Tuesday 30 January 2024

Reforming the Council Tax in Wales: good luck to them

Apparently the Welsh are intending to 'reform' the Council Tax.  Of the 3 options under consideration, one is feeble: simple revaluing all properties.  The 2nd changes the weighting within the 9 existing bands: lower weighting at the lower end, higher at the higher (i.e. slightly more progressive).  The 3rd is the most 'radical': move to 12 bands, also with a weighting shift.

To me, this third option is a real no-brainer and one Osborne should have done in that brief 2010 window when he could have done almost anything he chose and, quite appropriately, his slogan was "all in it together".  Clearly, from his deeds of commission and omission, he never meant that; and the opportunity was lost. 

I'd go further: extend the number of bands almost indefinitely.  We all know the Council Tax is a wealth tax, so anyone who proposes to have palpitations at the very thought of such a thing, can emigrate now on principle.  Ditto progressive taxation.  All these things are matters of degree.  Gratuitous regressivity is nothing to be proud of.

I am sure there are some complexities over estates of such massive dimensions that any proportionate Council Tax would be likely to wipe them out in cash-flow terms (as happened with the first efforts at Estate Duty more than a century ago, under governments a lot less liberal than any post-war government).  OK, then - just 20 bands.  The point remains the same: the current system is ludicrous (hey, it was thrown together by Michael Heseltine on the back of an envelope one weekend!): defensible in only the most weaselly terms.  As are many existing schemes when you look at the detail and the consequences, of course - that's life, that's politics.  No need to stay with them when there are easy fixes, though.  

It will be interesting to see how this goes for the Welsh.


Wednesday 24 January 2024

Government introduces its stellar defence procurement skills to energy sector!

+ + UPDATED + +   - see below

Defence projects are the bane of the taxpayer's existence.  (Along with NHS IT projects, PPS procurement etc etc etc).  Astonishing delays, budget over-runs, faulty products - all followed by rinse-and-repeat with exactly the same contractors.  Learn nothing; repeat; and get the same results.  Never fails.

And now we have HMG's pathetic attempts to get a new generation of nukes up and running.  I say 'new', but the EPR is by now a pile of discredited and distinctly old crap.  And yet, conned by EDF, stitched up by George Osborne, bullied by Francois Hollande and betrayed by her own personal weakness of character, in 2016 Theresa May signed up for the Hinkley Point 'C' contract, the exact terms of which we may never learn: but we know enough to say they are awful.  All the optionality - and it's very great indeed - lies with EDF.  What's more, EDF knows that if it huffs and puffs and lies a bit more, it can get unilateral, favourable changes to this one-sided contract that are even further in its favour.  For example, not long ago it obtained a three-year relaxation to the back-stop date for start-up, from 2033 to 2036.  That's for a project it initially said would start up by year-end 2017! (sic)

So after this week's update from EDF, where are we now?  Start-up-date maybe 2031 or 2032 ... cost, well anyone's guess really, but wildly higher than any number floated before.  And this just days after HMG put around £2.5 bn cash (that's c.a.s.h., upfront, not just a high HPC-type electricity price) into Sizewell 'C', the next monstrous would-be product of EDF's nuclear fantasy.  The big difference with SZC being that, unlike HPC where EDF has to swallow the over-runs, with SZC the taxpayer will do that because EDF has no intention of taking on any construction risk at all.  And Boris signed up for that (not just May, then, who's an airbrained git).  

Did I say EDF has to swallow the over-runs on HPC?  Well, thus far, that's what the contract says and that's how it looks.  But, lo!  The contract doesn't commit them to finish the project at all !  They just don't get to sell that pre-priced electricity if they don't.

However, we can all picture the scene.  It is 2034.  HPC looks sort-of finished, but beneath those big domes and concrete silos, vital bits are not yet ready - and EDF knows full-well they ain't gonna be finished by 2036.  So there will be no juicy, HMG-underwritten, 35-year electricity contract.  They've been cap-in-hand to President Le Pen for more money, but she's sent them away empty-handed.

They know what to do.  "Get Starmer in here" they shout, and he's duly brought in to hear their story.  

"Look here, Starmer, we've run out of money.  But you need the electricity really badly, right?  This HPC delay, and the parallel delay at SZC, have already scuppered your energy strategy, which assumed that BOTH plants would be up and running by 2030! (aside: hah!  that Ed Miliband, eh?  Sucker!!)  You've had three years of patchy blackouts already.  So: we need another, errr, let's say £4bn - well, make it £5bn, what's that between friends, hmm?  Now.  Cash.  And then - we PROMISE - we'll be up and running by Xmas 2037, just, errr, 20 years late.   And we'll have another little meeting - about SZC - next month.  Whadya say?  You don't really want to leave this thing standing here like a radioactive white elephant, do you??"

Watch and wait...


UPDATE     ... but you won't be waiting for long!  See this story - published after I wrote the above post.  You (maybe) read it here first

Wednesday 17 January 2024

Taxing English? - or taxing its beneficiaries!

Revanchism is generally understood in 20th century Leninist or Maoist terms: the capitalist / imperialist classes lashing out against their progressive tormentors.  But it might equally be applied to the thought-processes of those of the woke persuasion who see reparations as the appropriate form of justice against, well, anything they don't like.  This generally means lining up western white folks and seeking to empty their pockets on some spurious pretext or other.

Here's a really hilarious one that shows just how deep this nonsense runs: a writer in the Graun (where else?) who reckons that those brought up speaking English as their mother tongue enjoy unfair advantages in the world, which he is pleased to call "linguistic injustice".  He reports favourably on: 

"compensatory measures [to] help reduce global linguistic injustice. Philippe Van Parijs, of the University of Louvain, has, somewhat provocatively, proposed a linguistic tax on English-speaking countries to compensate for the costs of teaching English in other countries. This would involve establishing a global tax on countries where the majority of the population speaks English as a native language and distributing the revenue to countries where English is taught in schools as a foreign language"

Etc etc with further anti-English measures he likes the sound of.  He doesn't make it clear whether India and any African countries would fall into his net (Nigeria comes to mind, and SA of course) - in fact he doesn't mention India at all.  These omissions are rather cowardly, I feel.

It seems we shall have to put up with this increasingly insolent stuff forever.   It rather overlooks the bountiful innovations issuing forth from these islands and its colonies and former colonies over several centuries, a list too long to insert here - enjoyed today by most of the rest of the world in some degree or other.  The great Lee Kwan Yew used to speak in very much those tones, I recall.  We should therefore respond with a "gratitude tax" on all those billions who benefit from English and its associated cultural boons (e.g. trade under Common Law jurisdiction, to name but one): we could call it the Lee Levy in his honour.


Monday 15 January 2024

USA: withdrawing from world affairs?

It may seem perverse to wonder whether the USA is withdrawing into an isolationist shell only a couple of days after it has orchestrated a rather modest coalition[1] into military action against the Houthis.  World Policeman, or what?  Yet I can't help feeling this may be the reflex action of a former bruiser who was in the process of retreating from the fray ("leave it babe, he ain't wurf it") when somebody rushed up to take another swipe at him anyway.

Well, maybe that will persuade him to get stuck right back in there again.  People inside and outside America have been urging its government since the first few years of the Monroe Doctrine to disengage from the ROTW and concentrate on self-sufficiency and domestic affairs.  That long-lived policy saw American governments intervening all over the place, to no obvious good effect, for many years.  There was always a "leave it babe" faction advocating the opposite[2].  But overseas intervention is a hard habit to break.

But what would getting stuck right back in there entail, in a world of truculent Russians, increasingly confident & capable Turks, Iranians and N.Koreans, an out-of-control Netanyahu, and, errr, China?

For one thing, it would require military spending on an implausible scale.  The USA of Bush / Clinton / Bush / early-Obama not only operated with no serious Russian threat and only the early signs of Chinese (and Iranian) upsurgence, but also with far and away the biggest & best-equipped armed forces on the planet.  Not any more.  The Peace Dividend[3] has been taken in no uncertain terms, and the USA could no more fight the fabled "two big wars and one small one, all at the same time" than fly over the moon.  (And it's not very good at flying over the moon any more, either.)

So what are the voices that will prevail, longer-term, in Washington?  There is certainly a bellicose "pivot to China" lobby, which thinks in terms of defending Taiwan and the South China Seas.  There's another modest coalition of nations behind this one, too (always us and the Aussies, eh?  Us with our two naked aircraft carriers and all.)  But drill down deeper, and the practical measures being advocated by all except the outright headbangers are a great deal less offensively-minded than in years gone by.  The talk is of porcupine defence, stand-off weapons, drone-swarms etc - not marine divisions storming up the beaches under 100% air-superiority.  Just as with the Roman Empire: when you trade in your stabbing sword for a long-sword, you're basically on the defensive, however widely you cast the perimeter. 

And that's the warlike lobby - many of whom would withdraw substantially from the Middle East, too - not to mention looking to Europe for the bulk of support for Ukraine.  The outright isolationists & Trumpists would cheerfully deal with China - perhaps in return for their taking N.Korea out of the equation.

And what will Starmer do then, poor thing?  Some, of course, think he'll rush to Rejoin.  There could conceivably be an intelligent offering from the EU on that score.  But, interestingly, his track record as DPP was of shameful, grovelling obeisance to Washington, which seems to be a deep instinct for him.  

He'd certainly keep the RAF busily bombing on whatever coordinates Biden dictates.  While old Joe is still slugging it out at the bar.



[1] What were we doing there?  The answer is obvious: the traditional combination of (a) the general policy of sticking with our biggest & most important ally, come what may (not entirely without merit, though Wilson never saw fit to gratify Johnson in Vietnam); and (b) the age-old tradition of us in these islands:  show us a good fight, and we're in!  (a.k.a. oi'll foight any t'ree of yuz!

[2] It's been argued that the only thrust under the Monroe Doctrine, broadly conceived, with genuinely strategic justification was the annexation of Hawaii in 1898.  The others, all over Latin America and even beyond, were generally deeply controversial within the USA itself

[3] What peace? - Ed

Thursday 4 January 2024

Competition: Predictions for 2024

So here we are, crystal balls at the ready, testing our predictive powers on the year ahead.  What will 2024 bring?  Some of the big unknowns for this year are rather obvious "known unknowns", of course, but please address yourselves nonetheless to the following questions:

  • UK GE:  date (month);  and number of Labour MPs after the GE 
  • US Presidency: who wins?
  • Size of V. Putin's share of the Russian vote (as announced)
  • By how much, and in what direction, will the FTSE100 change between midnight UK GE polling day and the end of 2024?
  • Length of Sam B-F's gaol term upon sentencing (note: zero is a number).  Extra point for size of the fine in USD
  • Where will Man Utd rank in the Prem at the end of the '23-4 season, and who will be manager?

Go for it!


Monday 1 January 2024

2023 Predictions - Results

Last year's compo questions ran thus:
  • Will the war in Ukraine end? 
  • Will Oil average over $100 a barrel? 
  • Will Elon Musk’s fabled moon trip happen? 
  • Will Sam Bankman-Fried get Jail time? 
  • Will the UK be in recession still in Q4 2024? 
  • tiebreak - a sport related prediction.
Answers:  No; No; No; Not yet (guilty on 7 counts, sentencing to follow); 2024???

Compo results: well, taken literally the UK recession qn was something of a boobytrap but everyone interpreted it as a Manifest Error.    (And given CU's proclivities vis-à-vis spelling, that seems fair.)  Taking it to have meant 4Q 23, the answer is ... we don't know yet, the data are not yet ratified.  It therefore means that, as of 1 Jan, there is an unusual "pending draw" between Anomalous Cowshed and, errr, myself.  We both got the first 3 answers right and put "yes but not this year" for SB-F's gaol-time and we both had a correct sport prediction.  But I dodged the recession question altogether, so later this year there's the possibility for Mr Cowshed to be the outright winner.

There's another subtlety:  if PushingtheBoundaries and Cowshed are ultimately proven right about the recession, Cowshed still wins because PtB's tiebreak answer was wrong.  But he'd push me back into third place.

Final complication:  there remains a logical possibility that SB-F doesn't get gaol time when sentenced next later this year.  Given what happens to official scapegoats in US financial cases, he can only really get off if Trump is elected and pardons him.  But he'll have served time prior to Jan '25 - so, rather than have yet another "pending" angle, I'm ruling that a "No" answer to the SB-F qn is wrong.    

Other answers of interest?  Several of you cynically reckoned SB-F would get off.  (Surely, he is the Scapegoat from Central Casting?)  There were two opposing sporting tie-break predictions on the Ashes: Sobers - great cricketing tag, that - reckoned Oz to call time on Baz/Ben Ball.  Well, it certainly looked that way early on, didn't it?  But not by the end.  And PushingtheBoundaries - another great cricketing moniker! - reckoned England to win.  And towards the end of voting there was a sudden rush of "> $100/Bbl" for the average oil price.  I couldn't decide whether those punters were trying to inject an element of contrarian thinking into the proceeding (- hope you didn't follow that up in the markets!)

Will be soliciting your 2024 predictions in a day or so.