The Joy of Tax

I’ve been reading Richard Murphy’s book, “The Joy Of Tax” – subtitled ‘how a fair tax system can create a better society’.  Let me start by saying I am entirely sympathetic to this message. The low-tax boors, usually backed by think-tanks funded by very rich and very anonymous men, are one of the major groups creating our fractured society, and there is a real need for them to be taken down. We can’t run a decent society without tax, and the arguments that progressive levels damage the economy are weak.

Mr Murphy is an accountant on the side of the angels. He dismisses the argument that low taxes give people more choice – or that people do not consent to taxes at elections. The book takes a hard look at the various evaders and avoiders, and finishes by listing the measures that need to be taken to ensure we run a better society with everyone chipping in appropriately.  That’s good.  There are plenty of people criticising the way the world is, and few explaining how to make it better.  (In passing, another is, or was, Prof. A. B. Atkinson – – whose last great book on “Inequality” not only bust the myths on the subject, but explained how to fix it). The old criticism – “I know what you’re against; now tell me what you’re for” – could be directed against controversialists on both sides of most current debates. Good to see colours nailed to masts here.

However (yes, you were waiting for the big but, and here it comes), the book could have been so much more effective.  This is because Mr Murphy makes mistakes of omission, and of commission.

Firstly, the mistakes of omission.  Any book that wishes to effectively sponsor a progressive role for taxation and public sending needs to face up to the charges that the Tories, Republicans, the IEA, Adam Smith, Freedom and other institutes and parties make against it.  Murphy doesn’t really do this. There is no rebuttal of the idea that public management is inefficient, compared with the lean practices of the private sector.  You’d have thought there are enough examples around to rebut this – from the water and rail companies to the excesses of the banks – but Mr Murphy is mute.  Nor is there much mention, let along contest, of the idea that higher taxes damage economic growth and wealth creation, apart from a chart that shows that richer states have higher tax rates.  And the common view – wrong, but popular and common – that raising tax rates actually doesn’t raise the tax take because of the deterrent effect on effort (and effective evasion) is also not covered.  This 300 page book, which aims at explaining tax policies to the common man, does not have Laffer in the index. Nor is the weird idea of public spending ‘crowding out’ productive private investment, the idea that Thatcher and her crew used to justify cuts in the recession of the early 80s, given the kicking it deserves – or any sort of kicking at all, actually.

The National Debt should also be discussed, rather than brushed over in passing.  It’s salutary to know that much of the debt that was used to rescue the banks in the 2009/10 period was simply conjured up, rather than ripped from the hard-working taxpayer, but there’s more to the debate than that.  Our children will not have to pay off the National Debt, and we have not come anywhere near to frightening off investors with government profligacy. The way to pay the Debt down is to expand the economy, not contract it: that is the way we dealt with the World War II debt (as described in earlier posts).

The mistakes of commission are in the presentation of his ideas.  If you assume (a fragile assumption, maybe) that the aim of the book is to persuade some tax sceptics that society needs a broader and fairer tax base to run better, the argument must be shaped to attract those views.  Yet the early chapters basically argue that tax receipts are the government’s money, not yours. This may be legally true, but it’s a view that your moderate conservative will find unappealing. What’s more, you can make a better case by representing public spending as a process providing goods and services on your behalf, than by saying it’s not your money really anyway. It would appeal both to people’s selfishness – you’re getting a great deal for health and security, much better than you could get individually – and to their altruism – how great it is that you contribute to the old and disabled, ensure there are no homeless, defend our nation effectively, educate kids of all classes, races and religions together.

A minor point – I also question whether we needed the detour into what’s known as Modern Monetary Theory – the idea that banks and governments can create money costlessly, with little risk and without using the process of deposits and re-lending known from traditional textbooks (like the one I wrote).  It may be partly accurate to say that banks can just print money, so we don’t need to make choices between public priorities, but to the average Joe it’s an argument that looks like Emperor’s clothes, or a way to do what the left is frequently accused of, unrealistically believing in magicking money from nowhere.  It also doesn’t explain bank crashes very well, and the need for liquidity reserves, very well, or at all.

The book ends with a Budget Speech incorporating Mr Murphy’s ideas. It is well worth reading, especially as it has been written by an experienced accountant who knows the ins and outs of company behaviour.  The proposals are radical and innovative.  However, he describes what is at least a five year programme, and it would be better presented as such.

Don’t get me wrong. I think this is an important book, and one that should be read by anyone interested in the management of our society.  Perhaps I’m criticising a different book, one for a different audience of non-converts. If I am, all I can say is that such a book would be even more valuable, and might even sell more. Maybe I’ll write it. As soon as this pub closes ….


My President

The recent hysteria about the birth of a royal baby (who might become king in around sixty yeas’ time, or, there again remembering Edward VIII or James II, might not) leads us back to republicanism.  It would be much more grown up for the country to carefully select who should be head of state, rather than be dumped with a distant relation of a German protestant princeling.  Particularly in the light of recent revelations about Prince Charles interfering with legislation.

One objection to republicanism in Britain has, however, asks the question “who would you choose ?”, on the assumption that there would not be any candidates who would be as neutral, as widely acceptable as a monarch.  I think there are several – Kenneth Clarke, Professor Robert Winston, J. K. Rowling – but the head of my list is shown below:


EU referendum

Well now. Good sense from many people, and less from some.  Here’s my take on the EU referendum.

  1. The stupidity of the referendum – the EU is in need of reforms, but if we (as I expect) vote to stay in, we will be completely disarmed in any campaign of change afterwards. “You liked it enough to vote for it, mate” will be the riposte.
  2. The likelihood of a socialist utopia if we stay out. Er, no. We’ll have an extended right wing mess. The idea that the interests of the working class or well-funded public services will be promoted by Gove, Johnson, Farage etc seems, shall we say, a little far-fetched.  While it is truly touching that people like IDS have discovered the problems of low wages and poverty, but I think it is an epiphany that will last about 30 minutes after the vote.  Note my good taste in not mentioning Venezuela.
  3. The budget contribution debate has been trawled over enough, I guess, for people to know (a) the quitters quote an exaggerated gross figure, before rebate and any EU funding of UK projects (b) cuts in the NHS and housing are about the domestic policy of the current government – austerity – not shortage of EU funds (c) almost every estimate of GNP and tax receipts post-exit would more than wipe out any gain from reducing our payment (d) to have access to the single market you have to pay anyway (Norway does). Oh, and (e) the full amount the quitters quote is only available if we stop funding the things – agriculture, environment, university research, unemployed retraining – that the EU currently pays for out of our cash.  What is less often said is our government cocks up the EU claim system: I stopped claiming European Social Funding at Lambeth, because every penny we got was taken out of our budget by central government.  I understand the same criticism can be made of how our government handles fishing quotas: we get a bad deal because our government isn’t sharp enough to get a good one.I also have the naïve progressive view that it is OK for the large rich members of a club to pay more than the poor small ones: if we are to have access to the markets of Greece & Portugal, I think it’s fair to help get their airports, roads and technical training up to scratch.
  4. Like almost every non-politician, I think we need to manage migration better. However, half our inward migration comes from non-EU members (Dyson bloody complains the EU stops him getting more of them), and if we wish to remain members of the single market we must agree to present rules on EU migrants. In passing, I truly doubt that many are attracted by our social security system, but if they are, it’s our own silly fault – we designed a non-contributory system with no European help at all.  But if (as we are endlessly told) migrants make a net contribution in the form, of taxes, then we can afford to spend money in areas where schools, hospitals and housing are under pressure.  (I’m not very PC on this issue, and believe that the migration issue will blow up in politicians faces in the not too distant. The problem is not the EU, as much as the fact that many countries are horrible – my wife’s Yemeni language student shudders when asked about her homeland – and travel is cheap.) 
  5. There will be a severe economic cost to leaving. There is no one respectable who thinks otherwise.  This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t – I nod towards Dave’s idea that freedom is worth a cost – but the increase in freedom is illusory in a linked up world, and the cost is high and will be borne by the low paid.  Brexit’s tame economist Patrick Minford estimates that all manufactured exports will end.  Yep, you read that right.  I also recognise that the ‘taking back control stuff’ sounds plausible (even though it won’t work – countries now deal with internationally agreed standards in almost everything, from ivory to lamb).  Moreover, where does all the “I’m not paying for those buggers – I want the decision myself” stuff end ? UK ? England ? The south of England ? London ? Kensington ? My street ? My house ?  And what is there left to say when a member of the House of Lords decries unelected legislators, apart from ‘irony is dead’ ?It’s also surely true that many modern problems – pollution, terrorism, crime, migration, defence – can only be solved jointly.
  6. Red tape ? Don’t get me started. Most regulations are to encourage trade – to ensure that foreign governments cannot refuse our exports (or us theirs) on spurious safety or hygiene grounds.  Imagine stopping lorries at Dover because their weight per axle did not conform to the limits established by a sovereign House of Commons.  I also like the fact that our competitors are obliged to offer a minimum of working conditions, like maternity leave; this seems to be a way to avoid a race to the Dickensian bottom.  We are in any case one of the least regulated industrial countries.  Oh, and the people who tell us business will become more efficient and liberated when we end burdensome EU regulations are the very same ones who say we are importing so much more from EU than we are exporting.  That’s right, the very countries who are hobbled by legislation.   Er, shome mishtake shurely.
  7. The Euro was not a good idea, but the 2008 crash made it worse. I could quote from an article I wrote in 1974 against a single currency, but you’ve suffered enough.
  8. Brexit will hasten the end of the UK, more quickly if the results of the vote shows a strong regional/national bias.

I think we will vote to stay, but won’t be surprised at a vote to go – such is the appalling level of the debate (have you had that leaflet through your door that hints Syria is about to join the EU ?).  I attribute this to the amateurism of the Remain campaign, which seems unable to rebut plainly erroneous Leave arguments.  The emphasis on the economy rather than progress and peace has been overdone.  In particular, they seem to assume that everyone is having a prosperous, hunky-dory time in today’s economy, when real living standards for many people have crawled along the bottom since the 2008 crash.  Why fight to retain a system where you’ve had no rise for five years (my daughters are nurses), or had your pension trimmed by Sir Philip Green, or are on a Sports Direct zero-hours contract.

That’s enough.  References on request.


Oh, it’s EU again

(This is an incomplete blog I wrote at a time when I was losing stuff on the web, so never posted. I’ve kept it to see whether I was right or wrong or just irrelevant)

On June 23rd June the UK voters will go to the polls to decide by referendum whether we shall remain a member of the European Union or not.  The calling of the referendum has been prompted mostly by a split in the Conservative Party between those who wish to stay in the EU, and those who want to leave: in this respect, it mirrors the 1974 vote, which was designed to pacify the Labour members who never wanted the UK to join the Common Market.  It is striking that estimates of the way that the Conservative MPs will vote often suggest that they are pretty evenly split.  The other driver is the antipathy to immigration, which has reached substantial levels in the UK, and has led to considerable support for UKIP.  About half of immigrants to the UK come from other EU members, attracted by an economy which can provide jobs and a language that is an international lingua franca.  I think language matters, but it is rarely mentioned.  It’s a factor that is, I believe, rather more powerful than the imagined generosity of the UK welfare system; it is striking that some Iraqi refugees have decided to go home rather than learn Finnish.

This is not going to be a simple decision; there is no right answer.  Least of all should we believe that one camp or the other are brainless idiots – a good point made here by John Harris in the Guardian.  One would hope that the decision will be made by voters who have carefully balanced the issues and weighed them against their preferences and values.  Are the gains from trade outweighed by the weight of EU regulation ?  Is our influence in the world increased by being a leading EU member, or diminished because our Parliament cannot defy EU rules.  I doubt that it will.  I think there will be a lot of instinctive voting, with worries about migration and regulation will probably be outweighed by fears of the economic consequences of leaving.  Whether David Cameron’s concessions will make any difference to their calculus – well, make up your own mind.

However, we are seeing the beginning of a reasonable debate. There are some wonderful graphics of London being stalked by zombies or Godzilla if we leave, but mercifully the ‘Project Fear’ stuff is limited and obvious.  Luckily we have advocates from both sides willing to make decent points (OK, as well as some stupid ones).  I thought it might be useful to put together a compendium for the passing reader.  A really good overall source is the BBC Reality Check, which you can get via Twitter.  I’ll try, however, to keep the list below up to date.

Issue: Has the EU made a positive contribution to the UK and Europe ?

One can ask, Monty Python style, what has the EU ever done for us ?  This is the title of a powerfulletter from Simon Sweeney of the University of York here – you can read it and the rebuttals beneath.  Environmentalists see the EU actions on air and water as positive.  I can certainly remember taking my kids out of a foul sea at Redcar before the EU Blue Flag initiative.  Trade unions value the work that has been done to secure greater rights for workers – as the TUC points out here.  Cynics wonder whether the ‘red tape’ that business wants removed is in fact necessary protection for workers, the environment and consumers.

There’s a particular issue, though, about innovation.  The EU falls behind the USA and Asian nations in its response to innovation, which is a key driver of prosperity in the modern economy.  It is for this reason that Matt Ridley calls leaving the EU a ‘leap in the light’, and his Times article is available here, outside the paywall, to read.

Some commentators have brought in the issue of peace and democracy in Europe, which they claim has been a major benefit of closer working by the states involved.  The original EEC came about from cooperation between France and Germany, after three disastrous wars in 70 years.  The benefits of peace and cooperation outweigh almost any conceivable cost.

Issue: what will be the overall economic effect of leaving the EU ?

Here’s a balanced article from the Financial Times.  The LSE has come out with a well-argued economic case for staying in here.  Woodford, the investment fund, include some telling graphics in their discussion about how investors should vote.

A particular issue comes from a change in the sterling exchange rate, which fell nearly 2% on the day that Boris Johnson said he’d campaign to leave.  A falling exchange rate helps exports by making them cheaper, but raises the price of imports to the UK.  This might help employment and growth, but would hit living standards.  Pantheon Macroeconomics tell us that a 15% fall in sterling adds 1% to inflation, we’re told, though this seems very low to me – surely if 30% of GNP is imported, inflation would go up by .3 of 15%, which is 4.5%.  However, the Bank Of England might choose to hold sterling up with higher interest rates.

Issue: but won’t we benefit from stopping payments to the EU ?

Yes, we will.  Under the formulas worked out over the years, the UK pays in more than it gets out.  The effects vary according to where you are – farmers and depressed areas get more than southern towns and service industries – but overall we pay £23m per day into the EU.  You could see this as a rip-off or a membership fee, according to your preference.

Issue: will we be able to trade with the EU after leaving on something like the current terms ?

The debate here is usually between those who say the EU has a positive current balance with the UK, and so would be foolish to deny a deal on roughly the same grounds after Brexit as before.  There are two arguments against this apparently commonsense view (assuming you start with the idea that politics is motivated by logic, rather than pique and malice).  First, the EU’s market is much more important to the UK than the UK is to the EU – as you will see in this article by a German academic, and here by the NIESR.  Secondly, we make a deficit in manufactures and visible goods, sue, but we make a fat surplus on services (insurance, banking etc); a crafty EU might agree to keep visible trade going on current terms, but undertake long and tedious arguments about the trade in services.

The key issue is the barriers to trade that exist.  In fact, the tariffs (import duties) on manufactures in the industrialized world are relatively low at the moment, as a visit to the World Bank website will tell you.  The industrial goods tariff the EU applies to imports from non-members is 1.3%, which would hardly seem to be a deterrent to buying a car or a radio. When the £ moves by 2% in a day (see above), this seems inconsequential.

Issue: what will be the effect on the UK of leaving ?

Here we face the unfortunate division of the UK into countries that vote differently on different issues.  The Scots and Welsh have had Conservative governments, but never voted for them.  Ditto England, which never produces a Labour majority.  One consequence of the referendum might be a thumping majority to stay by the Scots being outweighed by the English who want to go – and Tony Blair is not the only one who thinks that threatens the existence of a United Kingdom.

Issue: will we lose sovereignty if we remain in the EU ?

Because the EU can make regulations that over-ride the UK Parliament (and courts), it is argued that the organisation is anti-democratic, and that to be a free, independent nation where the voters can decide what happens in the country of which they are citizens, we will have to leave.  This case was made by the Justice Secretary Michael Gove as he announced his decision to campaign for withdrawal.   His article was initially praised, but then the flaws in his case began to be exposed – as here.  The opposite view on sovereignty – expressed here in The Economist –  is that the world is now so interconnected – globalised – that no country is independent in the sense of doing precisely what it wants about everything.  Outside the EU, we would be bound by regulations that we have no part in making, as Jonathan Freedland points out here.  One article cheekily said that only North Korea is sovereign in the sense that the Out campaign mean.

Issue: can we stop migration if we leave EU ?

Well, we could stop half our migrants right now by excluding non-EU nationals.  We would lose a lot of Filipino nurses and Australian bar-staff, but it is possible. It’s pretty clear, though, that we can’t prevent the entry of EU workers if we stay in the EU, and would probably need to allow them in if we were outside and wanted to have free trade.  The idea that non-EU migrants would swarm from the Calais jungle is not true: this is covered by a non-EU treaty. Anyway, if they did (France is, after all, a sovereign nation in non-EU matters and could give two years notice), we could deal with it: the numbers are less than a Chesterfield home crowd.

The arguments here would be more convincing if the government took powerful steps to meet the costs of migration in the towns where it happens, funding local government for more schools and houses.

Issue: is the EU over-bureaucratic ?

We have all heard stories of EU bureaucracy – straight bananas and all that.  Before delving into this debate, it’s worth making two points.  Firstly, many of the stories are not true.  The joke that compares the economy of expression in the Ten Commandments or the Gettysburg Address with the 27,000 words in the EU directive on trade on cabbages falls when you find out there is no EU directive on trade in cabbages – the whole story is a copy of a US Republican complaint that wasn’t true there either.

The fact is that a common market needs common regulations.  Otherwise an (e.g.) Czech Government could refuse to allow (e.g.) British lawnmowers in on the grounds that they did not meet local electrical safety standards.  Remember the French attitude to British beef as an example.  If it can be pointed out that a good (or service) meets the criteria that has been agreed, then it cannot be excluded from export sales. Similarly, common regulations are needed on transport like lorries that travel across the EU.  Boris Johnson has said that the EU prevents safeguarding cyclists from them: hmm – his views are crushed here.

I-phone codes: agreeing with Trump

Lot of kerfuffle at the moment about the US authorities demanding that Apple reveal the codes that conceal the calls made by a convicted terrorist.  Many people argue that this is an invasion of privacy that should be resisted.  This seems to me to make privacy an ultimate right, when there are many times that we know it isn’t.  What the FBI is asking for is a digital search warrant.  One tweeter said “this is a diktat”.  Well, that’s what the law is, mate – an occasion when you have to do as you’re told, because without some ultimate power that end disputes, organised and civilized society would become unmanageable.  Ask yourself this: where would you stand if a murderer refused to let police access his house to recover a blood-stained axe on grounds of privacy ?

In passing, is it not odd that we get an increasing emphasis, almost obsession, with privacy in a society where almost everything is out on the table, where employers can look at applicants Facebook pages, where software endlessly promises to let us ‘share’ information or contacts, where families publish their holiday snaps and students their holiday indiscretions for the world to see.  This contrasts with initiatives like, for example, the ‘right to be forgotten’ which was enacted in Europe in 2014 and allows individuals to insist that references to them – not, I would guess, their Nobel Prize or Olympic gold medal – are deleted from the web.  This is not utterly outrageous – we have had ‘spent convictions’ for many years in the UK that allows criminals to erase their court records after a period going straight – even if it is a right that seems to be being exercised by dodgy businessmen rather than victims of cyber attacks.  But the major human right is the right to stay alive, and I guess that is what the FBI is trying to secure.

So, yup, I’m on the same side as Donald Trump here.

Best job I ever had

I’ve been getting through my Christmas books, some worthy others less so.  “Jeeves and the Wedding Bells” – Sebastian Faulks tribute to P. G. Wodehouse – made me cry with laughter, embarrassingly as it was in a packed standard class carriage of East Midlands Trains.  Then “Wings On My Sleeve” by Eric Brown made my jaw hit the floor: the country’s greatest test pilot, flying everything from German jets to biplanes, interviewing Goering about the Battle Of Britain, landing a Mosquito on an aircraft carrier, finding out why fatal crashes happen at the speed of sound, extraordinary.

One book I enjoyed more than I thought I might was Linda Ronstadt’s autobiography, “Simple Dreams”.  I’ve always enjoyed her voice: I went straight out and bought her LP after hearing her sing “Tracks of My Tears” on the radio in the 1970s.  The voice is wonderful, and I have always admired the way that she was happy to move between different genres – country, Mexican folk, rock’n’roll, Gilbert and Sullivan, Puccini, and the great American song-book with Nelson Riddle.  She was also a backing singer on many of the iconic records of the last forty years – “Heart of Gold”, “Graceland”, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Randy Newman, Little Feat, the lot.  The danger with reading a book about an admired performer – the word ‘idol’ is silly – is that they might let you down.  This book doesn’t.  There’s confirmation of decent human being status (regretting the closure of the Mexican border, seeing through the nonsense of a Catholic education, rejection of drunken or druggy or simply ill-mannered behaviour).  There are some surprises – didn’t know her grandfather invented the electric toaster – and some good anecdotes – she doesn’t pull her punches about loutish rock stars (Jim Morrison sounds a prize arse) or corrupt agents.  She is loyal to old boyfriends and partners, gracious about other women singers and, above all, enthusiastic about the music.

“Simple Dreams” is a reminder of the utter wonderfulness that was around, and it is fascinating to learn how she came across (e.g.) the McGarrigle Sisters, or Ann Savoy, or John David Souther, or Peter Asher.  It was a small world, but filled with extraordinary talent.  There’s a legend that the music of the mid 70s was tired and boring, panting in exhaustion after the excitement of the sixties, waiting to be rescued by punk and the New Romantics.  The idea that Joni Mitchell or Van Morrison or Jackson Browne or James Taylor needed to be rescued by Spandau Ballet or Johnny Rotten … this is such crap, and I was glad to hear the great Danny Baker say so when he was on Desert Island Discs.

Why am I so defensive/aggressive about the mid 70s ? Part of the answer is that during the mid 1970s I was a part-time disc jockey on local radio – Radio Tees, in Teesside where I was working as a college lecturer at the time.  I won’t tell the convoluted tale of how I became the most local of local personalities (I actually got to the stage of being asked for my autograph), but it was the job I most enjoyed of almost any I have ever done.  What did Noel Coward say – “work is more fun than fun”: yes indeedy.  Then I was offered a new lecturing job in Manchester, and accepted, just as the radio station was about to offer me a job.  Rats !  It would have been a career disaster, but what fun.  As it was, I left and my last show was filling in for a Christmas absentee on the graveyard slot, 11 pm till 1.00 a.m. on 27/28th December 1976.  I discovered a dusty tape of it under my desk (Memorex, if you want to know what lasts 38 years and still does the job), and this was the playlist:

When will I see you again – 3 Degrees (as it was my last show – geddit ?)

Diamonds and Rust – Joan Baez

Nights are Forever without You – England Dan and John Ford Coley

Everything that touches me – Bonnie Raitt

Everything I Own – Ken Boothe

Coyote – Joni Mitchell

Nothing Heavy – Bellamy Brothers

Lover’s Cross – Jim Croce

Fire in the Hole – Steely Dan

Weekend in New England – Barry Manilow

Fair Play – Van Morrison

Every Time We Say Good bye – Ella Fitzgerald

Late for the Sky – Jackson Browne

In The Winter – Janis Ian

Winter Melody – Donna Summer

I Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer – Stevie Wonder

What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye

My Man – Barbara Dixon (Yes, it’s an Eagles song, but this version is wonderful)

That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be – Carly Simon

Girl – The Beatles

Secret Drinker – Pete Atkin

One of Them Is Me – Andrew Gold

Gypsy – Jake Thackray

Heart Like Wheel – Kate and Anna McGarrigle (who wrote it, even if Linda Ronstadt made it famous)

I Won’t Be Hanging Round – Linda Ronstadt

Tongue-tied – Pete Atkin

Hey, Mister, That’s Me Up On The Juke-Box – James Taylor

I doubt you could find anything anywhere as good nowadays.  Remember, this was a late night show on a small local station in a little known area of England.  Criticism ?  Too full of my faves – Atkin, Browne, Raitt, the Dan.  Maybe a little light on the Great American Songbook, Sinatra, Riddle etc; lacking anything European, Piaf, Brassens, Trenet, (suppose I could’ve slipped Autumn Leaves in the seasonal mix), but hang on, we’re talking about two hours as the drunks pitch out of the pubs in Stockton-upon-Tees.  The fact that YouTube has preserved nearly all of these songs on screen tells you something.  I could release it under the label of “Now That’s What I Call Music”, but I think that’s been done, actually it’s been done 89 times, so you’ll have to rely on some click-throughs from which I make not a penny.  Enjoy, as the modern cant has it.

Mixing everything up

I have been trying to think why I feel less committed to political debate at the moment, at the very time when it is more important than ever to find answers to our problems, and when we are suffering from a government that, despite the warm words of Cameron at the Conservative conference, is one of the most reactionary that we have suffered.  I think it is because we have a very confused political discourse, and it is one that the election of Corbyn has done a little to clarify.

Here goes. I think there are four distinct socio-economic areas of debate, which are:

  1. Fiscal policy and austerity. Should we place as much emphasis on repairing the public finances as the current government – and its mates in the European Central Bank and IMF – is (apparently) doing ? Or should we take a more relaxed view of the deficit, feeling that the priority is to restore economic growth and protect welfare and health provision ? Perhaps we can call this the Krugman hypothesis.
  2. Managing our public services. It is extraordinary to consider how quickly we have moved from privatizing airlines (a project I thought was OK) to railways, electricity, water, and soon prisons and probation services.  Air traffic control, for heaven’s sake.  And it isn’t just about ownership.  Even in what remains of the public sector, there is discussion as to whether there we should introduce more private sector management into the running of our hospitals (or whether there is just a simple need for increasing the spending of existing organisations), whether independence for schools in the form of academies and free schools is a good idea, whether too much is being paid to finance institutions for partnership capital funding.
  3. The problem of greed – the increase in inequality over the past thirty years, which has led us back to the levels of inequality last seen in the 1920s; the extraordinary rise in managerial salaries; the use of hedge funds to squeeze money out of existing transactions, not create more wealth; the almost criminal evasion of tax by large companies. I read A. B. Atkinson’s “Inequality” recently (it’s the sort of thing boors like me do on holiday, I’m afraid), and will try to post a summary on this blog soon.  After the academic analysis, there’s a welcome emphasis on ‘so what do we do’ in the book, but I think it unlikely that the Professor’s policy recommendations will be actioned anytime soon.
  4. Change in the global economy – such as how the digital world of information is transforming out economies and companies. I’m off to listen to Paul Mason this afternoon, whose book on Post-Capitalism I’ve just started.  He is on the side of the angels in topics (1) and (3) above, but feels (topic 4) that we are in the beginning of a transformation that will provide new answers to our discontents.  The environment is, of course, a major issue that is out of the normal left/right spectrum – though the Green Party is pretty Corbynist,  the Tory nominee for Mayor of London, Zak Goldsmith, has some pretty green views.

I think the above topics are getting hopelessly confused at the moment.   They do inter-relate, of course. Taxing the rich properly (3) would help the deficit (1): I am one of many who suspects that the sob-story about reducing government spending to help our children’s future hides a desire to spend less helping the poor.  Similarly, trade unions are keen to loosen the purse strings on (1) so their members can get a better deal on (2).  But in principle a right winger could disagree with the nonsense about the deficit, and feel the economy and his colleague capitalists would benefit from a policy of reflation.  Keynes, after all, was no socialist.  Likewise, a left winger may want to take radical action on inequality (3) whilst balancing the budget books (1): few governments were more fiscally conservative than the Chinese Communist Party.  My point is that, whatever your views, it would help to be clear about what we are arguing about.

Whitby Jets

My daughter and her family visited Whitby on their holidays.  They’re football mad, so they went to the pre-season friendly between Whitby Town FC and FC Manchester.  The commemorative mug is attached, and set me thinking about team nicknames.

Now, my dad used to take me and my brothers to see Charlton Athletic as kids.  Yes, I was there in December 1957 for the most exciting match in the history of the Football League, when we came back from 1-5 down to win 7-6.  Charlton were then called the Addicks, which is pretty obviously a version of Athletic despite the various fanciful explanations about winning teams getting a haddock fish supper (though some fans did turn up with plywood haddocks on a pole to wave around).  The team played in red shirts – still do – so they ran onto the pitch to the tune of “When The Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along”.  But some marketing fool decided later to hold a competition for a better nickname, and “Valiants” was chosen.  They play at the Valley, so there is a second-rate pun there, but not much else. Oh, in passing, the Addicks won the FA Cup in 1947 in what was apparently the most tedious match played at the old Wembley: so they enter the record books for the most and least boring matches in English soccer.  And if you’re not yet asleep, Charlton were the first club in England to use a substitute.

Back to the topic in hand – sporting nicknames.  I like nicknames that tell a story – the Saddlers, the Blades, the Potters, the Quakers.  I love names that seem to have no connection at all to current events – like “The Irons” for West Ham United.  What I don’t like are names that are invented simply to match American Football, in the hope that changing the name will unleash massive gate or sponsorship receipts.  Take Wakefield Trinity, a historic rugby league team that was used for the site of “This Sporting Life”, possibly the greatest British sport-based film.  For a few years, some MBA educated idiot decreed that they should be Wakefield Trinity Wildcats.  Now, the wildcat is a ferocious predator, but it is small and nowadays found only in Scotland.  At least that is within 170 miles of Belle Vue, Trinity’s home ground.  The same cannot be said about Leeds and Rhinos, Warrington and Wolves, or London and Broncos, or for that matter Middlesex cricket team and Panthers.  Then there’s Sale Sharks: yes, Britain’s furthest-from-the-sea premier rugby club is named after a fish.  At least sharks exist, which is more than can be said of Huddersfield’s Giants.  Warwickshire County Cricket Club morphs into Birmingham Bears for the short form of the game, based on the bear that appears on the county shield (going back to Earls of Warwick). Leicester Foxes have a similar history, and that’s fine.  Well, fine-ish.  But, come on, Gloucester Gladiators ?  Is that about Spartacus (maybe his mother really came from Chipping Sodbury), or the last RAF biplane fighter ?  Talking of which, Kent Spitfires ?  I know there were plenty of Battle of Britain airfields in Kent, but many flew Hurricanes and Spitfires were made in Hampshire. And Birmingham. Anywhere but Kent, actually.  Does anyone use these modern marketing names without a shudder ? Has a single one of them actually stuck ? Which Yorkshireman will ever be heard to say he’s off to support the Vikings ?

And them there is the affection that there is for criminals.  Nottinghamshire Outlaws, I guess, nod in the direction of Robin Hood. But then you get Pirates, Raiders, Buccaneers, Vikings, Renegades, and Brigands. Hey, guys, what’s wrong with a bit of legal compliance here ?

Back to Whitby.  Whitby Town FC could have enjoyed some wonderful nicknames.  Whitby Vampires, for example, commemorating the arrival of Dracula in the UK.  Or Whitby Jets, to refer to the local semi-precious stone.  How about The Whalers, to let the world know that this is the town that taught Captain Cook his trade, and which ranged over the oceans to bring back oil for lamps and soaps ?  But no, nothing so bold.  What we get is : the Seasiders. Doh !

Not voting for Corbyn

Friends ask why I shall not vote for Jeremy Corbyn as the new Labour leader.  Some of his economic policies are attractive. It is welcome to find a politician who doesn’t think the industrial north of England can be rebuilt without decisive new investment in plant, infrastructure and training.   Questioning Trident is surely, too, something that needs to be part of public debate.  The truth is, though, that much of the economics is wishful thinking.  There’s a good dissection here and here, and the idea that there is a hidden treasure of tax evasion to be easily accessed is queried here.  Some of it is plain contradictory: you can either use tax receipts frm evaders and the rich to plug the fiscal gap, or expand the economy, but, er, not both.  However, at least he is asking the right questions even if giving the wrong answers.  The problem comes in his views on foreign policy.  Leaving NATO and the EU seem comparatively mild stuff beside these features:

The idea that someone with these views could be electable is fanciful. More fanciful, however, is the idea that someone with these views  occupies the high ground of moral principle in the leadership campaign.  The defence that ‘we have to talk to people we disagree with if we are to achieve peace’ is valid, until we remember that Corbyn refers to Hamas and Hezbollah as ‘friends’.  And, truth be told, it’s not his job to broker Middle East peace; that’s what governments and diplomats do, and it is tricky stuff.  That’s why the rejoinder that Tony Blair also met nasty people is so fatuous: that was his job as Prime Minister. Corbyn did it out of his own free will.   Let’s hope he is naïve rather than nasty, remembering all the time the judgement of Henry Adams on Robert E. Lee: “it is always the good men who do the most harm in the world”.

The campaign itself is a pretty devastating disproof of the idea that ‘cometh the hour, cometh the man’.  One can only hope that whoever wins grow into the job.  Andy Burnham seems like the deputy marketing manager of a photocopy company; he was Health shadow for five years, and never laid a glove on the most ideological and shambolic Ministerial record of that period.  Fish in a barrel would be safe with Andy at the trigger.  Liz Kendall seems pleasant and clever, but in the wrong party.  I’ll vote for Yvette Cooper, who is experienced and carries no baggage (apart from marriage to Ed Balls), and might at least give the Tories something to worry about.



Fake quotations

(This is one of several posts on this topic – see also Quotable Quotes Feb 14)

There are number of well-known logical fallacies.  You can buy a wonderful poster with the most common ones here.  You’ll recognise some old favourites.  “Ad hominem” – attacking the person who says something rather than what they say: only send a tweet attacking Jeremy Corbyn and you’ll quickly see what I mean.   “Slippery slope” – we can’t do a sensible thing like A because it would all end up with Z – remember the Americans who said that same sex marriage was all very well, but we shouldn’t do it because it would end up with humans marrying animals.   I had a recent run on with the anecdotal fallacy – “my wife was a working class kid who made it from a grammar school, so all grammar schools must be great for working class kids”.  This is a version of “smoking doesn’t cause cancer because my grandpa smoked a pipe till he was 96”. Then there’s  “Post hoc, ergo propter hoc” – “after that, therefore because of that” – which refers to the belief that because one thing happened after another, it caused it.  This has led many astray, particularly those who claim that vaccines made their child autistic. They had the injection, then the child became unwell – makes sense, doesn’t it.  The bandwagon effect – 30 million Frenchmen can’t be wrong – is a cracker, too.  The Corbyn campaign has been full of the ‘tu quoque’ – ‘you too’ – fallacy.  “You think Arab extremists are bad – just look at what Israel did in Gaza !”.

A popular fallacy on the internet is the ‘appeal to authority’.  This defends a proposition because someone authoritative, or famous, says so.  Which is understandable.  If someone pointed out that my heroes – George Orwell, Maynard Keynes, Bruce Springsteen – said something, I would give it rather more consideration than if Kingsley Amis, George Osborne or Mick Jagger did. But the fact that someone supports something doesn’t make it true.  Least of all is something true if you have made up the support of authoritative figures.  Which happens a lot.

Here are some I’ve noticed recently, and they’re all quotations from famous people. Well, they’re not, actually, but we’ll find that out in passing.

  1. A correspondent to the Sunday Times published a quotation from Cicero, the great Roman statesman. The budget should be balanced, the treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and the assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed lest Rome become bankrupt. People must again learn to work, instead of living on public assistance. Coincidentally, this quotation supports the agenda of the Conservatives in the UK, and the Republicans in the USA. Which is no surprise, as it was written by a right wing novelist and first quoted in the House of Representatives by a Republican Congressman in the 1950s.  I think the clue is in the idea that the Roman Empire gave generous assistance to ‘foreign lands’.  Maybe a short check of what happened to Boudicca, Vercingetorix or the tribes of Brittany (or a hundred other conquered places) might suggest the Roman Empire was not quite a worldwide welfare state.
  2. A Twitterer I used to follow became addicted to quotations from Machiavelli. Well, I say quotations from Machiavelli, but … er … they aren’t.  One says “I’m not interested in preserving the status quo – I want to overthrow it”, which rather gives the game away as the great man spent his time working out how “The Prince” could retain power and beat off rivals. Anyone more vigilant to preserve the status quo, or get back in its good books, would be difficult to find. Certainly not Newt Gingrich, whose quotation this actually is. The disseminator of the bogus Machiavelli got very upset when I politely told him they were made up, pausing for a few obscenities before demanding to know if I had read everything Machiavelli wrote.
  3. Then there’s poor old Charles Darwin, who is brought to testify ideas very convenient to the new right. He’s alleged to have said It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change”. This is, of course, not Darwinism at all: he believed that those who had inherent assets that favoured survival became successful in breeding the next generation.  The idea that individual organisms could themselves change to adapt to their environment comes from Lamarck – or later, Lysenko – and … er … isn’t the same thing at all.  However, it was such a convenient quotation for the political and managerial numbskulls who tell us that we must accept any change, no matter how stupid, that it ended up on the wall of a Californian college.  Poor buggers had to take it down when they found out it was made up by a business studies lecturer in Louisiana in 1963.
  4. Last week, we had a stern portrait of Thomas Jefferson circulated by a screenwriters’ organisation. Superimposed on it was a quotation saying “Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you.”  You may feel this sounds more like a station bookstall self-improvement book than the wisdom of a founding father, and you would be right.  No-one ever found this quotation before 1988.

Recently, the idea that George Orwell said “in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act” has been tweeted to death. I’ve even got a tea towel that says it, alongside the great man’s portrait.  Problem – no-one can say if or when he said it.

There are a couple of points about these alleged quotations.  The first is that, though I’m no scholar when it comes to Cicero, Jefferson, Darwin or Machiavelli, even what I gleaned from a halting grammar school and polytechnic education tells me straight away that they are bogus.  So, what’s the conclusion, apart from finding that the internet is full of people who can’t check fake quotations on the internet ?  I think it goes back to my whine about confirmation bias, about the human trait to find evidence that supports your preformed views more compelling than evidence that challenges them.  People want them to be true, and so don’t expend the energy to check whether they are lies.


Footnote from August 2019.  I should know better than correct a Trumpist using misquotes on Twitter, but I did it last week.  But the alleged quotations were from Winston Churchill and George Orwell, and were obviously bogus: it would in any case be difficult to think of two people who would be more disgusted by the current stance of the Republican Party.  You may, I think, guess the response, and you’d be right to think it was not “thanks for that – I’ll correct my tweet”.  No, it was “You can’t handle the truth !”.  This has the benefit of being a correct quotation, but is a curious defence of falsehood.