Planet Littlewood

June 24, 2013

Mark Littlewood recently called for the names of benefit recipients to be made publicly available. Let’s imagine what that kind of world would be like.

There was a sign on his window again. Every morning when he opened his curtains, it would always be there, blocking out the light. He ripped it down every night, but it was always put back up. Even worse, it’d started changing every day. Originally the sign was just £2,953.60, but now it’d started rising by £8.11, every day. He considered just leaving it up this time, but Kev felt very strongly that this would be letting the bastards win.

It was his neighbor. He’d caught him at it a few times, coming back in from another fruitless job hunt, finding John slapping paste onto the glass and placing the various sheets of paper along a carefully measured line. His balding head bent over in intense concentration, John actually brought a level along with him to ensure that the sign was perfectly aligned. Such fastidious attention to detail doubtless explained why John had been able to keep his database job when the call centre downsized.

Every confrontation went the same way. Kev would yell out, and John would turn around with a vicious grin on his face. He’d then turn back to his task, aware than Kev could do nothing at all. Kev didn’t own his house, and his landlord was perfectly happy for scroungers like Kev to have their shame displayed on his property, even though he’d made his fortune on the back of the diminishing pool of Government housing benefit. When Kev had first complained, the landlord had laughed him out of his office and added John as a Facebook friend.

It had been so different, only two years ago. John and Kev had been colleagues, although never friends. Then the banks had gone down again. Prime Minister Littlewood, as he now was, had told the public that the problem wasn’t the banks, it was the Bank, and had come to power on the back of a promise to scrap the Bank of England and prevent credit bubbles ever happening again. Now there was no interest rate, only multiple competing interest rates, but somehow things hadn’t picked up. The papers were saying that this was all a necessary market correction and there was nothing the Government could or indeed should do.

But this correction seemed to be taking a very long time. People were getting angry, and so the Government had created The Register. It was a big online database containing the name and address of every benefit claimant in the UK, along with the amount they were claiming. Initially it had been an identity fraudsters’ paradise, with hundreds of thousands of people finding they’d lost their benefits to a range of criminal gangs. The Government claimed they’d sorted all this out, but Kev kept hearing stories about old ladies found dead in their flats because their pensions had stopped and they didn’t know how to look for help.

The call centre Kev and John worked in had let hundreds of its staff go. Lots of new centres were opening in Uganda, apparently, as part of this African Boom. Kev was happy for them, but there seemed to be a great deal less work around here, and every job he went for he seemed to be competing against people with far higher qualifications than him. Shortly after he left, John had started pasting signs on his window.

He should leave, he supposed, and look for work elsewhere. He really wanted to – the day after The Register was extended to people who used the NHS John had put a sign on his window saying ‘Treatment for herpes – £30′ because Kev had gone to the doctor to get cream for a coldsore. But if he left he’d count as Voluntarily Homeless and under the very strict new restrictions on benefits he wouldn’t be able to get a place to live anywhere else without already having a job. His benefits just covered the cost of living, and certainly didn’t extend to the train or bus ticket he’d need to attend interviews. He felt trapped.

Turning away from the window, he switched on the radio and started to make breakfast. The Today programme was playing, and the Prime Minister was on.

“…The Register has been a fantastic success in incentivising people to get into work and letting the public know exactly how their hard-earned money is being spent. That’s why today I’m pleased to announce the logical extension of this programme.

“From today, all benefit claimants, young and old, will be required to wear a yellow armband on which will be written the precise amount they claim from the State every year. When you meet a benefit claimant on the street, you should know exactly who they are so you can tell them what you think. Only through transparency and public information campaigns like this one will everyone be able to take part in monitoring how taxpayers’ money is spent. Remember, cutting spending helps the economy – and that’s what this initiative would help to do.”

Kev swore. Things were about to get a lot worse.

The News is one of my favourite shows, but over the last few years it’s been replaying the same old story with slightly different characters. Every week, some new evil big company will be accused of paying beancounters to manufacture complex legal frameworks in order to avoid paying the ‘correct’ amount of tax, as defined by a group of angry protestors. Google and Apple are the latest villains of the piece, and have variously protested that they’re forced to pay the minimum amount of tax by law and that if we don’t tax them less they’ll just keep all the money.

If this was any other show, reviewers would be complaining about recycling tired old plotlines, but somehow the real world is immune to tedium. The political debate in the UK over this issue can be summarised thusly:

AGAINST TAX AVOIDANCE – The Government needs money to deliver vital social services, and everyone should play their part. Attempting to avoid playing your part, as tax avoidance is interpreted as, is therefore immoral. If countries compete to attract multinational companies by offering very low tax rates, then there will be less money available for social services in all countries, particularly developing ones.

NOT AGAINST TAX AVOIDANCE – Tax avoidance is different to tax evasion, which is breaking the law to evade paying tax. Tax avoidance works within the law to minimise the tax liability to companies, which companies are obligated to do in order to deliver returns for shareholders. ‘Moral’ doesn’t mean anything when it comes to tax, as you can only pay your tax in accordance with the law, and if the law is immoral then it’s up to politicians to change it. If we tighten up our tax code too much, we’ll drive companies away.

Political debate is only meaningful if the public actually pay attention, because only then can one side ‘win’. This debate is entirely pointless, as both sides are talking only to themselves . Tax avoidance as an issue has traction with the British public, but not for the reasons that anti-avoidance campaigners would want and not for reasons that avoidance defenders can admit. This is because the debate as characterised above is tribal: it’s a re-run of social democracy versus liberalism. The public don’t see the debate in those terms, as some helpful polling by Christian Aid reveals.

It’s true that over half of the population – 56% – does see tax avoidance by multinationals as morally wrong. It’s also true that 37% of the population would use the same avoidance methods as corporations if they knew how. The latter statistic is highest in my age bracket (25-34) at 54%, while 47% think it’s morally wrong, implying that there are people my age who both think avoidance is wrong and that they would do it themselves if they knew how. What a charming generation we are. Two thirds of those who think it’s morally wrong think so because it reduces money available for services.

However, while the above would indicate at least a plurality of people who tax avoidance as morally wrong, an astonishing 71% of people think that low rates of tax help attract investment and deliver economic growth, and 70% think that countries being able to set their own tax rates helps them compete for investment. 47% think that if the Government were to collect more taxes from corporations, there may be no benefit to the public. The public seem to simultaneously believe that tax avoidance is morally wrong and that low tax rates are good for growth. Both sides apparently win.

To explain this paradox, consider one of the highest levels of agreement found by the polling: 75% of people agree that corporations receive much more lenient treatment by the taxman than individual taxpayers. This reveals that this issue is seen as more a question of fairness than a question of ideology. The public see corporations as having an easier time of avoiding tax than they do.This feeling of unfairness will contribute to the feeling that tax avoidance by multinationals is immoral, as ‘fairness’ and ‘morality’ are often conflated, but doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about peoples’ attitudes towards tax avoidance per se. Indeed, of the over 60% of people who wouldn’t offshore their accounts, it would be interesting to find out how many have an ISA.

This result is useless to the tax justice crowd, who want peoples’ feelings about the unfairness of corporate tax avoidance to translate into support for the State. They can’t admit that the public appeal of this particular issue is a question peoples’ sense of fairness rather than ideology. It’s similarly dangerous to the avoidance enablers, because if they accept that tax planning on the corporate rather than individual scale is unfair then this implies that corporations and the rich are able to buy special access to the law. If a law is complex and access to the facilities it offers (in this case, lower taxes) is only possible through the purchase of specialist knowledge about an area, then it is tantamount to bought privilege. Admitting that money can buy privilege is anathema to the majority of this side of the debate, who believe that the restrictions on the rich it would imply in order to secure a level playing field for all are morally wrong in themselves. The closest they come are the rather disingenuous calls from the likes of the Taxpayer’s Alliance, which involve simplifying the tax system to make it easier for everyone to engage with. While this is not without merit, it only works as an answer on this issue if you forget that the avoidance under discussion has to do with the setting up of legal frameworks in order to get money away from the UK tax system, regardless of how simple it is.

As a result of the above this debate is necessarily interminable, as neither side can talk to the public directly without compromising their own position. Tax avoidance is not morally wrong, but it is socially corrosive. It diminishes the bonds of trust between different sections of society, and trust is the fundamental thing we require in order to make this thing where we all get along on our small island work. It would be wonderful if both sides could sit down and work out how to organise things so that they could both win without losing face, but instead I suspect we’re in for many more re-runs yet.

We, as a country, have decided to make tackling climate change much more expensive. This is the logical consequence of today’s news that onshore wind, the cheapest form of low carbon power, is to suffer much heavier restrictions on where it can be built. Given that the need to tackle climate change has not gone away, the options left to us to reduce the impact of our need for electricity are much more expensive.

But there’s a bigger problem than this, and that’s the message it sends about our future as a country. The new restrictions on wind turbines will make it more difficult to build them in areas where wind turbines already exist, on flatter land and near old buildings. But the key change is this statement by Eric Pickles:

“the need for renewable energy does not automatically override environmental protections and the planning concerns of local communities”

While this sounds reasonable, ‘environmental protections’ does not refer to the natural world, but rather to views. How opponents of wind power have got away with conflating the natural world and the views of people who’ve retired to the countryside is baffling, and a failing on the part of its advocates. Previously, while aesthetic impact was taken into account, it only resulted in a refused planning application when there was an impact on genuinely astonishing views, like national parks or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Now it seems likely that rather than permitting national needs to occasionally override the concerns of people who’ve bought houses in the countryside, much more of our country will be locked in stasis.

People tend not to like change, and people especially don’t like change if they’ve retired to the countryside. The majority of objections to wind farms come from retirees and incomers to communities, rather than lifelong countryside dwellers. Eric Pickles’ statement realigns the UK to serve this interest group. While people of course deserve their retirement, turning the countryside into a care home is not the way to run an economy.

We have a proud heritage, and we could have a proud future. But changes like this, which place more power in the hands of people with little interest in the future, make it more likely that that future will be as a museum for Chinese tourists. This is not the legacy the Coalition should leave.

For the energy geeks

June 3, 2013

For all those of you with a deep and abiding love of energy policy, over on my business website I’ve put up my first article: How to decarbonise domestic heat on the cheap.

It’s astonishingly easy, it seems, for people who have the privilege of writing in national newspapers to be very, very wrong about very simple things. This is relatively easy to explain: when you’re writing for a newspaper, you’re not writing with the intention of being right, but rather to make the people reading that newspaper feel righteous about themselves. That’s how you keep getting commissioned to write articles for that newspaper: by helping it sell copies.

It’s a privilege all columnists should examine, because it can lead to them being wrong en masse. That’s happened here. To recap, Louise Mensch wrote an article complaining that British feminists spend their time analysing categories of privilege rather than getting out there and making strides for the sisterhood. It’s not surprising that Louise thought this, because she’s a Tory and many contemporary feminist battles over equal pay take place within unions, far away from her ken. However, given that even Cosmo is running a campaign for equal pay, her research may have been limited – or perhaps, given that she’s wealthy, she doesn’t even consider the enormous bulk of the female workforce receiving the same pay for the same work an issue at all. Indeed, her call for a ‘power feminism’ in which women empower themselves by making lots of money and achieving office sounds more like a girly Nietzschianism than something about securing equal rights. There’s a lot of analysis she needs to carry out on her own position before critiquing others.

Painfully, Laurie Penny responded by being nearly right, but as is so typical of the private-school-educated girl she failed to set her argument out properly. ‘Check your privilege’, the three little words that have given birth to far too many other enormous words, simply means to her ‘consider how your privilege affects what you have just said or done.’ This relatively simple phrase is far too easy to misinterpret, as Dan Hodges has taken great glee in doing, because unfortunately one has to talk about about domains and categories before something that is simple really makes any sense to anyone not versed in it. In claiming that it’s simple I’m exemplifying my privilege of having read stuff about this before. However, to start us off easily:

  • CYP only applies to a limited domain of questions. It does not, for example, mean that only a disabled albino can be right about the distance between the Earth and the Moon.
  • CYP does not preclude the possibility of every black person everywhere being wrong about the effects of racism.
  • CYP does not stop well-educated white middle class people being right about most things on account of their education.

It only really refers to the domain of opinion about how people experience things. I can claim that something’s not racist but my only experience of racism is being called a ‘Gyardee Angreszch’ (‘stupid English’) on the streets of Jaipur. That’s an indication both of my privilege and my pomposity. How I analyse and understand the experience of people being racist to someone else is through that framework, which I cannot avoid. Therefore, when someone claims that an act is racist and my initial reaction is to say that it’s not, I should check whether the framework through which I’m analysing that act is adequate. I might dismiss something as a minor sleight, but to someone who’s spent their entire life being told they’re stupid because they’re black, that minor sleight may be yet another reinforcement of a society that’s holding them down. In this instance, they would be right.

Of course, there will be lots of instances when that same framework will work against them. I’ve lost count of the number of tribunals friends and colleagues have been to when they’re trying to get rid of a useless member of staff who’s screamed racism as soon as a P45 was wafted in their direction. Just because society is racist doesn’t mean you’re not rubbish. What this implies is that ‘privilege’ is the wrong word: even if you’re less privileged, you should be aware of you’ve become predisposed to interpret society. I’d prefer ‘Check your framework’ but that’s much less catchy. It’s a useful intellectual discipline for everyone.

What this means is that the villain of this minor commentariat vignette is Laurie Penny. Dan Hodges we can forgive; he doesn’t understand what CYP means and wants the Left to win ultimate victory through the creation of a race of non-reflective Spartan super-campaigners. Louise Mensch we can forgive; she doesn’t understand what CYP means and just wants all women to become world-bestriding Dagny Taggarts. But Laurie Penny does understand what it means and despite that decided to (a) use it in a context ill suited to it (‘What is racist? is a CYP issue, ‘What is an effective way of combatting racism?’ is a much more empirical question once you’ve sorted the first one out) and (b) bemoan having to use it. Learning that you’re wrong is wonderful, because you learn something. Analysing your own position to make sure it’s correct is also wonderful, because it gives you intellectual integrity. Despite this, she used her position as a national commentator to complain about having to learn. That’s a privilege she wants to get sorted out pronto.