Thursday, 30 January 2014

Maajid Nawaz & Jesus and Mo

A while ago someone who is trying to be, but won't be an MP (anyone think a Lib-Dem will win the UK's tightest 3-way marginal?) tweeted a cartoon purporting to show the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him).

 

He has received death threats, Channel 4 news blacked out the naughty depiction of the Prophet, and there is a petition to deselect Mr Nawaz. When discussing this on TV, several people supporting mr Nawaz wore T-shirts with the above cartoon, which several women in niqabs claimed were "offensive" and should be covered up.

Now I find the Niqab vile. I don't like seeing it. But I respect the right of Muslim women to wear it if THEY (not their husbands) so choose. My offence at their mode of dress is MY problem, not theirs. Just as some moderate Muslims choose to behave in a way in which their more doctrinaire brethren might disapprove, the only possible response compatible with a free society involves words, not actions. Peoples opinions need to be freely expressed, and the offence cannot lead to censorship.

We have allowed ourselves to be cowed into "respecting" faith's demands to encroach on the rights of secular society to dress, express opinions and behave in ways the religious, and especially hysterical Muslim, people will disapprove. There IS a right to freedom of religion. That does not mean the religious get to interfere with others' rights to free speech, love, association or dress. There is no right to live unoffended.

I don't see why this is complicated. If you don't like Mr Nawaz or his opinions, don't vote for him. Death threats are not acceptable, and the Jesus and Mo cartoons should not be considered "controversial". They are absolutely in the realm of reasonable religio-social comment. The worst form of censorship is self-censorship, especially in response to the hysterical bullies of the more extreme members of the Muslim community, who of course should enjoy the right to speak, but not the right to decide what is "offensive".


No it won't, pal.

The only sane reaction of those hyperventilating idiots who get het up about something as trivial as tweeting a Jesus and Mo cartoon is "Fuck the fucking fuck off, you fucking fuckers, and, when you're there, fuck the fucking fuck off some more. You cunt".

But then, if you're reading this, you probably already agree. The media/political class have already surrendered.



Wednesday, 29 January 2014

See Bike think Horse & the ASA.

To The Advertising Standards Authority. (mattw@asa.org.uk)

Reference your ruling A13-238570 on the Cycle Scotland - see bike, think horse advert.

The basis of your ruling is wrong. Cycle helmets have little effect in open traffic as they are not designed to deal with the kind of impacts associated with collisions between motor vehicles and cyclists, nor are they a legal requirement. Cycle helmets are negatively associated with safety, due to the "risk compensation" effect. In countries where cycling is a mass means of transport, they are only seen on sport cyclists. At best they are a placebo, giving cyclists a feeling of safety in incredibly hostile roads.

Secondly, riding 0.5m from the kerb is often considerably more dangerous than "taking the lane" or as you put it "in the centre of the lane". You were concerned the cyclist was more than 0.5m from the kerb, thus the "car almost had to enter the right lane of traffic". Of course it did. That's the point of primary position, to ensure the driver only overtakes when it's safe.

At a stroke, you've reinforced the message prevalent in the minds of some motorists that cyclists have an obligation to get out of their way. The rules are clear on this: Cyclists may use the whole road if necessary, and the decision is the cyclist's, not the motorists. This message needs reinforcing, not contradicting.

This ruling is utterly irresponsible, dangerous and contrary to the spirit and letter of the highway rules. Cyclists die due to the attitude displayed by your ruling.

You need to re-consider. I will be writing to my MP about this.




Monday, 27 January 2014

Why the 50p Tax Rate is a bad idea.

The purpose of progressive taxation is to put the greatest burden on those with the means pay more. This makes economic sense due to the theory of the marginal utility of money: a further pound to someone on £100k is worth less than a further pound to someone who earns the median wage of £26,000 or so. means you pay a greater proportion of the 100,000th pound than you do of the first. And for a quarter of a century, the British income tax rates were more or less fixed, apart from an abortive experiment with the 10p starting rate. The rich paid at a marginal 40% and everyone else paid at a reasonable 20%.


And then the Labour party looked like losing the election. And in casting about for land-mines to leave behind (something Tory administrations don't do, incidentally...) Labour, in their last budget raised the top rate to 50p on income over £150,000 and, in a nasty, spiteful little measure, cut the tax-free allowance progressively on people earning over £100,000. The top marginal rate of tax therefore, on incomes between £100,000 and £116,000 was 60%. And simply so that Labour could have an attack line on "Tory tax-cuts for the rich while they cut services".  They did the same trick with 90-day detention. The sheer, naked, abusive, corrupt and transparent timing of this measure takes my breath away and how they're not excoriated in the media for it is beyond me.

Labour, however were overjoyed. They finally got their wish that a Labour government would soak the rich "until the pips squeaked".

The trouble is, it didn't work. The rich, you see aren't very often on Pay As You Earn, so changing tax rates isn't a simple matter of altering a number in a spreadsheet. The highly paid are very often in control of the exact mechanism of payment. Either as contractors, self-employed in some way, or business owners. They often have multiple income streams. There are many ways to choose the tax-year in which you declare your earnings or whether to take it as capital gain or income, or as many people I know, simply take less pay "so the buggers don't get it". They can increase pension contributions or invest in another business. 

All people paying the higher rate have to submit a tax-return and therefore probably have an accountant who will advise them on their options. None of this is illegal, or even contrary to the spirit of legislation, and certainly not "tax avoidance". All you have done is taken a situation where it didn't really pay to make a great deal of effort about the tax affairs, to one in which it did because one form of tax is so far out of whack with the rest. And so the 50p tax raised a great deal less than the £3bn expected.

I'm making no great claims about the money raised or not by this measure. The 50p rate probably raised a bit more money than had it not been introduced, at least in the short run, but not much (less than the £3bn promised). And Dropping the rate to 45% almost certainly reduced the amount raised compared to the status quo ante, but again, in the short-run, and by negligible amounts. 

In the longer run though the evidence appears clear. The revenue maximising rate is somewhere between 40% and 50%. A 50p rate is probably nudging into the downward-sloping end of the curve and this is mainly due to investment and incentive effects. It simply becomes less worthwhile, at the margin, to make the effort to get beyond £150k when the Government takes over half. And so fewer people do, many that do will shift earnings over time to less punitive jurisdictions. UK subsidiaries will be shut, or not started in the first place and the economy suffers. Business might still get done, it just won't be done by people taxed here. It suffers not because an extra 10% of earnings over £150k is a lot of money, but because you're attacking the people who make the decisions.

Ultimately the mechanism by which the right-hand side of the Laffer curve works is by shrinking the pie, not just for the rich who pay the taxes, but for everyone.

It boils down to this simple statement: a higher rate of 40% is accepted by those who pay it. One of 50% is not. And the people who pay it have options. But it is economically damaging beyond the simple effect on the Exchequer's bottom line, because those who are going to be forced to pay it feel it's vindictive. They are really, really angry about it. And for this reason, the economic and social rationale needs to be a bit better than the "Because crisis. Bankers. FUCK YOU, That's why" that seems to underpin the Labour thinking. 

Not having any sympathy for someone on £250k a year means not having any sympathy for someone who writes a cheque for £92,627 (39%) to pay for nurses teachers and doctors. You think they should pay £102,367 (41%) instead. And if a number of them walk, to Monaco, Geneva, New York, Spain or wherever, instead of "driving them to the airport", consider where the £92,627 they'd have paid willingly will now come from. That's before you consider the VAT, CGT, NICs and so forth that "wanker" you're wishing would just "fuck off" would have contributed.

This is a transparently chippy little bit of class war bullshit that will risk more damage than is worth the paltry sums it might optimistically raise. In supporting it, you're revealing yourself to be a spiteful, economically ignorant Jack Spart, who is motivated by envy, not a desire to get the deficit down. 

Ultimately the chorus of business leaders making this point will damage Labour's economic credibility even further, even as a grumpy electorate tells the pollsters they like the policy. The economic recovery is happening. People will not want to risk this over the next 15 months. This is set to become Labour's new clause IV. It will not form part of the manifesto of the next Labour government.



Monday, 20 January 2014

12 Years A Slave

In 1785, Thomas Jefferson wrote

The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. 
Our children see this, and learn to imitate it…. The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities. 
The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances … if a slave can have a country in this world, it must be any other in preference to that in which he is to be born to live and labor for another … or entail his own miserable condition on the endless generations proceeding from him … Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.
Jefferson owned several hundred people, freeing just a handful of them during his life.

America's attitude towards slavery (and their equally dreadful treatment of the Native Americans) has always been conflicted. Most sane, sentient white people knew it to be a grotesque wrong. But they mostly went along with it anyway. Land of the Free? Only if you're white. Many people took Robert E. Lee's line: that slavery was  in some way necessary to "improve" the African race. By such hypocrisy, does evil fester. This is why '12 years a slave' was made by an Englishman: America still hasn't reconciled itself to its original sin. It's noticeable the first black president is not a descendent of those slaves who built American prosperity, but a child of more recent, willing immigrants.

12 years a slave is a great film dealing with things that actually happened: things that are hard to understand or stomach today.

There's a scene where having been saved from a lynching by his master's overseer, Solomon Northup, played with real feeling by Chiwetel Ejiofor is left with his hands bound and tiptoes touching the floor. The scene lingers with the tortured man just off centre of the screen, being near throttled as he struggles to use his feet in the mud to relieve the pressure on his neck. The scene lasts for several minutes. The camera does not look away. There is no music to distract you. And then you notice what's going on in the background.... other slaves get back to whatever it was they were doing, so inured were they to the violence around them. The Master's wife calmly looks on, and walks away. As the pressure builds, you can feel the discomfort in the audience. The camera's eye does not move or blink. The courage of that long, steady, quiet shot, driving home the enormous cruelty of the institution of slavery, is an stunning piece of film-making. The message is clear. Solomon Northup's life is not his own, but belongs to his Master.

This scene unfolded on the plantation of the "good" Master, Ford (played by Benedict Cumerbach) of whom Northup wrote
 The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of Slavery. He never doubted the moral right of one man holding another in subjection. Brought up under other circumstances and other influences, his notions would undoubtedly have been different. Nevertheless, he was a model master, walking uprightly, according to the light of his understanding, and fortunate was the slave who came to his possession. Were all men such as he, Slavery would be deprived of more than half its bitterness 
This reflects well on Ford, but also on Northup himself who shows a Mandela-like ability to forgive. In the film, however, Ford is shown as a self-serving hypocrite.

So why didn't Ford free his slaves, if he was such a decent man? It was illegal to do so in Louisiana in 1841/2. Help him escape? This too was illegal, even for whites, and punishable by severe fines. So too was teaching a slave to read, or employing a slave as a clerk. The institution of slavery evolved into the totalitarian system one law at a time, and Northup believed he would be killed rather than allowed to escape, because he faced southern chattel slavery at its most complete and cruel.

However good and Christian Ford may have been, it was on Epp's plantation Northup discovered the brutal reality of Chattel Slavery in the Southern States, with regular whippings when insufficient cotton is picked. Or when a drunken Epps wants his slaves to dance. Or when he just feels like whipping them. Sometimes the camera draws your eye to the savagery. Sometimes it's just happening in the background while a scene of dull domestication is played out in focus. This too is profoundly uncomfortable for the audience, whom you could feel and hear turning their faces away from the suffering.

The film does not let the audience off easily. There's no-one with whom the audience can identify - save Solomon himself. Few other slaves are given a voice. The mistress is not good cop to the master's bad cop. Instead a profound state of war exists between the slave owners and their property. This led the plantation caste in the Antebellum south to live in perpetual fear of slave uprisings. This must have been felt keener on the white women, who were themselves largely prisoners in a gilded cage, and who wouldn't have felt able to protect themselves from a workforce which both hated and outnumbered them. The white men were inured to the violence.
"Every man carries his bowie knife, and when two fall out, they set to work hacking and thrusting at each other more like savages than civilised and enlightened beings."
And in many cases, their husbands took slave concubines which explain's mistress Epps' savage jealousy of Patsy. The bitter cruelty and hate in the Epps' household rings true. Many plantation owners slept upstairs, armed, with the step-ladder to their beds withdrawn in perpetual fear of being murdered in their beds by their own "property".

The film deals brilliantly with not just the brutality casually and routinely meted out to slaves, but also the effect doing so has on the overseers and plantation owners. The challenge to the film-goer is to find some sympathy with Epps, who would have had a whip placed in his hands at a very early age. He is not happy. He both loves and hates his slaves, especially his Patsy as he loves and hates himself. The alcoholism, the rages, the manic moods tell of a mind under profound stress from fear, violence, loathing and the corruption of power. The institution of slavery is wholly evil, damaging people with the power it grants. The people within the institution - the slaves who informed on runaways and the overseers and masters who whipped and beat them simply lacked the strength to deal with the evil in their midsts.

Few slaves ran, though running became more common as the underground railroad developed in the 1840s and 50s. Fewer than 1,000 slaves a year ever made it to Canada. Fugitive slave laws were enforced in the north intermittently and the regular patrols who question every "nigger" they see about his destination, made running near impossible while in southern states. Slaves were subjected to beatings, rapes, and lived in constant fear of the whip but in reality, lynchings were less common in the antebellum south than the film would have you believe, and certainly less so than in the 80 or so years between Civil War and Civil Rights. Runaway slaves were flogged then returned to their owners, not hanged, because slaves were extremely valuable property for whom a reward was offered for the safe return. Nor would a ship's crew be free to casually murder a slave as depicted in the movie. Slaves were simply too valuable.

Northup himself was kidnapped for $650, and initially put up for sale at $1500, but following a near-death experience with smallpox (the real reason Northup threw a corpse over the side of the ship) he was eventually sold by Freeman to Ford for $900. To put this in perspective, the average annual wage was around $150 at the time. By the time he'd demonstrated his intelligence and resourcefulness to Ford and Tibeats, his price had risen to $1400.

Which brings us to Northup's escape.

He does escape. The film's name should alert you to the fact that there is a happy ending, to this part of Solomon Northup's story at least should not surprise you. And in doing so, he meets a Canadian abolitionist carpenter called Bass, played by Brad Pitt, who mails a letter to Northup's friends in the north, and secures (eventually) his release. This part is true to the narrative in laid out by Northup. In reality, Bass did more than just mail a letter, he wrote several, and travelled to the north to seek out Northup's friends. But success ultimately came from the very first letter he sent. It was Henry B. Northup, the son of Solomon's Father's master who eventually rescued Solomon.

Very few people escaped from slavery and as Northup is driven away from the Epps plantation a free man, I was left thinking about the fate of the other slaves we'd come to know and the countless others to toiled and died in the cotton fields who remain nameless.

This is a profoundly moving and powerful film dealing with an important subject with the gravity and tact it deserves. If 12 years a slave doesn't win lots of Oscars - best picture, best actor and best supporting actor plus a number of others, then a great injustice will have been done. Director, Steve McQueen has created a masterpiece, albeit one extremely uncomfortable to watch. But watch it you should.

The book is available for free, from a number of sources. I recommend reading that too.



Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Why Evidence-Based Policy is a Bad Thing.

Who could possibly be against "evidence-based" policy?


The problem is very simple. It's almost impossible to conduct experiments in the social sciences. No government can alter one economic variable and measure the outcome. The noise to signal ratio is absurdly high. What you're left with is explanations of the data that may or may not stumble on the actual causality.

Some things are obviously and self-evidently stupid. Socialism for example - high marginal tax-rates, nationalisation, closing down markets where possible in favour of state monopolies failed. And in as perfect an economic experiment as any undertaken, two nations, both shattered by war and populated by Germans went head to head. The Capitalist system turned out to be much, much less shit than socialism. Yet many social "scientists" still seem intent on manufacturing evidence that the solutions once tried in East Germany are not only feasible, but that any other approach is both doomed to failure and wicked.

Instead of evidence-based policy, what you often get is policy-based "evidence". You have the same political arguments, dressed up in a kind of pseudo scientific hocus-pocus.

Take the "debate" about minimum pricing as a classic example.

First make a heroic assumption. Assume a fall in alcohol consumption per head is desirable (it isn't, what we want to do is reduce "problem" drinking). Second, ignore the fact that your desired outcome is happening anyway. Third, ignore all the evidence that "problem" drug-takers have a lower elasticity of demand and assume that minimum pricing will mostly affect the consumption by alcoholics. Fourth, express these assumptions in a spreadsheet, with no real-world evidence. Fifth, describe this spreadsheet as a "model". The zeroth step is, of course to get a university to describe you as "professor" first. Then you're able to tout your guesswork and call it "evidence", to politicians, and unmolested by any critical thought on the Today program and be paid handsomely from tax-payers' funds to make this "evidence" up into the bargain.

So you have an "evidence-based" policy to impose a minimum unit price on Alcohol. It's regressive, and probably won't work. It will reduce moderate drinking by sensible people, making them at the margin, unhappier. It is unlikely to reduce problem drinking, but may make problem drinkers substitute clothes, or food, or heating for their more expensive booze. Nice one. Everyone's poorer.

The same is true with social services' interventions in family. You can point to the number of successful interventions, but there's no-one measuring the opportunity cost of responsibility not taken, or families broken up unnecessarily. Or regulation in Banking - it's impossible to deliver a counter-factual, and everyone's trying to defend their decisions.

Or climate-change. Whilst I'm almost convinced the climate's changing, and we're responsible, what's preventing me being ACTUALLY convinced by the evidence for Anthropogenic climate change caused by C02 etc... is that no-one's funding research into any other hypotheses. All research grants flow through councils who're totally committed to a single theory. The lack of understanding of feedback loops, and the total lack of any predictive power of the models suggests our understanding of a chaotic system like the climate is limited. We're probably on the right lines, but anyone who thinks otherwise is effectively shut out of funding. Therefore the shriller the POLITICAL consensus for wind-farms (for example) the less convinced I am by the SCIENTIFIC consensus. The obvious nonsenses from both sides (look at the weather - there's climate change flooding your house/Ha! climate scientists stuck in the ice) means this is becoming less about science, and more about political articles of faith. There's been too much policy-based evidence-making based more on distaste/support for big business, than any climate scientists' actual views. And what does a climate scientist know about the economics of electricity generation anyway?

You can go through almost any area where government claims to be "evidence-based". The evidence given to politicians is nearly always policy-based. This is why politicians make crap decisions, and they'd be better off just leaving us alone.



Monday, 6 January 2014

Slavery

Perhaps slavery would have been abolished in the Americas nearly a century earlier, had the Colonists lost the war of Independence?

Most wars are about economic matters, and it's difficult to over-state how central slavery was to the economy of early America. Yet in 1772, the Somersett Case brought before the King's Bench which concerned a slave brought to England by a Customs official, and concluded that chattel slavery was unsupported by common law. "The air of England", as was argued by Somersett's council "is too pure for a slave to breathe". Hundreds of American slaves attempted to make the passage to England and freedom following this ruling. Just four years later, the Colonists declared independence. I do not believe these facts are unrelated. George Washington was a major slave-owner as was Thomas Jefferson. Both men appeared to know the institution was wrong, but felt unable to do all that much about it.

The war of Independence was, as the US Civil War a century later, at least in part about slavery. Washington resisted free blacks in the Continental army in which around 500 served for fear of the principle it would set to slaves. America's first Emancipation proclamation (in reality, a fairly desperate last throw of the dice by someone hoping a slave rebellion would carry the day for the Crown) was issued by the Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore in 1775. Thousands of freed slaves fought for the British side against the colonists. While the Dunmore proclamation may have hastened the end of slavery in the American colonies had the British won, the abolition of slave trade (1806) and the abolition of slavery in the British Empire (1833) may have had a much harder run. The abolitionists would have faced a greater array of more powerful economic interests.

It's a comforting Narrative for the Englishman therefore that slavery was abolished in the British Empire before it was in most other European and American powers, and that having done so, the might of the Royal Navy was deployed in suppressing the trade. This does not absolve the UK, or the British Empire of the stain of slavery. While the British may have been the first power to end slavery, while the slave trade was legal, and for some time while it wasn't, the British economy was enormously boosted by the trade in humans, which ceased when it was becoming less economically viable. The British and Portuguese were by far the biggest slave traders for over 200 years.

Around 11m (estimates vary hugely) Africans were forcibly removed over the 300 years of the triangular Atlantic trading route, of which slaves from West Africa to the Americas formed the "middle passage". This devastated the societies and economies of the entire continent, and left much of Africa, even into the interior, a low-trust society to this day. Unlike the Black Death in Western Europe, an equivalent tragedy, which left the remaining people richer, the slave trade left societies in which people could not invest in land or technology because of the ever-present risk of kidnap. There is evidence that many tribes actually regressed, abandoning technologies such as crop-rotation and the plough in response to this onslaught. Much of West Africa is corrupt, violent and poor as a direct legacy of the Slave trade.

The societies which escaped the worst excesses colonialism and slavery, notably Namibia and Botswana, are doing much better than the rest of Africa to this day probably because their tribal institutions and societies weren't ruptured by grotesque incentives of the slave trade. The south was poorer and remains poorer than the rest of the USA because of slavery and Jim Crow. The "special institution" has devastated Africa and left America uncomfortable in its soul following centuries of Race-laws, hate, fear and torture in the Southern states. It's a special kind of evil that poisoned everything it touched and does so to this day.

And that's before we consider the individual human cost. Millions of lives lost to sickness, violence, warfare and simply being thrown overboard should the middle passage prove longer than counted for in supplies. Think about that for a minute.


This may not have happened on the Tecora, on the voyage depicted in Amistad, but it did happen.

It's not an exaggeration to conclude the industrial trade in Humans, at which the British once excelled, is a historic crime of an equivalent magnitude to the Holocaust. This is why I do not get angry when politicians talk about reparations for slavery. I am rich and free and many Africans poor, in part because of the enduring legacy of slavery.

Why am I writing this now? I read '12 years a slave' by Solomon Northup the movie of which is to be released in the UK shortly. The more I read, the more fascinating I find the entire grotesque, horrifying business. It's a short book, and one I urge you to read before you go see the movie.



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