Saturday, 23 June 2012

Jimmy Carr is an idiot. But not for the reason you might think...

Jimmy Carr thinks his terrible error was in avoiding tax. Actually, it was in not realising that he was fulfilling a nefarious plan by the government...

That's right Jimmy - punch that taxman!
Or just blind him with your forehead glare.
Yes, it's bandwagon time, and I'm going to hop onto it. This week Jimmy Carr has been roundly criticised for avoiding paying a significant chunk of income tax by using a scheme called K2, provided by a company based in Jersey. Naturally, and justifiably, the idea of a millionaire public figure like Carr paying a disgustingly low rate of income tax and shafting HMRC in the process was a slight irk to pretty much everyone. Joe Bloggs was pissed off. John Doe was pissed off. David Cameron and Ed Milliband both came out claiming that Carr was the anti-christ and was responsible for slaughtering Santa's elves, or something along those lines. Amidst all this, about the sanest piece of commentary came from, remarkably, the ever-insightful gynaecological mastermind Christian Jessen:-

But I can't help but feel that even Dr Christian has missed the point on Jimmy Carr. He is right that politicians shouldn't stigmatise Carr personally, given that he is just exploiting a loophole that ultimately they designed. He is also right that the incident should be raising concerns about tax structures, rather than the moral failings of the wealthy. But what he and everyone else is missing is that Carr has not avoided paying tax entirely, and to a much greater extent than they think. Consequently, the question is not "how can we make sure Jimmy Carr pays more tax", but rather "how do we make sure Jimmy Carr stops being so smug about the fact that he employs an accountant.". In short, most commentators have focused on the fact that Carr pays less income tax than he should, but they've forgotten to ask themselves a key question:-

Where does all the money he is not paying in income tax go?

At risk of reiterating the obvious, let's go over exactly what it is that Carr has done. He was a member of a tax avoidance scheme called K2, which is designed to drastically reduce an individual's exposure to income tax. Under K2, Carr has essentially become an employee of the K2 company (based in Jersey), and any earnings he makes through his onshore activities are paid to K2 as an employer, rather than Carr as the employee. K2 then pays Carr a nominal salary, in order to justify its incorporation, but at the lowest rate of income tax possible. The remainder of Carr's earnings are then given to him as an interest-free loan. As it is a loan, which can theoretically be recalled at any time, then it is not liable for tax, thus eliminating any further exposure to regular onshore UK tax rates. If that seems a bit confusing, think of it like this:-

Jimmy Carr's income tax performance - standard

Earnings: £1m p/a.
Taxable income: £1m
Tax rate: 50% (higher rate of income tax)
HMRC receives: £1m x 50% = £500,000
Carr's take-home pay: the remainder = £500,000.

Jimmy Carr's income tax performance - K2

Earnings: £1m p/a. This goes to K2, not Jimmy Carr
Salary from K2: £10,000. Administration fee to K2: £98,000. Loan from K2: £892,000
Taxable income: £10,000; loan not liable for income tax.
Tax rate: 20% (lower rate of income tax) on £10,000 salary. No tax on the loan.
HMRC receives: £10,000 x 20% = £2,000
Carr's take-home pay: the remainder + the loan = £8,000 + £892,000 = £900,000.

Jimmy Carr gains: +£400k = +80%
HMRC loses: -£498k = -99.6%


And you'd be right, to an extent - it seems Carr has reduced his overall tax liability from 50% to only 10%**. And I'm assuming your cleaner is just as pissed off as you right now.

The thing is, to be irked at Carr going home with so much extra wonga is to forget what he does with it all. I somehow doubt that he just goes home with £900k in £50 notes, throws them in his jacuzzi and rubs them all over himself in a state of ecstasy. Instead, he has to do something with it, and a smart man like Jimmy Carr is going to do two things - spend and invest. And this is why Carr's absurdly low rate of income tax is so misleading. He will still be paying tax on all his subsequent economic activity, and this economic activity has been explicitly preferred by the government.

Before K2 he would be taking home £500k and sticking half of it in a savings account and spending the other half on consumption. Now all he's doing is increasing the amount he saves and/or the amount he consumes, and thus becoming liable for more tax in these areas. For instance, before K2 he might have had to put £250k in a savings account, paid £150k on living costs, and then spent the remaining £100k on some crappy Aston Martin and been jolly miserable about the whole thing. With K2, let's say he still puts £250k in a savings account, and pays £150k on living costs, but he can now spend £500k on the Pagani Zonda he had his heart set on. He will still pay VAT on that supercar. And HMRC will still gain tax revenues from the extra consumption by the extra employees hired by Pagani to make the more expensive supercar. Consequently, Carr isn't shafting HMRC. Well, not as much as we thought:-

Jimmy Carr's real tax performance - standard

Earnings: £1m p/a.
Income tax @ 50% = £500k. Available to spend = £500k
Saves £250k. Tax on earnings through interest of 4% = £10k x 20% = £2,000
Consumes remaining £250k. VAT @ 20% = £50k
Therefore total tax = £500k (Income) + £2k (Savings interest) + £50k (VAT) = £552k
Therefore tax rate = £552k / £1m = 55.2%

Jimmy Carr's real tax performance - K2

Earnings: £1m p/a.
Income tax+K2 fees = £2k + £98k = £100k. Available to spend = £900k
Saves £250k. Tax on earnings through interest of 4% = £10k x 20% = £2,000
Consumes remaining £650k. VAT @ 20% = £130k
Therefore total tax = £130k (VAT) + £2k (Income) + £2k (Savings interest) = £134,000
Therefore tax rate = £134k / £1m = 13.4%

Jimmy Carr actual gains:  Still +£400k = +80%
HMRC actual loses:  552k-134k = -£420k = -76%***


The point is that Carr has not escaped paying tax entirely, he's just shifted the majority of his earnings liability away from income tax @ 50% to VAT @ 20%. In so doing, HMRC loses a large chunk of revenue, but it is no way as large as if Jimmy Carr was not consuming at all. And he is able to do so because the tax system is designed to promote investment and consumption, and private economic activity (more employees making supercars) rather than public economic activity (more civil servants delivering public services). The tax system is designed to do this, otherwise why else would consumption be taxed at a flat rate of 20% and income taxed on a sliding scale starting at 20%? HMRC is haemorrhaging revenue not because the tax rate is wrong, but because they've made the mistake of not taxing Carr's earnings at the point between him taking cash from the punters and passing it on to a company based in Jersey.

If you think I'm happy with this situation, you'd be wrong. I think it is preferable to tax rich people more, and I happen to think that expenditure on public services is a lot more productive in many instances than leaving investment to the private sector and allowing capital to accumulate in the hands of wealthy individuals. The questions this incident has raised are not about how immoral the rich are; if the government really didn't want individuals like Jimmy Carr to use such elaborate income tax avoidance schemes, then it wouldn't put up with a tax system designed to promote consumption and investment, rather than accumulation of capital. The question is instead how to ensure that tax rates are consistent across different income bands whilst still maintaining adequate levels of private investment and consumption. And I suspect the way to achieve that would be through greater restrictions on capital flows and moving towards equalising tax rates levied on income, investment and consumption.

Back to the comedian. Contrary to his statement, Carr's "terrible error" is not in using a scheme which rebalances his tax liabilities away from income and towards value-added tax. With a system set-up specifically to promote consumption and investment rather than income growth, one might argue that he is practically obliged to do so. His great error is when he claims that he pays 'the bare minimum in tax, and not a penny more". It is an error because this is a lie. If he were really so concerned about preventing his income going to HMRC as tax, then he would be doing everything physically possible to convert his earnings directly into cash and consuming via non-taxable transactions. He'd set up a company in the Marshall Islands to receive his earnings and pay it all back to himself as cash dividends, whilst concentrating his consumption entirely on cash, non-value-added services. To put it simply, if Jimmy Carr really wanted to make sure he paid the bare minimum of tax, his consumption would consist solely of crack cocaine and hookers. Although whether his jokes would have the same impact, I'm not so sure...


* You don't have a cleaner? Well, you clean, don't you...?
** The net liability is 10%, as he takes home 90% of his earnings. Obviously the tax liability is a meagre 2%, but from Carr's perspective the important thing is not how much HMRC gets, but rather the difference between losing 50% of his earnings and losing only 10%, so I've gone with the latter figure for simplicity.
*** Actually, it's not quite as bad as this, because HMRC will still gain revenue from taxing the incomes and consumption of the extra Pagani employees. However, I can't be arsed to speculate what value this might add up to.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Queen shakes hands at Terminal 5?

Ok, so let's just nail this one on the head.

As a republican, one thing that really drives me up the wall is people attempting to correct me with hyperbolic arguments, as if I'm somehow too stupid to have comprehended them beforehand. I've been a republican for as long as I can remember, but one thing I have found over the years is that the majority of people whom I inform that I am a republican tend to respond as if I've just punched their sainted grandmother square in the face. A mixture of abhorrence and turgid disgust grips their facial expression, salivated scorn encapsulating their tongue as they react to the clearly horrifying concept that anyone could be so vile as to want to abolish the monarchy. This I can take - if you are so besotted with the feudal system and react as such, then I can just about forgive you for assuming that I am some sort of lesser intellectual being. What I cannot stand is silly arguments. And the key one which always pops up is: the tourism argument.

This is the number one rebuttal that people use against my republicanism, and it truly infuriates me. What prompted me to write this piece was that last week when a friend of mine, shocked that I might be less than enthusiastic about the monarchy, protested that "the monarchy actually brings in so many tourists for this country!" What upsets me is not that I've had to rebut this argument so often. It's that by using this argument, people who I'd normally be inclined to think are at least moderately intelligent are made to sound absolutely bloody stupid. Don't agree? Well, before I go on to verbally lambast you, let's just analyse the tourism argument for monarchy and why it's such a steaming pile of grade-A bullshit.

The Tourism Argument

It goes a little something like this:-
  1. The monarchy brings tourists to Britain;
  2. More tourists = more money = more economic activity;
  3. More economic activity = better; therefore
  4. The monarchy is good.
For those readers who know a little elementary logic, you will recognise that this is a sound argument. It is also a stupid argument, for two reasons.

The first is an issue with the connection between 1 and 4. If the monarchy does have an effect on tourism - so what? Most republicans are republicans because they see a constitutional issue in our politics which can be solved by having an elected head of state. In other words, the monarchy is bad because it is an undemocratic institution. To thus be informed that this is not an argument about politics and rather about how to increase tourism revenue strikes republicans like myself as somewhat strange. I believe that there is scope for reform in our political institutions which could improve their efficacy and accountability. I do not believe such reform is necessary because it makes Johnny Foreigner more likely to spend the weekend in a B&B in Norwich.

In fact, the strangest thing about this aspect of the argument is that when people use it as their first rebuttal against republicanism, it implies that they accept that there is nothing politically attractive about monarchy and they've had to skip straight to economics. It's as if the rebuker accepts that the monarchy is undemocratic, unaccountable and illiberal, but at least it's profitable. But not only that, but that it's the key thing here. And that's just silly - we did not and do not design our political institutions to enhance the country's attraction as a holiday destination; we design them to be just and to be accountable. And skipping that latter part to argue the former fundamentally misunderstands the point of government.

Admittedly, this does not make the tourism argument defunct - side-effects of certain forms of government may not be sufficient justification for certain political institutions, but they can be used to justify them if they are sound and the alternatives are sufficiently awful. For instance, one justification previously used against full democratic government in Bahrain was that it gave reform-minded moderates control, rather than a group which was openly sectarian. Well, before everything went tits up there. So, let's assume that democratic government is absolutely sodding awful and the monarchy is not great buts brings in tourist dollars - that's alright then? WRONG.

"One welcomes you to the concept of queueing."

This brings us to the second problem with the tourism argument, and the one which really puts in to perspective how stupid it is. Does the monarchy really bring in extra tourism? Really? Really really? Think about it - if you've ever argued that the monarchy brings in tourists, what are you actually basing that assertion on? Why do you think that? Is it because you are an economics professor with a background in analysing holiday trends? Is it because you have seen statistical evidence from the National Statistics Office proving that people come to Britain to go to costume parties with Harry Windsor? Or is it because you've got absolutely no flipping idea what you're talking about but everyone always says that the monarchy brings in tourism, so it must be true? Well, I know the answer, and it's the latter.

Am I the only one thinking VisitBritain's logo looks too much like UKSA?
I struggle to comprehend why people still insist on making this argument, on a logical and evidential basis. Logically I find it difficult to understand what impact the monarchy has on tourism. Because as much as monarchists might want it to happen, the Queen does not shake hands with incoming tourists as they reach the passport control queue at Terminal 5. The royal family don't personally throw lollipops to onlookers at Buckingham Palace. Heck, they don't even use their personal fortune to subsidise ferry trips across the Channel for foreign visitors. They may be part of 'Brand Britain' (although the monarchy doesn't even feature on VisitBritain's notion of what this brand is), but the monarchy are in no way the defining factor which makes people want to go on holiday here. They come here because they want to see Stone Henge, the Tower of London, drink warm beer and have cream teas whilst climbing Snowdon and watching Premier League football matches. Think about it: for the monarchy's tourism argument to be true, it would have to be the case that some Japanese family living in Tokyo would be sitting in their nearby travel agency saying "We could go to France, or see the Big Apple, or lie on a beach on the Mediterranean Riviera, or go on a trek to Rio de Janeiro. But whilst we hate tea and ale and rain and chewing gum on every pavement, we had better go to Britain because we just might see Kate and Wills!" Bollocks.

But I am not so immodest as to think that my logic is always correct, so let's assume that the monarchy is a significant incentive for people to come here. Even if they never actually get to actually see any of the royals. Does the evidence bear out the truism that the monarchy increases tourism to this country? This would be an easy question to answer were it not for the fact that pretty much zero serious analysis has actually been conducted into answering this question. A key reason for this is that even professional authorities get mixed up between 'the monarchy' and 'royal attractions'. Republicans want an elected head of state; they don't want to blow up Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. Consequently if we were to abolish the monarchy, such attractions would still exist and still draw in tourists. A fact which would be slightly more comforting were it not for the fact that attractions commonly associated with the monarchy are not as popular as non-royal attractions. It used to be joked that Windsor Castle got less visitors each year than Legoland; it's now slightly more humbling that more people actually visit the charmingly named Flamingoland

From VisitBritain's Foresight report, Issue 60, October 2008. Click for larger.

But no-one has actually surveyed foreign visitors and discerned not only if the monarchy is an incentive to holiday here, but even if the monarchy is the determining factor in whether people holiday here, as opposed to, you know, all the other stuff they can actually see. About the closest we have come to such an important study was the 2009 Issue of VisitBritain's Foresight research magazine which attempted to prove the monarchy's enduring appeal to tourists. And this wasn't even a serious consideration of the question, devoting a mere five pages to it, of which three were solely concerned with pointing out that tourists wanted to visit royal attractions like Kensington Palace and Edinburgh Castle, which - in case you've forgotten - are sites of interest intrinsically tied to our history and culture, not exclusively tied to the consitutional question of whether Elizabeth Windsor is elected or not. The report then went on to say that an average of 11% of visiting tourists considered the Queen to be the most iconic image representing Britain. Regardless of the fact that this does not constitute proof that she personally is the reason why tourists visit Britain, this is also a deeply unimpressive figure (she came behind red buses and castles-by-the-sea) given the supposed huge influence the monarchy has on tourism. Of course she's iconic - what do you expect if the BBC and every other major British media organisation constantly churns out banal news about her goings-on? The point is that this has never been shown to have an effect on actual visitor numbers, or why those numbers would be any worse under a republic. (Surely in a republic that third place behind the buses and castles would be occupied by another British icon, of which, let's face it, we aren't exactly lacking.)

Monarch Airlines, anyone?

The point at the end of this is that whatever you may think, there is no evidence to suggest that having an unelected head of state somehow increases tourism numbers and revenues in Britain, as much as you might misguidedly think that that is the case. Logically, a republic might boost them - without the faffing about with security and concentrating on celebrity royals rather than British attractions themselves, we might be able to open up and invest in attractions such as Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace so that tourists can see more and spend more. And because at the end of the day, if France can be the world's most visited country, even with a ridiculously bureaucratic executive presidency and absolutely no history of royalty whatsoever, then surely we can beat that? If you are going to try to make the tourism argument, at the very least the burden of proof is on you to explain how, despite the lack of evidence, the monarchy brings in tourism dollars. And how that justifies having an undemocratic, unaccountable head of state.

For once I'd actually like friends who criticise me for being a republican to do so by making an argument for unaccountable, unelected political institutions, rather than this rubbish. Consequently, if you so much as dare to try to argue that I shouldn't be a republican because the royals bring so many tourists over, then I reserve the right to call you a complete and utter fucking nitwit.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Film Review: Margin Call

Last year was pretty damn good for films. After the disappointment of 2010, 2011 kicked off slowly, the first really decent mainstream film Super 8 being ruined by one of the worst endings in history, although we ended up with gems like Senna, Melancholia, Drive, Almodóvar's twistedly brilliant The Skin I Live In, and of course my personal highlight, the tragicomic masterpiece that was The Beaver. However, barely three weeks into 2012 and I already have a film which will take some beating by year end: Margin Call.

"Be Gaunt, Be Suited - Be Jeremy Irons"
As an aspiring financial services professional myself, I immediately realised I had to see this film at all costs, and dragged a couple of friends kicking and screaming with me out of the Dark Continent that is Monmouthshire to the only cinema in Cardiff that was showing it, and greedily spent two hours fighting them over popcorn and Diet Coke as a common wet dream of mine played out on screen. Set in 2008 amidst the financial crisis on Wall Street, but with the shit having not yet truly hit the fan, the film opens with the HR team of a fictional (though partially based on Lehman Brothers) bank sacking employees of a trading floor en masse. As the floor's risk manager leaves, he hands a usb stick to a junior associate telling him that it's got some bloody important Excel spreadsheets on it, and that if he doesn't finish it in double time, then Steve Ballmer is probably going to go totally medieval on the place. Sure enough, he checks it out, runs the macros and highlights the drop-down cells in light green and tan, and realises that the assets held by the bank are so grossly over-leveraged that they exceed the market capitalisation of the bank. In short, the bank's assets are worthless, and when the markets find out, the bank will go under quicker than an over-hyped disaster movie retro-fitted in glorious dumb-vision. The rest of the film follows how the bank's executives, now alerted to the bank's imminent collapse, stay up through the night politicking amongst themselves until they decide to liquidate all of their toxic assets in a fire sale, knowing full well that they will save the bank by knowingly selling worthless assets to the market. Yep, you guessed it: this is a film all about how greedy those greedy bankers are and how they greedily destroyed society by being so bloody greedy those greedy bastards.

Except it isn't. Margin Call begins coldly, with the surviving employees of the morning cull debating how many millions their colleagues earn, and describing the unfolding crisis in severely technical terms which risk alienating the audience terribly early on. However, as it progresses and the interplay between characters becomes more heated, we see the pains with which each banker confronts the problem and the imminent fire sale, and how they attempt to justify what they are doing knowing full well it will cost the wider economy and potentially worse - their jobs. This has been a source of dissatisfaction for some critics, who argue that it humanises the bankers who are ultimately culprits in the financial collapse of 2007-8. But I feel this would be going too far, for whilst the film puts a human face on the crisis, it certainly does not humanise them.

A key element of this film is that as the night wears on, we see a remarkable bifurcation between character traits as rank escalates - the higher ranking the executive, the less they know about the business. This begins with Sam (Kevin Spacey), who does not understand a graph; followed by blonde bombshell Jared (Simon Baker) who asks to be spoken to "in plain English"; until we get to CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), who requests an explanation as if he were "a small child, or a golden retriever". It is a situation that reminds me of a maxim espoused by a former colleague, arguing that 'everyone gets promoted until they get into a job which they cannot do. Therefore, everyone is in a job they cannot do'. I will let you debate the cogency of that maxim, and it is certainly questionable whether the CEOs of stricken Wall Street investment banks really didn't know what happened at the bottom line. But at the very least this clever plot device creates a wonderful drama as the junior characters struggle to make an impact, whilst their bosses attempt to devise a solution to save themselves despite their proclamations of ignorance. Not only that, but a solution to save themselves at the expense of the livelihoods of not only ordinary citizens but also of the analysts who alerted and warned them of the crisis in the first place.

Herein lies the brilliance of the film: foremost, it is a film about the financial crisis; but on a deeper level, it poses a question about the value of work per se. The recalcitrance of the executives and their disregard for wider concerns, including those of their employees, is representative of the extreme dichotomy of incentives that can exist between workers and their managers. If you are a fan of political philosophy, you will be reminded of Bentham, who warned against the potential for sinister interest in the course of economic activity. How much value one can derive from one's work, knowing that you work within an structure which creates an incentive for your masters to throw you to the wall when there is a challenge to their security? Throughout Margin Call, this question is posed repeatedly as the characters attempt to discern the value of their work - particularly the analyst Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley), who repeatedly inquires as to what his colleagues thinks each other is earning, and Emerson (Paul Bettany), who casually details how he blew a $2.5 million bonus with barely a flicker of emotion. As the dawn rises, the characters realise the futility of the situation, and as they carry out the awful task of sowing fear in the markets they philosophise on the true value of their work. For some this is too much. Bregman breaks down in tears and is ignored by Jared when he explains that despite his apparent avarice, he in fact truly loved his job. And most chillingly, the curtain falls upon Sam, who, having sold his soul for the sake of the company, uses a shovel to demonstrate a surprisingly powerful allegory about the nature of destruction and creation.

If there is one criticism that I can make of the film, it is that at numerous points in the last half hour it feels as if it is compressing numerous moments of epiphany and soliloquy by its characters, leading the viewer to think we have reached the ending only for more to follow. This is a slightly ham-fisted manner of screenplay, ultimately detracting from the impact of the film's final scene and verging on proselytising. It would have been nice if the film could have drawn out these final scenes a little longer simply to maintain subtlety, but it cannot be denied that each individual speech given by the characters over the course of the following day is powerful in and of itself, with wonderfully poignant moments which highlight both the absurdity of their situation, and the perverse incentives which made them so successful in the first place. And none more so than Will, who attempts to justify the destruction he is soon to wreak on the economy: "if we take our hands off the scales, things are going to get pretty fucking fair pretty fucking quickly, and nobody wants that. At the end of the day, people want to live like kings".

Technical jargon: 5/5
Yuppie egotism: 5/5
Dorsia: 0/5

Overall: 4/5

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Noel Edmonds Makes Me So Happy That I Want to Punch Him in the Face...

... Repeatedly.

And what, you might ask, could possibly drive such a polite and mild-mannered individual such as myself to this abominable end? Well, that would be Noel Edmonds' last (hopefully) book, Positively Happy:-

Noel does his best to not look like the leader of a cult. And fails miserably.

I finished this a couple of months ago, but a review seems quite apt given that it was recently released for Kindle. I initially purchased the book because it was under £5 on Amazon and I reckoned I could have a pop at being a contestant on Deal or No Deal, and thought that my chances of success would be a little improved if I could get into the depths of Noel's head. What I embarked on was a torturous journey into the rabbit-hole of one of the world's most insufferable egos.

Readers of this blog may remember my earlier post about the similarly egotistic masterpiece of a megalomaniac, but in comparison to Jeremy Kyle, whose book sought to make you hate the world and everything in it and get so angry that you WRITE IN CAPS LOCK, Noel's intention with this work is instead to make you feel good and happy and want to dance around stroking daisies all day. It is a self-help book in which Noel (who, let's face it, is a pretty successful guy*) demonstrates that you can be just as happy as himself - namely, so happy that you grow a disturbing goatee and write books about just how fucking happy you are. And when even that paragon of good taste and artistic knowledge, the Daily Mail, wades in and waxes lyrical about Noel's agenda on the front cover, we know we're in for a good time.

For good times with Noel, dial 9.
One thing needs to be gotten out of the way first - this is not about Cosmic Ordering. Despite the subtitle, Cosmic Ways to Change Your Life, and Noel's belief in random new-age mumbo jumbo taught to him by his reflexologist, this book is definitely not about how asking the cosmos to give you all your life's goals will magically make your life improbably happier. Or about how that crazy zany ethereal thing he is referring to as 'the cosmos' really knows what you want and has your best interests in mind, rather than, you know, just fucking you over on a daily basis. No. This is a book about Noel Edmonds. And don't let Noel try to convince you otherwise.

This is because the ultimate problem with this book is that no matter how useful, enlightening, or hope-inducing Noel's maxims for happiness may be, the thing that is impossible to get over is just how unbearably smug the author is. With all self-help books, the author has to tread a fine line: they have to use concrete examples to show that their method works; but using too many examples of the author's own risks making them seem pompous and make the reader question why they need the profits from a self-help book anyway. In the case of Positively Happy, Noel doesn't so much overstep the fine line as use a blunderbuss to excitedly spray his own fecal matter all over it, all the time giggling excitedly and rubbing himself vigourously whilst proclaiming "MEEEEEE!" with a worrying blue glint in his eye.

Once we get past the introductory chapter, a linguistic mess littered with overuse of the terms 'spiritual' and various incarnations of 'happy', Noel actually supersedes his daytime TV rivals by being remarkably cogent and clear in his narrative. The book is surprisingly well-structured - not only in layout terms, each chapter having a clear introductory point followed by methods of action, case studies and bullet-point concluding maxims; but also structurally, as Noel has a simple and uncluttered writing style that quickly conveys his points with absolute clarity. He avoids the clutter and eclectic jargon that many other TV personalities (and their ghost writers) have often mistakenly used in place of real English, and keeps his ideas concise and easy to understand. All the way through, it is obvious that Noel is considering his strategy for achieving life goals, and laying it down in a coherent manner such that we can apply it to our own lives. Indeed, some of his ideas genuinely seem to make sense. For instance, in one segment he states how it is important to remind ourselves of our strengths and use them in daily life. He follows this up by saying that a good technique to employ this would be to write down 5-10 strengths you see in yourself on a card to carry round with you and read before going into an important meeting/interview/date/etc. This might seem like a silly and facetious thing to be reading from Noel Edmonds, but his frank exposition and suggestive (rather than prescriptive) tone make it easy to take or dismiss his suggestions as you please, and to be offered real, physical activities which can improve the way one strategises one's goals is actually quite refreshing. So far, Noel makes me feel like I'm having a nice cup of coffee with a friendly old man who genuinely does believe in me.

But then the friendly old man turns out to be Donald Trump, knocks the coffee from my hand, beats his chest and starts screaming about just how great he his because he owns six skyscrapers. And this is how Positively Happy ends up - a wonderfully enlightening book which is easy to get into, but ultimately burns the reader's hands because the sun is shining just so brightly out of the arse of the man on the front cover. I mentioned that the book is well laid out on a structural basis - one aspect of this is the neat division into twenty-page chapters. This is not because it is intended to be easy to pick up at any point and have a quick ten-minute read. It is instead in order to give us frequent points for us to take a breather and let the rage at Noel's inhuman smugness subside at regular intervals. Noel reinforces his well-being strategies with examples of his own success, yet does it with such frequency and shallow disregard for how cloying they might be that the reader has to literally throw their head back and breathe for air, all the time resisting the urge to punch the figure on the cover squarely in the face. The incessant examples of his own success would not be a problem if he reined in the degree to which they could be achieved in daily life - for instance, if he had followed up each technique by stating how it allowed him to cut his commute to work in half, or learn how to make tasty moussaka, or accept getting beaten in trivial pursuit by his mother-in-law every year. But no, Noel's examples of life-affirming happiness indicators would make investment bankers sick:-

Have clear goals:-
  • Noel feels "very lucky because early on in my life I learned that what I wanted more than anything was to be on the radio".
  • Result: Noel gets on the radio. And becomes Virgin's leading, most highly paid DJ.
Make the most of your moment:-
  • Noel ad libs a segment on Top of the Pops when the other presenters get flu.
  • Result: Noel gets a job on Swap Shop. And makes lots of money.
Play to your strengths:-
  • Noel turns down a job presenting a TV show which he feels doesn't suit him.
  • Result: Noel gets offered a job presenting Deal or No Deal instead. He makes millions.
Make space for your dreams:-
  • Noel really wants to learn to fly.
  • Result: Noel gets rich, buys a helicopter, and floats around South West England in his aerial screw.

And so on. It literally doesn't stop. And this is a massive issue, because I want to believe Noel. His open and caring writing style, persuasive techniques and genuine affection for well-being really do make me want to believe that his happiness techniques could make me better off. But when the benchmark is flying a helicopter, or buying a mansion, or becoming an unkempt über celebrity with millions of viewers on TV every day, it is difficult to feel not just disheartened, but actively disgusted at just how happy Noel thinks he is. The net result of reading Positively Happy feels like going to one of those self-improvement seminars that employers regularly make you go to. They're not exactly taxing, but you do feel slightly passionate about being a 'green personality' or writing down a 'positive career action plan'. The exception here is that the bloke running the seminar is taking a break every five minutes to slap you in the face with his Bulgari watch before dragging you to a window and ramming your nose up against the glass overlooking his Maserati in the car park, all the while politely explaining that you can be as happy as him if you just let let the universe be as kind to me as it has been to Noel Edmonds.

The problem is not that this makes me doubt that the efficacy of the strategies Noel describes - I'm sure they can, and I may well implement a few in my life. The problem is that Noel's conception of happiness is so implausibly beyond the reach of what mortals like us can achieve that it means for all the good that he has written, the book feels more like an outlet for him to brag about just how great he is. This notion is epitomised in one section where he describes an incident on Deal or No Deal where a contestant had two boxes with £20k and £250k left, and was offered £101k by the banker. Noel "wanted him to take the bankers offer, but as with all contestants, I have to keep my emotions hidden". The contestant rejected the offer and went home with £20k, to which Noel says "with his sunny nature, I'm sure he'll go on to good things". Bullshit. Because of the contestant's idiocy, he has to live with the fact that he walked away with less than a fifth of what he could have had, and Noel has seen fit to go "nah nah nah" in a book about the incident while he goes home with a £3 million salary in his pocket. Bastard.

Ultimately this is a great book for making you feel happy about yourself, and feel as if you can form a plan of action in your life. A plan which just so happens to include walking up to Noel Edmonds and punching him square in the face. Really hard.

Just fuck off Noel. Fuck right off.
Self-helping: 4/5
Pleasurable read: 1/5
Overall: 2.5/5


* No, really. He's being paid £3 million a year to coerce a room of mentally unstable people into crying over a cube of cardboard on a daily basis. If I were in his position, I'd be leaping over the bloody moon.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Corruption? Eh?

I was catching up on Michael White's blog on the Guardian today, which usually constitutes a skim-read, given that they usually contain interesting details at the expense of fluid narrative. However, yesterday's edition was particularly interesting because it reminded me of something I recognised a while ago but never really mentioned. White argues that the Recall of MPs draft bill is unnecessary and detrimental to our politics, given that a system to oust corrupt MPs already exists and implementation of the bill would risk holding constituencies hostage to vociferous minority interest groups which just wake up one morning and decide that they don't particularly like their MP. And I rather agree. But what also caught my attention was that White reminded me that the government are going full steam ahead with their plans to reduce the commons numbers from 650 to 600 members (it's an act now), in direct response to the 2010 MPs expenses crisis. And I can't help but feel that this is frankly absurd.

Why? Well, let's analyse the problem - it seems that that the response to perceived corruption is being formulated on a quantitative basis:-

  1. MPs are corrupt;
  2. We want to reduce the amount of corruption;
  3. If there are less corrupt MPs, there will be less corruption;
  4. Therefore we should reduce the number of MPs.
But this is erroneous. Point 3 is a logical fallacy - the quantitative claim that there are less corrupt MPs does not necessarily entail the argument that there is less corruption, which I feel is a largely qualitative variable. The MPs expenses scandal erupted because over time MPs realised a that there was a pot of gold which everyone was dipping their fingers into, and around said pot there evolved a culture which empowered them to dip their fingers into the pot that little bit further. The problem is qualitative in basis, and I think shows that the government is completely amiss when analysing the problem - the solution is not to cut the number of MPs, but rather to cut the size of the pot of gold.

Think about it: If the current plans go ahead, and the pot remains unchanged, then we will have less MPs, and more money per head to go around. Consequently, we will have less corrupt MPs (50 less, to be precise), but those left over have a greater incentive to be corrupt. Instead, shouldn't we reduce the size of the pot of gold, so we have the same amount of corrupt MPs, albeit committing less corruption? Quantitatively that could save just as much money, yet qualitatively would maintain the voter-representative links that the boundary commission is currently laying waste to, much to the chagrin of parties of all sides. And I wonder why those parties which stand to be most badly affected are not pursuing this line of argument - particularly my party, which kicked up an almighty fuss in the House of Lords over the bill, seems to be ignoring the fact that reducing the number of MPs is a bad thing for reasons other than close-minded partisanship.

This is of course ignoring that the pot of gold may be made smaller anyway. In which case it seems that the bill is aimed at completely the wrong solution - rather than skimming corruption, it is instead intended to cut the cost of the house of commons. And yet that is not what the government was arguing for when the bill was introduced. In short, I'm not entirely sure that increasing the number of constituents that an MP has to serve in order to save a few million a year is entirely that important, or entirely such a good idea, particularly as our population continues to increase and the constituents-per-representative ration inevitably rises. Is having lots of MPs really such a bad idea? Wouldn't it be better if our statecrafters just sought to eliminate the source of corruption instead?

The typical argument to the contrary is that MPs need to be paid more in order to eliminate the incentive for even worse corruption (i.e.: fiddling laws rather than just fiddling expenses claims). But I'm yet to see anyone even dare to suggest that we get rid of all expenses arrangements and pay MPs a flat rate of £100,000 per annum, with London weighting. Just a thought...