Category Archives: taxation

A poem for the royal baby, Wossername

I read that the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy won’t write a poem for the new royal baby, so that creates a wonderful vacuum for the rest of us to fill. I’ve always enjoyed writing silly rhymes. I don’t like the monarchy, but I’m no Poet Laureate either, so they cancel and make it appropriate for me to write and get back in fun a little of what I have to shell out in taxes to support them.

In fairness, as with any other new baby, I wish them all well. The new princess didn’t choose to be royal any more than you or I. This ‘poem’ reflects on the outdated principle of the monarchy rather than the personal.


An ode to Princess Wossername

Two point seven new babies per second,

The world produces, so it’s reckoned

They may be born to rich or poor

Whiter, blacker, browner, bluer


Now one has come to Wills and Kate

Her whole life paid for by the state

A posher form of welfare sure

A form of exploitation pure


The kings and queens of ages old

Got rich by winning battles bold

They had to risk the chop or Tower

To get their bloodied hands on power


Now silver spoon and golden chalice

Fancy gown and finest palace

Are paid for out of hard-won tax

Squeezed from subjects to the max


So what sets this new girl apart

From cleaner, doctor, maid or tart?

What justifies her life of ease

Her right to wealth instead of fleas?


I do not know the answer there

It seems to me a bit unfair

That she’ll be given so much more

Than babies born through other doors


It’s time to stop this royal scam

While she’s confined within her pram

To treat like any other wain

This little Princess Wossername


possibly helpful note: wain is scottish slang for ‘child’


How to decide green policies

Many people in officialdom seem to love putting ticks in boxes. Apparently once all the boxes are ticked, a task can be put in the ‘mission accomplished’ cupboard and forgotten about. So watching some of the recent political debate in the run-up to our UK election, it occurred to me that there must be groups of people discussing ideas for policies and then having meetings to decide whether they tick the right boxes to be included in a manifesto. I had some amusing time thinking about how a meeting might go for the Green Party. A little preamble first.

I could write about any of the UK parties I guess. Depending on your choice of media nicknames, we have the Nasty Party, the Fruitcake Racist Party, the Pedophile Empathy Party, the Pedophile and Women Molesting Party, the National Suicide Party (though they get their acronym in the wrong order) and a few Invisible Parties. OK, I invented some of those based on recent news stories of assorted facts and allegations and make no assertion of any truth in any of them whatsoever. The Greens are trickier to nickname – ‘The Poverty and Oppression Maximization, Environmental Destruction, Economic Collapse, Anti-science, Anti-fun and General Misery Party’ is a bit of a mouthful. I like having greens around, just so long as they never win control. No matter how stupid a mistake I might ever make, I’ll always know that greens would have made a worse one.

So what would a green policy development meeting might be like? I’ll make the obvious assumption that the policies don’t all come from the Green MP. Like any party, there are local groups of people, presumably mostly green types in the wider sense of the word, who produce ideas to feed up the ladder. Many won’t even belong to any official party, but still think of themselves as green. Some will have an interest mainly in socialism, some more interested in environmentalism, most will be a blend of the two. And to be fair, most of them will be perfectly nice people who want to make the world a better place, just like the rest of us. I’ve met a lot of greens, and we do agree at least on motive even if I think they are wrong on most of their ideas of how to achieve the goals. We all want world peace and justice, a healthy environment and to solve poverty and oppression. The main difference between us is deciding how best to achieve all that.

So I’ll look at green debate generally as a source of the likely discussions, rather than any actual Green Party manifesto, even though that still looks pretty scary. To avoid litigation threats and keep my bank balance intact, I’ll state that this is only a personal imagining of what might go into such green meetings, and you can decide for yourself how much it matches up to the reality. It is possible that the actual Green Party may not actually run this way, and might not support some of the policies I discuss, which are included in this piece based on wider green debate, not the Green Party itself. Legal disclaimers in place, I’ll get on with my imagining:

Perhaps there might be some general discussion over the welcome coffee about how awful it is that some nasty capitalist types make money and there might be economic growth, how terrible it is that scientists keep discovering things and technologists keep developing them, how awful it is that people are allowed to disbelieve in a global warming catastrophe and still be allowed to roam free and how there should be a beautiful world one day where a green elite is in charge, the population has been culled down to a billion or two and everyone left has to do everything they say on pain of imprisonment or death. After coffee, the group migrates to a few nice recycled paper flip-charts to start filling them with brainstormed suggestions. Then they have to tick boxes for each suggestion to filter out the ones not dumb enough to qualify. Then make a nice summary page with the ones that get all the boxes ticked. So what boxes do they need? And I guess I ought to give a few real examples as evidence.

Environmental destruction has to be the first one. Greens must really hate the environment, since the majority of green policies damage it, but they manage to get them implemented via cunning marketing to useful idiots to persuade them that the environment will benefit. The idiots implement them thinking the environment will benefit, but it suffers.  Some quick examples:

Wind turbines are a big favorite of greens, but planted on peat bogs in Scotland, the necessary roads cause the bogs to dry out, emitting vast quantities of CO2 and destroying the peat ecosystem. Scottish wind turbines also kill eagles and other birds.

In the Far East, many bogs have been drained to grow palm oil for biofuels, another green favorite that they’ve managed to squeeze into EU law. Again, vast quantities of CO2, and again ecosystem destruction.

Forests around the world have been cut down to make room for palm oil plantations too, displacing local people, destroying an ecosystem to replace it with one to meet green fuel targets.

Still more forests have been cut down to enable new ones to be planted to cash in on  carbon offset schemes to keep corporate greens happy that they can keep flying to all those green conferences without feeling guilt. More people displaced, more destruction.

Staying with biofuels, a lot of organic waste from agriculture is converted to biofuels instead of ploughing it back into the land. Soil structure therefore deteriorates, damaging ecosystem and damaging future land quality. CO2 savings by making the bio-fuel are offset against locking the carbon up in soil organic matter so there isn’t much benefit even there, but the damage holds.

Solar farms are proliferating in the UK, often occupying prime agricultural land that really ought to be growing food for the many people in the world still suffering from malnutrition. The same solar panels could have been sent to otherwise useless desert areas in a sunny country and used to displace far more fossil fuels and save far more CO2 without reducing food production. Instead, people in many African countries have to use wood stoves favored by greens as sustainable, but which produce airborne particles that greatly reduce health. Black carbon resulting from open wood fires also contributes directly to warming.

Many of the above policy effects don’t just tick the environmental destruction box, but also the next ones poverty and oppression maximization. Increasing poverty resulted directly from increasing food prices as food was grown to be converted into bio-fuel. Bio-fuels as first implemented were a mind-numbingly stupid green policy. Very many of the world’s poorest people have been forcefully pushed out of their lands and into even deeper poverty to make space to grow bio-fuel crops. Many have starved or suffered malnutrition. Entire ecosystems have been destroyed, forests replaced, many animals pushed towards extinction by loss of habitat. More recently, even greens have realized the stupidity and these polices are slowly being fixed.

Other green policies see economic development by poor people as a bad thing because it increases their environmental footprint. The poor are therefore kept poor. Again, their poverty means they can’t use modern efficient technology to cook or keep warm, they have to chop trees to get wood to burn, removing trees damages soil integrity, helps flooding, burning them produces harmful particles and black carbon to increase warming. Furthermore, with too little money to buy proper food, some are forced to hunt or buy bushmeat, endangering animal species and helping to spread viruses between closely genetically-related animals and humans.

So a few more boxes appear. All the above polices achieved pretty much the opposite of what they presumably intended, assuming the people involved didn’t actually want to destroy the world. Maybe a counterproductive box needs to be ticked too.

Counterproductive links well to another of the green’s apparent goals, of economic collapse. They want to stop economic growth. They want to reduce obsolescence.  Obsolescence is the force that drives faster and faster progress towards devices that give us a high quality of life with a far lower environmental impact, with less resource use, lower energy use, and less pollution. If you slow obsolescence down because green dogma says it is a bad thing, all those factors worsen. The economy also suffers. The economy suffers again if energy prices are deliberately made very high by adding assorted green levies such as carbon taxes, or renewable energy subsidies.  Renewable energy subsidies encourage more oppression of people who really don’t want wind turbines nearby, causing them stress and health problems, disrupting breeding cycles of small wild animals in the areas, reducing the value of people’s homes, while making the companies that employ hem less able to compete internationally, so increasing bankruptcy, redundancy and making even more poverty. Meanwhile the rich wind farm owners are given lots of money from poor people who are forced to buy their energy and pay higher taxes for the other half of their subsidy. The poor take all the costs, the rich take all the benefits. That could be another box to tick, since it seems pretty universal in green policy So much for  policies that are meant to be socialist! Green manifesto policies would make some of these problems far worse still. Business would be strongly loaded with extra costs and admin, and the profits they can still manage to make would be confiscated to pay for the ridiculous spending plans. With a few Greens in power, damage will be limited and survivable. If they were to win control, our economy would collapse totally in a rapidly accelerating debt spiral.

Greens hate science and technology, another possible box to tick. I once chatted to one of the Green leaders (I do go to environmental events sometimes if I think I can help steer things in a more logical direction), and was told ‘the last thing we need is more science’. But it is science and technology that makes us able to live in extreme comfort today alongside a healthy environment. 100 years ago, pollution was terrible. Rivers caught fire. People died from breathing in a wide variety of pollutants. Today, we have clean water and clean air. Thanks to increasing CO2 levels – and although CO2 certainly does contribute to warming, though not as much as feared by warmist doom-mongers, it also has many positive effects – there is more global greenery today than decades ago. Plants thrive as CO2 levels increase so they are growing faster and healthier. We can grow more food and forests can recover faster from earlier green destruction.

The greens also apparently have a box that ‘prevents anyone having any fun’. Given their way, we’d be allowed no meat, our homes would all have to be dimly lit and freezing cold, we’d have to walk everywhere or wait for buses in the rain. Those buses would still burn diesel fuel, which kills thousands of people every year via inhalation of tiny particulates. When you get anywhere, you’d have to use ancient technologies that have to be fixed instead of replaced. You’d have to do stuff that doesn’t use much energy or involve eating anything nice, going anywhere nice because that would involve travel and travel is bad, except for greens, who can go to as many international conferences as they want.

So if the greens get their way, if people are dumb enough to fall for promises of infinite milk and honey for all, all paid for by taxing 3 bankers, then the world we’d live in would very quickly have a devastated environment, a devastated economy, a massive transfer of wealth from the poor to a few rich people, enormous oppression, increasing poverty, decreasing health, no fun at all. In short, with all the above boxes checked, the final summary box to get the policy into manifesto must be ‘increases general misery‘.

An interesting list of boxes to tick really. It seems that all truly green policies must:

  1. Cause environmental destruction
  2. Increase poverty and oppression
  3. Be counterproductive
  4. Push towards economic collapse
  5. Make the poor suffer all the costs while the rich (and Green elite) reap the benefits
  6. Impede further science and technology development
  7. Prevent anyone having fun
  8. Lead to general misery

This can’t be actually how they run their meetings I suppose: unless they get someone from outside with a working brain to tick the boxes, the participants would need to have some basic understanding of the actual likely consequences of their proposals and to be malign, and there is little evidence to suggest any of them do understand, and they are mostly not malign. Greens are mostly actually quite nice people, even the ones in politics, and I do really think they believe in what they are doing. Their hearts are usually in the right place, it’s just that their brains are missing or malfunctioning. All of the boxes get ticked, it’s just unintentionally.

I rest my case.




Citizen wage and why under 35s don’t need pensions

I recently blogged about the citizen wage and how under 35s in developed countries won’t need pensions. I cut and pasted it below this new pic for convenience. The pic contains the argument so you don’t need to read the text.

Economic growth makes citizen wage feasible and pensions irrelevant

Economic growth makes citizen wage feasible and pensions irrelevant

If you do want to read it as text, here is the blog cut and pasted:

I introduced my calculations for a UK citizen wage in, and I wrote about the broader topic of changing capitalism a fair bit in my book Total Sustainability. A recent article reminded me of my thoughts on the topic and having just spoken at an International Longevity Centre event, ageing and pensions were in my mind so I joined a few dots. We won’t need pensions much longer. They would be redundant if we have a citizen wage/universal wage.

I argued that it isn’t economically feasible yet, and that only a £10k income could work today in the UK, and that isn’t enough to live on comfortably, but I also worked out that with expected economic growth, a citizen wage equal to the UK average income today (£30k) would be feasible in 45 years. That level will sooner be feasible in richer countries such as Switzerland, which has already had a referendum on it, though they decided they aren’t ready for such a change yet. Maybe in a few years they’ll vote again and accept it.

The citizen wage I’m talking about has various names around the world, such as universal income. The idea is that everyone gets it. With no restrictions, there is little running cost, unlike today’s welfare which wastes a third on admin.

Imagine if everyone got £30k each, in today’s money. You, your parents, kids, grandparents, grand-kids… Now ask why you would need to have a pension in such a system. The answer is pretty simple. You won’t.  A retired couple with £60k coming in can live pretty comfortably, with no mortgage left, and no young kids to clothe and feed. Let’s look at dates and simple arithmetic:

45 years from now is 2060, and that is when a £30k per year citizen wage will be feasible in the UK, given expected economic growth averaging around 2.5% per year. There are lots of reasons why we need it and why it is very likely to happen around then, give or take a few years – automation, AI, decline of pure capitalism, need to reduce migration pressures, to name just a few

Those due to retire in 2060 at age 70 would have been born in 1990. If you were born before that, you would either need a small pension to make up to £30k per year or just accept a lower standard of living for a few years. Anyone born in 1990 or later would be able to stop working, with no pension, and receive the citizen wage. So could anyone else stop and also receive it. That won’t cause economic collapse, since most people will welcome work that gives them a higher standard of living, but you could just not work, and just live on what today we think of as the average wage, and by then, you’ll be able to get more with it due to reducing costs via automation.

So, everyone after 2060 can choose to work or not to work, but either way they could live at least comfortably. Anyone less than 25 today does not need to worry about pensions. Anyone less than 35 really doesn’t have to worry much about them, because at worst they’ll only face a small shortfall from that comfort level and only for a few years. I’m 54, I won’t benefit from this until I am 90 or more, but my daughter will.


Are you under 25 and living in any developed country? Then don’t pay into a pension, you won’t need one.

Under 35, consider saving a little over your career, but only enough to last you a few years.

Diesel – 4.4 times more deaths than by road accidents

In Dec 2010, the UK government released a report estimating that air pollution causes a ‘mortality burden’ of 340,000 years of life spread over an affected population of 200,000, equivalent to about 29,000 deaths each year in the UK, or a drop in average life expectancy across the whole population of 6 months. It also costs the NHS £27B per year. See:

There is no more recent report as yet, although the figures in it refer to 2008.

Particulate matter (PM) is the worst offender and diesel engines are one of the main sources of PM, but they also emit some of the other offenders. COMEAP estimates that a quarter of PM-related deaths are caused by diesel engines, 7250 lives per year. Some of the PM comes from private vehicles. To save regeneration costs, some diesel drivers apparently remove the diesel particulate filters from their cars, which is illegal, and doing so would mean failing an MOT. See:

The government encouraged people to go diesel by offering significant tax advantages. Road tax and company car tax are lower for diesels, resulting in more than half of new cars now being diesels. ( Almost all public buses and taxis and still many trains are diesel.

7250 lives per year caused by diesel vehicles is a lot, and let’s remember that was an estimate based on 2008 particulates. There are many more diesels on our roads now than then ( shows the number of diesel cars licensed has increased from 7163 to 10,064), but fuel efficiency has also improved in that period so total fuel use hasn’t increased much, only from 8788 to 9197 thousand tons of diesel. So the result isn’t as bad as it could have been and the proportionately scaled figure for 2012 would be 7587 deaths from diesel emissions. In 2013 there were only 1730 road deaths so 4.4 times as many people were killed by diesel emissions than road accidents.

I thought it would be interesting to compare deaths from just buses to those in road accidents, since buses are thought of by many as some sort of panacea whereas some of us see them as filthy environmental monsters. The proportion of diesel used by buses has fallen from 17% to 13.7% between 2008 and 2012. (I couldn’t find figures for the numbers of taxis, also officially included in public transport, since the fuel usage stats lump all cars together, but then I’ve never understood why taxis should be listed as public transport anyway.)

17% of the 7250 figure for 2008 gives 1232 deaths from public transport diesel emissions compared to 2538 road deaths that year, roughly half as many. However, for 2012, 13.7% of 7587 is 1039 deaths from public transport diesel emissions compared to 1754 people killed in road accidents in 2012.  That ratio has grown from 48.5% to 59% in just 4 years. Buses may use less fuel than cars but they certainly aren’t saints.

So, headline result: 60% as many people are killed by diesel emissions from buses as in road accidents, but altogether, 4.4 times as many people die due to diesel. The government is very noisy when it comes to reducing road deaths, but it should look at the far bigger gains that would be made by reducing diesel use. Perhaps it is time that the deaths arising from diesel emissions should be added to the road deaths figures. At least then there might be some better action against it.

As I wrote in a recent blog


more still could be saved by just slightly improving the NHS. The £27B per year health costs saved by getting rid of diesel might go some way to doing both.

As a final observation, diesel was encouraged so much because it should help to reduce CO2 emissions, seen as a major contributor to global warming. In the last year or two, the sensitivity to CO2 emissions has been observed to be lower than originally thought. However, another major contribution to warming is the black carbon PM, noted especially for its contribution to melting glaciers by making them darker, also arising in large part from diesel. The efforts to reduce one contributor have increased another. Diesel doesn’t even solve the problem it was aimed at, but still causes others.

Time – The final frontier. Maybe

It is very risky naming the final frontier. A frontier is just the far edge of where we’ve got to.

Technology has a habit of opening new doors to new frontiers so it is a fast way of losing face. When Star Trek named space as the final frontier, it was thought to be so. We’d go off into space and keep discovering new worlds, new civilizations, long after we’ve mapped the ocean floor. Space will keep us busy for a while. In thousands of years we may have gone beyond even our own galaxy if we’ve developed faster than light travel somehow, but that just takes us to more space. It’s big, and maybe we’ll never ever get to explore all of it, but it is just a physical space with physical things in it. We can imagine more than just physical things. That means there is stuff to explore beyond space, so space isn’t the final frontier.

So… not space. Not black holes or other galaxies.

Certainly not the ocean floor, however fashionable that might be to claim. We’ll have mapped that in details long before the rest of space. Not the centre of the Earth, for the same reason.

How about cyberspace? Cyberspace physically includes all the memory in all our computers, but also the imaginary spaces that are represented in it. The entire physical universe could be simulated as just a tiny bit of cyberspace, since it only needs to be rendered when someone looks at it. All the computer game environments and virtual shops are part of it too. The cyberspace tree doesn’t have to make a sound unless someone is there to hear it, but it could. The memory in computers is limited, but the cyberspace limits come from imagination of those building or exploring it. It is sort of infinite, but really its outer limits are just a function of our minds.

Games? Dreams? Human Imagination? Love? All very new agey and sickly sweet, but no. Just like cyberspace, these are also all just different products of the human mind, so all of these can be replaced by ‘the human mind’ as a frontier. I’m still not convinced that is the final one though. Even if we extend that to greatly AI-enhanced future human mind, it still won’t be the final frontier. When we AI-enhance ourselves, and connect to the smart AIs too, we have a sort of global consciousness, linking everyone’s minds together as far as each allows. That’s a bigger frontier, since the individual minds and AIs add up to more cooperative capability than they can achieve individually. The frontier is getting bigger and more interesting. You could explore other people directly, share and meld with them. Fun, but still not the final frontier.

Time adds another dimension. We can’t do physical time travel, and even if we can do so in physics labs with tiny particles for tiny time periods, that won’t necessarily translate into a practical time machine to travel in the physical world. We can time travel in cyberspace though, as I explained in

and when our minds are fully networked and everything is recorded, you’ll be able to travel back in time and genuinely interact with people in the past, back to the point where the recording started. You would also be able to travel forwards in time as far as the recording stops and future laws allow (I didn’t fully realise that when I wrote my time travel blog, so I ought to update it, soon). You’d be able to inhabit other peoples’ bodies, share their minds, share consciousness and feelings and emotions and thoughts. The frontier suddenly jumps out a lot once we start that recording, because you can go into the future as far as is continuously permitted. Going into that future allows you to get hold of all the future technologies and bring them back home, short circuiting the future, as long as time police don’t stop you. No, I’m not nuts – if you record everyone’s minds continuously, you can time travel into the future using cyberspace, and the effects extend beyond cyberspace into the real world you inhabit, so although it is certainly a cheat, it is effectively real time travel, backwards and forwards. It needs some security sorted out on warfare, banking and investments, procreation, gambling and so on, as well as lot of other causality issues, but to quote from Back to the Future: ‘What the hell?’ [IMPORTANT EDIT: in my following blog, I revise this a bit and conclude that although time travel to the future in this system lets you do pretty much what you want outside the system, time travel to the past only lets you interact with people and other things supported within the system platform, not the physical universe outside it. This does limit the scope for mischief.]

So, time travel in fully networked fully AI-enhanced cosmically-connected cyberspace/dream-space/imagination/love/games would be a bigger and later frontier. It lets you travel far into the future and so it notionally includes any frontiers invented and included by then. Is it the final one though? Well, there could be some frontiers discovered after the time travel windows are closed. They’d be even finaller, so I won’t bet on it.



Sustainable capitalism – Ending exploitation

This blog is an extract from my book Total Sustainability. Just over 10k words

Sustainable capitalism

To see what needs adjusted and how to go about doing it, let’s first consider some of the systems that make people wealthy. With global change accelerating, in this period of global upheaval, the rise of new powers and decline of old ones, we have an opportunity to rethink it and perhaps make it better, or perhaps countries new to capitalism will make their own way and we will follow. If it is failing, it is time to look for ways to fix it or to change direction.

Some things are very difficult and need really smart people, but we don’t have very many of them. But as heavily globalised systems become more and more complex, the scope for very smart people to gain control of power and resources increases. Think about it for a moment. How many people do you know who could explain how big businesses manage to avoid paying tax in spite of making big profits beyond the first two words that everyone knows – tax haven? The money goes somewhere, but not on tax. This is one of the big topics being discussed now among the world’s top nations. No laws are being broken, it is simply that universally sluggish and incompetent governments have been outwitted again and again by smart individuals.

They should have had tax systems in place long ago to cope with globalisation, but they still haven’t. Representatives of those governments talk a lot about clampdowns, but nobody really expects that big business won’t stay at least 5 steps ahead. Consequently, money and power is concentrating at the top more than ever.

The contest between greedy and relatively smart business people and well-meaning but dumber (strictly relative terms here) politicians and regulators often ends with taxpayers being fleeced. Hence the banking crisis, where the vast wealth greedily that was accumulated by bankers over numerous gambling wins was somehow kept when they lost, with us having to pay the losses without ever benefiting from the wins, with the final farcically generous pay-offs to those who failed so miserably. The same could be said of some privatisations and probably most government contracts. It was noted thousands of years ago that a fool and his money are easily parted. The problem with democracy is that fools are often the ones elected. The people in government that aren’t fools are often there to benefit their own interests and later found with their fingers in the cake. Some of our leaders and regulators are honourable and smart enough to make decent decisions, but too small a fraction to make us safe from severe abuse.

We need to fix this problem and many other related if we are to achieve any form of sustainability in our capitalist world.

The undeserving rich

Magistrates in Britain once had a duty to distinguish between the deserving poor, who were poor through no fault of their own, and the undeserving poor, who were simply idle. The former would get hand-outs while they needed them, the idle would get a kick in the pants and told to go and sort themselves out. This attitude later disappeared from the welfare system, but the idea remains commonly held and recently, some emerging policies echo its sentiment to some degree.

Looking at the other end of the spectrum, there are the deserving and undeserving rich. Some people worked hard to get their cash and deserve every penny, some worked less hard in highly overpaid jobs. Some inherited it from parents or ancestors even further back, and maybe they worked hard for it. Some stole it from others by thievery, trickery, or military conquest. Some got it by marrying someone. Some won it, some were compensated. There are lots of ways of getting rich. Money is worth the same wherever it comes from but we hold different attitudes to the rich depending on how they got their money.

Most of us don’t think there is anything wrong with being rich, nor in trying to become so. There are examples of people doing well not just for themselves and their families and friends, but also benefiting their entire host community. Only jealousy could motivate any resentment of their wealth. But the system should be designed so that one person shouldn’t be able to become rich at the cost of other people’s misery. At the moment, in many countries, some people are gaining great wealth effectively by exploiting the poor. Few of us consider that to be admirable or desirable. It would be better if people could only become rich by doing well in a system that also protects other people. Let’s look at some of the problems with today’s capitalism.


Corruption has to be one of the biggest problems in the world today. It has many facets, and some are so familiar in everyday life that we don’t even think of them as corruption any more.

As well as blatant corruption, most of us would also include rule bending and loophole-seeking in the corruption category. Squeezing every last millimetre when bending the law may keep it just about legal, but it doesn’t make behaviour creditable. When we see politicians bending rules and then using their political persuasiveness to argue that it is somehow OK for them, most of us feel a degree of natural revulsion. The same goes for big companies. It may be legal to avoid tax by using expensive lawyers to find holes in taxation systems and clever accountants to exploit them, re-labelling or moving money via a certain route to reduce the taxes required by law, but that doesn’t make it ethical. Even though it is technically on the right side of legal, I’d personally put a lot of corporate tax avoidance in the corruption category when it seeks to exploit loopholes that were never part of what the tax law intended.

Then of course it is possible to break the law and bribe your way out of trouble, or to lobby corruptible lawmakers to include a loophole that you want to exploit, or to make a contribution to party funds in order to increase the likelihood of getting a big contract later.

Lobbying can easily become thinly veiled bribery – nice dinners or tickets or promised social favours, but often manifests as well-paid clever chitchat, to get an MP to help push the law in the general direction you favour. Maybe it isn’t technically corrupt, but it certainly isn’t true to the basic principles of democracy either. Lobbying distorts the presentation, interpretation and implementation of the intentions of the voting community so it corrupts democracy.

So although there are degrees of corruption, they all have one thing in common – using positions of power or buy influence to tilt the playing field to gain advantage.


Once someone starts bending the rules, it affects other behaviour. If someone is happy exploiting the full flexibility of the letter of the law with little regard for others, they are also likely to be liable to engage in other ways of actively exploiting other people, in asset stripping, or debt concealing, or in how they negotiate and take advantage, or how they make people redundant because a machine is cheaper. It is often easy to spot such behaviour, wrapped with excuses such as ‘Companies aren’t charities, they exist to make money’, and ‘business is business’. There are plenty of expressions that the less noble business people use to excuse bad behaviour and pretend it is somehow OK. There are degrees of badness of course. For some companies, some run by people hailed as business heroes, anything goes as long as it is legal or if the process of law can be diverted long enough to make it worthwhile ignoring it. While ‘legal’ depends on the size and quality of your legal team, there is gain to be made by stretching the law. It can even pay to blatantly disobey the law, if you can stretch the court process out enough so that you can use some of the profits gained to pay the fines, and keep the rest. So corruption isn’t the only problem. Exploitation is its ugly sister and we see a lot of big companies and rich people doing it.

The price of bad behaviour and loose values

A common problem here is that we don’t assign financial value to honourable behaviour, community or national well-being, honesty, integrity, fairness or staff morale. So these can safely be ignored in the pursuit of profit. Business is justified in this approach perhaps, because we don’t assign value to them. If a company exists to make profit, measured purely financially, those other factors don’t appear on the bottom line, so there is no reason to behave any better. In fact, they cost money, so a ruthless board can make more money by behaving badly. That is one thing that could and should change if we want a sustainable form of capitalism. If we as a society want businesses to run more ethically, then we have to make the system in such a way that ethical behaviour is rewarded. If we don’t explicitly recognise particular value sets, then businesses are really under no obligation to behave in any particular way. As it is, I would argue that society has value sets that are on something of a random walk. There is no fixed reference point, and values can flip completely in just a few decades. That is hardly a stable platform on which to build anything.

Hardening of attitudes to welfare abuse


There is growing resentment right across the political spectrum against those taking welfare who won’t do enough to try to look after themselves but expect to receive hand-outs while others are having to work hard to make ends meet. At the same time, resentment is deepening against the rich who use loopholes in the law to find technically legal but morally dubious tax avoidance schemes. What these have in common is that they exploit others. There is a rich variety of ways in which people exploit others, some that we are so used to we don’t even notice any more. This is important in helping to determine what may happen in the future.

The few have always exploited the many


A while ago, I had a short break visiting the Cotswolds (a chocolate-box picture area of England). We saw a huge Roman villa, fantastic mosaics in the Roman museum in Cirencester, and a couple of stately homes. Then we went to Portugal where we saw the very ornate but rather tasteless Palace of Penna. It made me realise just how much better off we are today, when thanks to technology development, even a modest income buys vastly superior functionality and comfort than even royalty used to have to put up with.

I used to enjoy seeing such things, but the last few years I have found them increasingly disturbing. I still find them interesting to look at, but now they make me angry, as monuments to the ability of the few to exploit the efforts of the many for their own gain. So while admiring the landscape architecture of Lancelot (Capability) Brown, and the Roman mosaics, I felt sorry for the many people who had little or no choice but to do all the work for relatively little reward. I felt especially sorry for the people who built the Palace of Penna, where an obviously enormous amount of hard work and genuine talent has been spent on something that ended up as hideously ugly. Even if the artists and workmen were paid a good wage, their abilities could probably still have been put to much more constructive use.

But we don’t want equality of poverty


I strongly believe that we overvalue capital compared to knowledge, talent and effort, resulting in too high a proportion of wealth going to capital owners. Capitalism sometimes saps too many of the rewards of effort away from those who earn them. However, few people would argue for a system where everyone is poorer just so that we can have equality, as happened in communism, and as would be the result if some current socialists got their ways. The system should be fair to everyone, but if we are to prosper as a society, it also needs to incentivise the production of wealth.

Exploitation of society by the lazy and greedy


That of course brings us to the abuse at the other end, with some people who are perfectly able to work drawing state benefits instead (or indeed as well as wages from work) and thereby putting unjust extra load on the welfare system. This of course acts as a major drain on hard working people too and reduces the rewards of effort. Those who work hard may thus see their money disappearing at both ends, possibly taken by exploitative employers and certainly taken by the state to give to others. Exploitation is still exploitation whether it is by the privileged or the lazy. We all want the welfare system, because another powerful force in human nature is to care for others, and we instinctively want to help those who can’t help themselves. But that doesn’t mean we want to be taken advantage of.

Rewarding effort is essential for a healthy economy

As a general principle, extra effort or skill or risk or investment should reap extra reward. If there is too little incentive to do put in more work or investment, human nature dictates that most people won’t do it. The same goes for leading others or building companies and employing others. If you don’t get extra reward from enabling or leading other people to create more, you probably won’t bother doing that either. Very many communes have started up with idealism and failed for this reason.

In both of these cases, a few nice people will do more, even without financial incentive, simply because it makes them feel good to work hard or help others, but most won’t, or will start doing so and quickly give up when appreciation runs dry or they become frustrated by the laziness of others.

While effort and investment and skill and leadership must all be rewarded to make a healthy economy, it is a natural and fair consequence of rewarding these that some people will become richer than others, and if they help many other people also to do more, they may become quite a lot richer than others.

‘To each according to their effort’ is a fundamentally better approach than ‘from each according to their ability and to each according to their need’ as preached by communists – it is simply more in tune with human nature. It makes more people do more, so we all prosper. Trying to level the playing field by redistributing wealth too much deters effort and ultimately makes everyone worse off. A reasonable gap between rich and poor is both necessary and fair.

But we shouldn’t let people demand too much of the rewards


However, an extreme gap indicates that there is exploitation, that some people are keeping rather too much of the reward from the efforts of others. As always, we need to find the right balance. Greed does seem to be one of the powerful forces in human nature, and if opportunity exists for someone to take more for themselves at the expense of others, some will. I don’t believe we should try to change human nature, but I do believe we should try to defend the weak against exploitation by the greedy. Some studies have shown a correlation between social inequality and social problems of crime, poor education and so on. That doesn’t prove causality of course, but it does seem reasonable to infer causality in any case here.

In some large companies, top managers seem to run the company as if it were their own, allocating huge rewards for themselves at the expense of both customers and shareholders’ interests. Such abuse of position is widespread across the economy today, but it will inevitably have to be reined back over time in spite of fierce resistance from the beneficiaries.

The power of public pressure via shame should not be underestimated, even though some seem conspicuously immune to it. Where the abusers still decide to abuse, power will come either by shareholders disposing of abusers, or regulators giving shareholders better power to over-rule where there is abuse, as is already starting to happen, or by direct pay caps for public sector chiefs. The situation at the moment gives too much power to managers and shareholders need to be given back the rights to control their own companies more fully.

Reducing market friction


There are many opportunities to exploit others, and always some who will try to take the fullest advantage. We can’t ever make everyone nice, but at least we can make exploitation more difficult. Part of the problem is social structure and governance of course, but part is also market imperfection. While social structure only changes slowly, and government is doomed to suffer the underlying problems associated with democracy, we can almost certainly do something about the market using better technology. So let’s look at the market for areas to tweak.

Strength of position


Kings or slave owners may have been able to force subjects to work, but a modern employer theoretically has to offer competitive terms and conditions to get someone to work, and people are theoretically free to sell their efforts, or not.

Then the theory becomes more complex and the playing field starts to tilt. People have to live, and they have to support their dependants. Not everyone is born with the intellectual gifts or social privileges that enable them to be entrepreneurs or high-earning professionals who can pick and choose their work and set their own prices. If someone can’t sell their efforts directly to a customer, they may have to accept whatever terms and conditions are available from a local employer or trader.

Location makes traders powerful


In fact, most people have to look and see what jobs there are locally and have to apply for one of them because they need the money, and can’t travel far, so they are in a very poor bargaining position. By contrast, capital providers and leaders and entrepreneurs and traders have always been in an excellent position to exploit this. In a town with high unemployment, or low wages, or indeed, throughout a poor country, potential employees will settle for the local wage rate for that kind of work, but that may differ hugely from the rate for similar work elsewhere.

The laws of supply and demand apply, but the locations of supply and demand need not be the same, and where they aren’t, traders are the ones who benefit, not those doing the work. Traders have existed and prospered for millennia and have often become very wealthy by exploiting the difference in labour costs and produce prices around the world.

Manufacturers can play the same geography game


Now with increasing globalisation, those with good logistics available to them can use these differences in manufacturing too, using cheap labour in one place to produce goods that can be sold for high prices in other places. Is it only the margins and the balance of bargaining power that determines whether this exploitation is fair or not, or is it also the availability of access to markets? What is a fair margin? How much of the profit should we allow traders or manufacturers to keep? If not enough, and markets are not free and lubricated enough, potential producers may stay idle and be even poorer because they can’t sell their efforts. If too much, someone else is getting rich at their expense.

Making access to free global markets easier and better will help


We need to create a system where people on both sides are empowered to ensure a fair deal. At the moment, it is tilted very heavily in favour of the trader, selling the product of cheap labour in expensive markets. When someone has no choice but to take what’s going, they are weak and vulnerable. If they can sell into a bigger market, they become stronger.

If everyone everywhere can see your produce and can get it delivered, then prices will tend to become fairer. There is still need for distributors, and they will still need paid, but distributors are just suppliers of a service in a competitive market too, and with a free choice of customer and supplier at every stage, all parties can negotiate to get a deal they are all content with, where no-one is at an a priori disadvantage.

It may still work out cheaper to buy from a great distance, but at least each party has agreed acceptable terms on a relatively level playing field. The web has already gone some way to improving market visibility but it is still difficult for many people to access the web with reasonable speed and security, and many more don’t understand how to do things like making websites, especially ones that have commerce functions.

If we can make better free access to markets, then unfair exploitation should become less of a problem, because it will be easier for people to sell their effort direct to an end customer, but it will have to become a lot easier to display your goods on the web for all to see without undue risk. Making the web easier to use and automating as much as possible of the security and administration should help a lot. This is happening quite quickly, but it needs time.

Import levies can reduce the incentive to exploit low wage workers


Levies can be added to imported goods so that someone can’t use cheap labour in one area to compete with the equivalent product made in the other. This is well tried and operates frequently where manufacturers pressure their governments to protect them from overseas competition that they see as unfair. However, it is usually aimed at protecting the richer employees from cheap competition rather than trying to increase wages for those being exploited in low wage economies. So it is far from ideal. Better a tool that allows pressure to increase the proportion of proceeds that go to the workers.

Peer pressure via transparency of margins


Another is to provide transparency in price attribution. If customers can see how much of the purchase price is going to each of the agents involved in its production and distribution chain, then pressure increases to pay a decent wage to the workers who actually make it, and less to those who merely sell it. Just like greed and caring, shame is another powerful emotion in the suite of human nature, and people will generally be more honest and fair if they know others can see what they are doing.

However, I do not expect this would work very well in practice, since most customers don’t care enough to get ethically involved in every purchase, and the further away and more socially distant the workers are, the less customers care. And if the person needing shamed is thousands of miles away, the peer pressure is non-existent. Yet again, location is important.

Transparency to the workforce


In economies across the developed world, typically about half of the profits of someone’s ‘job’ go to the person doing it and the other half goes to the owners of the company employing them. Transparency helps customers decide on supplier, but also helps employees to decide whether to work for a particular employer. They should of course be made fully aware of how they will be rewarded but also how much of their efforts will reward others. In a good company, the chiefs may be able to generate greater rewards for both staff and shareholders (and themselves), but as long as the details are all available, a free and informed choice can be made.

The community can generate its own businesses


In a well automated web environment, some company types would no longer be needed. Companies are often top down designs, with departments and employee structures that are populated by staff. The reverse is increasingly feasible, with groups of freelancers and small businesses using the web to find each other, and working loosely together as virtual companies to address the same markets the traditional company once did. But instead of giving half of the profits to a company owner, they reap the full rewards and share it between them. The administrative functions once done by the company are largely off-the-shelf and cheap. The few essential professional functions that the company provided can also be found as independents in the same marketplace. Virtual companies are the 21st century co-operative. The employees own the company and keep all the profits. Not surprisingly, many people have already left big companies to set up on their own as freelancers and small businesses.

Unfortunately, this model can’t work everywhere. Sometimes, a large factory or large capital investment is needed. This favours the rich and powerful and large companies, but there is again a new model that will start to come into play.

Investors don’t have to be wealthy individuals or big companies. They can also be communities. In a period where banks have become extremely unpopular, community banking will become very appealing once it is demonstrated to work. Building societies will make a comeback, but even they are more organised than is strictly necessary in a mature web age.

Linking people in a community with some savings to others who need to borrow it to make a business will become easier as social and business networking develops the trust based communities needed to make this feasible. Trust is essential, but it is often based on social knowledge, and recommendations can be shared. Abusers could be filtered out, and in any case, their potential existence creates a sub market for risk assessors and insurance specialists, who may have left companies to go freelance too. Communities may provide their own finance for companies that provide goods and services for the local community. This is a natural development of the routine output of today’s social entrepreneurs. Community based company creation, nurturing, staffing and running is a very viable local model that could work very well for many areas of manufacturing, services, food production and community work. Some of this is already embryonic on the net today as crowd-funding, but it could grow nicely as the web continues to mature.

Whether this could grow to the size needed to make a car factory or a chip fabrication plant or a major pharmaceutical R&D lab is doubtful, but even these models are being challenged – future cars may not need the same sorts of production, a lot of biotech is suited to garden sheds, and local 3D printing can address a lot of production needs, even some electronic ones. So the number of industries completely immune to this trend is probably quite small. Most will be affected a bit or greatly. Companies that are deeply woven into communities may dominate the future commercial landscape. And as that happens, the willingness and the capability to exploit others reduces.

If we move towards this kind of system, companies will be more responsive to our needs, while providing a stronger base on which to build other enterprises. Integrated into community banking, it is hard to see why we would need today’s banks in such a world. We could dispense with a huge drain on our finances. Banks contribute no extra to the overall economy (taken globally) and siphon off considerable fees. Without them, people could keep more of what they earn and growth would accelerate.

Exploitation via celebrity?


In the UK, we don’t get very good value for money from our footballers. They get enormously generous pay for often poor performance. Individually, few of them seem to be intellectual giants, but the industry as a whole has grown enormously. By creating a monopoly of well supported clubs, they have established a position where they can extract huge fees for tickets, merchandising and TV coverage. The ordinary person has to pay heavily to watch a match, while the few people putting on the show get enormous rewards. This might look like exploitation at first glance, but is it?

It is certainly shrewd business dealing by the football industry, but mainly, the TV companies seem to be stupid negotiators. If they declined to pay huge fees to air the matches, the most likely outcome is that fees would tumble to a very nominal level quickly, after which the football associations would have to start paying the TV channels for air time to sell the game coverage direct to fans, or else distribute coverage via the net. They would have no choice. TV companies could easily end up being paid to show matches. When viewers each have to pay explicitly to watch rather than have the fees hidden in a TV license or satellite subscription, the takings would drop and the wages given to footballers would inevitably follow. However, they would still be paid very well, probably still grossly overpaid. We may still moan at them, but they would then simply be benefiting from scale of market, not exploiting. If you can sell unique entertainment or indeed any other valuable service to a large number of people you can generate a lot of income. If you don’t need many staff, they can be paid very well. Individual celebrities have emerged from every area of entertainment who get huge incomes simply because they can generate small amounts of cash from very large numbers of people. If many individuals vale the product highly, as in top level boxing for example, stars can be massively rewarded.

It is hard to label this as exploitation though. It is simply taking advantage of scale. If I can sell something at a sensible price and make a decent income from a small number of customers, someone better who can sell an even better product at the same price to a much larger number of people will be paid far more. In this case, the customer gets a better product for the same outlay, so is hardly being exploited, but the superior provider will get richer. If we forced them to sell better products cheaper than someone else’s inferior one, simply to reduce their income, we would destroy the incentive to be good. No-one benefits from that.

Entertainment isn’t unique here. The same goes for writing a good game or a piece or app, or inventing Facebook. In fact, the basis of the information economy, which includes entertainment, is very different from the industrial one. Information products can be reproduced, essentially without cost without losing their value. There are lots of products that can be sold to lots of people for low prices that do no harm to anyone, add quality to lives and still make providers very wealthy. Let’s hope we can find some more.

So even without exploitation, we will still have the super-rich


There will always be relatively poor and super rich people. But I think that is OK. What we should try to ensure is that people don’t get rich by abusing or exploiting others. If they can still get rich without exploiting anyone, then at least it is fair, and they should enjoy their wealth, within the law, provided that the law prevents them from using it to abuse or exploit others. Let’s not punish wealth per se, but focus instead on how it has been obtained, and on eliminating abuses.

In any case, there is a natural limit to how much you can use


As the global population climbs, and people get wealthier everywhere, the number of super-rich will grow, even if we eliminate unfairness and exploitation totally. But if we take huge amounts of money out of the system and put it in someone’s bank account, they will not be able to dispose of it all. In most cases, without great determination and extravagance indeed, the actual practical loading that an individual can make on the system is quite limited. They can only eat so much, occupy so much land, use up so much natural resource, have so many lovers. The rest of the world’s resources, of whatever kind, are still available to everyone else. So their reward is naturally capped, they simply don’t have the time or energy to use up any more. Any money they put in investments or cash is just a figure on a spreadsheet, and a license to use the power it comes with.

But while power is important in other ways, it is not directly an economic drain – it doesn’t affect how much is left for the rest of us. Above a certain amount that varies with individual imagination, taste and personality, extra wealth doesn’t give anything except power. It effectively disappears, and supply and demand and prices balance for the rest accordingly.

Power takes us full circle


When we have spent all we can, and just get extra power from the extra income, it is time to start asking other kinds of questions. Some would challenge the right of the super-rich to use their wealth to do things that others might think should be decided by the whole population. Should rich people be allowed to use their wealth to tackle Aids in Africa, run their own space programs, or build influential media empires? Well, we can make laws to prevent abuses and exploitation. We can employ the principle of ‘To each according to their effort’. Once we’ve done that, I don’t see how or why we should try to stop rich people doing what they want within the law.

Was the Roman villa I visited built by well rewarded workers? Probably not. Could something equivalent be built by a rich person who has done no harm to anyone, or even brought universal good? Yes. It isn’t what they build or how much they earn that matters, but how they earned it. Money earned via exploitation is very different from money earned by effort and talent.

In future, I will have to read up on the owners of stately homes before I get angry at them. And we must certainly consider these issues as we build our sustainable capitalism in the future.


You might think that the people at the top would be the smartest, but unfortunately, they usually aren’t. Some studies have shown that CEOs have an average IQ of around 130, which is fairly good but nothing special, and many of the staff below them would generally be smarter. That means that whatever skills might have got them there, their overall understanding of the world is limited and the quality of their decisions is therefore also limited. Considering that, we often pay board members far more than is necessary and we often put stupid people in charge. This is not a good combination, and it ultimately undermines the workings of the whole economy. I’ll look at stupidity in more detail later.

With corruption, exploitation, loose values, no real incentives to behave well, and sheer stupidity all fighting against capitalism as we have it today, it is a miracle it works at all, but it does and that argues for its fundamental strength. If we address these existing problems and start to protect against the coming ones, we will be fine, maybe even better than fine. We’d be flying.

Sustainable Automation

There are some new problems coming too, and sometimes major trends can conceal less conspicuous ones, but sometimes these less conspicuous trends can build over time into enormous effects. Global financial turmoil and re-levelling due to development are largely concealing another major trend towards automation, a really key problem in the future of capitalism. If we look at the consequences of developing technology, we can see an increasingly automated world as we head towards the far future. Most mechanical or mental jobs can be automated eventually, leaving those that rely on human emotional and interpersonal skills, but even these could eventually be largely automated. That would obviously have a huge effect on the nature of our economies. It is good to automate; it adds the work of machines to that of humans, but if you get to a point where there is no work available for the humans to take, then that doesn’t work so well. Overall effectiveness is reduced because you still have to finance the person you replaced somehow. We are reaching that point in some areas and industries now.

One idea that has started to gain ground is that of reducing the working week. It has some merit. If there is enough work for 50 hours a week, maybe it is better to have 2 people working 25 each than one working 50 and one unemployed, one rich and one poor. If more work becomes available, then they can both work longer again. This becomes more attractive still as automation brings the costs down so that the 25 hours provides enough to live well. It is one idea, and I am confident there will be more.

However, I think there is another area we ought to look for a better solution – re-evaluating ownership.

Sometimes taking an extreme example is the best way to illustrate a point. In an ultra-automated pure capitalist world, a single person (or indeed even an AI) could set up a company and employ only AI or robotic staff and keep all the proceeds. Wealth would concentrate more and more with the people starting with it. There may not be any other employment, given that almost anything could be automated, so no-one else except other company owners would have any income source. If no-one else could afford to buy the products, their companies would die, and the economy couldn’t survive. This simplistic example nevertheless illustrates that pure capitalism isn’t sustainable in a truly high technology world. There would need to be some tweaking to distribute wealth effectively and make money go round a bit. Much more than current welfare state takes care of.

Perhaps we are already well on the way. Web developments that highly automate retailing have displaced many jobs and the same is true across many industries. Some of the business giants have few employees. There is no certainty that new technologies will create enough new jobs to replace the ones they displace.

We know from abundant evidence that communism doesn’t work, so if capitalism won’t work much longer either, then we have some thinking to do. I believe that the free market is often the best way to accomplish things, but it doesn’t always deliver, and perhaps it can’t this time, and perhaps we shouldn’t just wait until entire industries have been eradicated before we start to ask which direction it should go.

Culture tax – Renting shared infrastructure, culture and knowledge

The key to stopping the economy grinding to a halt due to extreme wealth concentration may lie in the value of accumulated human knowledge. Apart from short-term IP such as patents and copyright, the whole of humanity collectively owns the vast intellectual wealth accumulated via the efforts of thousands of generations. Yettraditionally, when a company is set up, no payment is made for the use of this intellectual property; it is assumed to be free. The effort and creativity of the founders, and the finance they provide, are assumed to be the full value, so they get control of the wealth generated (apart from taxes).

Automated companies make use of this vast accumulated intellectual wealth when they deploy their automated systems. Why should ownership of a relatively small amount of capital and effort give the right to harness huge amounts of publicly owned intellectual wealth without any payment to the other owners, the rest of the people? Why should the rest of humanity not share in the use of their intellectual property to generate reward? This is where the rethinking should be focused. There is nothing wrong with people benefiting from their efforts, making profit, owning stuff, controlling it, but it surely is right that they should make proper payment for the value of the shared intellectual property they use. With properly shared wealth generation, everyone would have income, and the system might work fine.

Ownership is the key to fair wealth distribution in an age of accelerating machine power. The world economy has changed dramatically over the last two decades, but we still think of ownership in much the same ways. This is where the biggest changes need to be made to make capitalism sustainable. At the moment, of all the things needed to make a business profitable, capital investment is given far too great a share of control and of the output. There are many other hugely important inputs that are not so much hidden as simply ignored. We have become so used to thinking of the financial investors owning the company that we don’t even see the others. So let me remind you of some of the things that the investors currently get given to them for free. I’ll start with the blindingly obvious and go on from there.

First and most invisible of all is the right to do business and to keep the profits. In some countries this isn’t a right, but in the developed world we don’t even think of it normally.

The law, protecting the company from having all its stuff stolen, its staff murdered, or its buildings burned down.

The full legal framework, all the rules and regulations that allow the business to trade on known terms, and to agree contracts with the full backing of the law.

Ditto the political framework.

Workforce education – having staff that can read and write, and some with far higher level of education

Infrastructure – all the roads, electricity, water, gas and so on. Companies pay for ongoing costs, maintenance and ongoing development, but pay nothing towards the accumulated historical establishment of these.

Accumulated public intellectual property. It isn’t just access to infrastructure they get free, it is the invention of electricity, of plumbing, of water purification and sewage disposal techniques, and so on.

Human knowledge, science, technology knowhow. We all have access to these, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there should be an automatic right for anyone to use them without due compensation to the rest of the community. We assume that as a right, but it wasn’t really ever explicitly agreed, ever. It has just evolved. If someone invents something and patents it, we assume they have every right to profit from it. If they use an invention in common ownership, such as the wheel, why should they not pay the rest of society for the right to use it for personal commercial gain?

Think of it another way. If a village has a common, everyone has the right to let their animals feed off the grass. That works fine when there are only a few animals, but if everyone has a large herd, it soon breaks down. The common might be taken under local council control, and rented out, returning due value to the community. So it could be for all other commonly held knowledge. And there is a lot of it, thousands of years’ worth.

Culture is also taken for granted, including hand-me-down business culture, all the stuff that makes up an MBA, or even everyday knowledge about how businesses operate or are structured. So are language, and social structure that ensures that all the other supporting roles in society are somehow provided. We may take these for granted because they belong to us all, but they are a high value asset and if someone gains financially from using them, why should they not pay some of the profits to the rest of the owners as they would for using any other asset?

So the question is: should business pay for it, as it pays for capital and labour?

This all adds up to an enormous wealth of investment by thousands of generations of people. It is shared wealth but wealth nonetheless. When a company springs up now, it can access it all, take it all for granted, but that doesn’t mean it is without value. It is immensely valuable. So perhaps it is not unreasonable to equate it in importance to the provision of effort or finance. In that case, entrepreneurs should pay back some of their gains to the community.

Reward is essential, but fair’s fair

A business will not happen unless someone starts it, works hard at setting it up, getting it going, with all the stress and sacrifice that often needs. They need to be assured of a decent reward or they won’t bother. The same goes for capital providers, if they are needed. They also want something to show for the risk they have taken. Without enough incentive, it won’t work, and that should always be retained in our thinking when we redesign. But it is also right to look at the parallel investment by the community in terms of all the things listed above. That should also be rewarded.

This already happens to some degree when companies and shareholders pay their taxes. They contribute to the ongoing functioning of the society and to the development to be handed on to the next generation, just as individuals do. But they don’t explicitly pay any purchase price or rent for the social wealth they assumed when they started. The host community needs to be better and more explicitly integrated into the value distribution of a company in much the same way as shareholders or a board.

The amount that should be paid is endlessly debatable, and views would certainly differ between parties, but it does offer a way of tweaking capitalism that ensures that businesses develop and use new technology in such a way that it can be sustained. We want progress, but if all jobs were to be replaced by a smart machines, then we may have an amazingly efficient system, but if nobody has a job, and everyone is on low-level welfare, then nobody can afford to buy any of the products so it would seize up. Conventional taxes might not be enough to sustain it all. On the other hand, linking the level of payments from a company to the social capital they use when they deploy a new machine means that if they make lots of workers redundant by automation, and there are no new jobs for them to go to, then a greater payment would be incurred. While business overall is socially sustainable and ensures reasonably full employment, then the payments can remain zero or very low.

But we have the makings of an evolution path that allows for fair balancing of the needs of society and business.

The assignment of due financial value to social wealth and accumulated knowledge and culture ensures that there is a mechanism where money is returned to the society and not just the mill owner. With payment of the ‘social dividend’, government and ultimately people can then buy the goods. The owner should still be able to get wealthy, but the system is still able to work because the money can go around. But it also allows linking the payments from a business to the social sustainability of its employment practices. If a machine exists that can automate a job, it has only done so by the accumulated works of the society, so society should have some say in the use of that machine and a share of the rewards coming from it.

So we need to design the system, the rules and conditions, so that people are aware when they set up a business of the costs they will incur, under what conditions. They would also know that if they change their employment via automation, then the payments for the assumed knowledge in the machines and systems will compensate for the social damage that is done by the redundancy if no replacement job exists. The design will be difficult, but at least there is a potential basis for the rules and equations and while we’re looking at automation, we can use the same logic to address the other ethical issues surrounding business, such as corruption and exploitation, and factor those into our rules and penalties too.

There remains the question of distribution of the wealth from this social dividend. It could be divided equally of course, but more likely, since political parties would have their priority lists, it would have some sort of non-equal distribution. That is a matter for politicians.

Summarising, there are many problems holding business and society back today and standing in the way of sustainable capitalism. Addressing them will make us all better off. Some of them can be addressed by a similar mechanism to that which I recommend for balancing automation against social interests. Automation is good, wealth is good, and getting rich is good. We should not replace capitalism because it mostly works, but it is now badly in need of a system update and some maintenance work. When we’ve done all that, we will have a capitalist system that rewards effort and wealth provision just as today, but also factors in the wider interests – and investment – of the whole community. We’ll all benefit, and it will be sustainable.

Sustainable tax and welfare

Tax systems seem to have many loopholes that stimulate jobs in creative accountancy, but deprive nations of tax. Sharp cut-offs instead of smooth gradients create problems for people whose income rises slightly above thresholds. We need taxation, but it needs to be fair and transparent, and what that means depends on your political allegiances, but there is some common ground. Most of us would prefer a simpler system than the ludicrously complicated one we have now and most of us would like a system that applies to everyone and avoids loopholes.

The rich are becoming ever richer, even during the economic problems. In fact some executives on bonus structures linked to short-term profits appear to be using the recession as an excuse to depress wages to increase company profits and thereby be rewarded more themselves. Some rich people pay full tax, some avoid paying taxes by roaming around the world, never staying anywhere long enough to incur local tax demands. It may be too hard to introduce global taxes, or to stop tax havens from operating, but it is possible to ensure that all income earned from sales in a country is taxed here.

Ensuring full taxation

Electronic cash opens the potential for ensuring that all financial transactions in the country go through a tax gateway, which could immediately and at the point of transaction determine what tax is due and deduct it. If we want, a complex algorithm could be used, taking into account the circumstances of the agencies involved and the nature of the transaction – number crunching is very cheap and no human needs to be involved after the algorithms are determined so it could be virtually cost-free however complex. Or we could decide that the rate is a fixed percentage regardless of purpose. It doesn’t even have to threaten privacy, it could be totally anonymous if there are no different rates. With all transactions included, and the algorithms applying at point of transaction, there would be no need to know or remember who is involved or why.

In favour of a flat tax

Different sorts of income sources are taxed differently today. It makes sense to me to have a single flat tax of rate for all income, whatever its source – why should it matter how you get your income, surely the only thing that matters is how much you get? Today, there are many rates and exceptions. Since people can take income by pay, dividends, capital gains, interest, gambling, lottery wins, and inheritance, a fair system would just count it all up and tax it all at the same rate. This could apply to companies too, at the same rate; since some people own companies and money accumulating in them is part of their income. Ditto property development, any gains when selling or renting a property could be taxed at that rate. Company owners would be treated like everyone else, and pay on the same basis as employees.

I believe flat taxes are a good idea. They have been shown to work well in some countries, and can stimulate economic development. If there are no exceptions, if everyone must pay a fixed percentage of everything they get, then the rich still pay more tax, but are better incentivised to earn even more. Accountants wouldn’t be able to prevent rich people avoiding tax just by laundering it via different routes or by relabelling it.

International experience suggests that a flat tax rate of around 20% would probably work. So, you’d pay 20% on everything you earn or your company earns, or you inherit, or win, or are given or whatever. Some countries also tax capital, encouraging people to spend it rather than hoard, but this is an optional extra. There is something quite appealing about a single rate of tax that applies to everyone and every institution for every transaction. It is simpler, with fewer opportunities to abdicate responsibility to pay, and any income earned in the country would be taxed in the country.

There are a few obvious problems that need solved. Husbands and wives would not be able to transfer money between them tax-free, nor parents giving their kids pocket money, so perhaps we need to allow anyone tax-free interchange with their immediate family, as determine by birth, marriage or civil partnership. When people buy a new house, or change their share portfolio, perhaps it should just be on the value difference that the 20% would apply. So a few tweaks here and there would be needed, but the simpler and the fewer exceptions we introduce, the better.


So what about poorer people, how will they manage? The welfare system could be similarly simplified too. We can provide simply for those that need help by giving a base allowance to every adult, regardless of need, set so that if that is your only income, it would be sufficient to live modestly but in a dignified manner. Any money earned on top of that ensures that there is an incentive to work, and you won’t become poorer by earning a few pounds more and crossing some threshold.

(Since I first blogged about this in Jan 2012, the Swiss have agreed a referendum (in Oct 2013) on what they call the Citizen Wage Initiative, which is exactly this same idea. I guess it has been around in various forms for ages, but if the Swiss decide to go ahead with it, it might soon be real. At a modest level of payment, it is workable now, the main issue being that there still needs to be a big enough incentive for people to work, or many won’t, and the economy would dive. The Swiss are considering a wage of 2000 Francs per month, which might be too generous, as it would allow a household with a few adults to live fairly comfortably without working. Having noted that, I still think the idea itself is very sound, the level just needs to be carefully set to preserve the work incentive.)

There is also no need to have a zero tax threshold. People who earn enough not to need welfare would be paying tax according to their total income anyway, so it all sorts itself out. With everyone getting the same allowance, admin costs would be very low and since admin costs currently waste around a third of the money, this frees up enough money to make the basic allowance 50% more generous. So everyone benefits.

Children could also be provided with an allowance, which would go to their registered parent or guardian just as today in lieu of child benefits. Again, since all income is taxed at the same rate regardless of source, there is no need to means test it. There should be as few other benefits as possible. They shouldn’t be necessary if the tax and allowance rate is tuned correctly anyway. Those with specific needs, such as some disabled people, could be given what they need rather than a cash benefit, so that there is less incentive to cheat the system.

Such a system would reduce polarisation greatly. The extremes at the bottom would be guaranteed a decent income, while those at the top would be forced to pay their proper share of taxes, however they got their wealth. If they still manage to be rich, then their wealth will at least be fair. It also guarantees that everyone is better off if they work, and that no-one falls through the safety net.

If everyone gets the allowance, the flat tax rate would mean that anyone below average earnings would hardly pay any income tax, any work that someone on benefits undertakes would result in a higher standard of living for them, and those on much more will pay lots. The figures look generous, but company income and prices will adjust too, and that will also rebalance it a bit. It certainly needs tuned, but it could work.

In business, the flat tax applies to all transactions, and where there is some sort of swap, such as property or shares, then the tax could be on the value difference. So, in shops, direct debits, or internet purchases, the tax would be a bit higher than the VAT rate today, and other services would also attract the same rate. With no tax deductions or complex VAT rules, admin is easier but more things are taxed. This makes it harder for companies to avoid tax by being based overseas and that increased tax take directly from income to companies means that the tax needed from other routes falls. Then, with a re-balanced economy, and everyone paying on everything, the flat rate can be adjusted until the total national take is whatever is agreed by government.

This just has to be simpler, fairer, and less wasteful and a better stimulus for hard work than the messy and unfair system we have now, full of opportunities to opt out at the top if you have a clever accountant and disincentives to work at the bottom.

The economy today is big enough to provide basic standard of living to everyone, but thanks to economic growth it will be possible to have a flat tax and a basic welfare payment equivalent to today’s average income within 45 years. If those who want economic growth to stop get their way, the poor will be condemned to at best a basic existence.

Linking tax and welfare to social networks

We often hear the phrase ‘care in the community’. Nationalisation of social care has displaced traditional care by family and local community to some degree. Long ago, people who needed to be looked after were looked after by those who are related or socially close, either by geography or association. It could be again, and may even be necessary as care rationing is a strong likelihood. Meanwhile, wealth is being redefined in many countries now, with high quality social relationships becoming recognised as valuable and a major contributor to overall quality of life.

Social care costs money, and will inevitably be rationed as the population ages, so why not link it back to social structure as it used to be? In much the same way that financial welfare is only available to those that need it, those with social wealth could and perhaps should be cared for by those who love them instead of by the state. They would likely be happier, and it would cost less. Those that have low connectedness, i.e. few friends and family, should then be the rightful focus of state care. Everyone could be cared for better and the costs would be more manageable.

We already know people’s social connectedness very well, it is indicated by many easily measurable factors, and every year it gets easier. The numbers and strength of contacts on social networking sites is one clue, so is email and messaging use, so is phone use. Geographic proximity can be determined by information in the electoral roll. So it is possible to determine algorithms based on these many various factors that would determine who needs care from the state and who should be able to get it from social contacts.

Many people wouldn’t like that, resenting being forced to care for other people, so how can we make sure people do take care of those they are ‘allocated’ to? Well, that could be done by linking taxation to the care system in such a way that the amount of care you should be providing would be determined by your social connectivity, and providing that care yields tax discount. Or you could just pay your full quota of taxes and abdicate provision to the state. But by providing a high valuation on actual care, it would encourage people to choose to provide care rather than to pay the tax.

Social wealth could thus be linked to social tax, and this social tax could be paid either as care or cash. The technology of social networking has given us the future means to link the social care side of social security into social connectedness. Those who are socially poor would receive the greatest focus of state provision and those who gain most socially from their lives would have to put more in too. We do that with money, why not also with social value? It sounds fair to me.

Scottish Independence

Apologies to my international readers, this one is just about Scotland.

Some Scots want independence and their leader Salmond promises that he will deliver a land of milk and honey. I wrote a few months on some reasons I don’t think they should go their own way:

The economics really don’t look good if they choose to do so anyway. A survey just published suggests 38.6% of large businesses and a third of small one would consider moving out of Scotland if it gains independence. That doesn’t mean they actually will, but it does suggest a potential financial problem. This week we have also learnt that European Law would require the Royal Bank of Scotland to move to London if it happened, since they do most of their business in the UK and banks have to be resident in the country where it does most of its business.

Salmond has suggested making loads of cash from wind farms. If every hectare of Scotland were covered in wind turbines at maximum density, it wouldn’t even make enough energy to replace England’s coal power stations. Hardly Saudi Arabia is it, as Salmond once claimed? Oil is still there in the sea in reasonable abundance, they might win ownership of much of it, and they could extract it for some more years. But not many. Thanks to the recent goings on with Russia, shale gas is starting to look a lot more desirable. England’s recoverable reserves estimates increased by 50% this last week. We have a lot of shale gas, and it will be much cheaper than oil or Russian gas if we can get past the current fracking objections. The same goes for many other countries that might otherwise be tempted by North Sea oil. Even if we can’t use our own shale gas, US shale gas production can expand a lot and could fill much of our needs too. So there may not be much demand for Scottish oil for much longer.

Each Scot is currently subsidised by English taxpayers. The subsidies allow Scottish students free University education (while the English have to pay £9000 per year). Elderly care is free, prescriptions are free. Estimates of the subsidy vary depending on the political allegiance of the source, but a BBC figure of over £3000 per head seems reasonable. An independent Scotland would have no reason to expect to keep receiving that.

A study 15 months ago based on stats collected by the Office of National Statistics pointed out that only 12% of Scots contribute more to the state than they receive back in total benefits. A reasonable assumption is that some of those 12% work for the big banks and other large companies that will move to London, and some work for the smaller businesses that would also consider leaving. Some of those will leave, and that will mean that an even smaller proportion of Scots are net contributors to the state. They might feel pretty unhappy if the politics still means that they are then expected to pay even more taxes to make up the deficit, so more of those ‘considering leaving’ might actually do so. A vicious circle will force more and more Scots onto the train to London or overseas. Scotland would soon be full of net receivers from the state, used to a heavily subsidised standard of living and willing to vote for anyone who will keep borrowing more and more to pay for it. Those that can will leave.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that a newly independent Scotland will very soon start to see its standard of living very significantly degraded. Even after tightening its belt a few times, it is likely to see its economy slide deeper into debt. Not a good prospect at all.

Can we get a less abusive society?

When I wrote my recent blog on reducing the problem of rape, part of my research (yes I do sometimes try to learn about something before I blog about it) was looking at the Crime Survey for England and Wales, the CSEW. (As I said, I wasn’t very impressed by it and I couldn’t accept it as a true indicator of crime. A lot of the questions are ambiguous and there are big gaps and strong biases in the coverage. Some areas would therefore be overstated in results while others understated and it lends itself far too well to political lobbies. I said it was about as reasonable an indicator of crime level as a casual chat in a pub.)

The CSEW has a large section asking questions about various forms of abuse within relationships. Not just physical abuse such as rape, but financial, social or emotional abuse too – belittling someone, not letting them see their friends, not allowing them their share of the money. That sort of thing.

Since then, it occurred to me that abuse within relationships is a micro-scale version of what we do all the time socially via politics. If you look at a country as a whole, different groups with very different ideological preferences have to somehow live peacefully side by side in the long term. If you like, it’s a sort of enforced marriage, writ large, or a grand scale civil partnership if you prefer that. 

Taking that analogy, we could adapt some of the questions from the crime survey to see whether things we do regularly to each other in the guise of everyday politics are really a form of abuse. Even within marriages and partnerships, what most of us consider unacceptable behaviour may be accepted or practiced by a quite large proportion of people – according to the figures out this week, 16% of 16-19 year olds think it’s sometimes OK to hit a partner.

If you really don’t like your own country, you could leave, and often some people will tell you to do just that if you don’t like it, but the costs and the aggravation and the ‘why should it be me that has to leave?’ are a big deterrent. So you stay together and suffer the abuse. 

So, let’s take a few of the questions from the CSEW and apply them to the political scale. The questionnaire is here:

Starting with a few questions from the section on domestic violence:

Q1: Has your partner ever prevented you from having your fair share of the household money?

(Yes that question is in the domestic violence section, and I’d certainly answer yes, for pretty much every girlfriend I’ve ever had. That’s why I don’t believe much that comes out of the survey. It’s far too open to interpretation and far too tempting a tool for campaigning. Responses from people who have had serious abuse in this manner would be lost in the noise).

This one has a very obvious political equivalent, and we don’t even need to adapt it. Just about every pressure group would answer yes, and so would everyone who feels they should pay less tax or get more government support or more pay or feels the government spends too much on other people’s interests instead of theirs.

The battle between left and right often comes down to this. The left wants to take and spend more and more, and the right wants to keep their cash and spend it themselves. Each side occasionally gets their way to some degree, but there is no doubt in my mind – it is abusive, no better than a marital fight where the one currently holding the wallet or purse wins, i.e. whoever got most seats this time. We really should find a better way. It is this issue more than any other that made me realise that we ought to implement a dual democracy, (I describe that in my book Total Sustainability) and if we don’t this abuse will eventually lead to the Great Western War which I blogged about a couple of months ago:

So, question 1, and we can already confirm we are in a highly abusive relationship.

Q2: Has your partner ever stopped you from seeing friends or relatives?

(Can anyone honestly say no to that?)

This one is rather harder to translate. The human rights act is notoriously pretty forceful on this when it comes to criminals, but what does it equate to in civil abuse? Aha! Public demonstrations. Government is intercepting a lot of metadata on who our friends and political friends are, using face recognition at public demonstrations, making them much harder to organise or attend, preventing access to a demonstration and dispersing large groups more. We can all think of groups we find repugnant and may prefer not to exist, but they do exist and share our land whether we like them or not, and they are human, whether we try to portray them as otherwise or not. This sort of abuse blurs into the next form, belittling. Some of us still defend freedom of speech, the right to say what you like without censorship. Others want to clamp down on it, selectively of course; their own right to demonstrate or speak freely must be protected. After the BBC’s Question Time this week, there were numerous people demanding that certain types of people or political parties should be banned from appearing. Such demands happen often. We saw Ed Davey and Prince Charles calling anyone who disagrees with their own views names and should be barred from having any public platform to air their views, the Green Party going still further and calling for people who disagree with them to be sacked and banned from office. So coupling it with belittling, this abuse is becoming the norm in politics and even the Royal Family are guilty of it.

So, more abuse.

Q3: has your partner ever repeatedly belittled you to the extent you felt worthless?

Anyone who ever watches political debate will easily recognise the strong analogies here. These days, in the UK at least, members of all political parties often do their very best to present opposing views as worthless, unacceptable, unfair, odious, backward, prehistoric, uncivilised…. It seems the norm rather than the exception. It isn’t just the parties themselves. Anyone who doesn’t tick all the boxes on the latest political correctness fad is often subjected to abuse by people who share opposing views. Civilised debate on a wide range of sensitive issues is impossible any more.

Definitely very abusive this time.

Q4 has your partner ever frightened you, by threatening to hurt you or someone close to you?

Isn’t that what strikes do? Or riots or even large peaceful public demonstrations? Or media campaigns by pressure groups? People often feel bullied into submission because of the potential consequences they feel if they don’t comply with the demands.

Quite abusive

The rest of the questions are not relevant, being specific to particular weapons. But I think I have made my point. By the criteria we use to judge abuse in our own personal relationships, our society is as guilty as hell. I think it is getting worse year by year. I think we are heading slowly but surely towards a critical point where the fuse finally blows and social breakdown is likely.

I think that in the 21st Century, it is about time we started to work out a more civilised way of living together, sharing the same space with human dignity and mutual respect. Maybe love is a bit much to ask for, but surely we can manage without abusing each other?

Automation and the London tube strike

I was invited on the BBC’s Radio 4 Today Programme to discuss automation this morning, but on Radio 4, studio audio quality is a higher priority than content quality, while quality of life for me is a higher priority than radio exposure, and going into Ipswich greatly reduces my quality of life. We amicably agreed they should find someone else.

There will be more automation in the future. On one hand, if we could totally automate every single job right now, all the same work would be done, so the world would still have the same overall wealth, but then we’d all be idle so our newly free time could be used to improve quality of life, or lie on beaches enjoying ourselves. The problem with that isn’t the automation itself, it is mainly the deciding what else to do with our time and establishing a fair means of distributing the wealth so it doesn’t just stay with ‘the mill owners’. Automation will eventually require some tweaks of capitalism (I discuss this at length in my book Total Sustainability).

We can’t and shouldn’t automate every job. Some jobs are dull and boring or reduce the worker to too low a level of  dignity, and they should be automated as far as we can economically – that is, without creating a greater problem elsewhere. Some jobs provide people with a huge sense of fulfillment or pleasure, and we ought to keep them and create more like them. Most jobs are in between and their situation is rather more complex. Jobs give us something to do with our time. They provide us with social contact. They stop us hanging around on the streets picking fights, or finding ways to demean ourselves or others. They provide dignity, status, self-actualisation. They provide a convenient mechanism for wealth distribution. Some provide stimulation, or exercise, or supervision. All of these factors add to the value of jobs above the actual financial value add.

The London tube strike illustrates one key factor in the social decision on which jobs should be automated. The tube provides an essential service that affects a very large number of people and all their interests should be taken into account.

The impact of potential automation on individual workers in the tube system is certainly important and we shouldn’t ignore it. It would force many of them to find other jobs, albeit in an area with very low unemployment and generally high salaries. Others would have to change to another role within the tube system, perhaps giving assistance and advice to customers instead of pushing buttons on a ticket machine or moving a lever back and forward in a train cab. I find it hard to see how pushing buttons can offer the same dignity or human fulfillment as directly helping another person, so I would consider that sort of change positive, apart from any potential income drop and its onward consequences.

On the other hand, the cumulative impacts on all those other people affected are astronomically large. Many people would have struggled to get to work. Many wouldn’t have bothered. A few would suffer health consequences due to the extra struggle or stress. Perhaps a few small business on the edge of survival will have been killed. Some tourists won’t come back, a lot will spend less. A very large number of businesses and individuals will suffer significantly to let the tube staff make a not very valid protest.

The interests of a small number of people shouldn’t be ignored, but neither should the interests of a large number of people. If these jobs are automated, a few staff would suffer significantly, most would just move on to other jobs, but the future minor miseries caused to millions would be avoided.

Other jobs that should be automated are those where staff are give undue power or authority over others. Most of us will have had bad experiences of jobsworth staff, perhaps including ticketing staff, whose personal attitude is rather less than helpful and whose replacement by a machine would make the world a better place. A few people sadly seem to relish their power to make someone else’s life more difficult. I am pleased to see widespread automation of check-in at airports for that reason too. There were simply too many check-in assistants who gleefully stood in front of big notices saying that rudeness and abuse will not be tolerated from customers, while happily abusing their customers, creating maximum inconvenience and grief to their customers through a jobsworth attitude or couldn’t-care-less incompetence. Where people are in a position of power or authority, where a job offers the sort of opportunities for sadistic self-actualisation some people get by making other people’s lives worse, there is a strong case for automation to avoid the temptation to abuse that power or authority.

As artificial intelligence and robotics increase in scope and ability, many more jobs will be automated, but more often it will affect parts of jobs. Increasing productivity isn’t a bad thing, nor is up-skilling someone to do a more difficult and fulfilling job than they could otherwise manage. Some parts of any job are dull, and we won’t miss them, if they are replaced by more enjoyable activity. In many cases, simple mechanical or information processing tasks will be replaced by those involving people skills, emotional skills. By automating these bits where we are essentially doing machine work, high technology forces us to concentrate on being human. That is no bad thing.

While automation moves people away from repetitive,boring, dangerous, low dignity tasks, or those that give people too much opportunity to cause problems for others, I am all in favour. Those jobs together don’t add up to enough to cause major economic problems. We can find better work for those concerned.

We need to guard against automation going too far though. When jobs are automated faster than new equivalent or better jobs can be created, then we will have a problem. Not from the automation itself, but as a result of the unemployment, the unbalanced wealth distribution, and all the social problems that result from those. We need to automate sustainably.

Human + machine is better than human alone, but human alone is probably better than machine alone.

The rise and fall of the web

This is my part of a joint newsletter with Rohit Talwar, his was published just now as a guest blog.

The rise and fall of the web

20 years ago, the web was in its infancy and the first conferences appeared where we could all discuss what was coming next. Even then the need was obvious for search engines, portal sites, firewalls, social networking, online shopping, auctions, discount buying schemes and so on and even the seedier side of the web was already obvious back then. Not much around today on the web wasn’t being discussed 20 years ago. It just took that long to emerge and evolve into what was anticipated. What has happened is exposure of the naïve optimism of some of the early debate.

Over the coming years we saw the expected creation of companies like Amazon and ebay, Facebook, Twitter and Google, and the rise of already existing companies such as Microsoft, Apple and Samsung, in some cases from niche player to market dominance. Without exception, the companies I mentioned deserve praise for struggling through the difficult phases of market creation and the sometimes huge and prolonged losses leading up to break-even and eventual profitability. They all started with a dream and made it happen, knowing they would succeed if they worked hard enough at it.

Without wanting to remove any of that praise, it is hard not to wonder if at least part of the dream is starting to turn sour. Is there evidence now that power corrupts? Does possession of a strong market position always lead inevitably to market abuse?

In each case, there are recent examples of less-than-saintly behaviour, but some issues are spreading as a problem, so rather than pick on individual companies, I’ll focus on the issues. In each case, a large company with little effective competition is in strong position to force these policies since they know customers and clients can’t easily just walk away. There is no cartel, but if a problem happens to affect all the main providers for a service, or it is a de-facto monopoly, you really have no choice.

Privacy invasion or at least scant regard for privacy is the biggest issue for some, introducing policies that make it hard for users to remain private. In this case, the reason is obvious. Privacy conflicts with extracting maximum market value from a customer’s personal data. I don’t personally want everyone to know what I just bought online, what I watch on TV, what games I play or what music I am listening to, or to have full access to everything I ever typed on a social networking page. The choice we seem to be presented with is simple. If you don’t want to be fully exposed 24-7, either don’t use the web or a mobile app, or be prepared to spend time frequently to check every site you use carefully for their latest policy changes to make sure an oversight doesn’t allow your privacy doesn’t fall through a new hole they just dug. But even that may not be the real choice now. The emerging pattern seem to be that changes may be introduced retrospectively, eradicating any value in privacy commitments in existing policy. If that behaviour spreads, then any privacy you think you have today is merely an illusion.

Burning the candle at both ends is another recent issue. Although the web has few of the costs associated the with high street, large web companies are charging high fees now to companies to sell via their site, much the same as property developers with the best locations can charge high fees to shops. That end of the candle is well alight, but customers are finding the discounts offered are often far less now too. Now that they have been psychologically hooked by the web empires, prices are rising.

Walled gardens were a consideration for regulators when mobile and broadband networks were emerging – I took part in several workshops discussing their merits and drawbacks. Telecoms regulators understood well that dominant telecoms companies might try to force customers to use only services within their own areas of control, i.e. to stay in their walled garden, and they legislated accordingly to protect customers. It was presumed that competition would suffer greatly if people were not free to wander as they pleased and exploitation would follow soon after.  However, although some of the web giants are heading rapidly and determinedly down exactly that path, the authorities are either looking the other direction or unable to do anything about it. It seems that any regulators that do exist have too vague boundaries on their remits, or the companies fall outside their jurisdiction geographically, or they simply have too many issues to deal with and can’t keep up. It is unacceptable that we now by default have arrived at a business platform that lends itself to abuse but isn’t being properly controlled by the normal regulator processes that apply as standard elsewhere.

Arrogance is a term we hear thrown at web giants frequently now, and it does seem appropriate when a large company ignores protests by its customers and imposes policies that significantly affect the terms and conditions that applied when they first became a customer. Even incrementally small changes can add up to large change in a short time, but if customers have invested time and effort building a profile or establishing a place or network on a site, the personal costs of migration can be too high. There ought to be equivalent rights protecting the interests of customers online just as in the physical world, but online providers appear to be able to make their own conditions of use with much greater scope for abuses, knowing that very few customers will read many pages of small print. Especially where websites feature heavily in everyday use, and where not being a user might even may be a career or social impediment, there should be more protection from arrogance and unilateral determination and management of user rights. Some regulatory body should be making sure terms and conditions are fair and balanced because the market isn’t doing that by itself.

Another aspect of arrogance is the enthusiasm to avoid taxes by exploiting holes in the law, and reading between the lines, it is as if the companies think they know best how money should be spent for humankind’s best interests, not governments. They may be right about government, but that doesn’t excuse arrogance.

Reintermediation is a direct consequence of walled gardens but is an issue in its own right. Early analysis of the web suggested it would lead to perfect markets, where people would be in direct contact with suppliers, thereby cutting out the middle man and his costs while forcing perfect information and hence maximum competitiveness. With good search, it would be easy to find all potential suppliers for something and compare them directly, and there would be no need to go via an agency. What we have now is interesting in that the search sites have themselves become intermediaries, and comparison sites another layer of that, listing results from a subset of suppliers. So instead of removing an intermediary we generated two new ones, three if you use an app store to do it. Everyone wants a slice of the pie of course, but the web was meant to bypass that, and it simply hasn’t. People can go direct, but it doesn’t take long to discover that using a search engine will often put hundreds of pages of the wrong sites before the one you search for. Most of the listings on the first several pages will often be intermediary sites.

In spite of all this, the potential of the web hasn’t gone away. It still allows word of new sites to spread rapidly, for reputations to be made and lost, for empires to spring up overnight, and for old ones to crash and burn. Boredom is under-rated as a motivation to change too. Social network sites in particular are highly vulnerable to their customers simply getting bored and leaving, but new designs and novel ideas can present a real threat to any of them. The sword of Damocles hangs over all.

For all their size and momentum, none of the web giants is guaranteed longevity. As some of yesterday’s giants discovered, a startup can replace them in just a few years. Maybe the first generation of web giants has climbed high, but decadence and abuse of power have made them ripe for conquest. All we need now is to wait for the imminent emergence of the second generation.