an antelope AFAIK. Most commonly he's believed to be a giant lizard. Honestly, you couldn't make it up... hang on, he did... But maybe Bush was both a giant lizard and an antelope all at once, but they got pushed for space and the lizard ate the antelope. The official explanation for the scrap was, of course, that Bush choked on a pretzel (loony conspiracy theories - a game the whole family can play).

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

What Muslims want

  • Young people below the age of 24, on average, hold more radical views with their parents and often dress in a distinctive fashion to identify with a particular group and rebel against what they believe to be the prevailing norms of the society in which they live
  • Some members of the urban middle-class want their children to be brought up isolated from bad influences in society, and try to encourage their interest in improving activities
  • You can always find some idiot to come out with an extreme, impractical and minority opinion. This idiot will often be utterly inarticulate and whilst looking at them you will acquire this slow realisation that you're looking through their eyes and out the back of their head

I have the greatest respect for Jon Snow (except, perhaps for his taste in ties) and I doubt many other TV programs would have been able to cover Muslims in Britain with so much sensitivity, nuance and balance.

But I feel that his dispatches program last night exaggerated the differences between the Muslim community and the remaining 50 + million of the British public. For example, Jon Snow repeatedly referred to our 'liberal' society, British 'values' and Muslim disapproval of it. Flash to a young Muslim taxi driver in one of our northern cities who explained how he had become a devout Muslim, apparently as a response to his experiences driving a taxi. He mourned the lack of respect he felt non-Muslim young men had for young women, expressed disapproval of what he felt was immoral behaviour and explained his desire for a guiding purpose to his life. A young Muslim woman donned a veil, complaining that non-Muslim British women dressed as sex objects and she wanted to be respected by men. Other complaints included feeling democracy wasn't working because the government didn't take any notice of Muslim opinion.

I wonder how many non-Muslim twenty-somethings in Britain today feel existential anguish and are seeking purpose to their life (100 %), how many non-Muslims feel their vote doesn't count and the government doesn't listen to them (lots), how many non-Muslim women want to be respected for their personality and not just as lumps of meat (most of them) and what proportion of them see gauntly thin 14-year olds lying in pools of their own vomit with their legs akimbo under their mini-skirt (read: enlarged belt) and feel this is commendable and represents British 'values' (not very many).

Jon Snow didn't make the distinction between cultural trends such as the much Grauniadised 'raunch culture', universal human experience such as the seeking of a purpose to ones life, personal morality issues common to non-liberal interpretations of most religions (e.g. whether homosexuality is right) and genuine political and legislative differences to be resolved such as over the limits to freedom of speech. He lumped all these things together into 'liberal society' and 'British values'. This was a deficiency of the program because confusing these issues together prevents clear identification of issues that actually relate to Muslims specifically and how many are just 'issues in Britain today'. Even if there were no Muslims in Britain, there would still be a few million people in Britain who believe homosexuality is unnatural (and I'm entirely happy to argue biology with them since evidence suggests otherwise).

Further, it obscures what 'British' values are and why we might want to defend them against Islamic extremism or Communism or any other 'ism' we might view as a threat. The Daily Mail reading public might have walked away from 'What Muslims Want' thinking Sharia Law was a good idea because if contemporary 'British values' are that adultery is entirely acceptable then stoning adulterers might be an improvement. I would like to think British is interchangeable with 'Western' and 'Western values' include representative democracy (I'll avoid a rant about how First-Past-The-Post means that your vote counts provided you're a floating voter in Surrey) , human rights, equality before the law, etc. We don't get all excited about the US Bill of Rights because of its position on the 18-30 holiday.

A 'liberal society' is one in which people are given responsibility to decide their own personal, religious and spiritual values provided they cause no direct harm to others. A certain amount of tolerance is expected with the understanding that the freedom of others to do things you don't like also permits you the freedom to do things others don't like. This is opposed to a society in which the government determines and imposes what it believes to be acceptable personal and religious conduct. A 'liberal society' is not incompatible with personal conservatism. Just because you can choose to behave badly without the Ministry of Vice and Virtue paying you a visit doesn't mean that you should necessarily seize the opportunity.

I just wish this had been clearer - Jon Snow is a talented journalist and if he'd spent less time talking to Muslim girls about how 'you have to smoke and drink in order to fit in in Britain' (WTF!!) and more time talking about politics then it might have been clearer that much of the substantive issues in Dispatches were a Islam-specific response to issues dear to British people generally, and that together we can work to make Britain a better place.