Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Inheritance Tax

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...

Monday, 3 September 2007

Green Taxes 'Making Billions'. Or not.

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...

Monday, 13 August 2007

Less privacy, more work

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.

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Trains, transport and money

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.

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Convicted Traitor? No jail for you!

My complete despair when it comes to American politics continues to deepen. The widely publicised news of the day is that Bush has 'spared' Libby from 2.5 years in jail. His reason? It seems that he thought it was an 'excessive' punishment, so obviously 'no jail at all' is the correct amount for lying to a grand jury and exposing a CIA agent, potentially threatening their life, because their husband had criticised the invasion of Iraq.

At a fundamental level the leader of any democratic country should not have the power to overrule the courts anyway. What sort of example is this to countries we accuse of corruption? The message is that you can do anything you like as long as you are chums with those in power. Hardly inspiring. However, just because previous presidents have done it isn't an excuse for its continuation! It's fairly telling that the Republican defence of pretty much anything stupid, immoral or just plain illegal that Bush and his cronies do is that 'Clinton lied about having an affair!'. Yes he did, and of course he shouldn't have done it. He was also no saint in many other areas of course, but let's face it, Bush has done more to make the world a worse, more dangerous, divisive, polluted, greedy and generally bad place than almost anyone else in the last decade... apart from Cheney, perhaps.

Closer to home we are right to worry about the BAe bribery scandal, and the corruption and very dubious morals in the Labour government that stopped the investigation into it. However, it's pretty galling to hear that the US DoJ want to investigate that deal while their president is letting his friends out of prison for serious crimes. The Murdoch press wonder why there is what they consider to be anti-Americanism in this country. The answer is obvious - how can you have any respect for the American government with the current idiots in charge? They even make our lot look good. Like it or not, other countries judge you by the actions of your government, and if they carry on the way they're going then driving Jeeps into Glasgow airport will be the least of our worries.

Sunday, 1 July 2007

Religious Exemptions

A magistrate in Manchester has walked out of a court because a defendant refused to remove a full-face veil, and this seems to have caused some controversy. Admittedly the magistrate could have handled it better than just walking out, but his point remains valid. You can't turn-up in court with your face covered - you could be anyone. Whose word do we have to take that this is actually the person who it should be?

I don't know how the law stands on this. Could anyone turn up in court with their face covered and expect everyone else to go along with it? Somehow I doubt it, and if it's true for one person it should be true for all people. We can't give special permission for people to be exempt from laws and conventions because of some belief they hold. Where would it stop? If it is indeed the case, then hey, my brand new and convenient religion forbids me to appear in court unless I'm provided with beer and strippers! I'm being silly of course, but how is that any more silly than the demands of any faith? They are all essentially made-up to fit some possibly questionable historical anyway.

It's time for the government to put its foot down and state that no religious 'rules' are valid for any exemptions or special treatments in any walk of life. It doesn't matter what your magic book or man with super powers from the past says - we are all equal, and we all have exactly the same rights, along with the same responsibilities. The overriding motivation behind any of our actions should be for society, not because we're scared of some mythical punishment that might befall us when we die. A life that is lived well purely because we fear a supernatural punishment is not worthy of admiration at all. It is to be pitied.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Honours and Dodgy Peers

So the honours have been announced, and they include a knighthood for Salman Rushdie. This is fine, after all, his novel Midnight's Children won the 'Booker of Bookers' as the best book in 25 years - quite an achievement really. It's a prize that is definitely deserved.

However, it was bound to upset some religious fundamentalists, who are still a bit upset that Rushdie wrote a book that they believe mocked their religion, or Mohammed, or something (most of them haven't read it so it doesn't matter anyway). This was to be expected, and ignored. However, when Labour peer Lord Ahmed waded-in and started saying he was "appalled to hear Salman Rushdie had been given a knighthood ... honouring the man who has blood on his hands, sort of, because of what he did, I think is going a bit too far". So then, Lord Ahmed, what did Rushdie do, exactly? In what way has he got blood on his hands? Is he the one suggesting that someone should become a suicide bomber and kill Rushdie, much like the oh-so-innocent Pakistan parliament? No, he was simply writing a piece of fiction, something that we have a right to do in this country. Why are you siding with religious nutjobs rather than someone you're actually meant to represent?

Lord Ahmed has no right to be representing Britain and should be sacked immediately. No, we don't cave-in to the lunatic demands of religions in this country. In fact we pander far too much to them as it is, and I'm not just talking about Muslims. No religion has any right to infringe on our basic liberties. They should all be ridiculed and mocked far more often for the backward, illogical, dangerous things that they are. Just because you believe in a big man in the sky who tells you to avoid pork, not use condoms, stone women to death or whatever, it doesn't make it a valid viewpoint. Why should we listen to you? Why should we even tolerate you when you start using your religion to reduce our liberties? By all accounts you can let your fairy tales and superstitions tell you what you can do with your own life, but as soon as you start affecting anyone else - including your own children... by God, you'd better to be ready to be ridiculed and mocked. Ignoring you hasn't worked after all, so it's time we told you exactly where you can stick your bigotry and intolerance.

Wednesday, 4 April 2007

Lunch With Simon Hughes

I've just got back from a buffet lunch where the guest speaker was Simon Hughes. It was good to finally hear him speak and see him face to face, as during the leadership election I got to meet the other candidates, but not Simon who was my favourite and who I voted for! Still, it was good to feel vindicated by my choice - he comes across as a genuine guy who cares about the issues that matter, such as social inequality.

It's nice to meet a politician who has genuinely been responsible for saving lives (he introduced legislation requiring landlords to have annual gas safety checks) - perhaps that's the biggest 'difference' any of us can make? I guess he just 'gets it', like most left-leaning politicians. The state is there to help society, not make the rich richer. It seems easy for people to forget that.

Thursday, 22 March 2007


Yesterday's budget was a bit of a surprise really. With the current (and very welcome!) competition between the parties on who can be the most 'green' I expected more green taxes for one thing, yet the only real difference is a slight increase in fuel duty and a higher road tax for the most polluting vehicles, although the threshold for this is so high that it doesn't even cover most 4x4.

The move that surprised almost everyone was the 2p cut in the basic rate of income tax, although this came with the scrapping of the 10p band, so those on the lowest wages will actually pay more. Now I'm probably in the minority in thinking that we don't pay enough tax as it is, so I didn't want to see cuts to income tax. At least it wasn't to the higher rate payers I suppose. What was worse was the cut in corporation tax, although small companies now have to pay more. I hate these blatant bribes to big industry, so this move was pretty appalling. There were the predictable small increases to beer etc too of course (but spirits escape for some reason).

So anyway, where were the progressive moves? Where was the scrapping of car tax and big hike in petrol prices? Where was the duty on aircraft fuel? Where was some sort of sensible tax system on food miles? Or non-degradable packaging? Or incandescent light bulbs? What a wasted opportunity, and what's worse, this budget looked more Conservative than I would have expected from the Tories. I used to console myself that while we may have a Labour government it's probably better than a Tory one when it comes to wealth redistribution and the environment (we'll forget Iraq for a moment), but now I'm not so sure. What's the world coming to when you start wondering that if there can't be a liberal government, a Conservative one is the next best choice?

Tuesday, 13 February 2007

Wind Farms Don't Kill (many) Birds. Fact.

...well, not many anyway. A while ago now, David Bellamy accused wind farms of killing thousands of birds. Notwithstanding the fact that Bellamy, a childhood hero, has now gone mad and is gibbering on about things like global warming being made up, some people who are against wind farms noticed and starting using his support like it was some sort of argument winner.

Now it was clearly untrue (I've lived near windfarms and never noticed piles of dead birds), but without any peer-reviewed proof I was stuck. After all, buildings, cars, cats and so on kill far more birds and only an idiot would claim otherwise. I was therefore quite happy to see this study which shows that wind farms don't in fact kill any noticeable number of birds after all. Yay! I guess the NIMBYs, Neocons and other assorted idiots will now have to try to find another reason not to build wind farms other than the pretty selfish 'I don't like looking at them' argument.

The BNP lie - there's a surprise.

On my walk in to work this morning I was surprised to see the headline of the local paper. Apparently the BNP are running 'patrols' here in Bath, and the story was about the police saying it was a bad thing. Curious, I went to the paper's Web site where you can comment on stories and saw this.

At the time of writing nearly all of the comments are obviously from BNP members who have rallied to their 'cause' to put a positive spin on it. There are a couple of comments from normal people, including one who points out that some comments are from members who aren't local and have been told to lie about it. These are still in the minority though.

I obviously posted a comment myself but it was taken down within minutes. I thought it was reasonable, but perhaps the paper thought I was being too 'harsh' on the BNP. I don't know, but I think I've blown my chance. So here is a request - would anyone who reads this and realises that the BNP are in fact racist thugs (which is all of you, I suspect) please take two minutes to post a comment on the paper's site saying.. well, anything you like - it's your comment. I think we just need a better proportion of comments that aren't pro-BNP.

Tuesday, 23 January 2007

Who would tell us what to hate if it wasn't for the Daily Mail?

Whereas I could possibly accept that Daily Mail readers are simply misguided, most of the people who actually create it are clearly a waste of DNA. How the country can react so angrily to Jade Goody being a not-particularly-racist bully yet ignore the actually-racist and deeply, deeply vile Daily Mail is completely bizarre. I would include the Daily Express too, but their paranoid Diana fixation has relegated them from the world of 'newspapers'.

Anyway, I was reminded just how morally corrupt The Mail was today by two stories. Firstly the current investigation by the Commons Joint Committee on Human Rights into the incitement to hatred by the Mail and Express. The last few paragraphs in the BBC article just about sum the newspapers up really. However, what can the committee do anyway? I doubt they'll pass a law allowing you to slap anyone you see reading the Daily Mail and taking it seriously, even though that's probably exactly what we need.

In an unrelated and yet equally stupid move, Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail, ranted about politicians all loving the BBC. This is the BBC that has just been told it can't have enough money by the government of course... the BBC that was smacked-down by the Hutton report for telling the truth... the BBC that every Tory and most of Labour would like to scrap. What world is he living in? Well, that was a slightly rhetorical question of course since we all know he's living in a world full of scary immigrants who want to steal his job and kill his children. Of course he hates the BBC - it balances the world of the UK media a bit and counteracts some of the racist, homophobic, vomit-inducing output of his 'newspaper'. Paul Dacre, you are a loathsome man - don't you dare infect the minds of people who ignore your paper with your lunatic hate-filled jabberings.

Monday, 22 January 2007

PFI Deals and the NHS

'Private Finance Initiatives' are one of those scandalous realities that nobody except Private Eye seems to care about. With any luck more stories about it will appear in the mainstream media and people will notice. Take today's story on the BBC about how PFI firms will make a 23 billion pound profit from the NHS over the next 30 years. Think how many hospitals, operations and drugs could be bought for that much money... money which has come from the taxpayer to help the NHS, yet finds its way into the pockets of shareholders and CEOs.

While it is true that the current Labour government have increased NHS funding, most of the increase has been absorbed by private companies doing things much more expensively than they could have been done under a completely public NHS. PFI deals are great if you want to use figures from one particular year to impress voters, but they are much less impressive in the long term. If only the bigger picture was shown to the public then perhaps the madness would come to an end? The figures speak for themselves and are useful ammunition in the argument against involving the private sector in healthcare. While I am one of those absolutely opposed to it on moral grounds, it's always useful to have financial grounds to convince people who think with their wallets (or taxes).

I took the opportunity to sign-up as a member of Keep Our NHS Public. Let's hope this group gains some momentum and saves our public NHS before it's too late. Once it's all sold off then we face a greater struggle to get it back - just look at the railways...

Friday, 5 January 2007

Wind farms

Polly Toynbee's article in today's Guardian about wind farms makes interesting reading. NIMBYs are usually more of a bother than a benefit, since bad things (out of town supermarkets, nuclear power stations, airport expansions, etc) get pushed through anyway while good things get blocked. Wind farms are a case in point.

Being anti-wind farm is the default Tory position, whatever David Cameron may say. I've seen this effect myself with my parents. While naturally quite green, being paid-up Conservative members and reading the Telegraph and Spectator have taken their toll. They now have the strange flat-Earth style faith in bad science that Polly describes in the article. I guess it's inevitable if you just believe the right-wing press, but it bothers me that the Conservatives pretty much brainwash their members. 'Group think' and all that. Of course, the power of the right does come from ignorance and fear, but allowing this to help destroy the planet is going too far.

So, what are we to do? As the article says, a firm hand from Westminster is a good idea. It saddens me to see that some LibDem councils are just as bad and block wind farms too - they should be slapped-down for it. However, discipline from parties themselves doesn't go far enough. I think that wind farms and green energy in general should be made almost impossible for local councils to block. This sounds quite draconian, but let's face it, most people won't want one on their doorstep. It doesn't matter that they wouldn't want a nuclear power station either - those are so universally unpopular that they get forced through anyway. No, I'm afraid to say that where politicians depend on rural votes then there is a risk that they will block wind farms whatever they think of the environmental benefits. If they are forced through by the government then the council won't lose votes since they can't block them anyway. Problem solved.

While people are dithering about with tiny numbers of wind farms we're still killing the planet. It's time to get serious about building them on a massive scale. In the end, who cares what they look like if it means we are getting clean energy? Better that than global warming or a legacy of nuclear waste left for the next thousand generations.