All posts by John Band

No, it’s not your bleedin’ money

Money and property rights are both creations of the state. If the state were abolished, neither would exist. The ‘money’ point is obvious, but the same applies to property: the fact that you happened to own a nice house would be irrelevant, because someone bigger than you would come along and tell you to get out of it or he’d kill you [*].

In other words, when people complain about the money that the state takes off them in taxes, comparing it to their pre-tax paycheque, they’re talking complete and utter nonsense. The correct figure for comparison is the amount of money that they’d have in Hobbes-world. Which, apart from musclebound psychotic thugs, would be vastly less than they’d have under any plausible liberal-ish-democratic-ish society.

Now, I’ve met a fair few right-libertarians, and I can’t help notice that they generally fit better into the “amiable geek” mould than the “musclebound psychotic thug” mould. So, all things considered, their take on life is a bit weird.

I wonder if the popularity of the belief “I’d do better in a world with no state”, despite its falsehood for the vast majority of people who believe it, is down to the same kind of overestimation of personal ability that makes people on modest incomes oppose taxes on the rich because, against all evidence, they believe that one day they’ll be in that group?

Or perhaps it’s even more primal than that, going back to playground fantasies of ninjas and sword-battles. Which could possibly explain why libertarianism is rather more popular among men than it is among women…

Probably worth signing off with the obligatory disclaimer that I’m arguing against a specific ideological position about property and taxation, not for a society where the most extreme counter-position holds. Obviously, I don’t think it’d be a good idea for the government to levy tax at a level that left people at [the same level of income they'd have in Hobbes-world + delta], because that would be a terrible idea from the point of view of maximising overall welfare.

[*] what would actually happen, based on historical evidence from all eras, is that eventually people would get pissed off with Hobbes-world and support whichever appalling violent thug was willing to enforce some basic rules that meant they wouldn’t just be murdered and robbed at will – i.e. a hugely authoritarian government. But let’s assume that Hobbes-world is some kind of sustainable equilibrium, for argument’s stake.

Data point on taxation and labour mobility

From Financial News:

Not a single trading team from Tullett Prebon, the London-based broker which told employees they cold move abroad for tax reasons in one of the clearest signals of an exodus from London has moved, almost a year after the offer was made. It is the second development in a week that suggests fears over core talent leaving the City were overblown.

So *nobody at all* at Tullett thought that they would be better off paying less tax to work somewhere that wasn’t in London.

I suppose some people might argue that although not emigrating, Tullett’s brokers are working-to-rule and deliberately ensuring they aren’t eligible for big bonuses, because they’d rather have 100% of nothing than 50% of a lot. This doesn’t seem entirely convincing, given the personality traits of the trader-y types that I’ve encountered…

Just, worth putting out here

Since I’ve already tweeted that it annoys me, as a left-wing kind of person, that some people in the 1980s hated Mrs Thatcher so much that they opposed the most reasonable and fair war that the UK has ever fought, I thought I’d make clear on my blog that anyone who opposes it is pretty much evil.

I mean, seriously.

I hate Mrs Thatcher’s domestic policies. And she frequently gets slated for the Falklands War. But the former involved a concerted attempt to destroy the working class – which is a bad thing, and which is the thing we should hate her for. The latter is not – it’s one of the most reasonable wars the UK has ever fought.

The Falklands War involved defending a strange, odd outpost of people who spoke English, had red telephone boxes, and did A-Levels (obviously, they didn’t do university, because an island featuring fewer than 10m people isn’t going to have a good university….), and who’d been there for 150 years, and were unanimously convinced that they were all British and not Argentinean, from a dictator who was based in a country 100km away who thought that the island in question ought to be part of his country because, erm, it was nearby. Even though the Falklands had had British settlers on them for longer than his country had even existed.
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Secularists Go Silly On Halal

I’ve always found halal slaughter less unpleasant than regular industrial animal slaughter. As anyone who’s ever cut themselves with a properly sharp blade knows, cutting yourself with a sharp blade doesn’t hurt at all until about a minute after the event, by which point the animal is already distinctly dead. You might prefer your animals to be shot in the head with a bolt-gun first; whatever floats your boat.

There’s no strong evidence to support either view – the only thing it’s fair to conclude is that it doesn’t make much difference [*], that both methods are almost entirely painless and instantaneous, and that slaughter is probably the least problematic aspect of the entire industrial meat supply chain from an animal welfare point of view.

Anyway. Apparently a sizeable proportion of the meat on sale in the UK is killed halal-style, along with nearly all frozen lamb imported from New Zealand (the latter because the Gulf is New Zealand’s largest meat export destination). Now, I can see that if you were some kind of hardcore religious type, you might be opposed to eating halal meat, because a prayer was said to the wrong imaginary sky fairy when it was killed and so your imaginary sky fairy might be cross. In which case, fair play to you – I disagree, but it makes sense in your worldview.

But much more baffling is this response from the National Secular Society:

We suspected that meat killed by the halal and kosher methods was being used for general consumption but we never imagined it was so widespread. It is disgraceful that ­people aren’t being told if the food they are being served is from meat that has not been stunned prior to slaughter

This is a witless quote, for two reasons.

The biggest is that the NSS spokesman’s “if” clause is wrong: 90% of halal meat sold in the UK is pre-stunned, including all NZ meat and all meat sold to supermarket chains and major foodservice companies – which is what the article in question is talking about. The only difference between this sort of ‘halal’ meat and non-halal meat is that it’s been killed by a chap who said a prayer when he cut the animal’s throat. If you object to that for any reason other than “I’m worried my god will punish me”, you are purely and simply a bigot.

But even boycotting the other 10% of halal meat, killed in the traditional style (you’re unlikely to find this on sale outside of dedicated halal butchers shops, takeaways and curry houses), is still jumping to silly conclusions about animal welfare based on your own personal sense of ‘ewww’.

If you are, genuinely, so concerned about animal welfare that a possible, unproven, small difference in possibilities of consciousness between stunned and unstunned slaughter affects your purchasing decisions, then you shouldn’t be eating randomly sourced meat in the first place – the suffering that industrially farmed animals undergo compared to compassionately farmed animals is several orders of magnitude greater than anything that happens in the slaughterhouse.

So unless you’re veggie, or you stick solely to meat that’s been produced under a recognised ‘compassion in farming’ certification scheme (or a local farm that you know follows the same principles, of course), then you should probably shut up about halal meat already. Otherwise, people might start to think that you’re just in the ‘bigot’ camp too…

[*] people have been known to argue against halal slaughter from an animal welfare point of view. However, these people tend to be arguing from prejudice, not evidence: there have been surprisingly few scientific studies done on the topic, not least because working out how much an animal has suffered during slaughter is pretty much impossible. The most comprehensive study, carried out in Germany, found that ritual slaughter was painless for sheep and calves. There is some evidence to suggest that cows, being large, take show some signs of brain activity (which doesn’t necessarily mean suffering or pain) when killed by halal/kosher slaughter – there is none to suggest the same for chickens or sheep. The Farm Animal Welfare Council report that’s usually quoted on the subject by anti-halal/kosher types ignores the evidence on either side in favour of proof-by-assertion, which is a distinctly poor show (paragraph 195).

What I’ve been up to, week ending 2010-10-03

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Taxes on the rich clearly aren’t too high

There are lots of countries in the world that are tax havens. They are short of skilled labour. Anyone earning enough to pay higher-rate tax in a Western country has a skillset that would easily land them a job doing something similar in a tax haven.

Instead, they’ve chosen to live where they do. Definitionally, this shows that they believe the tax is a price worth paying for the quality of life they enjoy there. If they didn’t, then they’d have moved to a tax haven already [*].

So while some rich people might complain that they think taxes are too high, they clearly mean this in a “it’d be nice if this thing was cheaper, but I’m still going to buy it at the price it’s on sale for” way (rather like people buying Apple products), and therefore we can discount their protests.

Taxes on unskilled workers, who don’t have the same advantages when it comes to free migration, are a different story: the poor can’t be deemed to have agreed to the deal in the way that the rich clearly can.

So the morally best way to reform the tax system would be to remove the working poor from the tax net, while ensuring that those wealthy enough to have a choice bear more of the cost. This is even before you consider the massive benefits (on virtually all measures) of having a more equal society.

[*] there is a pragmatic argument that “we’ll be stuffed if all the talented people leave”, and there is presumably a level of tax at which this might be true. However, evidence from the 1960s and 1970s (when marginal tax rates on very high incomes were above 90% in the UK) suggests that the proportion of talented people leaving even at that rate was low enough as to be irrelevant to overall economic growth.

Waratah trains: why the NSW government isn’t at fault

The suggestion that the NSW government had done nothing wrong would normally seem unlikely, irrespective of context. Even more so when the context is a $2.6bn capital investment project that’s at risk of collapsing, requiring a massive government bailout, or both.

However, the funding shortfall threatening the public-private partnership (PPP) to build 78 new Waratah suburban trains for Sydney CityRail services is an exception. The NSW government did a good job in managing risks for this deal, and it’s at risk of having to stump up extra taxpayer’s cash for reasons nobody can blame it for not foreseeing.

On the plus side, even if the government does have to step in, it’s unlikely the NSW taxpayer will lose much. The biggest loser is likely to be Downer, the train’s builder, which is exactly where the blame should lie. Unfortunately for the NSW government, the deal is arcane enough that the press and the opposition can easily claim otherwise.
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What I’ve been up to, week ending 2010-09-19

  • Sorry #LibDems. Having been in another country w/coalition – and having looked at the numbers on #ukvotes – you did the best thing available #
  • Directly related to last tweet – the only alliance in Aus with a mandate to govern was ALP/Green. Not Nationals/Liberals. #auspol #

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World leader? Not even close

Matt Yglesias, who used to be a liberal US commentator but seems to have turned into a neo-liberal US commentator, has a very odd piece on retailing, in which he argues that being awesome at retailing is the US’s major skill, which will one day benefit poor benighted foreigners:

We’re the world leaders in retail sector organizational innovations, as witnessed by McDonald’s semi-hegemonic global position and the fact that in a place like China where it’s not number one, the company it lags behind is another American firm. But here in the U.S., we’ve long since pushed beyond mere fast food into the realm of big box retailing, with Wal-Mart leading the way. But thought both these firms have some international operations, they’re evidently not that big and in the case of Home Depot seem largely limited to Canada and Mexico and Wal-Mart doesn’t operate in continental Europe at all… That kind of thing will probably change over time, to the benefit of European consumers, and I guess make the Walton family even richer.

Now, there are only two ways in which I can envisage Matt might have come up with this argument. One is that he’s never been abroad, never looked at any case studies on retailing, never spoken to anyone who worked in retail strategy, and never looked at any reports on US retailers’ attempts at international expansion. The other is that he’s well aware that the above is absolute, ridiculous insane nonsense on stilts, but is writing it anyway.

Having worked in retail consultancy, the retailers that people admire and seek to emulate for their amazing supply chain skills are Tesco, Carrefour, Inditex (Zara), IKEA, Aldi, H&M, AS Watson (Superdrug) and Amazon. One of these retailers is from the US, six are European, and one is from Hong Kong.

Wal-Mart has repeatedly tried to expand internationally, but has only been successful in Mexico and Brazil. It has a strong position in the UK, but this was achieved by buying the country’s fastest-growing retailer in 1999 for an enormous price tag, and not changing very much subsequently. Its operations in emerging markets lag way behind Tesco and Carrefour. It invested vast sums in trying to build a German operation, but eventually ended up closing it down because it couldn’t compete with Aldi and Lidl (who pay vastly higher wages but run a more efficient supply chain – and the former is increasingly doing so in the US as well).

Wal-Mart excels at regulatory capture and union-busting, and is good enough at being a retailer to make a lot of money in markets where it’s established a dominant position. Unlike the companies on my list above, it isn’t good enough at being a retailer (in terms of branding, store experience and supply chain management) to establish major positions in markets where it starts without a dominant position. And “being just about competent enough that you can keep your monopoly alive” isn’t really a highly exportable trait, or a particularly beneficial one to The World At Large.

Although on the other hand, it is a pretty good description of the area where big US businesses are actual world-leaders, whether we’re talking healthcare, oil, telecoms or software…

Crooked Timber comments deliver, again

From a post on the correlation between studying engineering and becoming a violent extremist, commenter Tom Bach:

Hitler was notoriously lazy and profoundly ignorant; in large measure because he never studied anything and read less. He enjoyed rambling monologues filled with made up facts.

Commenter Stuart:

It sounds as if Hitler had been born a few decades later he might now have a show on Fox News.