March 20, 2017

Here is a wonderful 6-minute animation detailing the dehumanization of menial employment:


Thanks to Open Culture for the link.

Towards Voluntary Taxation

March 1, 2017

It is tax time again.  And yet again I make my pitch for an all-voluntary tax system.

Way back in June 2002, I proposed doing away with all non-voluntary taxation by replacing income and all other taxes with a consumption tax. This is what I wrote in 2002, and I still see little need to change the basic structure proposed:

The basic principles for a new tax scheme are that it should be essentially voluntary, and concerned with ensuring equal opportunities for all. Therefore, I would propose the elimination of all personal and corporate income taxes as they violate by their very nature the voluntary aspect of taxation. I propose to replace the revenue with an all-inclusive sales tax on goods and services with a few, well-defined exceptions (the figures below represent Vancouver costs of living and could be adjusted as required):

• all foods
• shelter (to $18,000/year rent or the first $350,000 of purchase)
• all non-cosmetic medical, dental and optical-health services
• all educational services
• financial services (bank charges etc) to $500/year
• legal services to $2,500/year

The sales tax should be a single percentage across all categories of goods and services in order to reduce accounting and bureaucratic requirements.

The use of the sales tax for the bulk of government revenues brings a great deal of volunteerism to the matter. The exceptions provide an important and necessary break for those goods and services which can be described as the necessities of life; above that, the more I choose to buy, the more taxes I choose to pay.  Rampant consumerism therefore becomes a tax liability.

On the other side of the ledger, also to the good, the simplicity of the scheme allows for huge bureaucratic savings in administration and zero non-compliance. The tax would also be levied on all capital transfers outside the jurisdiction. It will oblige tens of thousands of “tax lawyers” to find genuine productive employment.

All government activity should be categorized into line items that can be shown to have a direct bearing on the level of the sales tax. In this way, the people are enabled to make decisions about what sections of government can be further cut to reduce the level of taxation. Conversely, any additional work to be performed by the government can be readily calculated as an addition to the sales tax.

In other words, the cost of a government service will be immediately and directly calculable — and the people can make their judgments on whether to go ahead with it on that basis. It is one thing to say that a government program costs $600 million — an abstraction at best; it is quite another to say that program x will cause a rise in the sales tax by 1%.

In a capitalist system where the government bureaucracy acts as a nanny on so many issues, taxation of some sort is inevitable, as will be resistance to such taxation. The sales tax that I propose will allow the taxation system to operate on a voluntary basis, thus achieving considerably greater support and compliance.

It might be claimed that rich folks will simply remove their money from Canada to avoid the sales tax.  Possibly true, but in my scheme, the sales tax would apply to all such financial transfers from the moment the scheme is announced.

Finally, I believe that many polical types concern themselves far too much with how much money people make. If we concentrate on the input (salaries, bonuses etc) there will always be those who can play fast and loose with the rules.  However, if you apply taxation to outputs (purchases, transfers etc), the returns will always be progressive: the more they spend, the more they’ll pay.

How Capitalism Sucks

February 3, 2017

I was just reading a Bloomberg article about Amazon‘s latest results and their plans for the future.

It was interesting in and of itself about trends the retail giant is following. But there were a couple of items in the piece that really caught my eye.  One, was that Amazon only made an anticipated profit of $660 million in the last quarter and that was considered far too low by the themselves-unproductive midgets of of Wall Street.

Moreover, that profit was so “low” because Jeff Bezos is actively pursuing a policy that favours future earnings against current profits.  Apparently the midgets call that “negative leverage” and the street hates it. Within that “hate” is revealed the utter stupidity of a quarterly-statement-driven market that devalues any constructive long term plans for tomorrow in favour of more billion-dollar yachts for fund managers today.

Capitalism intrinsically sucks in so many ways, but Wall Street manages to take the worst of it and make it even worse.

TPP: Score One For the Donald

November 22, 2016

no-tppPresident-elect Trump has made it absolutely clear that on day one of his Presidency, he will withdraw the US from support of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).  We can breathe a sigh of relief because Trump is right — this would be a disaster — although probably not for the reasons I give.

The TPP had nothing whatsoever to do with trade: the US already has good trading relations with all the nations involved in the treaty (from which China was excluded, of course). This was all about deregulation and giving even more powers to corporations than to elected governments. This was about giving powers to corporations to restrict labour and environmental protections.

Trump will find a lot of criticism about this decision from billionaire executives and those they pay — Congressional politicians — to lobby on their behalf.  The loudest screamers will be those most deeply in the pockets of big business, on both sides of the aisle.

What is odd to me is that you would expect Trump to be among that crowd calling for freer trade, less regulation on corporations, and more strength against China.  I am confused as to the why of his position (because I believe him to be a full-bore capitalist and not an economic nationalist) but I cheer him for it.

July Books

July 28, 2016



I began this reading period with a failure. I had obtained “The Bourgeois Virtues“, the first part of an economic history trilogy by Deirdre N. McCloskey.  However, I realised quite quickly that I just could not handle 1,500 pages of densely argued apologia for bourgeois capitalism, written with an arrogant certainty of its ethical superiority. I threw in the towel at page 27.

Thankfully, my fall back was John Le Carre’s “The Naive and Sentimental Lover” (1971). This is his only non-genre novel and a superb piece of storytelling. According to a brief note in Wikipedia, this tells the fictionalised story of Le Carre’s relationship with another writer and his wife during Le Carre’s divorce from his own wife. It is about double the page count of his earlier novels, and covers a lot of ground that was familiar to me from my own knowledge of London and the West Country of my youth. This is not straightforward narrative, playing with time and location, and with elements, I thought, of magic realism. It engaged me on several levels and I found it a marvelous read.

I then moved on to “Sudden Death” (2013) by Alvaro Enrigue, which I covered in more detail in an earlier post.

Len DeightonNext up was Len Deighton’s second novel, “Horse Under Water” (1963).  This is much more tightly written and plotted than his first, but full of stereotypical characters. However, our working class hero has become a more James Bond-like figure who argues with Cabinet Ministers, harangues Ambassadors, orders NATO staff to launch jets, and gets the girl(s). It is still full of excellent local detail (both about London and, in this case, southern Portugal), especially about food.  One interesting point is that, written in 1963, it has a very different view of “the drug problem” than we see today. Cocaine is not considered a Western problem at all, and cannabis comes from Morocco and the Middle East — South America is not even mentioned. The big problem as Deighton sees it at that date is heroin. However, he does have a major character state that marijuana will be made legal and taxable “in five years” — say the late 1960s. Perceptive, but about 45 years in advance of reality.

And now for something completely different: “Vancouver Is Ashes: The Great Fire of 1886” by Lisa Anne Smith (2014). Ms. Smith has scoured the contemporary accounts, and Major Matthews’ detailed interviews, to create what is essentially an eye-witness account of the fire that destroyed Vancouver. The use of direct quotes and small anecdotes produces a lively narrative, which the author expands judiciously.   Well worth the quick read.

Back to Le Carre, this time for “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”.  This is an odd one. It is Le Carre in full control, as Smiley is obliged to re-imagine the recent past of the Department in order to track down a high-placed Russian mole. It is odd because I read this already knowing their are two more in the Karla trilogy, and thus the ambiguities remain at the end of this volume. It is also odd because it is in this volume that the author rewrites the bios of several important characters, including Smiley himself from what they have been in earlier books. Most emphatically, Smiley’s marriage to Ann — which we learn from each of the previous books lasted just two years  before she ran off with an Argentinian race driver — has unfortunately survived all the years, and they live in a brutally unsatisfactory relationship.While recognising how well it is put together, I did not find this as engrossing as earlier stories.

And I finished the month off with Robert Galbraith’s third outing “Career of Evil“. I did a brief review on the first two Cormoran Strike novels some while ago.  This is J.K. Rowling in her detective fiction role, and damn good she is at it too. She has interesting plots, with multiple sub-plots about personal; relationships, and a clear ear for the interior monologues that describe motive and reasoning. I like the Galbraith style and I look forward to the next.

The VPL loan system (a community treasure) has caught up with me and I start August with five books on my desk, and more expected next week. Looks like another busy reading month ahead!



Breaking Up Is So Good To Do

July 9, 2016


As an old Brit with a political interest, I have been engaged by Canadians and others in many conversations since the UK Referendum on Europe. Almost invariably, my interlocutors are shocked to find that I am very happy with the decision to leave Europe. Almost without exception, they find it hard to believe that anyone can think this is anything but a disaster for the UK.

I believe my friends, like many observers, are diverted by the obvious short term disadvantages and confused by the right-wing rhetoric that appears to have driven the result. They are not yet recognising the broader and more positive implications of the Leave victory and the deeper motives that have, temporarily at least, underpinned the right’s appeal.

History, I am certain, will record Brexit as the first major push-back against the forty-year plus neo-liberal globalization project that has created the extreme levels of inequality the vast majority of us suffer under today. The rejection of TPP and similar “free trade” deals that actually benefit only corporations will swiftly follow as step two.

The people are showing that they are sick and tired of policies that delivery billions to the few and endless austerity to the rest (“the disastrous experiment that was austerity, which was an ignominious failure,” as economist Danny Blanchflower recently put it.) . They are understanding that mega-governments — within which genuine power is removed further and further away from the people — have economic and social drawbacks that are far more real that the marketed “benefits”, and they want the return of local control. Deep down, they understand as Dani Rodrik of Harvard University notes: “[S]ocieties cannot be globally integrated, completely sovereign and democratic—they can opt for only two of the three.”

The Economist further points that “it is increasingly clear … that supporters of economic integration underestimated the risks both that big slices of society would feel left behind and that nationalism would continue to provide an alluring alternative. Either error alone might have undercut support for globalisation … In combination, they threaten to reverse it.”Self-described multi-millionaire and “0.1%er”, Nick Hanauer goes even further: “Our country is rapidly becoming less a capitalist society and more a feudal society. Unless our policies change dramatically, the middle class will disappear, and we will be back to late 18th-century France. Before the revolution … If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us.”

For a radical decentralizer like me, someone who wants to strip all power from the hands of the self-appointed and self-sustaining elites and to bring that power back into the hands of the people, devolutionary moves such as Brexit can only excite and energise.

It is true that much of the Brexit campaign was filled with distressingly nativist and protectionist rhetoric. This wrong-headed approach is based on the idea that the nation state should represent the primary jurisdictional and emotional boundary –an idea that has been pounded into our childish heads by a nationalist education curriculum for the past few hundred years. But the fears of those that ensured the victory needn’t be the fears that shape the UK or the EU’s future. I see these concerns as merely the current symbols of a deeper search for freedom from top-down autocratic control.

I have been accused of wishing to see the re-establishment of borders.I agree that less permeable borders might be an immediate outcome of breakup, but that would be temporary. As Billy Christmas writes: “Those that were in favour of Brexit must distance themselves more than ever from xenophobia and protectionism and reiterate the humanitarian case for leaving the EU – not to separate from the world, but to join it through the bonds of voluntary exchange and free movement.”

The decentralization that I seek goes well beyond “nationalism”. Power needs to be returned to the individual, to such a minimalist position that geographic boundaries are irrelevant, and only recognised bilateral need, individual to individual, generates any form of trade and labour, and thus is genuine free trade and movement of labour without any geographic restriction.

This is the final step, of course. Before we get there, we need to dismantle the internationalist structures that currently exist, and then to work on devolving power within each territory to smaller and smaller communities, destroying nationalism in the process. Mike Walsh has written a piece that suggests a rise in city states, though he sees them as the best way to further integrate globalisation. I see them as merely another possible way station on the road to institutional dissolution and the march toward individual freedom.

It is within this framework of long term historical processes that Brexit should be seen as a major early and positive step.


May-June Books

June 29, 2016
"Rathert than beat the children it is better to buy them books" -- Russia 1926

“Rather than beat the children it is better to buy them books” — Russian poster from 1926

At the beginning of May I decided I would spend the summer reading the entire works of John Le Carre, John Irving, and Len Deighton, each in order of publication. I have done this exercise before with PD James, Vladimir Nabakov, Laurence Gough, and several others, and have enjoyed watching the maturity of the authors as they grow into their craft. At the same time, I will continue to read other books as they come to hand.

The plan has been to read Le Carre and Irving first, followed by Deighton later in the year. This two-month list, therefore, is heavily weighted in favour of Le Carre as his earlier works are easy to read in a day or so, while, as I note below, Irving’s were always a tougher go.

I began the period by finishing Franklin Rosemont’s Joe Hill: The IWW & the Making of a Revolutionary Working Class Counterculture (2nd ed., PM Press, Oakland CA), which was originally published in 2003. Much as I enjoyed and appreciated the content, this was a tough read due to the style of the writing.

Next up was John Irving’s first novel, Setting Free the Bears from 1968. I had a lot of trouble getting through this to the end and if it had been the first Irving I had ever read I am not sure I would have bothered to keep up with him. It begins well, by which I mean it has the free-flowing peculiarities that one expects from Irving, Two young Austrian proto-hippies begin a motorcycle trip with no destination in mind. However, about a quarter of the way through the book (or less), one of the characters dies and much of the remainder of the novel is taken up with two series of entries from his notebooks. One of the series contains a detailed (and I mean detailed) history of the German take-over of Austria in 1938 followed by a long review of life with the partizans in Yugoslavia. Some of this was fascinating; much was tedious. It took most of the two months to finish the book, and I could only do it by reading Le Carre novels between chapters.

I have started on Irving’s second novel, The Water Method Man, but I doubt I will finish that until some time next month. Luckily I had a number of John Le Carre’s early works to leaven the hard work of Irving.

John le Carre biography, Adam SismanLe Carre’s first two novels, The Call Of The Dead (1962), and A Murder of Quality (1963) introduce his most famous character, spymaster George Smiley. However, although the background to “Call Of The Dead” is the intelligence service, these two novels are much more in the form and style of English “cosy” detective stories. I was reminded strongly of the first few novels by PD James, before she got into her stride.  I enjoyed them both, but neither were what I was looking for in Le Carre.

His next book, and the one that made his name, was The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1964) which is a ripping yarn and a fine thriller in the espionage genre. There are hints of the psychological understanding Le Carre brings to his later works, but this is more of an adventure story than anything.   This was followed by Looking Glass War (1965) which rather disappointed me, with too much procedural material and not enough analysis (although perhaps I missed it).

But then we come to “A Small Town In Germany” (1968) where Le Carre really comes into his own. It has the background of a spy novel but is much more a study of English diplomats and others living in the bubble of the British Embassy in Bonn in the mid 1960s. Class pettiness and bureaucratic inertia rule the day, while an outside investigator tries to track down important files that seem to have been stolen by a low level employee. From a viewpoint much later in Le Carre’s career, one might wonder why he didn’t use Smiley as his investigator rather than the less than fully developed Turner, but this was a very enjoyable read.  The background to the novel is Britain’s desire to enter the Common Market in 1966. I read it during the week in which Britain voted to leave the EU. So much has changed in fifty years!

keynes_timeI then switched gears and read Nicholas Wapshott’s “Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics.”  This is a wonderfully readable book by an economically-trained journalist which manages to elucidate some highly technical material while spinning a vibrant narrative of the clash between the twentieth-century’s two major economic theorists, John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek. I learned a great deal and would encourage everyone who is interested in what makes modern political economy tick to give this book a try.


The month has ended with Len Deighton’s first novel, “Ipcress File” (1962). Another spy novel, but very different from the ones I had read earlier this month. Where Le Carre and Irving are very precise in their prose, Deighton is loose and vernacular. It is like reading Gonzo journalism after a diet of the New York Times. The piece is episodic and with a plot that is very hard to follow. In fact, the book ends with several pages explaining what went on. I was reminded of an English cosy crime novel where the amateur sleuth gathers all the suspects in the library and ticks off the clues one by one until the villain is left exposed.  The book is, however, an interesting time capsule of “hip” pre-Beatles London in the very early 1960s.