Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Monday, June 25, 2012

Roy Hodgson, Martin Amis and Jimmy Carr

...all feature in my new Dabbler Diary.

If you enjoyed Think of England - back when I used to write it, that is - you may like this new feature. Same sort of thing.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Zen, Walls of Sound, Men of Constant Sorrow

Some Dabbling. A review of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones; a look at the genealogy of the song A Man of Constant Sorrow; and today, a celebration of the Wall of Sound.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

George Osborne is shocked, shocked! ... and more tax twaddle

More tax, I’m afraid, but it’s in the news and once again I’m shocked, shocked I tell you – as ‘shocked’ as George Osborne is about tax avoidance. Only I’m shocked, shocked about the distorted way the ‘debate’ is being framed.

George Osborne is shocked, shocked that some very rich people are reducing their tax bill by using devilishly clever tax loopholes. Only it turns out that the main ‘loopholes’ are: claiming relief for business losses; deducting interest on business loans from taxable profits; and charitable donations.

Now in fact these are not devilish new loopholes but longstanding, well-known, legitimate tax deductions, all existing for sound economic, business and moral reasons and approved by Parliament. It would not take a particularly clever accountant to suddenly ‘spot’ them.

But without getting into all that, what I find most bizarre is this widely-accepted narrative that ‘the rich’, as a class, are not paying their fair share of taxes, while the ordinary working man is being squeezed.

Let’s get some reality back into this. Here are some official HMRC figures, pertinent ones being:
  • The top 1% of earners have 12.6% of total national income, but pay 27.7% of total income tax to HMRC
  • The bottom 50% of earners have 23.4% of total income but only contribute 10.3% of tax.
  • Perhaps most extraordinarily, the top 5% of earners pay 47% of the total tax

Which is not to say that some egregious multi-millionaires aren’t flagrantly abusing the spirit of the law to wriggle out of paying a ‘fair’ amount of tax (whatever that is). But where there is outright fraud (eg. charities that aren’t really charities) then laws do already exist, and where they don’t exist the purpose of the forthcoming General Anti-Avoidance Rule is to tackle it (the GAAR probably won’t work, mind, and will possibly have terrible unintended consequences, but that’s yet another story).

But this underlying insinuation that ‘the rich’ as a class aren’t contributing to the state doesn’t stand up to a moment’s scrutiny. It’s worth repeating: the top 5% of earners pay 47% of the total income tax to the state. So our welfare state and everything it provides for us is already utterly dependent on those wicked rich. And so are charities, tax-deductible donations to which the Government wants, inexplicably, to cap.

So why do we have this sudden outburst of class resentment? Mostly it’s the usual politics of envy from the usual suspects on the old left, but it has also now been deliberately stoked by Osborne, whose ‘shocked, shocked’ statement is a transparent bit of politicking under accusations of being ‘the party of the rich’ after cutting the 50% top tax rate in the Budget.

My respect for Osborne has diminished with this, but if you really want to get angry with a Chancellor for squeezing the working man, then direct your ire at Gordon ‘Prudence’ Brown, who not only spent all of the tax take from the rich but borrowed even more, much, much more, during boom times, running up a debt that we and our children will have to bear for decades.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Owen Jones and other tax errors

Oh great, you wait weeks for a post and then he does one about tax.

Now funnily enough I don’t claim to be an authority on UK tax law – this being so unfathomably complex that the Coalition felt the need to establish a whole Office dedicated to its Simplification - but having written professionally about the last fourteen Budgets I do have a grasp of the most basic basics. Which is more than can be said, it seems, for many media commentators who do claim the authority to pronounce loftily on matters fiscal and budgetary.

Consider Owen Jones, a genial, baby-faced 1970s Trotskyite throwback, who appeared on This Week last Thursday with a little film in which he claimed, to my unfolding astonishment, that the cut in the top rate of income tax from 50% to 45% was like ‘‘writing
a cheque for £40,000" to 23 members of the cabinet which would enable them to purchase 288 bottles of Cristal champagne every year.

Jones had come to this bizarre conclusion by confusing the idea that 23 members of the Cabinet are ‘millionaires’, ie. worth over £1m pounds, with the idea that each must earn one million pounds every year.

Thankfully, Andrew Neil did point out the gaffe (and to his credit, Jones did later own up to an ‘embarrassing cock-up’) but I’d like to know why the BBC’s producers allowed him to make it, complete with champagne flutes as props, in his film? It was humiliating for Jones and also misleading for any viewers who might have turned off before Neil corrected it. So either the Beeb knew Jones was talking twaddle and allowed him to do so anyway for the purposes of starting a row in the studio, or, more likely I suspect, the producers of one of the BBC’s major in-depth politics programmes don’t have a sufficiently solid grasp of the fundamental principles of taxation that a screaming error like this does in fact scream at them.

Owen Jones has a simple, reactionary political view: he thinks it’s morally wrong that some people are richer than others. The problem is that he feels competent to make public comment on the details of the Budget in the light of this view. There’s a lot of this sort of thing about, largely driven by the UK Uncut movement, which tries to aim the radical protest politics of the Occupy ethos at the tax arrangements of big businesses and wealthy individuals. Sometimes tax stories are legitimate, but mostly they just confuse, conflate and oversimplify.

Take this story entitled ‘One Direction become company directors to avoid tax’, in which it is insinuated that because the members of a boy band will receive their earnings through a company rather than being paid directly, they can save huge amounts of tax:

Private companies in the UK pay around 28% tax on profits, compared to 50% income tax for individuals earning over £150,000 a year. Expenses such as travel, clothing and make-up also become tax-deductible.
One Direction could save up to £220,000 for every £1m they earn.

Leaving aside that using a company is a much more sensible way for them to structure their earnings than trying to operate as individuals (they will have multiple, international income streams with jointly incurred expenses and will presumably equally share the net results of all that), the claim that they can make tax saving of £220,000 per £1m income is crazy, first because they would only pay 50% income tax on earnings over the £150,000 top rate threshold; but more importantly second because it assumes they won’t actually extract any income for their own use (as soon as they do that they have to pay tax on dividend income, the rates of which are no less eye-watering than income tax ones).

I guess you wouldn’t expect DigitalSpy to apply much in the way of standards to its reporting, but my conclusion following the Budget coverage is that nor does the rest of the mainstream media. The ‘granny tax’ debacle – only an issue because the Lib Dems leaked all the good stuff instead of this ahead of the Budget – is a perfect illustration of how a memorable label can frame the debate. Probably some guy on Twitter coined ‘granny tax’ to describe a freeze in a proposed future allowance increase, and suddenly the Budget narrative on the BBC, Channel 4 and virtually all the newspapers is: “Osborne funds tax cut for millionaires by taxing pensioners” – a ridiculous way to summarise a Budget the net changes of which, most significantly the increase in the basic rate threshold ,will make the vast majority of pensioners slightly better off than if they hadn’t been made, but one nonetheless propagated even by Tory papers like The Telegraph and the Mail.

You can find some informed commentary on tax legislation but you have to ignore the front pages and the TV news and read the comments section of the broadsheets, the weeklies or the FT. But I suppose that’s just yet another complaint about headline-mongering and applies to most areas of news coverage.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Monkee Business

Over at The Dabbler I write about the late Davy Jones and the Monkees.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Flashman in Slightly Foxed

In the Spring 2012 edition of the beautiful Slightly Foxed literary magazine I write racily about Flashman.

You should buy a copy, or better still, an annual subscription. John Gray has an article in the Spring edition too, but don't let that put you off.

Break up the Union?

Over at The Dabbler I search for the musical essences of Britain.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Monsters, Inc

On a more positive note, after that grouchy quartet of posts, I have been watching Monsters, Inc a lot lately, due to Charlotte's enthusiasm for it. It really is a masterpiece - the concept is inspired and only Airplane! packs the gags in so densely, and the hit rate is higher in Monsters.

Loads of these Pixar films put Hollywood's 'grown-up' output to shame, but I reckon Monsters is the best even of such a great bunch.

Friday, February 17, 2012

And lastly, Apple

Oh yes, and I hereby predict that much sooner than you think, all Apple products will come to be seen as irredeemably naff. Too many annoying people praise them too much.

Rowan Williams - also time to quit

And while I'm on a roll, j'accuse Dr Rowan Williams, who, with the notable exception of the Mugabe episode, will surely be remembered as the Archbish who got everything wrong. He clearly saw his role as not just managing decline but speeding it along as best he could, apologising the Church into oblivion. I'm not sure he's ever written anything that couldn't have been happily written, and much more clearly, by any atheist bien-pensant in the Independent.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Theodore Dalrymple - time to quit

Talking of misanthropic sods who've jumped the shark, I'll be happy never to read another cut-and-paste rant about the decline of the British by Theodore Dalrymple again. Yet another torrent of over-familiar bile in The Spectator the other week. Of course horrible people are horrible, but most people, contra Anthony Daniels (TD's real name) are not even remotely horrible, including many who have tattoos.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Richard Dawkins - blowing the legacy

I have poked fun at Giles Fraser on this blog for his frivolous, attention-seeking resignation over the obviously non-imminent threat of violence against the camping crusties at St Paul's, but I have to hand to him for this demolition of the increasingly silly Richard Dawkins on Radio 4's Today programme.

Dawkins could have gone down in history as a great populariser of science and an important evolutionary theorist, but with every new public announcement he increases the likelihood that he'll be remembered as an extremist clown and figure of fun. He's daily blowing his legacy.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Danish drama

I review Borgen (BBC Four) on The Dabbler.