Burgers and microchips for all: Even if not a philanthropic sort, the world's first trillionaire could still offer a communal boon through taxation


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The Independent Online

The world's first trillionaire is coming, so look busy. According to last week's excitable predictions he (and it will be a he, won't it?) is already alive, probably works in technology and could buy everybody on the planet 80 burgers each, if he so chose – which beats 5,000 loaves. Yet all this fun with maths is not enough to distract us from a more troubling reflection: Will a world with one very, very, very rich man and millions of very, very, very poor people be the kind we'd want to live in?

It is to be hoped that our trillionaire will be a philanthropic sort, and some have speculated that Bill Gates, who has committed to donating at least half of his wealth to charity, is a likely candidate. But even if the trillionaire isn't that way inclined, his personal wealth could still offer a communal boon through taxation. And if the accountants at Trillionaire Inc don't like it, there's not much they will be able to do, if he is British. Soon HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) will have the power to recover unpaid tax directly from people's bank accounts.

This idea unnerves many people, even those not in Take That, such as members of the Treasury select committee. However, when MPs raised concern over the new HMRC powers last week, it wasn't on a principle of civil liberty, exactly. "The ability directly to have access to millions of taxpayers' bank accounts raises concerns about the risk of fraud and error," said the committee, which it warned could result in "serious detriment to taxpayers".

These are legitimate concerns, but they don't seem to apply to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), which already has the right to take money from people's bank accounts in certain circumstances. The DWP did not let persistent IT failures stand in the way of pursuing the implementation of universal credit, despite warnings that mistakes would be of serious detriment to vulnerable people.

There is still a big public appetite to see corporate tax avoiders pursued, as a letter to Caffè Nero that went viral on social media has demonstrated. Any move which gives HMRC more power to do so – even an extreme one – is worthy of consideration. Alas, HMRC has an issue which should worry us much more than the occasional calculation errors; their tendency to aggressively pursue soft targets, while leaving the real villains free for business as usual. The tax evader with a £1,000 debt is more flagrant, perhaps but it's the corporation quietly and legally avoiding millions in tax, which does more damage.

It should never be down to the charitable whim of the prophesied trillionaire to decide whether the rest of us have access to food, healthcare, education and shelter. Unfortunately that seems to be the direction in which we're headed, if we can't empower our tax system to do the job it's supposed to. The alternative? A future in which we're all reduced to hoping Mr Gates comes good on those burgers.


Better late than never, Kim

Kim Kardashian's nuptials on 24 May mean she's harder to avoid than usual. But here's one news item more interesting than the length of her bridal train: on Wednesday the reality star posted a blog essay in which she described how being the mother of a mixed-race child (North, her baby with rapper Kanye West) has changed her outlook: "To be honest, before I had North, I never really gave racism or discrimination a lot of thought," she wrote. "It is obviously a topic that Kanye is passionate about, but I guess it was easier for me to believe that it was someone else's battle."

The Huffington Post reported the story under the headline "Kim Kardashian Just Realized Racism Still Exists After Having A Baby" and other outlets were similarly dismissive of the assumed airhead's revelation. Actually, she had a point.

Abhorring racism is, for most people, a no-brainer, but abhorring racism in the abstract is different from either experiencing racism or witnessing its effect on someone you love. Since starting a relationship with Kanye West, Kardashian has been called a "nigger-lover" in the street and subjected to a blackface impersonation of her partner at a society event.

Her expression of solidarity should be welcomed. If the fact that discrimination still exists is so patently obvious, it should be obvious too that the struggle continues. Every soldier makes us stronger. Yes, even one who tweets "butt selfies".

Humane slaughter? Or horse?

The so-called debate about the labelling of halal meat was as rotten as a month-old carcass on the floor of Jamie Oliver's butcher's. Food labelling is important, of course, but why this non-Muslim interest in halal all of a sudden? The serious gourmets might notice a taste difference, but surely even serious gourmets relax their standards when eating at Pizza Express or Nando's?

By all means label meat products in detail (most restaurants already do), but above the kosher/halal label, and in larger print, let's include information that's relevant to every faith and none: was the animal killed humanely (according to the Food Standards Agency, 88 per cent of halal meat is)? How many acres of rainforest were destroyed to provide for grazing? What volume of greenhouse emissions were produced by farming? What percentage of this "meat" is a)water? b) sawdust? c) horse?

Solo arguers have the best lines

People who row often, die early. So say the presumably serene Danish scientists who have studied the matter. I say suppressing your rage then conducting the row as a thought experiment after the other person has left the room isn't much of a solution. But it does mean you get all the best lines. The Germans call it Treppenwitz, meaning staircase wit (l'esprit d'escalier in French). The disadvantage of coming up with retorts after the fact is that the argument is swirling around in your head long after an ordinary row would have been resolved.

Singer beards her critics

How could anyone not love Conchita? She was the bearded drag queen entrant in last night's Eurovision song contest and simply writing those words makes me happy to be alive. Not so the conservative Russians who organised a petition. Conchita took it all on the chin: "I can live with it," she told the Associated Press. "I'm just a singer in a fabulous dress, with great hair and a beard."