Joe Innes

A collection of 14 posts

Now for real: The UK Tax System Explained in Beer

An article posted on LinkedIn has been gaining popularity as a simplified explanation of the UK tax system. At first glance, it seems quite interesting and well thought through, so I did some fact checking. This is what it really looks like.

Suppose that once a week, ten men go out for beer. The bill for all ten comes to £288.

If they paid their bill the way we pay our taxes, it would go something like this: -

  • The richest man earns £781 per week.
  • The second richest two men earn about £3.80 each.
  • The next richest three men earn about £2.45 each.
  • The next richest two men earn about £1.75 each.
  • The poorest two men earn about £1.25 each.

The richest man shouts ‘The fairest way is to split it ten ways — everyone pays £2.80!’

He’s outvoted by the other nine men. They decide that the fairest way is to divide the bill proportionately based on income. The combined earnings at the table are about £800. Based on this, they came up with the following:

  • £781/£800 = 98%, so the richest man paid £281.
  • £3.8/£800 = 0.4%, so the next richest two men should paid £1.36 each.
  • £2.45/£800 = 0.3% so the next three richest men paid 88p each
  • £1.75/£800 = 0.2%, so the next richest two men paid 63p each.
  • £1.25/£800 = 0.15%, so the poorest two men paid 45p each.

So, that’s what they decided to do. At the end of the week, each man looked in his wallet.

  • The rich man found he had £500 in his wallet.
  • The second richest two men had £2.44 each left.
  • The next three had £1.57 left each.
  • The second poorest two men each had £1.12.
  • The poorest two men were left with 80p each.

The next time they go to the pub, the poorest 9 guys say to the richest ‘Look, we could barely afford to eat last week — we need to come up with a fairer way to split it.’

The men worked on the back of napkins, and tried to come up with a system that left everyone with enough money to eat. In the end, they settled on the following:

  • The first and second would pay 4p each
  • The third and fourth would pay 14p each.
  • The fifth, sixth and seventh would pay 27p each.
  • The eighth and ninth would pay 52p each.
  • And the tenth man (the richest) would pay £286.

At the end of the week, each man looked in his wallet again.

  • The rich man found he had £495 in his wallet.
  • The second richest two men had £3.28 each left.
  • The next three had £2.18 left each.
  • The second poorest two men each had £1.61.
  • The poorest two men were left with £1.21 each.

The poorest two men were just about able to afford bread and cheese for their families. The second poorest were able to buy eggs. The next three could buy some ham to have with their bread, cheese, and eggs. The second richest two men could also buy some salad items.

The rich man complained about how unfair the tax system was.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how the tax system really works.


How To Trick Everyone Into Thinking You're Not A Racist

Top tips for pretending you voted ‘Leave’ because you’re not a racist! Not a single immigrant in sight! (that’s just how you like it, isn’t it?)

You say: “The Common Agricultural Policy is not fair, and is very expensive to the UK”.
Your opponent says: “Do you like Italian wine and French cheese? If the CAP didn’t exist, you’d be stuck drinking Greek wine and eating American cheese.”

You say: “Laws agreed on in Brussels overrule British law”.
Your opponent says: “I know, isn’t it horrible having to pay for everything in Euros! Oh wait, we got to opt out of that, didn’t we? Well, it’s horrible that foreigners don’t have to show their passports when they come to the UK! What, you mean we opted out of that too? Well, it’s terrible that we can’t pardon people-traffickers! Hang on, you can’t possibly say that we opted out of that too?! Britain supports 88% of decisions coming out of Brussels, including stuff like the working time directive and in reality, we get opt-out agreements for big stuff like Schengen, or the Euro.”

You say: “We could abolish the tampon tax.”
Your opponent says: “Because David Cameron and George Osborne seem committed to reducing VAT on feminine hygiene goods, I wholeheartedly agree that we should leave the EU.”

You say: “We could have saved Port Talbot, and we could save companies in similar situations in future!”
Your opponent says: “Port Talbot was costing Tata Steel a million pounds a day. Why not just send the invoice to the British taxpayer instead?”

You say: “We wouldn’t have to worry about renewable energy any more, and could profit from our oilfields and fracking.”
Your opponent says: “Well, that’s a perfectly valid point, Gideon de Pfeffel”.

You say: “We wouldn’t have to depend on the EU to make trade deals with other countries.”
Your opponent says: “Great! We could organise very favourable rates for shipping goods to North Korea!”

You say: “We could take the money that we currently pay into the EU, and use it to save the NHS!”
Your opponent says: “That’s a great idea, and I will certainly put the rest of the money towards the NHS. Just as soon as renovations are complete on my duck pond”.


A Punch in the Teeth for UKIP and the Greens

If you voted for UKIP, I feel sorry for you. Politically, I’m so far way from you, you’d need a telescope to see me. Still, you deserve better representation.

I wrote a little calculator to show how powerful your vote was. Check it out below. Play with it. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Summary:

Something is fundamentally wrong when one vote is worth 169 times more than another. But, if you voted for the Democratic Unionist Party, and your neighbour voted UKIP, your vote was that much stronger.

Over the coming weeks and months, you will see a whole host of articles with titles like ‘Who would have won under PR?’. They will recalculate votes share to show you a ‘proportional parliament’. I’m not about to do that, because the fact of the matter is that people would not have voted the same way. What I’m hoping to do is illustrate the unfairness in the system we use in the UK.

Who elects the government in the UK?

The UK is a representative democracy. That means that people influence the running of the country indirectly. This is a compromise, but generally speaking a fair one. If every single person had to vote on every single issue, then nothing would ever get done. So we elect people to vote for us, and a single person represents a large number of other people. This representative will vote on their behalf in parliament. There’s nothing particularly bad about this. It makes sense and means that the country can run effectively.

Each of these representatives can choose to give their allegiance to a political party. A party is a group of like-minded people who feel the same way about things. Party members are sometimes asked to vote in a different way to how they feel. They are paid back when others do the same on their behalf. For example, let’s imagine the following two proposals we have to vote on:

  • To remove January from the calendar, because it’s the most depressing month
  • To force the BBC to run a Breaking Bad marathon weekend three times a year

I love Breaking Bad. I think that the marathon idea is great, but I know that not everyone loves it as much as I do. But my birthday is in January, so I don’t find it depressing at all, so would vote to keep it. My friend John thinks Breaking Bad is kind of all right but would probably prefer people buy box sets. He hates January though. He thinks the idea of removing January from the calendar is great. John and I agree that we will both vote yes on both proposals. That way, we both get what we want in exchange for helping someone else get what they want.

A political party is this, on a larger scale. When a political party gets more than half of the representatives in parliament, they can form a government. If a party thinks they can, they can try form a government with fewer than half of the representatives in parliament. This is called a minority government. This is uncommon, but happens. The reason this is uncommon is because other parties will often group together. They can then form a majority. This results in bigger compromises than necessary in a majority government. This is known as a coalition.

All this seems pretty fair. So what’s good about the way the UK runs its elections?

Benefits of First Past The Post

As part of a fair commentary on the system, it is only reasonable to present its benefits. I mean, why would anyone have chosen the First Past The Post system in the first place? It’s in use in most places throughout the former British Empire. It does have some attractive features, a few of which are below.

First, majority governments are much more likely. This is potentially a good thing; coalition governments are often slow in making decisions. It’s also likely to produce a strong opposition, acting as a balancing force in parliament.

FPTP is also easy to understand, explain, and count. A child can understand the system, and results can be delivered quickly. Voters are unlikely to be confused.

Finally, under First Past The Post, extreme parties are much less likely to be able to build momentum.

So given all these positives, what’s the problem?

Local representation

The first problem is that the representatives are chosen based on geographical regions. Each representative (seat) is chosen to represent a group of people from a particular area of the country. This all but guarantees some people will not be represented. For example, Richmond in North Yorkshire was the safest Conservative seat at the 2010 election. They got the most votes by far, and have never lost this seat. At this election, the Tories lost 10% of the vote there to UKIP. They were still able to hold the seat with over 50% of the vote. There are clearly a lot of centre-right voters in Richmond. But, if I am a centre-left voter living in Richmond, who wants someone with similar views to me in parliament, I’m stuck. I can vote Labour in every election my entire life, and my voice will never be heard in parliament.

Additionally, votes from Tory supporters above the minimum level needed don’t matter.

Election methodology

The way that the local representatives are chosen is a unfair too. To win, you only have to have one more vote than the person who came second. While this seems fair, when you dig deeper, it becomes clear that this is not true. For example, lets imagine we have 13 representatives. Candidate 1 was born in January. To celebrate, they want to give everybody January off as paid holiday. Candidate 2 was born in February, and wants to do the same thing, except with February. So on through until December. Candidate 13, however, is a nasty person, and wants to increase the working week to 80 hours minimum.

It’s a constituency of 14 people, so when the election results come in, it’s easy to count. Each of the first twelve candidates get 1 vote each. Candidate 13 got two votes (probably the town’s two factory owners — it was a secret ballot, so we’ll never know for sure). Candidate 13 beat all the other 12 candidates, and so is the winner.

But wait, only 2 people voted to have the working week increased to 80 hours! The other 12 all voted to get a month off work! According to the way elections are run in the UK, tough.

The Inevitable Two Party State

Although First Past The Post encourages majorities and discourages extremists, it simplifies all elections into a left vs right debate. Voters have no way to control the drift of the country, and smaller parties get wiped out.

Lowest Common Denominator

First Past The Post is strongly biased towards the lowest common denominator. Almost no-one gets what they want, they get the most acceptable compromise. This is also known as the most broadly acceptable candidate. This is biased in favour of white men.

So how can we improve the current system? Isn’t this something that we could have fixed five years ago?

Electoral Reform Referendum

Five years ago, we had a referendum on electoral reform, and we voted against it. Many Conservatives and Labour supporters will highlight this as the electoral reform is discussed. But, AV only went a tiny way towards fixing the problems. Under AV, everyone in the example above would have had a week off work. This is clearly an improvement. However, imagine one more candidate standing who wants two months off work. Most people realise this is unsustainable, but would rather this than an 80 hour work week. As a result, they put him down as their last acceptable choice. Because he ends up getting all the ‘last acceptable choice’ votes, he ends up winning. AV is strongly biased towards ‘compromise candidates’, and still encourages tactical voting.

Single Transferable Vote

Many people who voted no in the AV referendum would have voted yes for Single Transferable Vote. STV is a proportional system, which would almost completely end tactical voting. Under STV, the number of representatives would increase, but almost no votes would be wasted. STV is basically the same as AV, except you have more than one winning candidate per constituency.

The way it works is simple: you rank candidates you want to win. You can also choose not to rank candidates if you don’t want them to win. If your first choice candidate has enough votes to win, your vote is reallocated to your second choice candidate. If your candidate has the least number of votes, then the same happens. This process is repeated until all the seats are filled. This still results in a few wasted votes (if you don’t vote for any of the winning candidates), but it is roughly proportional. It also keeps most of the key benefits of FPTP. For example, while majority governments are less likely, it encourages coalitions based on policies. This is more likely to reflect what the population generally think. For example, in a vote on staying in Europe, Conservatives, Labour, and Lib Dems would all want to stay. They would likely agree to work together to stop UKIP from pushing their agenda through.

eDemocracy

The real question that no-one is talking about though is why we are not moving with the times. In today’s world, I can take a quiz that tells me which Disney Princess I am, but I can’t express my opinion on a particular party policy. Given today’s technology it would be simple to build a platform to allow voters to express their opinions. Sensible limits could be set. For example if a million netizens express their disagreement with a Commons vote, it needs to be re-debated. If five million express disagreement, there needs to be a referendum. Parties could use the platform to understand how their voters feel about certain issues.

There are a small number of difficulties to overcome. For example, how can we ensure that each person gets only one vote? Maybe some form of two-factor authentication? A secret code sent via post to the voter’s registered address could work. How can we decide which of parliament’s hundreds of bills are opened up to netizen participation? Maybe bills where the percentage of voting MPs was higher than the most recent election’s voter turnout? This would indicate a heavily whipped vote. Or those on which the winning margin was small? That would indicate a particularly controversial topic.

Regardless, it seems sensible to bring society into the information age. Voters should have a real say on issues that affect them.

Whatever you think is the best way to reform the electoral system, none of the major parties are likely to care. FPTP benefits them, and so they are resistant to change.

If you think the scandal of wasted votes and huge disparity in voter power is a shameful reflection on our society, visit the Electoral Reform Society’s homepage. You can learn more about what alternatives there are and what you can do.


Crimea in Crisis—How the West Has Lost

Russia and Ukraine have always felt a very close unity. Indeed, Russia’s name places it as the descendent of Kievan Rus, which unsurprisingly had its capital in Ukraine. It’s worth mentioning that this is not a one-way thing. Many Ukrainians support Russia, and support forging closer ties with them. In Crimea, this number is around 80%. Crimea has always been something of a thorn in the side for both Russia and Ukraine.

Put simply, it’s an expensive peninsula to maintain. It has no fresh water, and As a result, Ukraine have allowed it to have its own devolved parliament, in much the same way the UK allows Scotland autonomy. Crimea even want their own US embassy. While since the end of February, all other languages have been abolished and Ukrainian is the only official language of the Republic of Crimea, 77% of its inhabitants speak Russian as their native language. 60% of them are ethnic Russians.

This is at least partly due to Stalin’s ethnic cleansing of the area, but the fact remains that the majority of Crimeans feel a closer affinity to Russia than they do Ukraine. Their parliament operates in Russian, their media is almost exclusively Russian, and many Crimeans are Russian passport holders. In 2009 the deputy speaker of the Crimean parliament said that he hoped that Russia would do the same to Crimea as they had done in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008.

The short-lived Georgian war saw Russia mobilising into Georgian sovereign territory. The Russian argument is that they moved to protect Russian citizens living there. The Georgian argument, which was better publicised in the West, although has significantly less evidence to support it, is that Russia attacked first wanting to take control of the territory.

The Crimean parliament refuse to recognise the government currently sitting in Ukraine, and have appointed Sergey Aksyonov as Prime Minister, who has taken control of Crimean security forces. It is all but certain a referendum in Crimea would see citizens voting to join the Russian Federation.

Putin has carefully stage-managed the entire incident, from troop deployment to last night’s announcement that Russian troops were there with the blessing of Viktor Yanukovich, currently in exile in Russia. He has forced the rest of the world to make a choice, and either way it ends well for Russia. The least likely choice is that the West backs down, and recognises Yanukovich as the rightful leader of Ukraine. If we do that, the occupation of Crimea is perfectly legal, as it is at his behest. We would be making it very clear to the Ukrainian protesters that we did not support them, the result of which would probably be anarchic violence in the streets once more.

The middle ground is that we refuse to recognise Yanukovich as the rightful leader. We accept the interim government and claim that Yanukovich no longer has the legal authority to allow Russian troops to enter Ukraine. It will then be simple for Putin to claim that if armed protesters can storm a government building and gain legal recognition, surely it’s only fair to allow the peaceful residents of Crimea a referendum on whether they want to be governed by this leadership. We can dispute this, but I struggle to see how we could win.

The most likely choice is that we refuse to accept the current government, pending democratic elections in a few months time. Russia will almost certainly refuse to back down, and so Russian troops in Crimea are almost guaranteed until the elections. Russia will continue to insist that Yanukovich is the rightful leader, and will almost certainly help him to win the elections (legally or otherwise), contingent on Crimea being allowed a referendum.

What happens after? Initially, probably the secession of Crimea from Ukraine, followed swiftly by its assimilation into the Russian Federation. The real question is for whom does this matter? Realistically, not many people. In fact, it would benefit almost everybody. Russia get their Black Sea Fleet harbour and take back some of the territory given away by Krushchyov (allegedly while drunk), Ukraine would no longer have to support Crimea financially, and would find their new electorate more EU-friendly, and Crimeans would get their wish. Those the worst affected would probably be the pro-Russian elements of Ukraine who do not live in Crimea. Their position would lose many supporters as a result of Crimean secession.

Whether you agree with what he has done or not, it has been played out very elegantly, and for what it’s worth, peacefully. As you see, Putin has outpoliticked us.

Well played, Vova.


ASBO 2.0 Rejected—But the Problem Remains

The Ipnas were conceived to broaden the powers the police have to prevent annoying behaviour. That’s not a joke, by the way, it’s there in the name. The full name of the Ipnas was “Injunction to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance”. Fortunately, the proposal was rejected by the House of Lords for being too far-reaching and not specific enough. After all, “nuisance” and “annoyance” are both very subjective terms, and are pretty low barriers.

While breaching an Ipna was not in itself a criminal offence, it carried a maximum prison sentence of two years. So, the current system remains, which everyone should be pleased about, right? Wrong. Asbos, which have made the press repeatedly in their sixteen years of existence, are hardly a fair alternative. There are numerous reasons Asbos represent a massive infringement on human rights. According to the law, an Asbo can be given for:

conduct which caused or was likely to cause harm, harassment, alarm or distress, to one or more persons not of the same household as him or herself and where an ASBO is seen as necessary to protect relevant persons from further anti-social acts by the defendant.

On first reading, this seems to be fair. But when you look at the laundry list of all the different things you can be given an Asbo for, it starts to look a little less reasonable. For example, Asbos have been given out for “loitering”, a useful term that allows anyone who spends any time in a specific place to be accused of some nefarious deed. One boy is forbidden from playing football in his street. An 87-year-old has been told he is no longer allowed to be sarcastic to his neighbours. Children as young as three have been threatened with Asbos for playing in the park near their houses.

Asbos can be given for practically any reason, and may require almost anything of the defendant (although to clarify, the defendant can only be told not to do something). On the other end of the scale, you can be given an Asbo for paedophilia. So why would Asbos be used for things like paedophilia when there are perfectly solid laws already on the books to combat them?

The answer lies in the manner in which they are given. They are issued by magistrates’ courts, and while they are supposed to try to the same standards of proof as a Crown court (ie: beyond reasonable doubt), magistrates are accustomed to hearing civil cases where the balance of probabilities is enough to find in favour of an applicant. It’s also possible to do away with that pesky jury that returns so many “not guilty” verdicts.

In fact, only 3% of Asbo applications are rejected. But the real problem with Asbos is that breaking an Asbo is a criminal offence, independently of what the Asbo was initially given for. For example, if the fifteen year old boy mentioned above decides to go for a kick about in his street, he has clearly and without question broken the law and can be sentenced to prison for breaching the terms of his Asbo. It’s easy to see how the police can use this to create new laws without any judicial oversight. All they need to do is issue an Asbo, and wait for it to be broken.

Which happens about 70% of the time nationally, although the figure reaches 90% in some areas. Asbos are a shortcut to turning otherwise law-abiding citizens into criminals, and a shortcut that needs serious re-examination. Let us not allow the recent rejection of the Ipnas distract us from the injustice and lack of due process Asbos represent.


No Benefits Please, We're British

I am, as are many others my age, in something of a pickle. I have just escaped the 18–25 age bracket, and almost simultaneously have found myself without a job.

Now, I’m not expecting sympathy and I’m not asking you to get out the chequebook. My prospects are relatively good and I’m fortunate enough to have a family who are financially solvent enough to support me. Because the government won’t.

Let me just talk you through my life for a few minutes to illustrate how ludicrous this is. I finished my GCSEs with good grades, and went on to achieve good grades at A-Level. I then went to a good university and earned a good degree. Then, I qualified as a teacher, and taught for a year in the UK, paying UK taxes. I then taught abroad for a year and a half, in Russia and France. Russia isn’t part of the EU, but in France I was paying taxes into the EU coffers. I’m an experienced, qualified professional, and I’m fairly confident I’ll be in work again within a month or two.

But right now, I have no income other than that which I can earn by doing odd jobs here and there. But it’s not like I’ve not paid any taxes. In fact, I’d wager that I’ve paid enough to cover my £71.70 for a good few years, and as soon as I’m back in work, I’ll continue to pay to support others. And yet, I’m not allowed to claim Jobseekers’ Allowance. And before you ask, yes, I am actively seeking employment. I’ve applied for a good fifty or so jobs in the past week, and am waiting to hear back.

What’s the problem then? Those bloody Romanians and Bulgarians coming and stealing our jobs? No, but ironically, it is because of them.

You see, David Cameron and co. at Tory HQ were so against our fellow Europeans coming over that they decided to make it as unattractive as possible, by passing a law saying that they couldn’t claim benefits for the first three months. This was where the problem came in because somebody pointed out to him (quite rightly) that the EU wouldn’t like this very much. So, the lawyers came up with a thinly disguised variation of the same law saying that anybody coming to the UK from an EU member state is not entitled to claim benefits until they have lived in the UK for three months.

While I’m sure the well-meaning Mr. Cameron would have loved to make an exception for those of us born in the UK, EU law is quite clear that you cannot treat EU member citizens any differently to your own citizens. And so the regulations are universal.

Despite being at the most financially vulnerable I have ever been, I am not entitled to claim any of the support that I am more than happy to fund through my tax contributions.

Please do not infer that this is somehow a rant against benefits and how much tax we all pay. I am, broadly speaking, a socialist, and believe in solid progressive taxation to enable us to look after those who need our support. Yet again, the government have opted to throw those who need the most support to the dogs.

Why shouldn’t we support Eastern European migrants who want to make a life for themselves here in the UK, when we have the luxury of outsourcing our manufacturing to them for minimal expense? The EU is an organisation that will only ever work if we are not allowed to pick and choose the bits we like. And yet that is exactly what we seem to be getting away with at the moment. Never mind the referendum on staying in the EU that’s potentially on the horizon following the next elections, if I were France or Germany, I’d be thinking hard about whether they actually want us to stay.

Read this post on Fortitude Magazine


François Hollande Caught With His Trousers Down… But So What?

France’s least popular president since France began having that sort of thing has experienced an unlikely boost in his ratings. It would seem all you need to do to impress the French is to fornicate with somebody other than your designated life partner.

The French are some of the biggest perpetrators of infidelity in Europe, with more than half of men and a third of women admitting to playing away, according to a recent study. They’ve even coined a delightful euphemism for it: the cinq-à-sept, literally five-to-seven, suggesting the most appropriate time of day for inappropriate liasons. Before work would mean (somewhat ironically) less time in bed, while much later would interfere in family life (again, somewhat ironically).

Hilariously, the revelations about Francois Hollande’s private indiscretions seem to have struck a chord with the French people that his economic and social policies have been failing to since his election. While this is pure supposition on my part, his cheating seems to have humanised him in the eyes of the French voter. Hollande is far from the first French president to stray. According to the Guardian, every French president for the past 40 years has been either proven or suspected to have had an affair.

De Gaulle and Pompidou stand out as the only faithful presidents of the Fifth Republic. Research has found that higher religiosity has been linked to higher levels of faithfulness. We can probably say that France’s experiment in separating church and state has proven an overwhelming success. In France, you can hardly move without seeing Hollande’s bespectacled visage peering out of a magazine cover, or glaring at the people opposite the Le Monde reader on the metro.

All of which leads me to question the nation’s priorities. Is French politics still a serious subject, or is it some kind of high-drama soap opera, replete with infidelity, financial scandals, and in the middle a bumbling fool trying to get people to listen to him about the issues facing France? While politicians are arguably human and their mistakes and decisions are their own, how much does it really matter if David Cameron takes a selfie with the attractive Danish prime minister? Or if Bill Clinton makes a bit of a stain on an intern’s dress?

I can’t see how that affects their ability to run a country. Of course, every now and then a scandal erupts over inappropriate behaviour, such as the recent Lord Rennard revelations, which truly warrants public attention, but how can we in good conscience criticise a government investigating every facet of our private life when poor old Frankie H can’t even bonk a sexy actress without it being printed in 96 point headlines the next day?

Perhaps we should let our politicians get up to what they like behind closed doors, and offer them the same courtesy we’d extend to anyone else. You never know, they might end up repaying the favour.


Ukraine Has Not Yet Perished

Tonight, riot police line the streets of Kiev. Protestors are bedding down in tents on the Ukrainian capital’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the big square, and there’s no sign of either side backing down. For the most part, the protests and the police reaction have been peaceful, but tensions are high, as are the stakes. Let us not forget that Ukraine’s last revolution was less than ten years ago. These people believe in the power of revolution because they have lived it.

And we are to blame. The EU has dangled the carrot of membership in front of Ukraine’s nose for too long. It’s hardly surprising that Ukraine’s politicians have finally snapped and turned their back on us. In the media at the moment there’s a lot of anti-Russian rhetoric, claiming the Russian administration want to exert control over Ukraine, but it’s not just Putin who’s been playing games.

The EU have asked for the world, and offered little in return. To fund the cuts needed to join the EU, Ukraine would need to turn to the IMF, whose position is that Ukraine would have to double utility prices while freezing salaries. The EU are not prepared to help Ukraine negotiate better terms, although they have offered to cover approximately one eighth of the country’s budget deficit for this year. Due to the tax-free zone that exists between Russia and Ukraine, Russia would be forced to react punitively towards Ukraine to avoid cheap goods flooding the Russian market from the EU, destabilising the economy.

Putin says he wants to join talks to discuss this issue, as well as Ukraine’s pipelines, which carry a quarter of the EU’s gas supplies from Russia. So the biggest slap in the face must be this most recent document, the “last straw”, which the EU might as well have written in piss on a Ukrainian flag. It guarantees absolutely none of the benefits of a rapprochement with the EU, and by the glaring omission of any reference to membership makes it crystal clear that Ukraine will not be a member for a very long time. The Ukrainian leadership has been placed in an impossible position. On the one hand, we have the EU, who seem hell-bent on wringing Ukraine dry, while on the other we have the protestors, desperate to escape the country’s serious economic problems.

We have deceived the Ukrainian people by leading them on, suggesting that we would pave the way for them to join the EU. We have not. When the protests turn violent, we will point at Yanukovich and say that he’s Putin’s lapdog, and that it’s his fault because he won’t sign the Association Agreement. We will say that the reason he balked was because he didn’t want to release Tymoshenko. That Moscow had their hand up his backside and were moving his mouth. But the fact is, only those who are truly guilty need a scapegoat.

This article also published on Fortitude Magazine


Nelson Mandela

On 5 December, 2013, Nelson Mandela passed away in Johannesburg, South Africa, the country he helped to shape and reform following his 27-year incarceration. The world is celebrating his life — and there is much to celebrate. Mandela was an instrumental figure in demolishing apartheid in South Africa, and a campaigner for civil rights and worked for a better world.

It is important, however, that we do not forget the context of Mandela’s struggle. At the time of his incarceration, he was considered a terrorist. A convenient bit of politicking, certainly, but based on more than a grain of truth. Mandela founded the militant wing of the ANC, an organisation whose name translates as the Spear of the Country, known as MK. MK were behind numerous violent protests, and Mandela himself was more Malcolm X than Mahatma Gandhi. Should our reverence for him be lessened by this?

Each individual must ultimately come to their own conclusions, but the old saying about one man’s terrorist being another man’s freedom fighter could hardly be more appropriate. Nevertheless, in the wake of this man’s passing, let us spare a thought for those currently incarcerated at Guantánamo Bay, with no hope of release, no hope of even a show trial. Mandela was at least allowed to say his piece and defend his actions. These people, some of whom are probably guilty, others who are probably not, are being kept in conditions little better than those at Robben Island.

The governments are different, but the pretext remains the same. While, of course, the situations are hardly identical, I nevertheless find myself drawing similarities between Mandela fighting for the rights of black Africans and these men, some of whom have been imprisoned for little more than fighting to protect their own rights in the face of a foreign power invading their sovereign territory. It is also hard to escape thoughts of Edward Snowden, unpopular with the UK and US governments for releasing documents that exposed rights abuses by the US and the UK towards their own citizens.

Unlike Mandela, Snowden has never resorted to violence, and yet he faces the very serious risk of being tried for treason if he ever visits a country with an extradition treaty with the US, carrying a prison sentence so long he might as well start getting used to the taste of porridge now. A lengthy prison term is almost guaranteed following Chelsea Manning’s arrest, trial, and subsequent imprisonment. Was Mandela a terrorist? Yes, almost certainly, if we go by the dictionary definition of the word. The world, however, has forgiven him, looking back and deciding that ultimately, this man’s measured reaction to unreasonable oppression was understandable and justified.

When we look back on the past decade, will we really believe that enormity of 11 September outweighs everything that has been done in its name, or will we believe that so-called ‘insurgency’ in Afghanistan and Iraq is a measured reaction to unreasonable oppression too? Just as our generation struggles to comprehend how two nations nearly blew up the whole world over the differences between communism and capitalism, I believe the next will look back on the 2000s with shame and regret.

The question that abides then is what will Mandela’s legacy be? Will we continue to be pacifistic and sheep-like, while our governments who promise us that everything they do is for the good of the nation? Will we accept our governments’ sanitised portrayal of Mandela, or will he live on in our memories as a rebel, a man who fought against what he believed was unjust using any means necessary? Nelson Mandela worked hard to be remembered as a true catalyst for change in the world. Let’s grant him this wish.

Nelson Mandela

I was called a terrorist yesterday, but when I came out of jail, many people embraced me, including my enemies, and that is what I normally tell other people who say those who are struggling for liberation in their country are terrorists.

This article is also posted on Fortitude Magazine


The Financial Transaction Tax, The EU, and You

As we continue to live through the media’s caterwauling of austerity, cuts, and double-dip recessions, we find ourselves in a position of power over the financial institutions whose machinations ultimately led to the crash itself. The government has a significant stake in a number of banks, and owns some outright. The time for action is now, before we sell our share back to the banks, an event which will, if the recent privatisation of Royal Mail is anything to go by, result in the tax payer getting (once again) a raw deal.

There are many potential systems that have been proposed to implement some kind of ‘Robin Hood tax’, ranging from simple financial transaction taxes to complicated systems with many caveats and exceptions. None of them, however, address fully one of the fundamental issues around which our taxation system has developed — that those who earn more should pay more. The basic premise behind the EU’s hotly debated Financial Transaction Tax is as follows: for every single transaction, a tiny portion of the value of the transaction should be taxed.

Depending on the transaction type, the value varies between a hundredth and a tenth of a percent. If the FTT applied to individuals, this would mean that if you bought a loaf of bread for £1, you would be paying a 0.01p transaction tax. If you bought a CD for £10, you would pay 0.01p. If you bought a £100 television, you would pay just one pence. Of course, the real target here is not the individual consumer, but the banks and financial institutions, who move millions of pounds per day.

For every million pounds traded, between £100 and £1,000 enters the governments coffers. Another side-effect to this system is also incredibly advantageous. It would serve to regulate the markets. In particular, it would serve to reduce the number of “flash crashes”, whose name does not adequately explain the significance of the events. In essence, many of our stock markets are now at least partly automated. Machines can make faster, more reliable decisions on whether to buy or sell stocks than any human can. So many of these AIs are now operating on our exchanges, with such similar algorithms that they create swarms. These swarms occasionally cause flash crashes, by all making the same decision within fractions of a second.

Flash crashes, although short in duration, can almost completely wipe out the entire value of a stock, and expert economists believe they can be used to identify instability in a market, citing a greater number of them in the run up to the big market crash in 2008. Often, the market rights itself so quickly that the crashes themselves are barely noticeable, but occasionally, it takes external intervention to stabilise the market, such as temporary suspensions of trading, or the computerised traders pulling out of the market all together, something that happens when certain market conditions are against the AI.

The reason these exist is because currently, it is very profitable for businesses to operate high-frequency trading bots — AIs that buy and sell stocks faster than you or I can blink, making fractions of a penny on each trade. The sheer number of trades adds up to a significant net gain. A transaction tax as outlined above would temper these trades, meaning AIs would have to be more confident about their returns than the current threshold. A number of EU states (including the strongest EU economy, Germany) have already decided to implement this system, but one clause in particular is causing concern, known as the counter-party clause, which states that the tax is applicable on all transactions provided at least one party is in a taxable zone. Critics argue that this is illegal, as it ultimately amounts to taxing businesses in EU countries that have not adopted the tax. However, without this clause, the proposition loses its teeth.

We already see companies like Vodafone channelling all of their earnings through Switzerland to avoid tax. Without this clause, this practice would become even more widespread, and would have the effect of strengthening the Swiss economy at the expense of our own. What’s more, we already have the mechanisms in place. The Stamp Duty, around since 1694, is essentially a castrated version of the same principle. At the moment, only 30% of transactions on the London Stock Exchange are liable for stamp duty raising about £3 billion per year, 70% are not, and neither is any transaction off the LSE. But the point is that the systems are already in place, all we need to do is spread them out a bit more. It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to see that a Financial Transaction Tax, correctly implemented, could bring in £10 billion per year, which is between 3 and 5% of the UK’s total tax revenue.

Debate is ongoing around this issue, but 11 Eurozone countries plan to side with 61% of EU citizens and introduce this tax on the 1st January 2014. Sadly, we won’t be joining them.


Zero-Hour Contracts

One of the ways retailers have fought off the recession is by saving on staffing costs. Obviously, nobody likes to hear about companies making people redundant, or closing shops that are performing worse, but I can’t help but feel that some of these options are better than the zero-hour contract purgatory that many retail employees now find themselves in. As the recession hit hard, retailers were spoilt for choice. Hundreds of people were clamouring for just a few jobs, and the managers saw an opportunity. Limited by the minimum wage, they could not reduce the salaries they paid their employees, but they found a way to turn this glut of job-seekers to their advantage, and it took the form of the zero-hour contract.

The whole premise of a zero-hour contract is basically inequitable. The employer guarantees nothing, while the employee is essentially permanently on call. While in principle, the employee has the right to refuse hours, in practice they would be looked over for more hours in the future were they ever to exercise that right. The employee has no job security, no promises that they’ll be paid from one month to the next — but they don’t show up on the all-important unemployment statistics.

Particularly among young people, the zero-hour contract is single-handedly keeping the number of NEET 18–24-year-olds in check, but in reality, these people are trapped. They are living with their parents, unable to risk entering the world at large in case their employer suddenly decides to stop offering them hours. People on these zero-hour contracts have none of the employment rights full- or even part-time employees are entitled to either. They have no sick pay, no holidays, and quitting all together is their only form of protest.

Statistics say that as many as one in twenty-five people in the UK are on these contracts, but there are serious questions as to whether this number is under-reported. Some of the biggest UK high street names have huge portions of their staff on zero-hour contracts (or contracts with so few guaranteed hours they may as well be considered zero-hour contracts), including Boots, Next, McDonalds, Burger King, Sports Direct, and Cineworld.

Many of these deliberately keep their employees’ earnings below £144 per week, because above this threshold, they are required to make National Insurance contributions. Zero-hour contracts are not a problem in and of themselves. In a thriving economy, they are a good way of establishing a business relationship that is mutually beneficial without entering into risky guarantees. The problem is that the economy isn’t thriving, and so people are unable to refuse these contracts. In the current economic climate, those who benefit least from these contracts, those who are desperate for stable jobs with a secure income, are those who end up without either.

While a ban is a radical step, it is clear that the current arrangements are exploitative, and I struggle to see how it can be allowed to continue. These contracts are hampering the UK’s economic recovery, and are establishing an underclass of workers with no prospects of progression and with no possibility for planning for a financial future. The current “review” that Vince Cable is undertaking smacks of delaying tactics, and the avoidance of a full inquiry. It’s time to have a real inquiry into the damage these contracts are doing to real people, as well as to ask tough questions about how companies are using them to avoid offering the legal minimums to their staff.


The EU Debate

As the next elections loom in the distance, we face a real possibility of having our say on EU membership in the imminent future. However, we as a country are woefully unprepared to make that decision. Only 37% of Brits claim to have a good understanding of the EU (according to p. 135 of the most recent Eurobarometer study), and yet the results of a referendum would be significant and long-term. UKIP, initially a single-issue party, has evolved into the fourth biggest party in the UK.

Although they’ve promised a referendum after the next elections, the Tories are currently seeking to quash Adam Afriyie’s move to force a referendum in 12 months’ time. This stinks of electioneering, making a Conservative vote a precondition of an EU referendum.

Ed Miliband is under pressure to offer an EU referendum to counter the Tories, and the Lib Dems are wavering with the lack of backbone they’ve been suffering from since they embarked on the coalition. By not offering a serious alternative, the mainstream parties are pushing many otherwise moderate voters into a relatively hard-line right wing position. It is undeniable that the EU has significant power over its member states, and its machinations affect our lives daily.

It seems unfair for the major parties to withhold a vote. The reluctance is understandable. Those most passionate about the EU are its detractors, and so judging by social media and opinion polls, voter apathy combined with a determined far right could take us out of the EU before anybody really understands the consequences. So what would those consequences be?

Trading

The raison d’être of the EU is free trading in between member states. Economic research suggests we trade approximately twice as much within the EU as we would if the EU didn’t exist. Leaving the EU would allow us to negotiate better deals with other countries and would probably result in cheaper goods in our shops. On the other hand, it would also likely come with the cost of less trade with Europe. Whether the trade-off here would work in the favour of households or not is almost impossible to say.

Travelling, Living, and Working

At the moment, EU citizens have the right to travel freely around the EU. As the UK has not ratified the Schengen treaty, we do still have border controls. If we were to leave the EU, more than likely nothing would change in this respect. The EU forcing UK citizens to have a visa to enter for tourism is unlikely. However, the EU allows its citizens to live, work, or retire in any one of its member states. This would potentially cease to be the case if we were to leave the EU.

Take Switzerland for example (a non-EU member state): Brits are easily able to get visas to work here, providing they can find a job. To do this they must be able to prove they will not be a burden on the Swiss economy. Pensioners may retire to Switzerland, but they will only receive the basic UK pension (or their private pension), and will not be eligible for any benefits in addition to their pension. In all likelihood, Britain would negotiate similar arrangements with the majority of EU member states, but this would take some time.

We would be able to impose restrictions on EU citizens coming into the UK, although this would likely be reciprocated by the EU. In an interesting scenario, however, if Scotland were to vote for independence they could join the EU independently. This would require us to reconsider border policy between England and Scotland.

Education

We would cease to be able to take advantage of very cheap university education in Europe were we to leave the EU. UK citizens currently pay up to £9,000 per year for their education, in Europe, fees of 200–300€ per year are not uncommon, and a number of states offer university education for free.

Consumer rights

The EU is very active in the consumer rights sphere — it worked hard in the past to limit consumer exploitation over issues such as mobile phone roaming charges. Britain has, in the past, been reluctant to impose strict laws around consumer rights, but would be unlikely to introduce regressive laws. In a landmark case led by the EU, Apple was required to stop artificially inflating prices on iTunes in the UK. This sort of progressive protection would be lost by leaving the EU, as the UK government would not be able to make such demands.

Environment

A green agenda in the EU has pushed forward environmentally-friendly initiatives. In the UK, it is likely that we would continue in this direction in absence of the EU. This could be achieved by progressive legislation from the government making it difficult for smaller businesses to comply. The loss of EU funding for these smaller businesses would probably result in some closures, but the situation would likely stabilise in the long-term. As you can see, in most areas, it’s a fairly fine balance. However, much of this is based on guesswork and probabilities. There are also a number of more extreme, but plausible, situations:

The Euro collapses

Although the situation in Greece seems to have calmed down, the Euro is still under threat. The possibility of the Euro collapsing is still relatively high, compared to other developed economy’s currencies. If the Euro were to collapse, we would end up paying billions to support struggling EU members. Unfortunately, leaving the EU would not protect us from this. As trading partners with the EU, it would still be in our interests to support the failing currency. We would, however, be in a weaker bargaining position, as we would be forced to join other non-EU countries such as the US. If we were still in the EU, we would be more able to impose terms and conditions beneficial to us.

UK leaves — Scotland secedes and joins the EU

If Scotland were to secede from the UK and join the EU, we would risk Scotland becoming an expensive country to trade with. North Sea oil reserves might end up under EU control, and we could lose a good portion of our oil income to the EU in that way. At least if we were still members of the EU, we would be able to influence Scotland’s membership terms and negotiate in a way that would be beneficial to us.

In summary

It’s good and right that people are offered the opportunity to vote on EU membership. There are strong arguments for leaving and strong arguments for staying. However, there is a huge discrepancy between the power the EU has in the UK and the understanding we have of it. In mainland Europe, there are signs everywhere indicating how EU funding has been spent. In the UK, these signs are much less common. Nevertheless, EU money is at work behind the scenes in the UK improving transport links, restoring historical buildings, supporting museums, improving our environment, fighting crime, working for peace in Northern Ireland, and supporting our students. That said, overall, the UK pays more in than it gets back directly.

The important question is whether or not the additional trade benefits EU membership brings make up the difference. When the referendum does finally come around, what will your answer be?


Pussy Riot Denied Access to their Own Parole Hearing

As Maria Alyokhina lay in a hospital bed, newspapers reported that she was upbeat and positive. Her hunger strike began when she was told she would not be allowed to attend her own parole hearing, a fate that Nadezhda Tolokonnikova was to share. Both were denied parole in their absence.

The whole saga began in February of 2012, when the girl group interrupted a mass at the main cathedral in Moscow, and played a song that is at best described as political and insensitive. They were arrested and held in custody until late July, when their trial began. On August 17th, the three women were found guilty, although one was later released on appeal, Ekaterina Samutsevich. The group has close links to an anarchist art movement called Voina (which means War), who have been responsible for drawing a penis on one of St. Petersburg’s bridges, stealing a chicken by inserting it whole into a group member’s vagina, and organising an orgy in a museum, which Tolokonnikova herself took part in while pregnant.

Tolokonnikova gives the rebel salute

Tolokonnikova’s closing speech at her trial was a very divisive and politically charged diatribe, as one might expect. If you’re interested, you can read it here. Her lack of resentment is impressive, she does, at the very least, seem to accept that what she did was illegal, and there are punishments for breaking laws. Whether the laws are fair or not is a moot point in that respect: you can’t pick and choose which ones you want to follow. At the end of the day, they were guilty of a crime, it’s not (legally speaking) OK to go to someone’s place of worship, take their Lord’s name in vain, and manipulate that to their own political ends — and neither should it be. On the other hand, it’s completely fair to say that the trial was a sham.

It was a show trial, but that doesn’t mean that the outcome was incorrect. Some say that the context is what gives what they did some credibility. Of course, playing a song like the punk prayer in a smoky bar has no real effect on anyone. On the other hand, just the fact that the context gives it meaning doesn’t make it acceptable. In fact, I feel like the context makes it unacceptable here.

Tolokonnikova in the dock

In a lot of ways, I feel that what they’ve done has negatively impacted on freedom of speech. In terms of progressing from the current situation where freedom of speech is curtailed to a more open, free society, people will have to push boundaries. The problem is that I don’t think that what they did should be accepted. The line between restricting free speech and restricting hate speech is very fine, but nonetheless, I think we should try at least to maintain it. That means the Russians have to punish these girls who are crying “free speech, free speech”, but associating freedom of speech with anti-religious profanity in places of worship in the public’s mind. “If that’s free speech, I don’t want any part of it”, Joe Bloggski says to himself, relaxing at his dacha.

Russia have traditionally been a more restrictive society than we have in the West, and so moving towards what we would consider free speech will take time, and who knows if they’ll ever get there, but we’re not so perfect ourselves. Look at our super injunctions, and the questions about free speech that the Leveson Inquiry has raised. Tolokonnikova’s statement itself makes a lot of good points, but then becomes self-defeating through its use of hyperbole and lack of overall coherence.

She says, “at this trial, we can see people who are trying to find the truth and people who are trying to enslave those who want to find the truth”, but what “truth” is she trying to find? The following paragraph seems to imply that she now considers what they did a mistake (she says “[h]umans are beings who always make mistakes. They are not perfect. […] This is what made us go into the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour”). That may be, but how then, in good conscience, can she accuse others of hypocrisy if she’s now going back on her own convictions? She also goes on to say “we called for contact and dialogue rather than conflict and opposition”, which makes it sound like they’re completely innocent, but frankly what they did was at the very least provocative and contrary.

The arguments that she puts forward about it being a show trial are solid, and that someone is directing the prosecution is a legitimate allegation, and almost certainly well-founded, but then she spoils it by going on to compare Pussy Riot to Dostoyevsky, Socrates, and even Jesus, which ruins her credibility. My main problem with Pussy Riot is that they don’t have a point. They just wanted to be subversive and have put all their eggs in one basket in their defence. I think that two years is a ludicrously long sentence for the crime, but on the other hand, the verdict itself was the right one.

Adapted from correspondence with a friend


The Abstraction of Warfare

War is hell. People around the globe are widely in agreement on this simple statement, which is pretty impressive, seeing as we can barely agree on the day of the week most of the time. And yet, for some reason, we’ve only managed about three years without war since WWII.

We’ve seen the Greek civil war, The Jewish insurgency in Palestine, the South East Asia conflicts, the Malayan emergency, the Korean war, the Anglo-Egyptian war, the Mau Mau insurgency, the Cyprus emergency, the Suez/Sinai war, the Muscat and Oman intervention, the Jordan intervention, the Indonesia conflicts, the Ugandan army mutiny, the Aden conflict, the Northern Ireland conflict, the Falklands war, both Gulf wars, the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, the Former Yugoslavia peacekeeping operations and the Libyan war, and those are just the wars that Britain has been involved in.

And it looks like things are about to get pretty intense in North Korea soon, but that’s another kettle of fish entirely. These wars have always been about the deaths of individuals. The number of young men your country is able or willing to put forward to defend an ideal, attack an ideal, protect your territory, or invade someone else’s has ultimately always been the deciding factor in who gets to claim to be the winner. The science of warfare has grown around two simple premises. You can improve your chances by making it less likely that the bad guys can kill your guys, or you can make it more likely that your guys can kill the bad guys.

Today, I came across a video of a laser cannon mounted on a US ship destroying a US drone. It wasn’t as spectacular as I was hoping — I wanted an explosion, the drone to evaporate into thin air. That said, it was still pretty impressive. The drone burst into flame, and lost control, crashing into the sea. The video’s below, and regardless of what you think about this article, it’s worth watching.

But you see, it got me thinking. There’s been a move to using UAVs in a number of theatres recently to minimise casualties among soldiers, to allow dangerous areas to be reconnoitred before troops move in, or, in some cases, to actually launch strikes against the enemy without our troops ever moving within rifle range. It is, no doubt, an incredible feat of engineering. The drones themselves are sophisticated, and the amount of work that has gone into trying to ensure our troops’ safety is phenomenal. Think about how far we’ve come since the first battles were fought.

One man against another for a hunk of meat developed into a group of men against another group of men for land and resources. At some point, it is believed that the Sumerians were the first to train and equip what we would call an army. This was significant, because it was no longer citizen against citizen, it was trained and armed professionals fighting against each other to demonstrate their superiority. In a sense, this created the first “civilians” in the sense that we use the word today. There were now people who didn’t fight, because others did the fighting for them. Society has benefited immensely from this. People could get on with making the world around them a better place, and could specialise in skills like science, mathematics, agriculture. And it has led us to the point we find ourselves at today.

Warfare has always been relatively symmetrical. Introducing this level of machine-versus-machine technology into warfare makes for some interesting philosophical questions (if a drone falls in the woods, and no-one notices it’s gone, does it matter if it was shot down or if it was ‘operator error’?), but most significantly, it forces the opponent to make a choice. They have three options:

  1. Continue to send young men to their deaths, despite knowing that they will never get close enough to a real live enemy to have an effect on the outcome of the war.
  2. Adapt, and develop machine weapons of their own, which abstracts the conflict into a question of “who has more resources”, that could in fact be answered without any material losses for either side.
  3. Adopt an asymmetrical strategy. Begin a campaign of terror. Start to target the public. The number of civilian casualties would drastically increase, but the number of soldiers who die in combat would plummet.

In the past, war has been an effective (if rather uncivilised) way of resolving disputes because the stakes are so high. We roll the dice against each other, and the losses are painful. By introducing technology like this, we are effectively changing the stakes, and what’s worse, it’s only those who can afford the big losses who have access to the technology and resources to allow them to avoid them. This doesn’t mean that wars will cease to occur.

It means that the nature of war will change. The Goliathan countries that can afford the technology will soon be faced with Davids who can’t compete in terms of might, and so will attack where the armour is weak. There are a lot of parallels I can draw with the story of David and Goliath, but the most important is to remember that David wins … and he was the good guy (well … despite going on to have more than ten wives and another ten concubines, sleeping with Bathsheba, the wife of one of his top men, then trying to get him killed so he could add her to his hareem). Terrorism will become the only way for a vastly outnumbered and outgunned opponent to resolve issues outside diplomatic channels. We will blame it on the opponents being cruel and inhuman, as we have done for thousands of years, but the truth is that we will have brought it on ourselves, by taking away the possibility for armed combat to inflict serious losses.

“It’s the army’s job to die for their country”, is often countered with the rejoinder that “it’s the army’s job to fight for their country”. But this simply doesn’t make sense. As long as people are prepared to kill for what they believe in, we need people who are prepared to die for what they believe in too. Because if we swap our battlefields and armies for drones and cruise missiles, then the people that die will be ordinary civilians.