Monday, 29 July 2013

Resistance is futile

Susan Webber accused the cult of optimistic magical thinking of being the marketers' chosen tool of social control. Now for something completely different - David Graeber argues that deliberately infecting the disaffected with negativity and hopelessness has become the political incumbents' weapon of choice:
What happens when the creation of that sense of failure, of the complete ineffectiveness of political action against the system, becomes the chief objective of those in power? 
It's not new - it was Margaret Thatcher who gave us TINA (There Is No Alternative), but it's interesting to see TINA analysed as a deliberate, Machiavellian strategy.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Want more, want harder

 “Negativity,” an awkward coinage, has widely come to be used pejoratively. Magical thinking, too, has become increasingly popular as a way to gain the illusion of control in an uncertain world. Rhonda Byrne’s motivational best-seller The Secret, for example, basically says that you get what you wish for. If you don’t have the things you want, it means you don’t have enough faith. In this construct, neither insufficient effort nor bad luck plays a role...

The antidote for mild depression isn’t optimism, it’s exercise (trust me, a lot of research on that)... But what good does it do for organizers to pump people up with talk of victory? You might motivate them short term, so optimism to move people forward can work when you can give people specific, attainable targets, like organizing and running a soup kitchen. Don’t get me wrong, this sort of very tangible local action is incredibly valuable. But optimism and desire are the tools of marketers. They create and exploit object or status lust.
Susan Webber gives  'the corporate perma-fad for yet more chipperness' a well-deserved kicking. Offered for your enjoyment without further comment.

Monday, 22 July 2013

The 2015 cola war

 Sometimes, if you strip away the branding, there's not a whole lot of difference between rival products:
Coca-Cola and Pepsi are long standing arch-rivals, but in terms of their chemical composition composition they are virtually identical. Despite this, people commonly express a strong preference for one over and above the other. A 2004 study into how our perception of the brands shapes our preferences was carried out at the Baylor College of medicine in Houston USA. In the experiment, one group of subjects was given Coke and Pepsi anonymously without any branding or indication as to which was which, while the second group was given branded versions of the colas to try. During the tastings, the subjects were given MRI scans to determine if anything different was happening in their brains. In the anonymous task, brain scans revealed that the group was relying exclusively upon sensory information to inform their preference, however scans revealed that the group with the branded products were also using a different parts of the brain, including the hippocampus, which plays an important role in the formation of new memories about experienced events. This showed that brand knowledge was biasing preference decisions.
You're encourged to think you've got a choice between two different fizzy drinks, when what you're really being offered is two near-identical beverages with slightly different branding. Disappointing, if you value real choice, but no biggie. But what if our political choices were restricted to virtually identical products with different branding?
So why, when we have three clearly divergent political cultures, do I have the feeling that there's nobody to vote for — that whichever government is formed after the next election will continue to iterate and evolve the policies that have dominated British politics since May 1979?

I'm nursing a pet theory. Which is that there are actually four main political parties in Westminster: the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Ruling Party.

The Ruling Party is a meta-party; it has members in all of the three major parties, and probably the minority parties as well. It always wins every election, because whichever party wins (or participates in a coalition) is led in Parliament by members of the Ruling Party, who have more in common with each other than with the back bench dinosaurs who form the rump of their notional party. One does not rise to Front Bench rank in any of the major parties unless one is a paid-up Ruling Party member, who meets with the approval of the Ruling Party members one will have to work with. Outsiders are excluded or marginalized, as are followers of the ideology to which the nominal party adheres.
I still have some faith that my vote is worth casting, although that faith is starting to feels less like a rational expectation that I'll be offered a meaningful choice and more like a variation on Pascal's Wager:

Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that real electoral choices exist. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain change; if you lose, you lose nothing.

As Stross points out, there's the additional consideration that cynicism and apathy lead to the sort of passive disengagement that definitely lets rulers get away with whatever they like.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Mission creep

This blog has always lacked focus. It's had a mission statement that's brief, but also broad enough to drive a very large bus through ('musings on what really interests me and links to any good stuff I come across'). So far, so self-indulgent, but I've even strayed beyond this enormous ambit into knee-jerk responses to the mass media political trolling that passes for public debate these days, not to mention indulging in some general harrumphing about the state of the world, from a position of no particular expertise.

I'm (mostly) unapologetic about my inexpert opinionating given that, in quite a lot of contested domains, the term "expert" translates as "vocal proponent of the prevailing groupthink" (where "expert" really means "person who actually understands how this stuff works", I hope I have the wit and grace to step back and simply cite somebody who seems to know what they're talking about).

But part of my mission statement needs a bit of surgery, and the part that doesn't, I need to stick to.

The 'what interests me' bit needs to go. I know what interests me, but a random visitor doesn't, so that bit's meaningless. There are two ways to go with this one. If I had a very specific interest or domain of expertise, this could become a blog 'mostly about [form and function in antique snuff boxes/mastering Six Sigma quality management tools/whatever...]' As I don't, I need to go broad, rather than deep. Main themes so far have been:
  • sharing the sheer volume of odd, surprising, entertaining and interesting information that's out there and which might be worth sharing with any sentient being with a sense of curiosity
  • politics, society and the economy (mainly from the socially liberal/left quadrant of the political compass)
  • staring in disbelief at religion and other bizarre belief systems

It's now a bit longer, but it actually contains some actual information and the 'links to any good stuff I come across' are now implicit in the first bullet point.

That's the sidebar tidied up. As for the content, two resolutions:
  1. I must try harder to look for the interesting things that lie behind the headlines, rather than simply harrumphing at endless, repetitive debates that are framed in such narrow terms that they're, at best, meaningless and, at worst, a distraction. I could just leave it this to others, whose opinions are far more entertaining, or whose knowledge is greater than mine, but on the other hand, there are plenty of successful, highly-paid members of the commentariat who'd lie awake at night, screaming with inconsolable self-loathing at the torrents of execrable, toxic drivel they churn out for a living, if it wasn't for the ego-preserving oblivion of the Dunning–Kruger effect, and if they're allowed to get stuff of their chest, I don't see why I shouldn't occasionally vent my (mostly) harmless opinions from time to time.
  2. Pay more attention to my primary mission of pointing at really good stuff and saying 'look at this, people, it's really rather good.' 
Re. point 2. (above). Look at this, people, it's David Timoney's blog and it's really rather good. I've added it to my sidebar and I suggest that you dive in, enjoy and add it to your bookmarks, RSS feeds, or whatever.

Mission not quite completed for today, but one out of two ain't bad.



Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Surviving your McJob: the official guide

You knew where you were, back in the good old days. Using a de-skilled, low-wage workforce to turn standardised, mechanically-recovered meat products into huge corporate profits was the job of massive fast food chains

Trying to undermine the reputations of these corporate behemoths was the job of a few subversive lefties and greens, assisted by the copy writing skills of the odd undercover cop. Now things have gone all weird and the world's number one fast food chain seems to have taken the job of doing its own reputational damage in-house:
McDonalds has partnered with Visa to launch a website to help its low-wage workers making an average $8.25 an hour to budget. But while the site is clearly meant to illustrate that McDonalds workers should be able to live on their meager wages, it actually underscores exactly how hard it is for a low-paid fast food worker to get by.

The site includes a sample “budget journal” for McDonalds’ employees that offers a laughably inaccurate view of what it’s like to budget on a minimum wage job. Not only does the budget leave a spot open for “second job,” it also gives wholly unreasonable estimates for employees’ costs: $20 a month for health care, $0 for heating, and $600 a month for rent. It does not include any budgeted money for food or clothing. 
ThnkProgress

Coming from a company founded on the principle that the public will swallow any old crap, the McDonalds "Budget Journal" is probably the result of cock-up, rather than conspiracy. Mind you, it also looks a lot like something that might have been cobbled together by a rogue agent provocateur who's infiltrated some red-green protest movement, then gone native. Maybe McDonalds needs to run some serious background checks on its blue-skies thinkers and copywriters, just in case.

McDonalds have spent a lot of time and effort trying to get the disrespectful term "McJob" banned from dictionaries.

Good. Luck. With. That.

Excuses made up on the back of a fag packet (Part 2)

After the Department of Health’s u-turn on introducing plain packaging for ciggies, the Prime Minister claimed to be 'unaware' that Conservative election strategist Lynton Crosby was a shill for Big Tobacco.

Now Jeremy Hunt is telling the BBC that 'ministers [except for the Prime Minister, who obviously hasn't got a clue what's going on]* do not allow Mr Crosby to advise them on public health issues as his lobbying company works with tobacco firms.' 

*I've helpfully inserted this bit, in order to reconcile these two versions of events.

__________________

Update
In the interests of fairness and balance, I should point out that, despite attempts to smear our blameless leaders, it has now been revealed that any accusations of undue influence have been proved to be entirely fictional.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Does what happens in Florida stay in Florida?

What the verdict [George Zimmerman being acquitted of murder or manslaughter, after shooting the unarmed teenager, Trayvon Martin] says, to the astonishment of tens of millions of us, is that you can go looking for trouble in Florida, with a gun and a great deal of racial bias, and you can find that trouble, and you can act upon that trouble in a way that leaves a young man dead, and none of it guarantees that you will be convicted of a crime. But this curious result says as much about Florida's judicial and legislative sensibilities as it does about Zimmerman's conduct that night. This verdict would not have occurred in every state. It might not even have occurred in any other state. But it occurred here, a tragic confluence that leaves a young man's untimely death unrequited under state law. Don't like it? Lobby to change Florida's laws.
 Andrew Cohen in The Atlantic

So, just another of those dumb laws from the Internet "funny" pages gone bad?

But the verdict has broader political salience. Trayvon Martin seems to have presented no credible threat to anybody as he walked home, minding his own business, but he ended up dead because some trigger-happy curtain-twitcher in a gated community decided he looked suspicious. We live in an age where the political agenda seems to be dominated by Zimmerman-style paranoia.

Where there is no vision, the people perish worry unduly about immigrants, scroungers, teenage mums, criminals and terrorists, and share their fears with market researchers. The market researchers pass their findings up to the political party machines and the leaders duly assure the fretful public that they are listening to their concerns and announce plans to get "tough" with the scapegoat du jour (being too scared of doing some really tough thing, like treating the voters as adults and using argument and evidence to refute groundless panic).

Letting the wrong target have it with both barrels might seem tough (on the innocent victims) and unjust but, as the victims of such witch hunts tend to be politically powerless, nobody minds (at least nobody powerful enough to fight back).

In this instance, Florida's Laws seem horribly, perhaps uniquely, unjust. But vigilante politicians punishing the innocent on the basis of perceptions, rather than facts is, sadly, far from unique, and not just in Florida.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Dinosaur! The zombie metaphor that won't die

Britain’s trade unions are declining: only 11% of private-sector workers are members. Of these, few are activists. Outfits like Unite are thus prone to capture by eccentric lefties: only 9.7% of its members voted for Mr McCluskey, for example. With some honourable exceptions ... the unions have fallen into the hands of ageing dinosaurs.
"Glenfiddle" writing in The Economist digs up the obligatory prehistoric union metaphor. We've all heard these fossilised clichés about dinosaurs before - fresh and relevant they ain't:
When you use the word "dinosaur," you're probably thinking about one of two things. On the one hand are distinctive reptiles like Tyrannosaurus rex, Velociraptor, Triceratops or Diplodocus. On the other is anything that's too big, too heavy or generally obsolete. That photocopier at the convenience store that's built like a tank and threatens to vibrate the floor to bits when you use it? It's a dinosaur. A boss or teacher who's behind the times and reluctant to change is a dinosaur, too. So are rotary phones and 300-baud dial-up modems. 

Dinosaurs came to symbolize everything that's ponderous, slow and doomed to extinction because of the way most people perceive them. The study of dinosaurs hasn't been around for long -- the word "dinosaur" didn't even exist until the mid-1800s. But for a while, the general consensus was that dinosaurs were slow moving, cold-blooded animals, some of which were too big to support their own weight without wallowing in swamps and muck. Many dinosaur skulls didn't have much room for a brain, especially in comparison to the rest of the body. And, of course, they became extinct 65 million years ago -- so they couldn't have been too great, right?
HowStuffWorks

As every schoolchild knows, it's actually a bit more complicated than that:
Although they are now extinct, the dinosaurs were among the most successful large animals ever to live on Earth. The dinosaurs arose during the interval of geologic time known as the Mesozoic (middle life) era, often called the "golden age of reptiles" or "the age of dinosaurs." Radiometric dating of volcanic rocks associated with dinosaur fossils suggests they first evolved 225 million years ago, during the late Triassic Period and became extinct 66 million years ago, at the end of the Cretaceous period. Dinosaurs lived for about 160 million years and were the dominant terrestrial animals on Earth throughout the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods—a span of over 100 million years.

Interestingly, mammal-like animals co-existed almost continuously with the dinosaurs and obviously prospered after the last of the dinosaurs became extinct. Although they co-existed in time with dinosaurs, mammals were clearly subordinate to these reptiles. It was not until the disappearance of the last dinosaurs that an adaptive radiation of larger species of mammals occurred, and they then became the dominant large animals on Earth.
Dinosaur - Biology Of Dinosaurs, Fossils And Other Evidence Of The Dinosaurs, Major Groups Of Dinosaurs, Carnivorous Dinosaurs (JRank Science & Philosophy website)
Myth 6: Mammals survived the K/T Extinction because they were "more fit" than dinosaurs.
This is an example of the circular reasoning that plagues students of Darwinian evolution. There's no objective measure by which one creature can be considered "more fit" than another; it all depends on the environment they live in. Until the K/T Extinction Event, dinosaurs fit extremely well into their ecosystem, with herbivorous dinosaurs dining on lush vegetation and carnivorous dinosaurs dining on the herbivores. In the blasted landscape after the meteor impact, small, furry mammals suddenly became "more fit" because of the drastically changed circumstances (and drastically reduced amounts of food).
AboutdotCom

Maybe some of the subtleties that aren't lost on well-informed eight year olds should inform what the "serious" commentariat has to say about "union dinosaurs."

There's no such thing as "fitness" without context - organisms (and organisations) are "fit" when they fit well enough into into a specific environment or ecosystem to prosper. Change the environment rapidly, or radically, or unpredictably enough and anything was "fit" and "efficient" in yesterday's context is heading for extinction in today's. And when the dice are rolled again, tomorrow's historians will go on to dissect the inevitable failure of what was hailed as "fit" and "efficient" in today's world.

Maybe dominating your ecosystem isn't just about your relative fitness for that environment, anyway. Getting there first matters. Whether or not dinosaurs were functionally more efficient than the mammals in the prevailing environment, they may have crowded them out from lots of niches once they'd become established. Perhaps the incumbent's advantage was what condemned the mammals to 160 million years of cowering underfoot and meant they were only able to dislodge their saurian overlords when a sudden, global environmental catastrophe destroyed all the dino-dominated niches.

Extinction doesn't equal failure. Over 99.9% of all species that ever lived are extinct. Extinction is as natural as death. And we don't tend to treat the inevitable mortality of individual humans as a badge of failure ('people bang on about that Marie Curie being the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the only woman to win in two fields, and the only person to win in more than one science, but in the end it turned out she was rubbish 'cos she went and died').

And spare us the moralizing fairytales about success being the inevitable result of innate superiority, the triumph of the "modern" over the "outdated." Sometimes, it's all down to pure, dumb, luck:
Lystrosaurus must beconsidered a strong candidate for the earth's All-time Ugliest Animal Award. About the size and approximate appearance of a large pig (a comparison probably unfair to pigs), the lystrosaurs seem to have existed in huge numbers at the start of the Mesozoic. They preferred wetter habitats and must have been ponderous, slow-moving (and probably slow-witted) plant eaters not unlike water buffalo. Their bones are found in vast numbers in the Karroo, India, Russia, and Antarctica, a fact causing paleontologists to speculate that these odd herbivores lived in giant herds. They were certainly the most populous land vertebrates in the earliest millennia following the First Event [the mass exticntion at the end of the Permian Period].

Although lacking looks and surely charm, the lystrosaurs appear to have been among the luckiest creatures ever to have lived, for two reasons. First, they (or their immediate ancestors) survived the First Event, beating one-in-ten odds in doing so. (Imagine a revolver with ten bullet chambers, nine of which are loaded. Spin the cylinder, put the barrel in your mouth, and pull the trigger. Lystrosaurus got the empty chamber.) But the lystrosaurs had far more than mere survival to be thankful about; following the First Event they found themselves in a world devoid of large predators...

...lystrosaurs ... simply lucked into a world where all of the large predators had been killed off by mass extinction. 
Peter Ward The End of Evolution 

Like Lystrosaurus, the plodding dino metaphor has lucked into a friendly media/political ecosystem where it can happily waddle about, mindlessly grunting to its fellow swamp dwellers, without being torn to pieces by anything large and fierce enough to attack even the laziest and most unoriginal of sound-bites. So it lumbers on, safe and sound, until the day when some big predator evolves teeth sharp enough to pierce its thick, leathery hide.


Saturday, 6 July 2013

Kevin hearts Kevin

Readers of a certain age will remember The Undertones' acerbic take on the greatest love of all:
Girls try to attract his attention
But what a shame, it's in vain total rejection
He will never be left on the shelf
'Cause Kevin he's in love with himself
Now the Kevins* of the world can now solemnise their deep sense of self-commitment by joining themselves in matrimony. Apparently, people marrying themselves is a real thing.

Such a ceremony obviously has zero legal validity, although I don't suppose this will stop the opponents of marriage equality citing this phenomenon as proof that allowing gay people to get married would be the first step on the slippery slope towards a decadent dystopia full of depraved perverts marrying a sibling, both grandparents, all the Dagenham Girl Pipers, an iPad Mini, an egg whisk, a gerbil, or the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg as the fancy happens to take them.

I don't think we really want to dwell on the physical aspects of self-marriage, but anybody who thought that Kevin sounded like a bit of a tosser might enjoy one of the ruder bits in Joyce's Ulysses where the medical student Buck Mulligan amuses his drinking cronies with that classic of undergraduate humour, Everyman His Own Wife or A Honeymoon in the Hand.


via


*And Traceys, not to forget the Tarquins and Jocastas (you need to fast-forward from the Seventies and move up the social scale to enjoy the most hilariously inflated estimates of self-worth) 

God bless local newspapers!

So how can you tell me you're lonely and say for you that the sun don't shine? Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of Carlton. I'll show you something to make you change your mind. Viz:
Couple return from holiday to find grass by their street cut to different lengths 
The horror... the horror...

There are loads of similar headlines, lovingly curated over at Angry People in Local Newspapers, but there's something about Different Grassgate in particular that makes me feel as happy inside as an MDMA-fuelled lab rat in a Swedish furniture maze.

Friday, 5 July 2013

(Self) righteousness exalteth a nation...

...but sin is a reproach to any people. (Proverbs 14:34)
I hadn't given much thought to the congruence between Islamism and the sort of austerity conservatism so disastrously fashionable across the Western world until I read Juan Cole's piece on Morsi.

In a narrow sense, there's a very specific resemblance between the conservative values of any actually existing  or envisioned Islamic Republic and the Christian Republic of America that the religious right have been working and praying for.

But there's a similar tone to the broader ideology that now dominates secular Europe, too. Europeans, (and that includes Brits), don't do God in such a fervent way as the USA's serious God-heads (a few nominally "Christian Democrat" parties and a moribund established church on Europe's major offshore island notwithstanding). But the whole conservative narrative boils down to a seemingly endless, arse-numbing sermon, a preachy morality tale about backsliding and lack of moral fibre that must be atoned for by sacrifice and a wholesome diet of Austerity All-Bran.

The decrees of the political and financial elite are couched in the same tone of self-righteous moral authority as any Papal Bull. Which isn't surprising, as the purpose is the same - to give the stamp of authority and moral seriousness to a doctrine backed up by little or no evidence and to ensure that the laity continue to pay obeisance - and more importantly, tithes - to a parasitic priestly caste.

In the unlikely event that Morsi was ever allowed to seek asylum à la Snowden, there would be plenty of places where someone with his level of moral seriousness and command of pious cant would fit right in, from the US Republican right, to Fox News, to the European Central Bank, to a UK tabloid.

Or perhaps we should reverse the flow in this thought experiment and imagine practising extraordinary rendition to an Egyptian jail on a few members of our own predatory political and financial elite, the sort of people who pose far more of a threat to millions of ordinary citizens than the handful of incompetent religious maniacs and unlucky bystanders previously handed over to the tender mercies of human-rights-lite regimes?

Thursday, 4 July 2013

This fruitcake tastes home-made

So farewell then, Mohamed Morsi. I usually stereotype Islamism as something a bit alien - a fundamentally different type of clownish ideology to the varieties of slapstick currently available in the First World. Juan Cole thinks it's closer to some of the familiar political currents we have in the West than we imagine:
Morsi, from the Muslim Brotherhood, represents the equivalent of the American tea party in Egyptian politics—captive to the religious right, invested in austerity and smaller government, and contemptuous of workers and the political left.
At least the yanks and the rest of the West don't have corrupt and brutal armies on the other side, ready to seize power the moment their position is threatened - there's an old argument that this is simply because the military-industrial complex is so firmly embedded that it doesn't need to park its tanks on the White House Lawn to get its own way (although these days, people are more likely to cite the security-administrative complex or the finance-extortion complex as the arm of the shadow state that's really pulling the strings).


Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Tax tourists and the Tax Avoiders’ Alliance

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt is determined to crack down hard on "health tourists" - foreign nationals who might come over here and get free National Health Service treatment without having paid in to the system. There's little evidence that it's a significant problem, but foreign freeloaders make perfect scapegoats, so "health tourism" is officially a thing.

'According to official figures, £12m was lost treating foreign nationals - approximately 0.01 per cent of the NHS's £109bn annual budget' (Channel 4 News). British banks are estimated to control something like £1.26 trillion in various offshore tax-havens - that's a huge multiple of the annual NHS budget, rather than a tiny percentage of it (the original version of this sentence contained a careless error on my part, now amended - details of the correction are given at the end of this post). Given that Greece, where the authorities famously took their eye off the tax collection ball, is constantly held up as a cautionary example of what happens to naughty countries, you'd think that our leaders would see closing down opaque tax havens as more of a priority.

But, no, they seem strangely relaxed about tax tourists who like to rest their money in those offshore accounts provided by various British Overseas Territories, Crown Dependencies and suchlike, often beyond the inconvenient scrutiny of the tax authorities. There was a bit of tough talk about tax transparency, ahead of the recent G8 summit, but all we got was the British tax havens' voluntary, partial, conditional agreement to provide more information about the jet-setting, publicity-shy, wonga relaxing in their exclusive money hotels.

And what are these "voluntary agreements" worth? A statement from the premier of the Cayman Islands gives us a clue; 'All of us have the ability to insert reservations in whatever agreements we reach and we get to negotiate each of the individual agreements with each country.' I hear the sound of loopholes being pre-drilled. In an interview with Channel 4 News, the premier of the Turks and Caicos Islands, provided some more clarification:
Q. Can we say with certainty that Turks and Caicos and other overseas territories will have registries of companies telling us who the beneficial owners are and when will we have those?
A. That’s David Cameron’s goal … we cannot say today we will get that because there will be a lot of push-back from companies that have beneficial ownership...
 Q. But all you’ve signed up to is an action plan.
A. Yes to prepare
Q. For possible implementation of possible principles ?
A. Yes
Which brings us back to Evan Davis' excellent interview question. Why does the British government have to negotiate with territories that are under United Kingdom jurisdiction, or are self-governing possessions of the British Crown, and ask them nicely to be just a little bit more transparent, if it's not too much bother? Can't the government just tell them to make their records available for scrutiny and pass legislation to enforce its will where necessary?

Richard Murphy, director of Tax Research UK thinks that playing hardball with British tax havens might be a thing:
...there is no reason to ask the consent of these tax havens for automatic information exchange, transparency, documents on public record or anything else. We can just legislate that they will do these things and the reason why is clear:
Governors or Commissioners are appointed by Her Majesty The Queen on the advice of Her Ministers in the UK, and in general have responsibility for external affairs, defence, internal security (including the police) and the appointment, discipline and removal of public officers. Elected governments have a wide range of responsibilities.
Tax information exchange is quite clearly an issue of external affairs: the UK’s tax havens are not responsible for it; the UK is. This White Paper makes quite clear that local officials do not have authority on the issue. In that case it is time for the UK to act, now.
Unfortunately the British government* and its chums in the City of London don't seem to be pushing very hard to make it so.**

Fortunately, there's an influential right-wing think tank that should be holding the government's feet to the fire on this one. It's called the Taxpayers' Alliance.

I don't normally have much time for obscurely-funded right-wing think tanks, but I'm sure this one can't let such an important issue drop. After all, its mission statement is right there in the name. The Taxpayers' Alliance. Nominally, an alliance of, or with, those people the politicians can't speak highly enough of, those "hard-working families" who "play by the rules" and "do the right thing" (like contributing to the economy and paying their taxes). Friend to people who keep their noses clean, enemy of special-interest groups and freeloading scumbags everywhere. Surely they'll get hold of the issue of tax transparency like a terrier with a rat and won't let go?
However speaking to Channel 4 News, Matthew Sinclair, Chief Executive of the TaxPayers' Alliance said that while the agreement was a step forward, it did not fully address the issue.
He said: "International co-operation on transparency will help reduce tax evasion. But the measures are a side-show that don't address the fact that our tax system is fundamentally dysfunctional.
"We need comprehensive reform to simplify our needlessly complex tax code and reduce the punishingly high rates which drive money out of the UK, legally and illegally.
"We need a much simpler system that encourages investment into the UK and ensures that everyone pays their fair share of tax, no more and no less."
Is that it? The CEO of the Taxpayers' Alliance thinks that tax transparency is some sort of 'side-show' and can we talk about something else now, please. Why so timid, Matthew?
The Taxpayers’ Alliance, arguably the most powerful pressure group in the UK provides another example of the political power of tax avoiders. In 2008 the group was cited by the most popular newspapers, the Sun 307 times and the Daily Mail 517 times, and it has frequently appeared on popular news and current affairs programs like Newsnight. Yet the group’s chief executive, Matthew Eliott,*** has been forced to admit that he does not pay tax in the UK. One of their biggest donors, Sir Anthony Bamford (personal fortune around £950 million), also a major Conservative party donor, was blocked from receiving a peerage by HMRC, although HMRC refused to explain why. It seems likely that he was avoiding taxes on a colossal scale. Perhaps the Tax avoiders’ alliance would be a more appropriate name? 
Symmetry Breaks

And there was I, thinking the Taxpayers' Alliance did what it said on the tin. D'oh!

With allies like that, we don't need enemies.





*Headed by David Cameron, who inherited a tidy sum of money that spent years sitting in a tax-efficient offshore investment fund set up by his dad (say what you like about the Camerons, but at least they're more competent tax avoiders than the Farages).

**There is an argument that, if we crack down on British offshore havens, the money will just move from British tax havens to foreign-controlled ones. I don't really buy that one - after all, there are things like international negotiations, treaties and so on. Maybe the British prime minister could just pick up the phone to Mr. Obama and agree that it would be a win-win for both countries if we sorted out the Caymans and he got a grip on Delaware. Agree with our European partners that we'll put Jersey on a shorter leash, if they get Luxembourg neutered. A bit more of that sort of thing and the tax avoiders will start running out of places to hide.

Easier said than done, but isn't this the sort of determined, concerted action that all those world leaders were promising to take in the wake of the global financial crisis?

***Wot, two Matthews? Just to clarify, Matthew Sinclair replaced Matthew Elliott as the boss man of the libertarian conservative (big and little "C") pressure group / think tank in 2012.
 ________________


Correction and update

 I originally said 'British banks are estimated to control something like £1.26 trillion in various offshore tax-havens - that's six times the annual NHS budget', a figure lifted from here. Given the £109bn annual NHS budget quoted by Channel 4, the basic maths can't be right. Apologies for the sloppy error, but my substantive point, that tax tourists cost a tiny percentage of the NHS budget, whilst the Treasury loses a big multiple of that budget to tax avoidance in tax havens, stands, so I've amended the post to reflect this more general point.

The 'six times' figure came from the article's comparison of the planned UK health, education, welfare AND defence budgets for 2014, with the tax receipts that the UK Government knowingly loses to offshore tax havens, according to a 2012 report from the Tax Justice Network.

The exact figure, how much of it should be going to the the UK government and how much of what's owed is actually recoverable, are all up for debate. But even a simpleton should be able to grasp the basic point. The cost of health tourism here is small, but the Cayman Islands are far away, (although the pile of money "resting" there is big).