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Political thoughts and comments on current news.
The government has announced that it has ruled out plans to look into charging for the amount of non-recyled domestic waste and is instead looking to 'reward' people based on the weight of the waste they leave on the kerbside for recycling. In this article I consider this approach, both in effectiveness, cost, and motive.
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There have been some worrying noises coming from the government about GM crops recently, and the pro-GM case is being made more loudly every day. One might think that we don't have to worry about this since public opinion is so strongly against GM, but such opinion is easily swayed by only hearing one side of the argument, or worse, invalid argument. This has been demonstrated recently by the shift of opinion towards nuclear power that has taken place in a relatively short timescale, thanks mainly to piggy-backing a genuine concern (CO2 emissions). The government presented a false dichotomy - it's either nuclear power or more fossil fuels - rather than anything valid. Will the same thing happen with GM?
The news has recently been full of reports of food riots in developing countries due to the increasing costs of grain. The 'obvious' solution to this, as trotted-out by sections of the press, ministers, and those with vested interests, is the use of GM crops. However, what would these crops actually achieve, and are they in fact our only choice?
The main selling-point of GM crops is their resilience to herbicides. Companies such as Monsanto don't try to hide this fact, and yet it's a commonly held belief that using GM crops would allow us to use less chemicals on the fields. This is a myth. Many GM crops make the plants more tolerant of them, allowing the farmers to use far more. This does its job and kills the weeds, but also causes far more pollution. Funnily enough some crops, such as Monsanto's ''Roundup Ready' varieties, are specifically engineered to be resistant to their 'Roundup' herbicides. It's not unusual for GM crop producers to modify plants to further their other products.
Monsanto is a particularly shady company, of course. They have a history of suing farmers who happen to have had their crops wind-pollinated by GM crops in neighbouring farmers fields. It's actually amazing that Monsanto win in such cases - what are farmers meant to do? Pollen can travel for several miles and can remain active for up to ten years, and if it happens to fall onto non-GM fields it can pollenate plants there, making it very difficult to prevent contamination. If your crop is contaminated with GM pollen like this then you lose the ability to say GM-free, through no fault of your own. However, it gets worse - if you decide to keep some grain to replant next year, and unknown to you it has been contaminated, you can be sued by Monsanto, as this farmer in Canada can testify. Of course, some countries wouldn't want to allow this sort of thing, but it's useful for Monsanto when the US mandates GM crops as part of an aid package. GM crops or starvation? It's not a tough choice, but once GM is there it's there for good.
The pro-GM groups usually trot-out the line that GM crops will save poor countries. Let's assume that an African farmer decides to make use of GM - what should he grow? He'd probably want to grow crops suited to the climate, such as yams. However, he's unlikely to find that the GM companies are willing to help him here. The biotech companies are like the drugs companies in that they invest in the areas most likely to make them money, hence lots of research into cancer (which hits the rich, western world) and little into malaria (which doesn't). So we end-up with plenty of GM wheat that will make lots of money from western farmers, but little that will grow in Africa and actually help the poor.
The power of GM food producers and the rest of the biotech food industry is immense. For instance, a bill currently being considered in the US prohibits organic milk producers from being able to label their product as free from Bovine Growth Hormone, but it fails to force any milk produced from hormone-treated cows from being labelled as such. This bill is being pushed-through by Monsanto and other GM lobbyists and is almost certain to succeed, and it shows immense contempt for the consumer. Whether consumers want GM food or not, they should be given the choice.
In the end, it is wrong that a corporation can 'own' any species, whether they created it or not. Now that the possibility of doing so is legal, where will it end. As scientists develop more complex 'artificial' animals, as will happen with the human-hybrid work recently in the news, what is the point at which a life should no longer be owned? How can a corporation decide what forms of life can breed, and which must die without doing so? Isn't a fundamental purpose of any living thing to reproduce?
If you have time, be sure to watch The World According To Monsanto", which was shown on French TV. It's excellent and contains many important facts to help you make up your own mind on the issue.
Posted by Dominic at 17:01
Inheritance tax seems to be making the news at the moment, with both the Tories and Labour trying to outdo each other in reducing it. This only goes to show just how similar the two big parties have become. Inheritance tax should, if anything, be increased.
One thing that seems bizarre to me is quite why so many people worry about inheritance tax in the first place. In reality it simply isn't an issue for the vast majority of us. Last year 40,000 estates in England and Wales were liable to inheritance tax, while the same year there were 502,599 deaths. As a very rough guide that suggests that considerably fewer than ten percent of people who die have to worry about the tax at all. The reason that people worry about it is because they have an irrational optimism of their own financial future. Let's face it, most of us don't get rich. It's the sort of thinking that makes the public hostile to policies like 50% income tax on earnings over 100,000 - there's no way that's going to be a problem for most people, yet you hear people saying things like 'why tax success?' and other nonsense.
So what about the level at which the tax is payable? Well, until today it was 300,000 pounds. It has now (or will shortly) go up to 600,000 - a level which a tiny percentage of estates will reach. I think that this is a terrible decision, and if anything it should be reduced. The level at which tax starts to be paid all rather depends on what you want the tax to achieve, and inheritance tax is basically performing a redistribution function. It is one of the methods the state uses to make sure that too much money does not stay in the hands of too few people. If anything, this is becoming more of a problem, not less, so why on Earth are we reducing the effectiveness of one of the tools that we can use against it?
It's worth tackling the 'I've paid tax on it once, why should I pay again?' argument too. The reason that people are suddenly concerned about the tax in the first place is because property prices have increased so much. Houses have gone up in value far faster than inflation recently, which means that an initially modest investment is now worth hundreds of thousands. What people seem to forget is that the sum where 'tax has already been paid' is usually a small percentage of today's value, so in fact for most estates only a small percentage of the value has had tax paid on it anyway. It's only right that tax is paid, and paying once you've died seems like the most convenient time to me.
In the end we have to tax people on death precisely because property prices are high. By placing a tax on inherited properties people will be forced to sell them, placing the house back into the market. More houses on the market will help to bring prices down to a reasonable level, benefiting everyone. If the tax is reduced then the government will still need that money so they'll just tax something else, and that's going to be something that we all have to pay when we're alive, and probably something that has to be paid by far more people. Inheritance tax has so many logical advantages to such a majority of the population, so why has reducing it become so popular with voters? In the end we can probably put it down to selfishness and misplaced optimism, yet again. And so the wheel of capitalism turns...
It was hard to avoid the item on the news this morning about a group claiming that 'green taxes' are 'making billions'... far more, it is claimed, than the cost of pollution itself. Stating that fines and taxes are 'revenue generation' as if this is a bad thing is an old argument of course, and one that is often used against speed cameras. However, in this case the target is a much more serious one than speed cameras as it's an issue that is of vital importance to the whole world.
First let us look at the claims. Apparently 'green taxes' brought in 21.9 billion last year, while the emissions had done 11.7 billion worth of 'damage'. 'Green taxes' here include things like fuel duty - hardly a green tax.. more like something that the government has always charged. It also includes landfill tax and other taxes that could be considered green of course, but the scope is rather wide. What they actually mean therefore is a collection of taxes that is levied against things that may harm the environment, rather than green taxes in particular.
What I really have a problem with is the 'cost' of emissions they have come up with. Just how have they calculated this, exactly? Is the 'cost' of a landfill the amount it would be to dig it all up? No - it's the cost of burning-off the methane. I don't think that their idea of costs and mine, or any normal person, are quite the same. Also, how do you put a cost on the effect of a ton of CO2 going into the atmosphere and having some part in flooding yet more of Bangladesh? No, the whole 'cost' is a nonsense. 'Green' taxes aren't there to level some sort of account we have with the environment, they're there to stop people polluting in the first place. The only thing that will make some people stop is to hit them in the wallet, since appealing to their morals seems to fail. People must be priced out of their cars and flights, and motivated into recycling by the cost of not doing it. Society isn't profiteering from this, just making people pay something closer to the real cost of their selfish ways.
Finally, just who are The Tax Payers Alliance? Well, take a look. Surprise surprise, they are the usual right-wing nutjobs. Just who let a story by these people make the headlines? The chairman Andrew Allum left the Tories 'having lost faith that it represented his brand of free market, individualist and compassionate politics', that is to say that they probably weren't quite right-wing enough for him. The chief executive, Matthew Elliot, is a young chap who has worked for 'Britain’s leading Eurorealist think-tank', so he's clearly going to look at European issues objectively, right? Finally, Florence Heath works... and this is a good one... for an oil company. Brilliant. She's bound to be fully committed to the environment then.
Honestly though, what the hell is the BBC doing even giving these people the time of day? Three people who make the UKIP look sensible manage to get headlines on the Today programme?! Maybe I'll start my own 'think tank', since I seem to be just as qualified to do so. The trouble is, when you take the 'green' side you probably find that industry is slightly less willing to grease your palm. Perhaps the BBC should just ignore press releases from organisations that can't be bothered to get their own domain for their Web site? It doesn't show a lot of commitment to their cause does it? Either that or they're technically inept, but neither of these possibilities inspire a huge amount of confidence...
An interesting policy from the Tories emerged today. They'd quite like to scrap our data protection laws. These are the laws that put restrictions on what businesses can do with your personal data, such as not selling it to people who send junk mail. Apparently this 'red tape' is annoying for businesses. Another annoying bit of 'red tape' is the Working Time Directive, which they also plan to scrap.
Much as I don't want the Tories to win, some of their moves are beyond belief. How are either of these changes meant to be vote winners? Sure, they make sense if you are a CEO, or perhaps just a bit evil.. but the man on the street? How can be gain from a change which means he can be forced to work even longer hours than he does now? And when he gets home from his longer day, he can expect to find tons more junk mail thanks to the fact that companies he has dealt with have sold his personal information (potentially to people who want to steal his identity). Note that they also want redundancy regulations to be 'relaxed' so that we can all lose our jobs more easily too.
Some would say that these moves are 'liberal' in a 'libertarian' sort of way, but I'm afraid that they are many facets of libertarianism that lead to corporations ruling the world, and we can see some examples right here. We need state control when it comes to not exploiting workers. 'Red tape' is sometimes useful, but for some reason it is one of those phrases that have stuck into the public mindset as a 'bad thing'. In reality, here are the Conservatives showing their true colours. They don't care about anyone except the 'boss class' and making their lives easier. Quite why anyone who is a decent human being would support things like this is beyond me. Having said that, this will of course be overlooked at the next election and we'll all be concentrating on some non-issue. You have to love the British press.
So the government has said that they will give a whole load of money towards improving the rail network. This can only be a good thing, but it does seem to be a case of too little too late in a lot of respects. For all of the governments talk of green and sustainable transport policies, we're seeing a lot of funding for roads and aviation, but not a lot else. Road and air travel are cheaper in real terms now than they have ever been, yet since privatisation rail travel has become quite a lot more expensive. This is despite the fact that more people are travelling by rail all of the time.
The ESRC have some interesting statistics on travel, such as the cost to the UK of road accidents being 16 billion pounds per year. Road travel is not cheap, but the government doesn't worry about paying for roads and road improvement with public money. Why should the railways be any different? It goes without saying that I think they should be renationalised, but what else could be done to improve them?
I think that a big improvement could be achieved by putting a much higher tax on road transport of goods that could be transported by train, for one thing. We need new train lines to new depots in each town and city where goods can be unloaded and only the last part of the journey done by road. It is madness that we drive lorries with containers on them down motorways when rail is so much more efficient.
The railway network needs to be expanded. Where old lines closed in the 60's remain clear, they should be either reopened or protected from any development until such a time as they are economically viable. These lines were viable once, and the population was smaller then. If the costs of road transport start reflecting the true environmental costs, then these rail links will undoubtedly become useful again.
Fares need to become cheaper. Renationalisation is necessary for this, since I think it is fundamentally wrong to pay a public subsidy to a private company that makes a profit for its shareholders. If the railways were nationalised we could put an extra tax on petrol for road transport.. a couple of pence per litre say, and use that as a direct rail subsidy. Taxes on larger cars could also go to public transport, since taxing luxury cars takes the burden from the poor, who may still need to drive.
Finally, we need to think very hard about the way we build our towns and cities. As long as people feel that they need their cars then they will probably keep them, so we should do as much as we can to remove that need. This is already true in most of London and other big cities, where cars are a luxury. All new housing developments should include local shops and pubs etc within half a mile of any house to prevent people from having to travel just to buy food. This isn't some pipe-dream since this always used to be the case! Rail and buses should link residential areas so that people can get to work, and there should be tax incentives to live in the town or city you work in, to reduce the need to travel. We can do this if we try. If we don't tackle it and just bury our heads in the sand, things are only going to get worse... especially when the oil starts to run out.