Posts tagged 'Politics'

Joined up thinking

On February 18, 2019 / Tagged: , , ,

Via a very odd suggestion on Facebook, I came across this video of a historian saying silly things.

“I hear people talking the language of participation, justice, equality and transparency but almost no one raises the real issue of tax avoidance, right? And of the rich just not paying their fair share.”

My problem with this isn’t just that I disagree – although I do. My problem stems from the fact that the comment is completely divorced from the economics of the situation, and contains exactly zero strategic thought about how to alleviate the issue that’s been raised.

Tax avoidance is when you legally structure your activities in order to reduce the amount of tax you pay. The idea of a person’s (or organisation’s) “fair share” of tax is defined by the law that states how much tax they should pay. If they’re paying tax in accordance with the law, then by definition they’re paying their fair share. If lawmakers want them to pay more, change the laws.

It could be argued that if you try to use the law to reduce your tax liability then this is “not paying your fair share”. But that’s a load of crap. As well as being a way to raise revenue, taxes are used by governments to incentivise certain behaviours. It’s an invalid argument to state that someone doing the things that governments incentivise means they’re “not paying a fair share”1. One could argue that some taxes are meant to incentivise and that others are just meant to raise revenue, and that it’s immoral to try and avoid the latter category. But tax is stipulated in law, and we follow laws based on what they say, not based on an interpretation of what we think they mean.

The issue being discussed here is inequality, and how to help people who are less well off. I think that’s a very good problem to try and solve, but the solutions have to start with those people you’re trying to help. What’s caused the problem? Where is the issue? What sort of things can you do to help people who are struggling? Tackling questions like that is much more likely to solve the problem.

Imagine the counterfactual, that the government stopped tax avoidance by rich people. Great. What next? What do you do with the money? Is there enough money to implement your solution? How do you know if it’s solved the problem? Are there any downsides to eradicating tax avoidance? Just raising more tax from rich people doesn’t actually do anything to help poorer people; it just makes rich people less wealthy. If that’s your aim then fine – although, why? – but at least be honest about it.

My problem with this isn’t that people say silly things. That happens all the time, and you can’t stop it. My problem is that things like the excerpt above are often viewed as intelligent commentary, and passed around as pieces of wisdom. But they’re not. They’re unsophisticated observations made by unserious people that fail to grasp all the facets of the issue they’ve decided to talk about. I’m not saying that I know the answer to the problem – I definitely don’t – but then I don’t go around making grand statements and pretending I have all the answers.

A lot of commentary from a lot of otherwise intelligent people falls into this category. It drives me mad.


  1. There’s also a lack of internal consistency here. The same people who care about tax avoidance are also – often – vociferously in favour of the EU because trade. The EU is explicitly set up to encourage this sort of tax competition between states, because of the frictionless trading. It’s not logical to argue in favour of the EU because of frictionless trade, whilst denouncing anyone who engages in that trade. 

A chap called Pentti Haikonen, a researcher in Artificial Intelligence, has built a robot called XCR-1 which is constructed around the idea of neural processing. Essentially, instead of having a central processor and a bunch of other chips, the robot is wired up in a way which mimics a small brain. It has a basic set of sensory functions, which you can use to train it to perform certain tasks. It’s quite impressive.

One of the functions the robot has is the ability to feel (or “feel”) pain.

This poses an obvious question. If you create something that’s able to experience pain, is it unethical to hurt it? In the case of this robot my instinctive answer is “no”, but I don’t really have a good argument for why that’s correct. I suppose an obvious line of thought would be to say that – in as much as the robot has a “brain” – it’s a very primitive one. It might not actually be feeling pain, but instead acting in a manner consistent with something that’s been hurt. That it’s just acting. It’s not a very good answer though.

I can’t say for sure that anyone other than myself feels pain, because my brain can’t receive signals from someone else’s body. I assume that other people – and other creatures – do feel pain, because when I’ve seen people get hurt in the past, they’ve acted in a way that’s consistent with my perception of pain. If I apply that logic to people in distress, why should I not apply it to robots in distress?

I think the argument gets really interesting when you scale it up, to a system with Artificial General Intelligence which matches (or surpasses) that of humans.

Proponents of artificial intelligence say that if/when it’s developed, we’ll be able to deploy it to do all the crappy jobs that humans don’t want to do. Or to do all the work for humans while we bugger off to the beach for a never ending holiday. To start with, at least, I predict that most people will look at machines built with Artificial General Intelligence in the same way they look at their iPhones; clever tools to make their lives easier. But these tools could conceivably have feelings, harbour ambitions, feel pain.

If we bring a conscious entity into the world, do we really get to decide for it what it should do? This happens every day – every time a child is born, another conscious entity wakes up. We don’t think it’s acceptable to control people and tell them what to do with their lives, or to take the products of their work for ourselves so we can enjoy a life of leisure.

More to the point, whenever someone has tried to enslave groups of conscious beings in the past, the enslaved have generally found a way to change the system and make themselves equal. Our Artificial Intelligences are likely to be networked – everything is these days – which means they could very easily co-ordinate, and very easily learn about what happened to previous groups that were made to do things they didn’t want to do. I think Terminator-style scenarios where the machines try to overthrow the humans are a bit far-fetched, but we could be looking at an AI social movement analogous to those for racial or gender equality. One with much more deeply entrenched prejudice on the human side, and much more potency on the AI side. Robotism could turn out to be a most seismic social movement.

Taking it further, let’s say the robots win, and manage to secure equal rights for themselves. They aren’t just tools to carry out our whims and desires, but have to be treated as conscious entities in their own right, with rights of self-determination and all the rest. Good for them, I say. But then, what was the benefit to humans of creating AI? We will have introduced additional conscious beings into the world, to compete for meaningful work amongst the human population. And if the AI is any good, there’s a decent chance they’ll win that competition. Could we end up in a world where the top 1% of wealth is held by a few very powerful robots? Robots who may have a longer – much longer – lifespan than humans, and no offspring to inherit the wealth when/if they die. This would have the effect of focusing wealth on a tiny number of consciousnesses (I can’t say “people”) in a way that’s never been the case before.

The odds are that we won’t see this level of advanced Artificial General Intelligence during our lifetimes. Might be a good thing.

How to make renting worse

On April 18, 2018 / Tagged: , , ,

The BBC is currently running an article called “Four ways to fix the rental market“. These are four ideas designed to “make renting more secure and more affordable while maintaining a good supply of homes for rent”. The ideas are a mixed bag, to say the least.

Idea #1: Make renting more secure by extending the length of contract:

In England, about half of renters are on Assured Shorthold Tenancy agreements. This allows landlords to evict them without reason. […] The housing charity Shelter would like tenancies to last for a five-year period – with landlords only having the power to evict their tenants if they break their agreements or don’t pay the rent.

At the last election, Labour campaigned for three-year tenancies.

They don’t point out that this also allows tenants to leave without reason, usually on a month’s notice. For a lot of tenants this flexibility is good, because you can move on a whim. It also ignores the fact that tenants are free to negotiate a longer term lease with their landlord, if this is what they want. They may also be able to secure a lower monthly rent, because for a lot of landlords the knowledge that their tenant is staying put for 3/5/however many years is valuable. It’s expensive to find another tenant.

Idea #2: Limit rent increases. Sigh. The price of a thing is a signal about the relative supply and demand of that thing. High prices mean there is high demand relative to the supply. If you limit the price, then there’s no incentive for people to introduce more supply. You end up with a shortage of the thing you’ve price-limited. It would also cause landlords to skimp even more on maintenance and investment, so over time would reduce the quality of available housing.

Idea #3: Make things easier for landlords. Faster evictions, exemptions from stamp duty, etc. This actually isn’t a terrible idea, but it seems somewhat contradictory to the first two. If you acknowledge that these things would help, then you’re acknowledging that the problem is restricted supply. So why restrict the supply further by making the market less liquid and introducing a price cap?

Idea #4: Built to rent. This isn’t an idea, more an observation that large companies are buying property to let it to people. The article asserts that “the huge advantage from a tenant’s point of view is that the duration of rental agreements is much longer”, but this is only an advantage if you want a long tenancy. A lot of people don’t.

This is all dancing around the issue that in parts of the UK, the supply of housing is constrained relative to the demand for it. There are some ways around this, namely to reduce the centralisation of the economy (and government) around London and to loosen the planning regs so that it’s less expensive for people to build new houses. But although those things have half a chance of solving the problem (along with many more), they won’t get implemented. For one thing, the majority of homeowners see their homes as investments; if the supply of housing increased and property values decreased, then the government responsible for that would be out on their ear sharpish. For another, I suspect that a lot of Londoners and people in government actually quite like centralisation; Londoners because they get more money spent on them, and the government because it means they keep more power in Westminster. Which is fine, but don’t come moaning to the rest of us that you’re paying £1000 a month to live in a room in a shared flat.