29 June 2012

Kiwirail's asset revaluation - because Labour concealed the truth with accounting: UPDATED

Regular readers will remember that I’ve been long critical of the bizarre Treasury valuations of the social policy/heritage/commodity sector subsidy project called Kiwirail. So the latest report that this “asset” is to be revalued hardly surprises me. However, I am enormously dismayed at the unprofessional politically driven basis for valuation of this business which was instigated by the previous Labour government. It is one thing to throw taxpayers’ money at buying it back, another to hide what a real dud it is on the government accounts. Let’s bear in mind that neither Labour, nor the church of the Holy gRailway the Greens, have any interest in really showing what it’s worth.

So let’s start with the latest announcement. What does it mean?

The short version is “I told you so… again”. What was reported before has finally happened.

The land assets will remain under the NZRC, which has in fact been the case since 1 April 1982 when it was created. There was always a peppercorn rental of NZ$1 paid for use of the land under the rail corridor, which given that the Crown isn’t paid for the land under the road network, has always seemed an easy compromise in dealing with the thorny issue of valuing strips of land with little alternative use (especially roads, given land without access to roads has greatly diminished value). This should not be controversial, but let’s be honest about what the valuation of that asset should be – the market value of the land if sold. A study commissioned by the MoT valued it, in 2001, at NZ$462 million. This could be indexed to today’s values and priced, but I doubt it would top NZ$1 billion. Bear in mind this was never privatised in the first place, because every time TranzRail closed a rail line (which was rare), the corridor would, ultimately, be able to be sold by the Crown.  So the valuation was done professionally based on assumptions of the value of neighbouring land being applied, in most instances, to a narrow inaccessible corridor.

Yet the Annual Report 2011-2010 indicates land is valued at just over NZ$6 billion. This is quite absurd, so is the asset write down going to address this? Let’s continue.

The transfer of the other assets to a separate SOE is exactly what happened before the last privatisation, when NZ Rail Ltd was set up. The logic of this is clear, as the issues around rail land and its use are complex. Partly because of Treaty of Waitangi claims over Crown land, partly because the confiscation of past land under the Public Works Act means that if the land isn’t to be used for rail purposes, the previous owners or their successors must be offered the land back.

So the new SOE will be responsible for everything, other than the land, just like before. This is already raising the spectre of a new privatisation among those who treasure Kiwirail because they think it will be the saviour in the event oil prices and climate change suddenly decimate the viability of road transport.

Bill English states the total assets are being written down from NZ$13.4 billion to NZ$6.7 billion, this being both the land and the operations business. A simple halving of value, indicating a lot of in depth work was not done into this at all. The Kiwirail press release explains this further by saying that the non-land business will carry a valuation of up to NZ$1.3 billion “reflecting the revenue generated by it” rather than the current NZ$7.8 billion.  That's helpful in analysing this further.

The land component of the valuation seems to retain most of its book value, as it will be worth around NZ$5.4 billion, yet wont be expected to make a return on most of that asset (given the land under the roads isn’t expected to either). A small writedown of around NZ$600 million, but not nearly enough. Has the land under the rail network really shot up in value by a factor of 11 since 2001?  Kiwirail's Annual Report indicates that a professional valuation was done, no doubt in good faith. However, does that really reflect the market value of this land? If a railway line across a field, or behind some warehouses or houses is sold, are there really any other likely buyers beyond the neighbouring property owners? The discrepancy between valuations seems extraordinary, and I doubt whether valuations of railway corridors are done frequently enough in New Zealand to enable it to be equated to other such valuations.  

Setting that to one side, the valuation of NZ$1.3 billion for the operating business still seems wildly excessive. It was bought for NZ$665 million. How has it suddenly become worth double that since 2008? Is it revenue? Well no.

In 2011 it had gross revenue of NZ$667 million. It also got nearly NZ$345 million from taxpayers (yes you’ve spent more than a billion on this one and counting). However, its operating costs were NZ$567 million. Cool NZ$100 million profit before government right? No. Once you remove roughly NZ$60 million in subsidies for operating Auckland and Wellington passenger rail services, you’re down to about NZ$40 million. Not so good then.

Bearing in mind that the NZ$345 million from taxpayers is a capital grant to replace and renew some assets, you’ll also see it’s clear this isn’t a sustainable business able to renew its capital.  Otherwise it would take out debt that would be repaid over the depreciated life of those assets, which of course is not going to happen (but Treasury of course has taken out debt to pay for the nationalisation and all of the capital grants).  Bear in mind also that the market valuation when Toll Rail was nationalised was only NZ$435 million. Has the government really trebled the value of this business even though it has never paid a dividend yet? 

One guess as to why Opposition Finance spokespeople haven't asked that - because they fully supported this destruction of taxpayer wealth.

So the valuation continues to be generous in market terms. Kiwirail, if sold, would not go for the sort of money on its accounts, even if it continued to get hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies and grants every year.

The use of replacement cost as an asset valuation gives a false impression of the value of an asset if it to be sold, simply because it does not generate sufficient revenue to justify ever replacing the asset on the scale (and in the same way) as it was originally acquired.

My previous post on this was right.

Kiwirail is not an “investment” in its current form, but rather an emotionally laden piece of heritage that mixes some commercial elements, some local public policy elements with a lot of hyperbole and wishful thinking.

Debates about pouring taxpayers money into it need to be based on some market based accounts, accounts that might actually show it can generate a reasonable rate of return based on what it could be sold for – but which wouldn’t ever justify the money poured into it so far.

For that reason, given both National and Labour have thrown over a billion into this taxpayer owned bonfire, and the Greens are just gagging to throw billions more at it, means that having debates based on reasoned balanced analysis are absent when most of those involved prefer conspiracy theories around corruption, hyperbolic evangelism about rail “saving the economy” and economic illiteracy.

Most of my past posts on this subject are summarised in this one, on what it would take to make the railway a viable business.

It includes the following ones:

-  The Greens posted a link to a great presentation on Kiwirail, which actually destroys most of their own self-generated myths about the business.  I link to it here.
Bill English admits the rail network is virtually worthless

Another good read is this from Ross Clark which explains that the "failure" of rail privatisation is because there are some serious questions about the viability of rail at all.

UPDATE:  I know this article has been linked to by a couple of forums.  Please read the articles at the bottom and indeed the presentation I linked to here. You can romanticise as much as you like, and I have a stack of Rails magazines from the 1980s and 1990s, and the NZ Railway Observer as well, so I am a rail enthusiast at a personal, emotional level, but the hard economic facts are that rail is an expensive way to move goods given the high capital costs of the bespoke equipment and infrastructure.  Only when volumes are high, frequent and over long distances do the fuel and personnel advantages start to offset this.  It's about economics.  In the US, rail freight succeeds in spite of serious undercharging of trucks on untolled interstate highways, in NZ Road User Charges contribute to a very different picture.

Union and religious bullies tell you when your business can trade

Once again, union bosses and socialists - most of whom haven't created wealth from scratch in their entire lives - have found common cause with conservative Christians, in blocking legislation that would have allowed businesses to open the days they want to - this time in Timaru only.

For shame. 

I expect it of the nasty little busybodies in the Green and Labour parties, who can't even let an owner-operator business open the days he wants to, who embrace the religious (who they spurn most of the time), because they fear that some more people might feel like they have to work on a public holiday.

It is not about allowing people to shop.  It is about allowing property owners to decide when they can open their businesses to trade. THEIR businesses, not Maxine Gay's, not Peter Shearer's. 

It's none of your bloody business.

Same to the petty preachers who think because it is against THEIR religious belief to do business on certain days, think they should by force demand others obey their beliefs.
Get out of the way.   The fact that National MPs opposed this shows that the shadow of Rob Muldoon hangs over this party with such gutless "pragmatic" despisers of choice and free enterprise.

Jacqui Dean's attempt to let her constituents decide for themselves if they wanted to open on Good Friday and/or Easter Sunday, has been thwarted by 70 MPs who think they know best.

Yes it was only Timaru, but so what?  It is one step towards freedom.  If only more constituency MPs would do the same, then the country could see tiny roll backs across the land, and eventually they might get it that there is no point having such laws at all.

It wouldn't be compulsory to open on those days.  Where is there a law making that compulsory?  Who even suggests that, except those with the warped post-modernist belief in floating strawmen that distract from the real argument - property rights.

I haven't seen the breakdown of who voted on this Bill, but all those who opposed it have shown themselves up for what they are - petty minded little busybodies who think they know best how ordinary men and women, shopkeepers, run THEIR businesses.  Forgetting of course, that these business owners are those who pay the wages of the MPs and indeed the edifice of the state these MPs so love to harness to do their bidding.

28 June 2012

Is fuel tax in the UK becoming impossible to increase?

I hope so.

Yesterday, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne did his latest U-turn on his budget – he deferred a 3p/l increase in fuel duty that was planned for August. The increase had actually been planned under the Gordon Brown administration, which was always keen to increase taxes on fuel faster than inflation. The coalition government simply sought to maintain it, but was under pressure from Labour (hypocritically) and others to not proceed with it, so it has been delayed.

Now this move is welcome. Unlike the US (and New Zealand now), increases in fuel tax in the UK are not dedicated to spending on transport, but general revenue (and indeed four times as much is collected in fuel tax than is spent on roads). The statist media (indeed state media in the form of the BBC and Channel 4) talk about how it is a “cost” of £500 million (£1.5 billion if the increase is permanently suspended), but this is of course only the nonsense accounting view of Treasury.

It is £500 million that remains in the economy to be spent, invested or saved by individuals and businesses, rather than be spent by government. On top of that the official view (ineptly put by junior minister Chloe Smith) is that it is “funded” by savings in spending from various government agencies. All good stuff, but it does raise two issues.

The first is whether it is permanent. It’s unclear how it will be easier to raise fuel duty in January compared to August. The same politics will arise then and rightfully so.

The second is whether the UK is finally getting to the point where atlas (in the form of motorists) will shrug and say “no more”, at least in relation to fuel tax. That stage has already been reached in the US where the federal government has been unable to raise fuel tax since 1994 and neither have 20 states. It’s causing concern because, unlike the UK, fuel tax in the US is dedicated to expenditure on transport, mostly roads and so it is becoming difficult to fund improvements and maintenance. As a result, more and more states are looking at new ways to pay for roads, with tolls for new links and capacity being popular, along with letting private companies build improvements and toll for them, others are considering how to replace fuel tax completely with direct user charges.

In short, the politics of increasing fuel tax are promoting a shift to user pays, away from taxing proxies, in the United States.

Opposition to fuel tax increases is understandable. People don’t want to pay more when they see government poorly spending the money it does get, with money misdirected to politically motivated new works whilst maintenance falls by the wayside. Tolls are grudgingly supported because they get linked to what you use.

In the UK, opposition is twofold. For a start, motorists feel unfairly singled out, with tax at around 59p a litre BEFORE VAT, tax is the majority of the price of fuel.

Most grudgingly accept VAT on most goods and services, because it isn’t targeted. There is also tolerance of taxes on alcohol and tobacco because of the links between their consumption and health impacts. However, why fuel?

Since none of the money is dedicated to roads (and it is many times higher than the road budget) and roads are crumbling, it seems it has nothing to do with that.

Since there is a discounted rate of VAT on electricity and gas, the environmental argument seems fatuous and inconsistent.

What remains is a Nanny State finger pointing view, aligned to the Green Party, that people “shouldn’t” drive and so fuel tax is a way of encouraging them to use public transport, cycle or walk. The fact that the freight hauled on most trucks has no realistic alternative mode is blanked out. The fact that so many reject other modes, even though they are subsidised (with taxpayer subsidies for rail almost as much as total spending on roads), indicates that it doesn’t meet their needs.

So the overwhelming impression is that fuel duty in the UK is about fleecing people who have few options to avoid it.

It is about time motorists stood up and said enough.

There is a reasonable argument that, in the absence of tolls and privatisation of roads, a tax on fuel used on the roads is a rough proxy for user pays. So if the rate of fuel duty was to match that (taking into account tax taken from annual vehicle excise duty) it would drop from 59p to around 9p a litre (in fact given the massive backlog of capital work needed to renew the network I’d say 10p). If that was transparent, then it would show it up for what it is – a tax grab. Any reasonable view of it being environmental would mean increasing VAT on electricity and gas, which is also unpalatable.

It SHOULD become political unpalatable to continually increase fuel duty – a tactic that Chancellors of the Exchequer have been using since John Major, with Gordon Brown particularly keen on milking money from motorists.

Of course the UK can’t cut fuel tax more than half, for EU law prevents reducing tax on unleaded fuel below what is around 29p/l. Yes, the EU actually sets FLOORS for taxes with Directive 2003/96/EC.

Meanwhile, it ought to be time that UK motorists generally said no – and were louder and more militant against persistent tax increases. This fuel duty increase postponement should be permanent, and fuel duty ought to be in decline.

27 June 2012

Shock news - Socialists hate constraining local government

Some months ago Nick Smith raised himself in my estimation (to be fair, the only way was up) by declaring that the “power of general competence” granted local authorities around a decade ago by the then Labour-Alliance coalition government, with warm support from the Green Party, would be overturned.  Rodney Hide, whose beliefs should have meant he was at the forefront of this, failed, and Nick Smith, who is typically considered to be one of the more centrist of the Nat Cabinet Ministers, embraced an agenda of local government sticking to “core services”.

Now setting aside what they are (and I think it could be very few), this has the promise to help keep local government out of private property rights, out of the way of businesses, individuals and keep rates bills from rising faster than inflation.   It essentially would stop councils thinking they can grow functions as long as they can force ratepayers to pay for them.

When Labour, the Alliance and the Greens embraced “empowered” local government, it was part of a wider belief that the role of the state, including local government, should not be constrained by legislation if elected councillors wanted local government to do things.  It was saying that when councillors are elected, they should have the widest mandate to “do as they wish” collectively,  because accountability would lie at the next local election.  All very well if you think of government and society as being a conglomeration of groups with interests that are all competing, which are gloriously tempered by democracy.  Not very well if you think government is the body with the monopoly of legitimised force against individuals, which typically takes from the many to give to the few, and which regulates some for the satisfaction of others.

You see, those on the left of the political spectrum have a benign, almost warm fuzzy view of government because it can do things that they can’t do themselves – for them it is about forcing people to do things or banning them, or engaging in commercial or non-commercial activities that none of them could ever imagine being able to do so by choice.   For me, it is about using the coercive power of the state to use other people’s money to pursue pet projects and to take rights or property from some less favoured individuals for the benefit of more favoured ones.

It is hardly surprising then to read the news that Wellington’s Green Party Mayor is upset about the proposed changes, and spouts the typical propaganda line used by anyone who thinks local government is representative.  She talks about it constraining the “self-determination of communities”.  Really? For a start, a community does not have a collective brain, it is comprised of individuals with their own views.  As a result, a community is not a “self” so cannot have “self-determination”, because it is comprised of hundreds or thousands of “selves”.  If thousands of people want to act in a particular way, they do not need local government if they are not intending to use force.  They can fund raise, they can spend their own money, they can open up a business, or a charity or they can boycott one.   Indeed, self-determination of the individuals in a community is very empowering.

Yet what Celia Wade-Brown means is the power to force people to pay for something they don’t want, or the power to ban people from doing or make people do things they don’t like.

The idea that people in a city are somehow “empowered” because a minority of them bother to vote for a cabal of councillors who are off the leash and able to do whatever a majority of them deem as being a “good idea”, is a nonsense akin to the absurd theory of the “vanguard party” of the people which represents the “general will”. (Remember your will if contrary to that, is at best meaningless, at worst dangerous).

For the leftwing gutter rag the Standard to support this view is unsurprising.  Besides generating a headline that is sheer nonsense (if only it were true), it talks in glowing terms of local democracy, largely because statists like themselves think of government as doing “good”.  It makes the false claim that New Zealand local government “has the lowest gathering of funds at a regional level in the entire OECD”, when the UK easily outstrips that (there being very low contributions from council tax).  It raises the red herring that “attempts to change this with regional fuel tax and congestion charges” have been vetoed by National, when there is no evidence that any local authorities in New Zealand have wanted to do either (nor did Labour push for either outside Auckland).  Nothing gets statists excited more than wanting new taxes and new ways they can interfere in the lives of businesses, property owners and individuals in the guise of “local democracy”.

It cites an article by Christine Cheyne of Massey University.  The same Christine Cheyne who was an advisor to Prime Minister Helen Clark on local government and transport policy.  Not surprisingly she will take the view that the status quo is just wonderful.

Local government should be constrained.  Regional Councils were once just regional water catchment boards, they should return to this role.  Territorial authorities were once simply land use planning agencies that also looked after local roads, parks and refuse collection, they should return to the planning function alone with the rest of the activities privatised by both sale and transfer to ratepayer shareholding owned entities.  The monstrosity that is Auckland Council should be curtailed back in the same way.  If local government is to have any function it can be as a local arbitrator and record keeper of property rights in land (and waterways and airspace).  Nick Smith’s bill should turn the clock back to the situation pre 2002 in many senses (although it doesn’t have a clear vision for its role in transport, which is another issue).  It isn’t enough but it is a good start, the next big step ought to be to deal with the RMA – but I’m not holding my breath for that one.

Meanwhile, you have until 26 July to make a submission on the BillGo on, encourage Nick, you know the other lot will be moaning and groaning for councillors to keep and strengthen their powers to tax, spend, borrow and regulate.   The Labour Party, which treats local government as a training ground for its new generation of finger-pointing, do gooding, control freaks, is already prepared with an automatic submission website (which I wouldn't waste your time editing, because they wont forward submissions that disagree with their "we know best" point of view).

25 June 2012

Egypt's new dawn or a new dark age

For many years, there has been much concern expressed in the Western world about the consequences of letting the Muslim Brotherhood take over in Egypt.  After all, it was the justification for providing oodles of financial support for Hosni Mubarak’s regime, after he succeeded Anwar Sadat (who dared to make peace with Israel and was assassinated as a result), who himself succeeded the warmongering personality cult figure of Nasser.   Egyptians have been under the jackboot of dictatorship for decades, and as much as US Administrations have appeased Mubarak and Sadat (given both have maintained peace with Israel and kept the Suez Canal open), their opponents have long deified Nasser.  Egyptians who dared cross with any of the regimes would face a police, secret police and military ably dishing out summary justice, engaging in imprisonment, torture and summary executions.  

There were two comforts casually taken by Western supporters of the Mubarak regime.  One was that he wouldn’t wage war against Israel, back Islamists in Iran, Israel or elsewhere.  The value of having an ally who is peaceful in an area that has been volatile, is considerable, especially when it can have its hands on the throat of one of the great shipping routes between Europe, the Persian Gulf and Asia.   The second was that Egypt appeared to modernise.  It could be seen in the malls and shopping centres in Cairo, where young Egyptian women would walk around in jeans, hair uncovered and look little different from those in Europe.  It could be seen in the relative vitality of a country that welcomes tourists, has many fluent in English and had a semblance of a civil society.   However, underneath that entire facade were multiple pressures.

The first was the tired nature of living under a tired corrupt regime that had last more than 30 years with one president.  A regime where wealth and success could come to the well connected, the relatives, the friends and those willing to share with those in power the booty of contracts, trade and business.  A regime where the victims of such corruption, victims of the extra-legal use of authority by the regime would be ignored, at best.  A seething resentment that a country that was becoming wealthier, more connected, with an increasingly younger population, was sitting atop something rotten.  

The second came from those who resisted the modernisation, who saw the wealth and success of fellow Arab regimes to east and west, and would spread resentment at the dependency of Egypt on the succour of the United States (Egypt being, until recently, the second biggest recipient of US taxpayer funded aid after Israel).  They would prey upon the fact that most Egyptians are Muslims and see the hope in dealing with corruption, crime and what they perceived as moral decay, in dumping the quasi-secularism of the Mubarak regime, in favour of Islamism.  They did not think of the 10% Christian minority, or the tiny Jewish minority, nor did they think women should be anything but “equal, yet not bearing duties against their nature and role in the family”.  They would also prey upon the strong anti-Israeli sentiment, which harks back to the families whose sons were victims of the wars Egypt had waged against Israel in the past, and the strong fraternal sense of injustice many Egyptians felt with Palestinian Arabs.

So when Egyptians threw off the Mubarak regime and held elections, the inevitable binary result was that the top two candidates would represent the old regime, and the organisation best organised and longest protesting about it – the Muslim Brotherhood.

With Mr. Morsi becoming President, in a land that no longer has a working Constitution, the stage is set for a new battle.  Given the Parliamentary elections have been ruled null and void, these will presumably be held again, but he faces the army first and the smaller mass of Egyptians who support modernity.  The women who deep down fear new laws about what they wear, who they marry, their rights to divorce, their treatment if abused, their employment and their work.  The Christians who fear new laws about worship, about free speech, about education and about equal treatment under the law.  The Egyptians more generally who want a society where the state protects everyone’s rights, as individuals, including the right to apostasy (which has, at best, been controversial and difficult in Egypt).

For now, it is likely that Egypt will not become the new Iran.  It is still receiving US government largesse, which is largely benefiting the military.  Any shift in policy that results in this ending will risk a military coup, given the sheer size of the Egyptian military.  However, it is difficult to envisage how a man who belongs to an Islamist organisation, which espouses Sharia law as definitive, which seeks to restrict the role of women, which supports the abolition of the state of Israel and considers jihad and martyrdom as glorious, is going to ever represent a step forward.

If his colleagues get elected in the Parliamentary elections (along with Salafists who are more extremist), then one can envisage a new constitution.  Not one that separates religion and state, nor one that prioritises individual rights.

The intellectual bankruptcy of supporting democracy as the measure of freedom will then be revealed. Egyptians will be deemed to have “supported” an Islamic state, and it will be “better” than the Mubarak regime.

Those who would protest in the streets for civil liberties, for the rights of women and the rights of minorities would appear to be willing to surrender those, for the victory of a man who represents rejection of Mubarak, and implicitly, the United States which backed him.

It may be that fears of an Iranian style Islamist revolution are wrong, it may be that Mr. Morsi is in fact willing to support a secular Egypt, that respects religious and individual freedoms, that fights the scourge of corruption that has long infested that land and takes only token steps towards embracing the long held agenda of an Islamist state.  

However, it is clear that being allowed to vote for a President is not freedom.  Individual rights are not protected when people who do not belong to the dominant religion, live and worship in fear, and when laws are enforced to prohibit people abandoning the dominant religion with the death penalty.

State religion, deep cultural misogyny, suppression of “blasphemous words and deed” and death worship are not compatible with individual freedom (including the rights and equality under the law for women), freedom of religion, freedom of speech and embracing of life.  

Like a train that has escaped one tunnel, had a brief smattering of daylight and may now be about to enter another…

23 June 2012

Tax avoidance is not just legal, but moral

The feeding frenzy is out.  In the UK if you legally arrange your personal affairs to minimise your tax liability then the Prime Minister thinks it is immoral.

It all came out when a newspaper reported that comedian Jimmy Carr is apparently using a legal tax-avoidance scheme through Jersey.   Carr's humour is ascerbic and rarely has anything political to say, although it was notable he poked fun at banks and tax avoidance not long ago.

However, David Cameron's jumping on the bandwagon of condemning tax avoidance as immoral is about participating in a radical left-wing campaign that essentially supports more tax.  A campaign pushed by the economic-illiterates at UK Uncut.  That group supports increases in the size of the state, opposes spending cuts and wants more money collected in taxes from businesses and those on relatively high incomes.  Its demand to further infringe on the property rights of businesses and individuals is matched by its supporters invading and occupying private property to "make their point".   However, give them credit for being consistent - these people don't believe in property rights (until you take anything they claim).

As I'm a libertarian, I believe taxation is legalised theft.  It is money taken by force because people engage in behaviour the state has deemed it wants to charge for, such as employment, making a profit, buying certain goods and services and the like.  It isn't a charge for a service provided.  There is no consent involved, there is no relationship whatsoever between taxes paid and services received.

So from my point of view, whatever steps anyone takes to not pay tax are moral, because it is an act of self-defence against the use of force against property.  Plenty of Greek citizens do this presumably because they can and because they don't believe the state spends their money wisely, and they'd be right.

Legally, there is a difference between tax evasion and tax avoidance.  Tax evasion is to take steps to conceal undertaking activities for which tax is due.  Tax avoidance is to structure your affairs to minimise your legal liability for tax, not through concealment or falsifying tax returns, but by any legal steps.

Buying duty free alcohol at the airport is tax avoidance.
Choosing investments that have low or zero tax liability over others, is tax avoidance.

Some instruments for tax avoidance are complex and require professional assistance, which effectively means only people with relatively high tax liabilities can see net savings from paying someone to help them minimise their tax bill.

That's what Jimmy Carr did.

Immoral?  No.  

In fact, if he was illegally evading tax I'd also argue that it is not immoral either.

It is not moral to surrender to the state more money than you have to.   The state, particularly when the bulk of what it spends the money on is to give preferences, privileges and unearned money to other people, is not a supreme moral actor.

Jamie Whyte in the Wall Street Journal explains why Carr acted morally (notwithstanding the mild hypocrisy over his past jokes about tax avoidance).  I'll paraphrase his article below.

The usual vague comment trotted out by statists (those who believe that more state spending is generally a good thing) is that it isn't "fair" and that people must pay a "fair share".  

Whyte makes the split between private and public goods.  

Private goods are those which are consumed personally, such as healthcare, education, pensions, subsidies and the like. To equate taxes for those on any ground of "fairness" is open to serious criticism.  Does Carr consume disproportionately more of these than others?  If not, why should he pay more?  Given his income appear to be many orders above that of the national average, it is fairly certain that he would pay much more than he is ever likely to consume.   The people paying little or no tax, who do consume private goods are the ones where there isn't much "fairness", but the left take it for granted that it's fair for such people to have access to goods and services that they can't afford.  However, that doesn't mean it is fair for Carr to be forced to pay for them.  Why is his existence and success an obligation to pay for others?  The only "fairness" argument is to pay for what you use.

For public goods, such as law and order and defence, the only "fair" approach is for everyone to pay the same.   An argument can be made that the wealthier you are, the more property you have so it is fair to bear a higher burden for the costs of the state to be available to protect it.  In which case, a low flat tax to cover such "public goods" would be "fair".  Income tax of 10% would carry little incentive to engage in tax avoidance or evasion.

Beyond that, Whyte makes the compelling argument that given Carr generates income from people paying for his performance, he must generate a "consumer surplus" (nobody pays to go to his shows to get less than the value of the ticket, but more).  So in fact he is already contributing as a producer.  The snobbish sneers from conservative right and socialist left that he is a mere comedian (the conservatives considering it to not be a proper job in a suit, the socialists thinking it isn't as important as a bureaucrat or a miner) can ignore that, despite his comedy not having universal appeal, he makes people laugh and their lives a little bit better.  They pay for it, so he "produces" (the alternative view is to embrace the wondrous delights of authoritarian regimes where comedy is suppressed).

Even adopting the Marxist view that we all have an obligation to those less fortunate which needs to be enforced by force (which I do not share), making Carr pay more in tax isn't really going to deliver that fairly at all.

The British Government does not redistribute wealth in a way that could be defended robustly as favouring the least advantaged, in actual fact it engages in masses of transfers to people on middle incomes and to people who, by global standards, are relatively well off.  Some of the transfers are:

-  Winter fuel allowance for everyone over 60 regardless of income (a subsidy for energy bills for the elderly.  The Queen would get it if she applied).
-  Child benefit, for every child in a household as long as no one in the household is on the second highest income tax rate (which hits at around £35,000 a year - hardly rich).
-   Housing benefit, which can pay rents for a person or family up to £400 a week (a cap introduced since it was found that one family was getting over £160,000 a year for one property).

Beyond that, if it really was about those most disadvantaged, it would not be most people in Britain.  It would be children in Niger or Haiti or elsewhere.  It would be those without schools, without nutrition, without homes.   However, it isn't.  The claim that it is morally justified by helping the most needy is fatuous because it blatantly isn't true (nor could it be, as neither voters nor politicians would stomach it).

Winding back from all that, taxation exists because people vote for governments who impose them.  Indeed the majority are docile about forcing the minority to pay for what governments bribe them with.  Beyond the core functions of the state, little else that it does contributes to wealth creation, the services it does provide are unlikely to be of a standard or nature that people would choose themselves, and it engages in vast numbers of transfers that are little more than bribes to rent seekers who lobby politicians to get them to loot on their behalf.

Jimmy Carr is both legally and ethically correct to arrange his financial affairs to minimise his liability to this monstrosity.  The budget deficit and public debt are not his fault, it is the fault of politicians and their second-handers who have demanded more and more be spent on them and their pet projects and activities, without being willing to force the public to pay for them (let alone ask).

Tax avoidance is legal, it is moral, and indeed I believe people have a moral duty to themselves and their loved ones to maximise the ways they can avoid tax - for tax takes from YOUR wealth so someone else can spend it, as they see fit. Why would anyone voluntarily, and legally, prefer politicians spending his own money to himself spending it, unless he himself was engulfed in self-hate or believed in his own ineptitude relative to politicians and bureaucrats? 

20 June 2012

Who owns YOUR life?

It's a question libertarians pose from time to time, because it is rather fundamental.

It seems silly to most people, for most people consider they are in charge.

Most of the time, in most ways you are.

Indeed, most people in Western liberal democracies accept that adults can choose how they live their lives, in most ways.  That includes freedom of choice of religion (or no religion), and so to live one's life within whatever teachings they wish, as long as it does not involve infringing upon the rights of others.

So why do so many deny voluntary euthanasia?

Is it fear that people will make decisions they will regret?  Well, maybe.  However, surely if a person demands to end his life time and time again, and is absolutely distraught with the indignity and frustration of his life, is the validity of that no longer worth arguing?  Besides.  Who are YOU to say whether someone would regret a decision?  It is, of course, impossible to regret anything when you are dead.

Is it a belief that life is "sacred"? Yes, often.  However, that is a religious belief.  A deeply held one no doubt.  Yet should this apply to the person whose life is actually is?  To whom is it more sacred than the person living the life?  The religious would say "God", but if the person concerned does not believe that, how can this view be forced upon him?

I know religious conservatives have deeply held beliefs, and are not swayed by being confronted by those who want to die, those who have spent months and years day in day out suffering, enduring a life that they despise - in part because, unlike most who seek suicide, they do not have the means to actually end their life painlessly.

However, I'm posting this tragic story because Tony Nicklinson knows only too well who owns his life.  Not him.  

In this interview by the UK's Channel 4 news, he pleads for the right to permit someone else to take his life.  

He has "Locked in Syndrome".  He cannot physically move anything except his eyes.  This man is a father, a husband, once a rugby player, who has had enough after seven years of existing as he does.

Yes, those making such a request should not be those pressured to do so.  Yes those making such a request should not be able to do so on a whim.  Yes those making such a request should have counselling and there be clarity that they are not mentally ill (be careful in how you define that too).  

However, once you get through such safeguards, then get out of the way.

Don't impose your religious beliefs on others.

You do not own their life.

You do not speak for "God" or whatever deity you wish to plead the case for.

Let a peaceful adult who knows what he wants, who declares how much he suffers with his existence, to end his life.

and yes.  This also means opposing the force feeding of an adult with anorexia who wants to die.  The alternative, after all, is the state assaulting an innocent adult.  

You see, those who oppose assisted suicide are not only willing to get in the way of those who haven't the means to take their lives, but also to inflict force upon those who do, as long as the person who does is "ill".  

It comes down to the belief that the state not only should protect people from others, but protect them from themselves - even to use restraint and invasive intimate physical force to do so - even if protection causes them constant and persistent pain and suffering.

Now how can one believe that is right to inflict choices on adults that involve such pain and suffering that if a private citizen initiated it, he or she would face a criminal charge and likely lengthy prison sentence?

Moreover, if you do resist allowing people to take their own lives, when they are consenting intelligent adults, in obvious ongoing chronic distress, why do you think it is your right to do so? 

For if you simply got out of the way, then all these people would be guilty of is offending you and possibly, your conception of a deity.

You do not have a right to not be offended, and certainly you do not have the right to prevent the offence of a deity.

So what would YOU say to Mr Nicklinson as he sits only able to communicate by the movement of his eyeballs, weeping?  If YOU think his life is worth more than he does, what will YOU do to prove it?  Will you spend day after day, week after week, month after month, sitting with him, with his existence, unable to walk, talk, gesticulate, move, manage your ablutions, wash yourself, dress yourself, change the channel on the TV, itch, scratch, hug or kiss your loved ones?   Will you tell him every day as he looks into your eyes that he ought to keep going on like this, whereas those with the physical means can choose to terminate their lives?

Go on - prove your compassion isn't just words.  Share in his life in a way that will make a difference, or leave this peaceful suffering man alone to make his own choices.

He's not asking you to kill him, he's just asking you to let him choose to die when and how he wants.

It's his life, not yours - and as he does not (and cannot) own your life, then stop trying to own his for your conscience or because of your own belief system. 

18 June 2012

Myths of UK economic policy

Now I could have said this myself, but I don't need do, because Liberal Democrat blogger, Stephen Tall, has done it for me.  Now that's someone who is no libertarian, and ought to get a wider constituency that those laissez-faire capitalists who are fed up with the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition's pathetic attempt at austerity and Labour's dishonest attempt to present itself as the saviour.

What are the myths?

1.  UK public spending is reducing:  In nominal terms it is rising by 8% over the term of this government, in real terms cut by 3%!  Any large business that couldn't extract 3% savings out of five years of operations would be an abysmal performer.  Moreover, in real terms spending in the last year of this term of government will be higher than every year of the Blair/Brown government except the last year.   Big swingeing cuts? Hardly.

2.   Public debt is being reduced:  No.  You see you can't do that unless you run a budget surplus, and that isn't happening or going to happen in this term.  Public debt as a proportion of GDP will be rising by 8% during the term of this Parliament, and wont be dropping in nominal or real terms.  

3.   Labour's approach would have made a big difference:  No.  Ernst & Young modelled the difference, and calculated it would have meant the economy growing on average 0.2% more across three years.  Each additional job would have cost £370,000 in debt (jobs with average income of a tenth of that).

4.   The Obama Administration has taken a different approach which has paid off:  No.  The Obama Administration after the 2010 congressional elections, cut federal spending by 0.9% in real terms.  Somewhat equivalent to the UK government.  Barely austerity at all for both, but US tax levels remain far lower than the UK's.  That's a difference Labour and other leftwing opponents ignore.

5.  There is a magic easy alternative solution:  Both recent UK governments have been Keynesian.  Both dropped interest rates to near zero levels, both printed more money,  both engaged in deficit spending. 

Now I'd argue there are solutions, and that taking a more aggressive stance to cutting the deficit by cutting spending, NOT increasing taxes (which has been about a third of the strategy), would have cut wasteful wealth destroying spending, helped keep the growth of the state interest bill under control, stopped the state competing with the private sector for investment, and meant more money would remain in private hands.  

However, no party in the UK offers that solution as of yet.  You might wonder quite why a government, that is now quite unpopular, didn't just take the hard medicine at the start - rather than pretend to do so, given people think it has already, and it hasn't worked.

Three elections - freedom's not the winner


I've never seen so much televised election coverage for a Greek election, with BBC News, Sky News and CNN all providing dedicated coverage yesterday.  This was an election about remaining in the Euro - Greek voters, more often than not, wanted to play it safe.

The Greek election result is clear - a country divided amongst those who are scared of losing their savings in Euros to those who want to demand other country's taxpayers support a bloated socialist state, and then a who lot of others who variously want either the government to take over and steal from the rich, steal from the foreigners, or the 1.59% who actually want less government.

So for now, Greece will live off of the back of hundreds of billions of Euros of money from taxpayers in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Estonia, Slovakia and other solvent parts of the Eurozone, and will attempt to survive with some spending cuts and tax rises - although the former wont be enough, and the latter will choke off the economy even more.  The optimist in me hopes that Greece can actually cut its deficit, balance its budget, open its economy, cut costs and move forward.  However, I suspect Greece will be racked with strikes, mass protests and continued exodus of the best and brightest, whilst the coalition between the two parties that led Greece for 30 years into this mess in the first place fractures as the vested interests both have protected fight for their cut of the borrowed bankrupt pie.

I can only hope that since New Democracy now includes a few elements in favour of less government and not increasing taxes, that the concessions that this government can get from Germany are to not increase taxes more.  That at least will stop choking the private sector more (as cutting government spending is not the same as increasing taxes).   Meanwhile the far left reality evaders, whose xenophobia about foreign capital doesn't extend to foreign taxpayers propping up socialist states, will continue to portray all of this as some grand conspiracy to make foreign bankers rich.  Those "foreign bankers" (Golden Dawn would be proud of that rhetoric) took a 110 billion write off of Greek debt so far, meanwhile foreign taxpayers have effectively restructured most of Greece's private debt into new lower interest rate loans.   However, Syriza and the leftwing xenophobic haters of capitalism just blank this out - and none have any answer as to how to bridge the gap between the Greek government's spending and its tax receipts.   The newly elected Greek government must close that gap, or will face yet another judgment in a couple of years.   The only way it might even hope to do that, and rescue the economy, is to let the private sector flourish by getting out of the way (and doing its proper job when it is expected to do so).


French voters have snubbed Sarkozy's party and have voted for the fancy funny land of the Socialists. The party that helped decimate the French stockmarket and chase businesses away when it was last in power in the early 1980s (as Francois Mitterand - the man who instigated the Rainbow Warrior bombing - sought to nationalise major businesses).   France will now either follow the path of Greece, in strangling its already fairly stagnant economy some more, chasing its best and brightest to London, some more, or will actually face reality and introduce reforms that hitherto were too hard for the vain git Sarkozy to introduce.

France is full of myths, one is its great manufacturing sector - which as a proportion of GDP is no greater than the UK's - another it how its mixed economy staved off the worst of the financial crisis - when in fact France has parts of its economy (agriculture and the space sectors in particular) largely propped up by EU subsidies.  

Higher taxes, more regulation to protect those already in jobs at the expense of those without them, and a head in the sand attitude to fiscal balance, will help ensure France continues to lose competitiveness relative to Germany and the world.  It is probably a decade away from its final decisive crisis, as France's generous welfare state and corporatist monstrosity of an economic policy finally collapses in on its own contradictions.  Not much liberte, not so much fraternite, and perhaps egalite of poverty.


How's this for a choice?  Want an Islamist President who has vowed to respect other religions, the rights of women and the new freedoms Egyptians went on the streets for?  Or do you want a President from the old guard, the old corrupt militarist regime that kept a lid on freedom of speech and ensured that its cronies were wealthy and comfortable?  Half of all Egyptians chose neither.  It appears that a narrow majority of the rest chose Islamism.
Some on the left in the West who rail in favour of womens' rights, secularism, tolerance, liberal values, peace for homosexuals and the like will celebrate this, to their shame.  Others will share the concern with those of us elsewhere on the political spectrum.

The overriding of the parliamentary election by the judiciary may be worrying, but if the Islamist has won the Presidential election, it may give some impetus for others to vote for a new Parliament that isn't so dominated.

However, I am not hopeful.  The simple reality is that democracy in Egypt is more likely than not to create a state run by those who think religion and state are the one and the same, who hold views of women (let alone gay people) as being subordinate and whose views on Jews, Christians and others who don't hold their religion are less than flattering.   

The result wont be clear until Thursday, but let's be clear - it wont mean more freedom for people in Egypt.