Monthly Archives: November 2012

The future of tribalism

Introduction

I often cite tribalism as a powerful force in determining how technology plays out. Tribalism conveys obvious evolutionary advantages and has become deeply ingrained in human nature. Even when there weren’t many humans, they used to fight each other for control of resources, and for other kinds of power too. Those that were successful are our ancestors; their genes survived. As individuals in a difficult world, people may not have survived well. In groups they did, and the best groups survived best. It’s very useful to have others who will help protect you and your family’s interests.

Tribalism has a dark side of course. I lived in Belfast throughout ‘the troubles’,  (a mixed-motivation tribal conflict of Irish and catholic v British and protestant, and people not fitting neatly into that often found themselves disliked by both sides. Recently, as immigration has increased, it is sadly evolving into racism.) It is holding Africa back, and the Middle East, and the Far East. In fact, most of the world suffers some significant manifestation of tribal conflict.

Clearly tribal forces can bring potential benefits and potential damage, and they need to be managed, carefully.

If the good side of tribalism is fostered, it brings benefits. In Europe, the EU’s greatest legacy has been its moderation of tribal conflict by harnessing combined efforts to common goals – we all want peace and prosperity. In the USA, this approach has evolved into a strong patriotic feeling that greatly helps maintain the economy, and peace and security. Regional tribalism seems to be useful.

I think though that the right balance is hard to achieve. Too much, wars happen; too little, things fall apart. Misdirected and mismanaged, other problems occur – rioting, abuse, exploitation, a long list.

The redefining of ‘racism’

In a modern world where there is no need to compete for basic existence, we can and should put ethnic tribalism aside – the many different races may look different but are barely distinguishable genetically and modern races are biologically irrelevant. The abuse of people just because they have a different skin colour is wrong, and thankfully is gradually becoming a thing of the past. Most decent people would want to keep it there. Nobody wants to be accused of being a racist, which has become one of the worst insults that can be thrown at someone. I’d think that was a good thing if the meaning of ‘racist’ stayed the same.

However, the meaning of racism has evolved, especially in the last decade, from being just about skin colour, to include any distinction based on skin colour, geography of residence or birth, religion, or even lifestyle choice. That to me is going too far. I certainly want  people to live peacefully side by side as far as possible, but I don’t see that that means all cultures and attitudes have to be considered equal. They aren’t. If for example, a national or religious group mistreats women or children,  I don’t respect that. It is wrong to mistreat women and children. We should be free to say so. Discrimination against wrong ideologies and attitudes is appropriate and is not racist, even if the incidence in a particular race is higher than in another. We must clearly separate race issues from ideological, political and behavioural ones. However, there are frequent attempts to blur them instead with more and more groups trying to wave a race card to get extra political leverage. Sadly, as other things are added under the race banner, its original meaning is diluted, and its value will inevitably fall as a consequence. When everything is classed as racist, nobody will care any more and it will have lost its force.

Racism has also expanded to include geographic region rather than race. People certainly are tribal about where they live, but that doesn’t make them racist. Nationalism and patriotism are not at all the same as racism. It isn’t just the UK as a whole  that is seeing increasing geographic tribal forces and desire to leave the EU. Within the UK, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Yorkshire, London, and Cornwall have all been looking at the issue of their own separation at some point, recognising their own tribal distinctions. Catalonia too. Geographic tribalism is just one dimension and apart from Rotherham Council and David Cameron, most of us think it is OK. So why are there already problems with making remarks about people who live in different areas, belong to the other tribes? If you want to say Northerners are friendly, I don’t think that is a racist comment, even though it clearly implies that others are less so. But why is it racist to say something about the Scots or Irish or Welsh? Why is it fine to have regional tribes such as the EU, and ones for some sub-areas, but not for others? It makes no sense. None.

The Politically Correct path to 1984 hell

With political correctness, it’s seems as though you get given an even bigger halo if you add even more factors to your list of things you shouldn’t discriminate against. Anti-racism became a general desire for protection of minorities, and has since grown up to become a generic anti-tribalism, and the less tribal you are, the holier. But where does the political correctness road end? It ends only when there is no right or wrong, and you aren’t allowed to say something is right or wrong without being punished. To stop before that is just being arbitrary. Criminals are just another minority, and research is even finding genetic biases for certain criminal behaviours. So if good sense doesn’t reassert itself over political correctness at some point, in the far future, if you want to mug and steal, take drugs, torture your animals to death for dinner, oppress your multiple wives and slaves, and sexually abuse your kids, that would all be fine, since all cultures and creeds must be treated equally. If you disagree, you are just a racist.

To me the biggest problem is the inclusion of religion, making it ‘racist’ and hate crime to criticise other religions. It makes absolutely no sense to me. Religion is about beliefs and people can believe in almost anything. If someone wants to believe something, they should be totally free to do so, and I should be free to say whatever I want about their beliefs. If someone says they genuinely believe 2+2=5, that’s fine with me, but I should be allowed to say they are an idiot and treat them accordingly. I won’t in case it’s a hate crime, but I should be allowed to. If they believe in Dawkins’ Great Spaghetti Monster, or are Jedi, still fine with me, but don’t expect me to support any privileges for them for doing so. Sadly, we’re already half way down that path.

(While we’re on the subject of hate crime, calling someone names just isn’t equivalent to physically assaulting someone or bypassing them for promotion. Growing up in Belfast, I frequently got called every name going with often significant hatred behind it, but I’d been taught the old rhyme about sticks and stones, and the names never did me any harm beyond brief annoyance. Misplaced homophobic abuse I received when I rented a house with some gays just made me laugh – it is hard to take abuse seriously when it comes from such pathetic abusers. Listening to the news the last few months, it seems name calling has become a career-destroying offence, certainly a far worse crime than expenses fraud, deliberate deception, murdering old people or ignoring paedophilia.)

Trying to bury tribalism

PC-devoted liberals in Europe seem to have been trying to bury tribalism completely, to pretend it doesn’t exist, or try to regulate it out of existence as if it is an evil that can be purged. It seems more and more tribal dimensions are to be covered in their extended hate crime category, wrapping it up with race as far as possible. In the UK, this has now reached extremes. The news this week that Rotherham council removed children from their foster parents because they belonged to the UK Independence Party is a good example. They accused the UKIP of racism because they favour focusing efforts on UK interests rather than those outside the UK. So now we have one tribe, Labour, using the power of office, and using innocent children as their weapon of convenience, to force their own tribal views onto members of another tribe, UKIP, with the excuse that that tribe has tribal views.

The real irony of the Rotherham case is that Liberals (and many would include Cameron in that category) are insulting a tribe just because they want to stay a distinct (geographically defined) tribe, i.e. the UK, while simultaneously trying every trick possible to force us all into tribal membership in a European Superstate. So, ‘it is racist if you want to be in your tribe but you must join our tribe and that isn’t racist’.

The lack of proper apologies from those responsible and Cameron saying that he didn’t mean that UKIP are all closet racists, that not all are – it doesn’t look good for the future of freedom of thought, does it?

1984

It is at Rotherham that we really must draw the line. If we don’t reject this style of thinking, if political correctness is to gradually outlaw all of the tribal dimensions, then we may find any political viewpoint except the current state-sanctioned line is labelled as racist. If we’re lucky, we may get an authorised opposition. Then we’ll all be locked in a 1984 hell, treated as cloned slaves belonging to the State.

If that happened, then we’d secretly be conspiring revolution, because people are tribal and most will not behave like that willingly. Then, new technologies will be used that can restrict the ease of conspiring by using more and more surveillance, making it deeper and more personal, eventually thought monitoring and thought control. My evolution chart for the future of humans includes homo zombius around 2075. It is technologically feasible. And socially. And politically.

In the short term, using all too familiar justifications such as crime control, anti-terrorism, and controlling media standards – while extending the rules to social media, government is grabbing more power to control the information we can get hold of, the messages we can spread, and access to technology. Apple recently and unhelpfully patented a system to allow police to turn off smartphones in an area. Government has tried a few times now to introduce screening of every use of communication such as web site access lists, all our messages, all social media and so on. Such measures often get blocked, and then reintroduced, again and again, just like ID cards, or the speed cameras that were meant to be disappearing but are breeding like rabbits. The government says what they want us to hear very loudly, and generally retracts it a week later very quietly. Eventually, the extra surveillance measures will stick. Individually, these can all be explained as sensible approaches to big problems. But they won’t stay in their boxes long. They all give extra power to future authorities, and some of those authorities will have staff like Rotherham social service chiefs.

But tribalism can’t be eliminated

Tribalism is a powerful force in human nature and reasserts itself here and there, from time to time. To deny it or to try to outlaw it is to invite at least as many problems as indulging it. And they will often be harder to deal with than the simple results of tribal conflicts that are usually open to negotiation. There are very many dimensions on which tribal forces can act, thanks to the richness of human culture. Race, gender, age, geography of birth and of residence, political ideology, religious creed, football club support, celebrity following, the list goes on and on. Government can try to block them, but like a river, it can’t stop it, only divert it or dam it for a short time before it spills over.

Football was one of the great diversions of course. Instead of tribes going to war with each other and fields full of corpses, football teams could kick a ball around a while and let of the same tribal pressures. But football is now a major front in the battle against racism, actual skin-colour style racism. I don’t know what that will cause. Will the racism go underground if it doesn’t have an outlet on the terraces, maybe increase BNP support? Who knows? I don’t. Did somehow those involved survive the forces that cured the rest of society of racism, or is it just that too much is being made of the small remnants that survived, perhaps rekindling flames by trying to blow them out? What will be the next phase of it? In Glasgow, the sectarian conflict had an outlet in Rangers v Celtic. Will sectarianism be the next front in the anti-tribalism war? Will that force pressure underground?

Tribal battles are brewing on many other fronts too.

Old people are becoming much more expensive, just as younger people are being fleeced. Those young people will find those older people voting themselves better pensions and health care, which they know won’t be available to those having to pay for them. Intergenerational conflicts are inevitable. The private v public sector battle hasn’t gone away, and will resurface many times over the next decade. The Europhile v Eurosceptic battles are just getting organised. Gay rights issues don’t stop with gay marriage and gender will bring entirely new problems in a decade or two as new genders come on the scene. Body augmentation, mental augmentation and customisation, even artificial intelligence are all fronts for future tribal conflicts.

Even fashion and pop music invoke tribalism. Every school-kid knows the feeling of being verbally or even physically abused because they have a different dress style or make-up style than some other group. Or because they prefer one artist over another. How long before there are demands to label these as hate crimes too? Or is that already history.

Tribalism will never go away. Human culture will continue to evolve, and whole new areas will often be created where tribalism can and will appear. Political correctness can try hard to keep up, but tribalism will outlive it by millennia.

 

Why are old people often the best futurists?

Hiding behind wall in teflon suit for this one!

Since I started my futurology career 21 years ago, it has always been clear that technology can change very fast but social change is slower, and the forces of human nature that guide and moderate both social change and technology adoption barely change at all (until we can start redesigning human nature later this century anyway). This makes futurology easier and much more reliable – interpret any new force of change through the filter of human nature to see how it might materialise, or not, and how it might play out in the rich diversity of human interaction.

Indeed, maybe gaining experience of human nature is a component of what we mean by wisdom – the wise old man has seen more of life and has learned to interpret new forces by looking at the underlying nature that will moderate them. With my old computer modelling hat on, I’d say that your mental model of the world gets richer, more refined, and generally better as you get older, till your brain starts malfunctioning anyway.

Going further still, and perhaps a little provocative, perhaps that also explains why many of the best futurists tend to be in their 60s or 70s, whereas trend trackers tend to be younger. Experience  makes quality of prediction improve, but has little impact on noticing what’s new. Even a fresh graduate can talk about the latest gadgets and breakthroughs, but it needs experience to interpret their long term effects. So futurists should tend to be older whereas trend trackers can be (but don’t have to be) younger. I’m not saying all old futurists are good, nor that all new futurists are bad, just that there is a tendency for individuals to improve continuously until they get very old. Older and wiser, so better at futurology.

I won’t mention names for fear of offending anyone who doesn’t want to be listed as old yet, but by these metrics, I hope to reach my prime as a futurist in a decade or two. I am 52, too old to be young and too young to be old; still enthusiastic about tracking new developments but still learning how to interpret them. I hope I live long enough to get good at it.

Plastic reefs could solve landfill & coastal erosion

Another recycled blog from http://www.nvireuk.com. Recycling ideas makes as much sense as recycling materials. Context moves on and an old idea may come back.

Some of the UK coastline suffers badly from erosion. Many landfill sites are filling up. Plastics can stay around in the environment for hundreds of years, and recycling them isn’t always an ideal solution due to contamination with other materials. Coastal waters are often polluted.

All of these problems could be addressed in part by deploying carbon reefs, made up mainly of plastic refuse. Instead of making concrete blocks to prevent erosion, and bearing in mind the enormous amount of CO2 generated during concrete manufacture, the large plastic bales made at recycling plants could be used instead. If these were dumped into the sea at erosion sites, they would protect just as well as concrete, but would also serve to dispose of low grade plastic waste, locking the carbon up for a long time. The waste could be blended with other sorts of waste too, designing the bales in such a way that pollution is minimised, but density is kept high enough for the bales not to be washed away.

If organic waste is heat treated and carbonised, gas can be extracted during this process that could be used for energy production. The carbonised waste would act to absorb pollutants from the seawater, making a positive contribution to seawater quality. This would make beaches more pleasant for swimmers and also create a healthy environment on which corals and other sea creatures could make a home. In short, a plastic/carbon reef would result. Over time, this could be left as a reef or further dumping could result in reclaimed land.

Ironically, although this idea could help the environment significantly, it would be illegal under current environmental protection legislation, which forbids dumping plastic in the sea. (Since I wrote this, Len Rosen @lenrosen4 informs me that this is not true, see his comment for details, thanks Len). Perhaps it could be circumvented by arguing that it is not dumping, but it isn’t obvious what line of distinction would be used. Environmentalists are once again shown to be enemies of the environment they claim to want to protect. Sad, very sad.

Future of bicycles

Recycled blog from http://nvireuk.com/

Bicycles occupy the peak of the moral high ground as far as environmentalism is concerned because once they are built and delivered, ongoing emissions come almost entirely from the human riding them. While they are certainly good for the environment overall, the picture isn’t quite as clear as is sometimes portrayed and there are some places where the use of bicycles may not be environmentally sensible.

On proper cycle paths, they are certainly a good solution from both a fitness and environmental point of view (hopefully even once the environmental costs of making the cycle paths and the bicycles are factored in). But when mixed with car traffic, they can be very dangerous, with bicycle riders suffering many times more casualties per mile than car drivers. They also force other vehicles to slow down to pass them, and then to accelerate again. On busy narrow roads, this can often cause significant traffic jams. The bicycle may not be directly the cause of the extra consequent emissions from the cars, but from a system wide view, the overall CO2 produced would likely have been less had the cyclist driven a car instead, so this must certainly be taken into account when calculating the impact. The carbon costs of the extra accidents, with the resultant traffic jams and so on, should also be factored in. Accidents have a very high carbon cost as well as a human one.

It won’t take long until almost all cars are driven by computer. By the mid 2020s, we will have a lot of automatically driven cars and substitution will accelerate quickly. These cars will be able to travel much closer together, freeing road space both length and width-wise. This means that more car lanes or wider cycle lanes could be provided. With computers driving the cars, far fewer bicycles would be hit, if any. It is therefore likely that bicycles could be much safer to ride in the future, and because they can be more readily separated from car flow, will be more environmentally friendly, although this advantage is greatly diminished for electric cars. Improving the technology for car transport therefore makes cycling even more environmentally friendly too.

A decent cyclist can ride at 7.5m/s on the flat, less uphill and a bit faster downhill. Suppose that on the tough sections, there was a conveyor belt moving at 7.5m’s. This would reduce overall journey time and the problem of arriving very sweaty at the other end. It would also reduce the speed differential between cyclist and passing traffic, making it safer to ride. With a conventional conveyor belt, this looks a ridiculous idea, because the first falling leaf would clog the system up, rain would cause havoc, cars encroaching onto the path would cause mechanical stress because of the speed differential between a conveyor and the road surface, and pedestrians would also try to step onto it and cause yet more havoc. The idea is a non-starter.

Linear induction motors though can propel metal without using moving parts (apart from the metal being propelled of course). Suppose we add a metal plate to the bike, close to the road surface, and put linear induction motors in the cycle lane.  With no moving parts in the conveyor, there would be no problem with clogging, rain, cars or pedestrians.

Many roads have good electrical supplies along them in ducting or even more accessibly in street lighting. If it can be developed cost effectively, this would be a good way of encouraging cycling as a viable transport solution, and reducing carbon production, with beneficial effects on health too.

The cycle lane itself could comprise a heavy duty rubber mat that could be simply rolled out overnight along a roadside and plugged in to the electric supply. This would be easier than having to paint a new path. It can be rolled out piecemeal according to demand. On the bike, there would be a cheap metal plate attached to the front forks so that the bike could be pulled along. It can easily be designed to deflect easily if it hits debris on the surface, so that the cyclist isn’t threatened.

The amount of extra force given to the cyclist could be variable. Bicycles could be given RFID chips to identify them and the personal tastes of that cyclist indulged alongside billing. Some people might want lots of assistance or to go very fast, other want less assistance or to go slower. Since induction plates can be individually controlled, and the bicycle plates can also be tweaked for height or inductance, it is easily customisable in real time.

Mechanical energy is very cheap, whereas the effort required to cycle long distances or up hills is a strong deterrent to many potential cyclists – they are not all super fit! Given the human body’s poor efficiency in converting food into mechanical energy, it is likely to be very competitive in emissions terms even for cycling, let alone compared to using cars.

The future of parliamentary corruption

Some MPs are fine upstanding people who are a credit to our nation and deserve nothing but our thanks and praise. However, it seems that some have been found with their greedy snouts  still firmly in the trough. When they were caught stealing by The Telegraph a few years ago, they tried to hide behind secrecy, then pretended it was a OK because it was ‘within the rules’, and when that didn’t work, that it was ‘a mistake’. Many MPs were shown up, hardly worthy of titles like ‘the honourable…’. The leaders promised to clean the expenses system up, but didn’t, as has now become clear. Once again, dirty deeds and corruption have been exposed, and once again they have tried to hide behind secrecy, then behind ‘the rules’ and presumably some soon will admit to ‘mistakes’.

The party leaders are not helpless and are only showing that they are also unfit for office by not acting. Rules are irrelevant, the principle is very simple. Only those of the highest calibre of behaviour should be permitted to make laws that must be followed by everyone else. MPs should behave in the decent and honest manner expected by (and of) their electors. If they see gaps in the rules, they should be closing them, not trying their best to squeeze through them to feather their nests. MPs should not be doing their best to steal from the taxpayer. Using loopholes to take money to which they know they are not truly entitled is theft. The letter of the law should not be an issue. We have a right to expect our lawmakers to obey its intent.

So, what could be done?

Firstly, it is very much harder to find loopholes in general principles than in detailed regulations. A good start would be for the party leaders to say that everyone in a party must behave in a dignified and honest manner, with integrity and honour. Ordinary people are perfectly able to understand what that means, and much of the current behaviour that has been covered falls far outside any sensible interpretation of it. Those MPs found guilty should be expelled from the party to which they have brought shame, and no candidate should be accepted without fully signing up to that principle. This should be done by all the party leaders. Much as staff in industry are exposed to an annual appraisal where they are assessed against common standards and their performance graded accordingly, so MPs could be assessed by their party leaders. If they are later exposed as corrupt, those leaders would have to shoulder some of the blame. No party should allow its members to exploit the taxpayer, and certainly should not allow any of its MPs to climb to cabinet level while behaving badly. MPs are very generously paid, and very well treated, and have no excuse for playing greedy games.

Secondly, MPs should not be able to hide their affairs on spurious grounds of security, as some are being permitted to at the moment. If there is any argument or even a just reason to hide them from the general public, then a committee of truly independent ‘good men and true’, perhaps including some from the Taxpayers’ Alliance should subject them to an even more intense scrutiny and the results should be made public. In fact, the TA should be part of any committee set up to agree expenses, to avoid repeats of the recent farce surrounding the IPSA. Only a zero tolerance approach will get rid of corruption.

Thirdly, there seems to be an attitude among those guilty that they are somehow better than other people, that they should be above the law, or entitled to more, and this is likely the root cause of the abuses. This attitude needs to be purged. An MP is elected to represent the views of the members of their constituency. At base level, it is essentially a secretarial job. In some committees it may be elevated to a management job and at cabinet level it could reasonably be equated to senior management or professional work. There is no justification in treating MPs differently from management or professional groups in industry. They should claim expenses on the same basis and with the same restrictions and administrative hassles that anyone in private industry does.  

In particular, being an elected representative is not at all the same as being a leader or a king, and to discourage self serving, the role should come without privilege. MPs are not our leaders, merely servants. They should be expected to commute the same as everyone, not to take it as a right to live close to parliament in expensive apartments or to travel first class. If it is cheaper to buy an apartment than to pay rent, then some apartments should be bought by government and rented out at fair rates to those that need them. Any MP with any home within reasonable commute distance of parliament should not be entitled to any subsidy or paid rent to acquire one any closer.

So I don’t think it is difficult to find solutions to the problems we see. You may not like my suggestions, but that is all they are, and wiser or greater people should be able to come with solutions at least as good, but they certainly cannot suggest that it can’t be solved.

But that is just for now anyway. In the longer term we really should consider going right back to the fundamental purpose of MPs, i.e. representing our views, and consider whether we should really replace most of them with AIs to acts as a filtered form of direct democracy. We ought always to keep final decisions vetted by humans, for fairly obvious reasons, but that could be a very small panel, and could work a bit like the upper house does today, pushing stuff back for a rethink if it looks bad, or like the Supreme Court, or another system TBA. Eliminating most of the humans eliminates most of the potential for corruption and restores fuller accountability and transparency.

Police commissioners. I just don’t see the point.

Rant warning: No futurology ahead, just rant.

What a fiasco! Who was the twit who decided we all must have police commissioners and worse still must all decide who they are, as if we haven’t enough to think about already? This isn’t Batman, I don’t live in Gotham City, except occasionally on my Xbox! We already have a well paid home secretary who is meant to get the well paid police to do what they are paid for. Why should we have a different kind of police in Suffolk to what they have in Essex. Surely nobody wants crime in their area, and nobody wants their police to spend all their time chasing twitter users rather than proper villains just because they are easier to catch. And I certainly don’t want the behaviour of police in my area decided by other people with some local axe to grind, I’d much rather have exactly the same as everywhere else in the country please. I just don’t get it, and neither do the 85% of the population who also didn’t bother to vote, and it is a safe bet many who did were only doing so out of some sense of democratic duty. I just hope that the people that voted aren’t just all the busybodies who want police interfering in everything. I don’t want a police commissioner and I feel sure we’d be better off without them.

What’s next? Do we vote on head of regional rail authority,  the head of the local post office, the head of cleaning staff at the local hospital, someone to decide on the decor on the bin lorries? I don’t see why policing is any different. If chief constables need to be told what they should be doing, they should be replaced by someone more competent.

Any local special priorities ought to be obvious to chief constables. They presumably live in the area and know how it differs from other regions, if at all. If the chief constable is showing a bias or a bias towards a particular political affiliation, gender, sexuality or ethnic group then they should be replaced. We shouldn’t need a commissioner to do that. The police on the telly always know what they are meant to be doing. Significant numbers of complaints to a local MP, escalated through the channels to home secretary if need be would work just fine. When government is meant to be struggling to decide over spending cut targets, we shouldn’t be creating yet more unnecessary but expensive public sector jobs.

Argh! Rant over.

Starbucks isn’t wrong to avoid tax, the law is wrong. A universal payment tax would fix it.

Tax avoidance is in the news a lot at the moment. Maybe that is partly because tax as it is now is seen to be unfair and unjust so people feel less bad about trying to avoid it.  In response, the idiots in charge of our taxing seem to think they should ask people and companies to pay taxes voluntarily.

Companies usually exist to make money, and it would be bad management to voluntarily pay more tax anywhere than is required by law. The world offers a wide range of tax regimes and of course a multinational corporation will do its best to exploit the different rates. But governments are meant to be in charge of law, that’s what they are for. It is their job to ensure that the law is fair and that everyone has to pay their share of taxes. But they aren’t doing that at all well. Governments are at fault, not companies or individuals that choose to pay the (creatively) legal minimum. The tax net may be full of holes, and companies are walking through them, but it is government that designed, made and maintains the net. 

Companies such as Starbucks can legally avoid paying UK tax by paying fees for licenses, use of the brand name and other intellectual property to overseas companies in low tax areas. The value and price of intellectual property can be set at pretty much any arbitrary level, and it can be moved around the world instantly so it is an especially useful tool for tax avoidance schemes. We have been in the information economy for decades now, and it is a reflection of competence and extreme sluggishness of the tax authorities that tax law hasn’t kept up. Starbucks have paid their due taxes, there is just a huge mismatch between what is due and what should be due in a competent tax regime.

It isn’t an impossible task to tax properly. There are lots of ways of taxing things so that all companies pay a fair contribution. The situation now is simply ridiculous and government should pick a mechanism and implement it quickly.

The most obvious perhaps is that the government could regulate that all companies must pay tax on the same proportion of their global profits as the proportion of their revenue that is earned in the UK. And that must include web sales and downloads, and most importantly, any intellectual property such as licenses. If Starbucks buys licenses to operate in their particular way, the license sellers would pay the appropriate taxes on the corresponding proportion of their global profits too.

Of course, that would get complicated if overseas suppliers could simply refuse to pay or even to surrender data on their accounts. But that can be solved by allowing accountants to offset purchases only from licensed companies. The responsibility to either pay the tax themselves, or buy from someone also paying tax here would then stay with Starbucks.

Another way of ensuring companies pay proper tax would be to demand payments based on an industry average cost pattern. This would be subject to arguments and would be more complex so would be more expensive to administer.

A third way is using a purchase tax in place of corporation tax. Every company would pay the purchase tax on everything they buy. If it appears as a cost on the UK balance sheet, purchase tax must be paid on it. What a company does overseas should be of no concern of the UK authorities, but if they want to put a UK operating license from a subsidiary or partner on their UK accounts, tax must be paid on it. If this tax is set at the right level so that the total government tax take stays the same overall, the economy should benefit through simplicity and administrative cost reduction.

It is possible to have different tax levels for different kinds of purchase, exceptions, special cases and so on, but each paragraph of extra regulation is another than can be interpreted and used by creative accountants and lawyers.

One of the implications of having a simple purchase tax is that there is a huge incentive to simplify the value chain into as few links as possible. If money is taxed each time it leaves a company, then having fewer company boundaries in the value chain would be cheaper. Keeping as much of the value chain in house as possible would reduce this, but there would be strong pressure to allow reclaiming of purchase taxes across boundaries in the value chain. Of course, that is getting quite close to what VAT is, and we are all familiar with that already. Companies collect VAT on their sales and claim back VAT on purchases. It therefore doesn’t discriminate against companies on the basis of value chain design. It just collects tax on the difference in value between the raw materials and finished products.

So, why not abolish corporation tax entirely and switch to a refined version of VAT, at a higher rate if need be? Why indeed. This refined VAT would be payable on all purchases, from anywhere, but we could modify it so it could still be reclaimed by businesses for purchase from other UK VAT paying suppliers. The important thing is notionally to seal the borders so that all purchases in the UK are taxed. I am not personally in favour of making this refined VAT reclaimable, I think that draws an unjustifiable distinction between companies and individuals that can then be exploited by company owners and is the source of much tax evasion even today. I think facilitating virtual companies and optimising end to end value chain design is the best approach.

Extending this approach, why not also replace income tax and national insurance by a sort of VAT on salary? That would amount to a flat tax, but people who get paid more would pay more tax too, and that in itself is already an improvement to today. If this VAT also was applied to payment of dividends, capital gains, bank interest, inheritance and all other forms of payments, then the person on the ordinary payroll would pay the same rate as the owner of the company, someone selling their shares, the shareholders, inheritors, everyone. What’s not to like? Rich people pay more, poor people pay less. Everything is simple, all loopholes removed. All outgoings from companies taxed at the same level, and all forms of income ditto. A single page of tax law to replace 18000 pages. People living off shore wouldn’t escape any more because their UK-sourced income is taxed at its UK point of payment. Their income from other countries is the affair of those other countries. Just like usually happens today, the money is taxed when coming into the company as a sale, and once when paid out to someone as wages or dividends. But twice would be a huge improvement on the hundreds of times money is taxed today via all the hidden taxes. This revised system would be far simpler and more transparent and if it is kept simple and transparent, with no added loopholes, people would see its fairness. The more secure net means that everyone would pay less tax except those who had previously been avoiding it.

A wannabe tax-avoiding ‘consultant’ might arrange to work for free in the UK, with no UK payments to be taxed, paid instead by an offshore company into an off-shore account, but to avoid tax, that money would need to have come from an overseas operation. If it came from UK profits, it would have been taxed when the money came into the company, and again when it was paid out to the overseas one. People paid by overseas companies out of overseas money are not the UK’s affair. As far as the UK is concerned, they are working for free.

Smarter people than I have calculated that we’d need to set the rate to take about 20% of each transaction. Just a bit more than VAT already is then (VAT adds 20% on so takes 20/120ths=16.67%). So, if that is right, and we seal all the holes and charge it on everything, we can all look forward to a country with no other taxes except a slightly refined form of VAT, that is paid on everything.

So it wouldn’t matter how you got your money. 20% would be paid when you are given it and on any interest the banks pay you on the remaining 80% from saving it. When you spend it, another 20% is gone, leaving 64% of actual value. This compares favourably with today where hundreds of taxes hide away unobserved. They should all go.

I am greatly in favour of the simplicity this offers, but it isn’t without problems. What about selling shares, or houses? If you have to pay 20% on the full cost every time you buy a new house that would greatly penalise people who move often. It also cripples the stock market if people pay 20% each time they swap shares. People would demand exceptions, but each time exceptions are created, new opportunities to avoid tax arise, that can be exploited by clever accountants. So any exceptions would have to be few and well designed with tax avoidance avoidance in mind.

Wind farm compensation claims undermine their investment potential.

I don’t make many recommendations on investments, but when something comes along that has clear effects, I sometimes do. I am not a financial adviser, and you aren’t paying for my advice, so I make my argument as a futurist and you make your own decision whether to take it on board or not. I take no responsibility for your financial decision, though please feel free to pass on any credit.

I have often advised against anything other than very short term investment in the green industry, and still do. It is volatile at best, with many bankruptcies already, and shows especially poor long term prospects as the poor quality science underpinning it is shown up for what it is – often worthless and counter-productive. This time it is even clearer to me. Avoid investing in wind farms, even more than yesterday.  Here’s why.

Finally there is a proper peer-reviewed scientific study proving what most people suspected already, that wind farms cause health problems and depression in people living near them. Easy-to-read summary of the key bits in the Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/energy/windpower/9653429/Wind-farm-noise-does-harm-sleep-and-health-say-scientists.html

The study’s finding were about sleep loss and increased depression, both of which were found to be much greater in communities close to wind turbines. However, these are both known to cause other serious health problems and reduce life expectancy. Suicide links with depression too, so there may also be a measurable impact on suicide rate near wind farms, another study waiting to be done. If as has been proven, wind farms cause loss of sleep and depression, it is therefore reasonable to expect a scientific study to prove a link between wind farms and serious health problems and even early death or suicide.

Separately, the industry has tried to bury and misrepresent the conclusions of a previous proper study that showed their negative effects on house prices. The results however remain valid, there is a proven effect. Erecting a wind farm lowers nearby property values.

Where people have their health or their financial state damaged by a company, and in this case often both, it surely can’t be long before class action suits follow for damages. Once the courts and claim companies get past dealing with the PPI mis-selling compensation claims, there will likely be another swathe based on loss of house value and damage to health attributed to proximity to wind farms.

What is less clear is whether the taxpayer will have to fork out instead. Since the proof of damage is recent, earlier ones could be except from reasonable blame. Since the farms have been commissioned by government, government might be considered to blame and the farm owners and manufacturers only liable for extras caused by specific circumstances or specific designs. Those who recommended, commissioned, housed, built and ran the farms, and who received all the financial benefits even in full knowledge of the harm they were causing, can be expected to deny any wrongdoing and to try to shift blame to avoid  facing the consequences. The taxpayer might well have to pick up much of the bill for damage done in spite of protesting loudly and being ignored all along. However, it will be a brave investor who ignores the risk that justice might actually work against the guilty parties. Justice happens sometimes.

My conclusion is simple: wind farms are now proven to cause damage to property value and health and large compensation claims are likely to follow sometime. Further scientific studies are likely to add weight to the evidence, making compensation payouts highly likely, and there is no provision for this in the tariff guarantees. In the extreme, farms could even be forced to close, eradicating future income (and related production-related tariffs) while leaving the up-front costs and there is no certainty that government will compensate farms for the loss. These prospects therefore obviously damage the value of investments in wind farms.