Here are my first thoughts in response:
What does it mean to be green?
Notes from the Green Party Candidate for South Norfolk, for General Election 2015. Longer reflections and discussions on issues relating to policy, the good life, justice, equality, anti-austerity economics and the future of the planet. This is also a forum for exchanging ideas on how to tread lightly on the planet and avoid supporting exploitation and corrupt practices. Here we go...
Saturday, 25 June 2016
Here are my first thoughts in response:
Monday, 6 April 2015
The Mayfair loophole gives special treatment to private equity bosses. They shouldn’t be allowed to dodge up to £700m of tax a year. It’s money which should be going to our NHS, education and public services.
Will you vote to close the Mayfair loophole - by voting for amendment 3 in today’s Finance Bill? It's being tabled by Caroline Lucas MP. If the vote happens, please explain to me how you voted.
I'm sending this email to the other MP candidates for this area, to find out how they'd vote if they had the chance.
Here’s the report into the loophole, for more information:https://secure.38degrees.org.uk/closing-the-mayfair-loophole-report
The Link provided there (to a section of the 38Degrees site) gives more information about the loophole and the proposed amendment due to be tabled by Caroline Lucas.
In the event the proposed amendment by Caroline Lucas was not debated, due to time limitations. So no solution has been endorsed as yet. But the Green Party has committed itself to closing this loophole, which currently loses the country an estimated £700 million a year in tax revenues. You can find the Green Party position explained here.
Richard Bacon gave his constituents the following reply:
I have been concerned about this issue for many years and have been campaigning on it together with my colleagues on the Public Accounts Committee for many years. Indeed, it is largely because of our committee’s campaigning work that the whole question of “tax and who pays it” is now much higher up the political agenda, where I think it needs to be. Tax is not a simple issue. Having said that, there is a growing public sense that the tax system is “not fair”; that is – to put it crudely – that it offers one set of rules for ‘the rich’ (including rich individuals and big multi-national corporations) and another set of rules for everyone else (including normal people and small businesses); and I believe there is some truth to this general public view, even if it needs to be qualified here and there. Public anger found its most visible expression after Starbucks, Google and Amazon all gave evidence to our committee some while ago, when people started to boycott Starbucks and buy their coffee elsewhere. You can watch our Public Accounts Committee hearing with Starbucks here. I was highly critical of the use of personal service companies by over 2,000 senior civil servants in order to minimise their tax liability. Top civil servants were paying corporation tax at 20—26 per cent, rather than income tax at higher rates. I discussed this matter on the BBC’s Newsnight programme in an interview that you can watch here. I quizzed HMRC’s Tax Assurance Commissioner Edward Troup earlier this week, when we discussed the status of people who live here permanently but are non-domiciled in the UK for tax purposes, which you can watch here. The way in which the question of tax is sometimes presented in the media actually hinders rather than helps understanding. For example, the very phrase ‘tax avoider’ can be deeply misleading. If you go into a building society to invest in an ‘ISA’ – which is a tax-exempt savings account available to everyone – you are being a “tax avoider”. That is to say, you are avoiding tax that you would otherwise pay. There is nothing wrong with this. Actually, the government wants you to be a tax avoider and has said so clearly. Successive governments of all political parties have backed the idea that there should be tax-exempt savings accounts. Why? Because all governments have reached the conclusion that our society needs people to save more – and that offering tax relief on the returns which people get from their savings is a good thing to do. In the same way, if you take out a pension you are a tax avoider. Why? Because the government wants you to be a tax avoider – it wants you to have a pension and therefore offers substantial tax relief against the cost of taking out a pension. One person’s ‘tax avoiding’ is another person’s ‘sensible tax planning’. The phrase ‘tax avoider’ has become a ‘swear word’ which describes not only activity which is ‘normal and fair’ but which also describes activity which is ‘undesirable’. Years ago, it used to be widely understood that tax law broadly covered two kinds of activity: i) the avoiding of tax which you did not need to pay if you planned properly, which was perfectly legal – and, indeed, if you were the director of a company, your legal duty under company law to avoid; and, on the other hand, ii) the evading of tax, which is simply illegal and a criminal offence. The distinction between these two activities – avoidance and evasion – used to be much clearer. A very big ‘grey area’ has emerged in which taxpayers such as large companies ‘twist and turn’ to achieve outcomes which were certainly not intended by Parliament but which appears to be ‘legal’ and which would survive a legal challenge in the courts. This has happened for two related reasons. First, it is now much more common than 30 or 40 years ago for companies to become global, which means that they operate in many different tax jurisdictions. Second, different governments around the world offer many tax reliefs for a wide range of different reasons. This combination of i) worldwide economic activity and ii) huge numbers of tax reliefs provides almost limitless possibilities for creative accounting. The obvious ways to eliminate these problems are i) to stop global trade and ii) to have the same tax everywhere in the world, but plainly neither solution is in the slightest realistic. The great enemy here is complexity. The more complex the system, the easier it is for highly paid tax lawyers and tax accountants to dream up entirely new ways of achieving an outcome not intended by Parliament. Every attempt to create more rules to solve the problem actually makes the problem worse. The only way to make serious progress is to make the tax system much simpler and get rid of all tax reliefs, but the trouble is, of course, that for every person who would like to say ‘Get rid of the tax reliefs’, there are others who benefit from the tax reliefs. You will quickly see the point by imagining how you would feel if you had an ISA or a pension, and the government suddenly said ‘We are abolishing all the tax reliefs on ISAs and pensions’. I discussed these issues on BBC Radio 4's 'Today programme' which you can listen to here or here. You can read more about my work in ensuring that our tax system applies to everybody equally on my website here, here and here. Please do take the time to visit the links above and to listen to what I have said on this subject on behalf of my constituents and taxpayers generally. I hope you will see that I have been active in defending the interests of the vast majority of people who pay their taxes on time and in full. Thank you again for taking the time to contact me. Yours sincerely
RICHARD BACON MP
Much of what Bacon says here is wise and clear in explaining in general terms what tax avoidance and tax dodging are. I am sure that Bacon cares about these things, and especially about ensuring that people don't muddle up tax avoidance that is deliberately encouraged (like ISA schemes), tax dodging that is exploiting unintended consequences of allowances designed for others, though still within the law, and illegal tax evasion. But for all that, it does not seem that Bacon has done anything to crack down on the illegal or unintended kind, or indeed has actually had any effect whatsoever.
Well, of course, we in the Green Party have not had any effect as yet, but then we are not in government yet, and are not the sitting MPs. We do have one sitting MP, and she has actually done something, by bringing the tabled amendment that was frustrated by the time rules.
So my answer to the question? Here is my response to those who wrote to me about it:
I’ve now seen the response that you’ve probably had from Mr Bacon, and I am impressed because his diagnosis of the problems and of the need for a solution seem to me very sound and wise. Nevertheless. I do wonder how much he can achieve, given his party’s record in this parliament. I find myself appalled at the blind eye that this government has been turning towards the loopholes and wriggle room built into the tax revenue system, and it seems suspicious that these practices serve to protect some of the wealthiest among Tory donors.
Naturally I’m with Caroline Lucas in her attempt to address this. I would be really proud of the South Norfolk voters if they were willing to follow their wish for honesty and integrity, and elect an MP who’s prepared to stand up with Caroline Lucas on this and other matters. Let’s hope!
These things matter to me as a Green Party candidate because we need a society that works towards greater equality and a fairer distribution of resources. Tax avoidance schemes that favour the wealthy and lead to the wealthy paying a lower rate of tax than the poor are unjust and unfair, and prevent us from providing the public services that a civilised country needs, from health provision and care for the elderly to museums and libraries, schools, roads and railways.
Tuesday, 24 March 2015
Tuesday, 17 March 2015
I record here a generic version of my thoughts on this topic which I have been sending over the last few days to these voters:
Tuesday, 3 March 2015
Saturday, 28 February 2015
Where any view of money exists art cannot be carried on, but war only; Art is the tree of life, science is the tree of death; The eternal body of man is the imagination.
I have four main points to make briefly in response to Andy Haldane's analysis of what has facilitated growth in productivity and the rise in living standards since the Industrial Revolution. They fall under the following headings:
- What's wrong with a flat economy, with no growth in GDP?
- If there has been any increase in achievements in the best and most valuable things known to mankind, has this been due to the growth in GDP and the material prosperity or has it been due to the good conditions that facilitated that growth?
- Is there a problem about growth on a finite planet with finite resources? Does growth depend upon mining those resources and depleting the supply to a limit beyond which not just growth but life itself will be unsustainable?
1. What's wrong with a flat economy?
As Andy Haldane strikingly showed us, from time immemorial for thousands of years of human civilisation, there was no economic growth. The graphs were flat from prehistoric times, throughout all the great civilisations of the past, both in Europe and elsewhere, and right through the Middle Ages. Year on year growth in GDP, or in per capita productivity, is a peculiar feature of the last three hundred years. In the ancient thinkers whose economic and political thought I study, there is no concept of growth and no ambition to build any such thing into the proposals for improving society or establishing the ideal city-state or republic, with a view to enabling people to live life that is as good as it can ever be. Whether they are seeking to establish a society with slaves, in which only the privileged classes can live freely and well (as in Aristotle), or a society without slavery and with equality for women, in which all can realise their best ambitions (as in Plato) increasing productivity or raising living standards or disposable incomes is not part of the picture. This is not because they did not think about economic issues. They did, but they did not take any interest in growing the economy.
So why should we think much hangs on it?
The Ancients were more interested in developing a society in which autonomy, decision-making, agency and intellectual enquiry were the goals of human life, and they were trying to provide the institutions that would allow those things to flourish. They did not envisage that additional material resources or more work in production were the main requirements for that. Indeed one might think that driving the work force to focus more on production and less on action and thought is likely to detract from achievements one might make if the people have more leisure to take part in the life of the mind, and time to devote to becoming autonomous responsible decision-making human beings. An obsession with acquisition of more stuff for the sake of accumulating wealth is an attitude the ancient Greeks associated with a certain kind of enslavement, characteristic of foreign monarchies who made their people into slaves, and thought only of how much gold they might be able to get from extending their empire to enslave yet more. And as Andy Haldane pointed out, increasing the productivity is associated with increasing inequality in wealth and education and all other aspects of life, which leads to instability and social unrest, or dependency.
Perhaps we might be glad that there has been an improvement in the material quality of life, at least superficially, in terms of sanitation, housing, transport, heating and a number of other creature comforts, which make a return to the mediaeval or ancient conditions unattractive. But is there any reason to think that *further* growth will make things better, or that without further growth things will not be as good as now? If we flat line from now, and maintain current standards of health and housing and infrastructure (or preferably the standards that we had before the decline in infrastructure investment undertaken in the name of "austerity") and went on for thousands of years like this without further rises in living standards, what would be so bad about that exactly?
Furthermore, supposing that the rise in living standards has indeed been facilitated by growth, we must ask whether it has led to greater happiness and well-being, and greater achievements that we might be proud of, in a broader sense than just material comforts? Up to what point, if at all, is increased material prosperity accompanied by becoming better at being human and doing the kind of things that have real worth? If we start to associate worth with monetary worth, have we not lost track of what human achievements are most admirable?
Several studies have shown that beyond a certain point, increases in wealth do not correlate well with increases in well-being, whether that is measured as subjective feelings of contentment/happiness, or in other measures of well-being such as safety, security and achievement. In fact, people with much lower incomes and standards of living often turn out to enjoy a better sense of quality of life than those in developed countries. More significant is the fact that no matter what the absolute level of wealth, well-being and happiness correlates more directly with equal distribution of wealth and standards of living, rather that inequality. And as Haldane has shown in his presentation, growth tends to be associated with increasing inequality, and his analysis of what leads to growth and its effects on different groups in society confirms that this is highly likely to be a causal link, and not just random association of two effects of something else. Growth brings inequality, and inequality brings unrest and a range of serious social ills that themselves inhibit productivity and growth. There is a self-destructive motif in the pursuit of growth, even before we turn to the environmental issues.
2. If there has been any increase in achievements in the best and most valuable things known to mankind, has this been due to the growth in GDP and the material prosperity or has it been due to the good conditions that facilitated that growthAs far as I can see, there has not been a massive increase in great achievements in art, imagination, literature, architecture, philosophy or morality over the period in which we have seen a growth in productivity and living standards. Granted there have been some impressive achievements, but compared with the incredible flowering of spectacular achievements in Europe in the Renaissance and in the Middle Ages, in the Greco-Roman world in the classical period, in Egypt and the Euphrates valley back into the mists of time, in India and in China way into the distant past, has the period of industrialised growth been matched by any significant growth in artistic or intellectual achievements. Has this been what we might call a period of civilisation, to be proud of? All of those magnificent civilisations of the past seem to overshadow the achievements in the period of the railways and the iron bridges and the telephones and aircraft and space travel, not because these more recent things are not impressive, but because they are achievements of a different kind. The technological gains have mostly been in ways to overpower and suppress nature and the human spirit of spontaneous creativity, in the interests of efficiency, utility and productivity, while the achievements of the classical ages were ways to celebrate nature and pour out the human artistic imagination in joy at its own creativity. It is not clear that this is an improvement in providing more of the things that are of genuine lasting value. And it is not clear that it is accompanied by any improvement in our attitude to our fellow citizens.
But supposing, for the sake of argument, that things have got better, and that among the good things have been some really splendid things of which mankind might be proud, we should ask now whether this has been because of a growth in GDP and in material prosperity, or due to something else? What I have in mind is the convincing evidence that Andy Haldane showed in his presentation, that the factors that allowed innovation and development in science and technology to occur started before the period of growth. Literacy, for example, lays the foundation for a wave of innovation. Growth is a result of a situation in which literacy improved, education improved, the arts were sponsored, learning from the ancient world was recovered, enquiry flourished in the monasteries and in schools and the newly founded universities, and scientific enquiry was increasingly pursued and valued. But these things happened before the period of rapid growth in GDP, and are not a consequence of it, as Haldane showed. That these conditions facilitated innovation and growth is plausible. But is it not also plausible that they are the things that have made life better, if life has got better. That is, we should be delighted with a world in which the arts, literacy, science and free enquiry are possible. This is a good world. But it is valuable in itself, not for the growth that followed, which did not so much add to these improvements as depend upon them. We should do well to check which thing we think has enabled us to live well: is it the arrival of education and open minded discovery, or is it the material resources that we then used that education to develop? My answer would be that it is the former, and we shall be no worse off, in the things that really matter, if we stop chasing the latter. Perhaps we might be better off, in fact?
Haldane spoke of the importance of what he called "human capital" which is the citizens of our state. He is obviously right that it makes good economic sense to nurture one's citizen body, to keep them healthy, well-educated and able-bodied, and to ensure that structures are such that this valuable resource does not go to waste, sitting in front of a TV screen with nothing to do, and no way of getting to where there is something to do. Human capital is as important to a capitalist system as other kinds of expensive and high value capital, and this provides a reason even from within such a system to halt the damaging effects that arise from the unbridled pursuit of growth in a free market economy without controls or redistribution, such as the increasing inequality and poverty that we are seeing now in the UK.
But the very idea of "human capital" is alienating. We are invited to think of citizens as a resource to be exploited. Idle citizens and uneducated citizens are seen as a "waste", a "drain on the society", like unoccupied buildings or uncultivated fields. This instrumental way of thinking is far removed from the idea of human beings as having a potential for their own self-fulfilment, or of measuring the worth of a society in history by its achievements in justice and freedom, knowledge, literature, art and music and other fine things that will be remembered with admiration and not disgust. For this purpose, human beings, including the poor, are not just stuff to be educated enough to be profitable so as not to be a loss-making enterprise, but beings with the capacity to take a part in the creative cooperative endeavour that is a civilised society. If they have become just stuff in the minds of those who exploit them, then that is already a failure. And since no one is made happy by discovering that they are valued like a slave, to be exploited if they bring in a profit and discarded if not, this attitude is a direct source of unrest and de-motivation.
This is one of the reasons why the introduction of impact criteria in the REF is alienating to researchers who value their inquiries for the intrinsic importance of the knowledge they deliver. To find that the researchers are a capital investment whose worth is to be measured for its contribution to gross domestic product and marketable exports from which the in terms of how much the research has added to the GDP, and whether this represents a good return for the pennies invested in the researchers' time.
3. Is there a problem about growth on a finite planet with finite resources? Does growth depend upon mining those resources and depleting the supply to a limit beyond which not just growth but life itself will be unsustainable?
Friday, 20 February 2015
At the time of writing, nine days after the e-mail request came, no other candidates in South Norfolk have bothered to respond to this survey. Which is interesting.
Question 1: Trident replacement and New Nuclear Weapons
The UK's submarine-based Trident nuclear weapon system is approaching the end of its operational life.
The MPs elected next year will be asked to vote on constructing a replacement nuclear weapon system for Trident that will operate into the 2060s.
To what extent do you agree that the next government should scrap its nuclear weapons rather than replace them with a new system?
Answer: 5, Very Much agree.
I think we should never have had Trident and that it is overdue for scrapping. In addition we should not be diverting money to replacing or renewing such outdated war machines. Military advisers themselves have noted that these weapons have no use, and cost more than the conventional defence resources that are needed in the current climate. Nuclear weapons are a status ornament, of no more use than the crown jewels.
Question 2: Trident and the Strategic Defence and Security Review
The next government will conduct a Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) following the election.
To what extent do you agree that SDSR should consider the possibility of non-replacement of Trident and a UK without nuclear weapons?
Answer: 5 Very much agree.
Indeed, this should be the most urgent ambition, and the feasibility considerations should include a wholesale investigation of the underlying sources of any external threats, such as our dependence upon supplies of fossil fuels and the increasing evidence of a war for energy supplies. It should also look into the nature of the terrorist threat from Islamic extremism and consider whether diverting resources to maintaining nuclear weapons has any relevance to that problem, and to what extent cultural and imperialistic interference might be causing, rather than resolving, the radicalisation of the Islamic world.
Question 3: Trident and the Non-Proliferation Treaty
The next government will need to attend the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in New York in May 2015.
To what extent do you agree that the next government should support a nuclear weapons convention or ban, similar to those for chemical or biological weapons?
Answer: 5 Very much agree.
Question 4: Trident and Austerity
The current government has carried out significant public spending cuts and planned for them to continue through the next parliament.
With so many other services being cut, to what extent do you agree that the next government can not afford to replace Trident at an estimated cost of £100 billion?
Answer: 4 Somewhat agree.
I think that spending £100 billion on nuclear weapons while cutting other services is irresponsible and immoral. It is also pointless, and indeed increases our vulnerability, since modern warfare always takes place with conventional weapons, while the very presence of a nuclear arsenal on British soil increases the risk of setting it off by accident, or in a panic, or generating a mistaken counter-strike from elsewhere due to panic or false intelligence.
On the other hand, the need for cutting is actually premised on misunderstood economics. In principle we could have both an NHS, full benefits system, free care for the elderly, a substantial standing army, AND nuclear weapons, and be better off. The idea that it is an either-or choice is based on assuming that things need to be cut. We are wealthy in this country and our wealth comes from the things we invest in, not from cutting back on everything we do so that revenues fall; we do not need to put services at risk as though we were a household with a low income and no prospect of a salary rise. So the argument against nuclear weapons is not primarily about saving money, but about whether this is a good thing to spend money on and a good industry to incentivise. Isn't energy self-sufficiency based on renewables, not nuclear or fossil fuels, surely a better way to stay clear of wars?