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Wednesday 9 December 2009
Letters: A debate about tax
Why don't we have a proper debate about tax?
Hamish McRae is right (2 December). "Ultimately taxation has to be by consent." In a democracy, everything ultimately has to be by consent. The problem is that, particularly with tax, you rarely get asked directly whether you consent or not. Consent is assumed, at least until the next election.
This wouldn't be so much of an issue if we could rely on our elected representatives to give informed consent on our behalf. But few MPs are tax experts. Few are economists. Yet they are required to vote for or against measures that the Government proposes, without knowing what we think and without effective independent support or advice from those with policy expertise.
In the US, the Congressional Budget Office fills the information gap. It provides impartial analysis of proposals by the executive. Other countries do something similar. We could have our own version. It ought to be a priority and it might be a route to McRae's holy grail of "a better-crafted tax system".
We could be revolutionary and talk openly about tax choices. There is, of course, a chance that this time might be different. We could have a proper debate before the election about whether to tax income or wealth, or both, and in what proportions. We could test whether there is real public support for environmental taxes and have a grown-up discussion about the role of inheritance taxes in tackling social inequality.
There are signs that people and maybe the political parties would be willing to engage. And perhaps it would influence the outcome. Let's hope so. We're about to enter a tough period for fiscal policy. It would be good to know that consent had been given and not merely assumed.
Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire (the writer was a Member of the Council of Economic Advisers, HM Treasury, 1997-2003)
Not getting the point on climate
Dominic Lawson (8 December) is quite right to pillory the chauffeured plenipotentiaries and princes, and the absurdities of the carbon trading schemes, but because he doesn't get what it is all about he just comes over like your Dad (or his Dad, or mine).
What it is about is that however much man-made emissions are contributing to climate change, we are using up the world's resources – fossil fuels, water etc – at such a rate that it is going to cause real suffering and probably war in the foreseeable future. We – and that's we in the developed world, as a generation, as a society – have to develop a morality that says we must consume less and waste less.
If Lawson understood the pressing need for this new morality, I would be perfectly happy to see his attacks on the excesses of Copenhagen. But until he does, he is just behaving like a grumpy old man.
Whether or not global warming is man-made, no one can reasonably deny that it is happening. Even if the human race is not responsible for climate change, surely nobody would dispute, for example, that the destruction of massive tracts of rainforest is grossly unfair to the creatures that live in it.
We are in danger of becoming so bogged down in the "Are we responsible for global warming?" debate that we don't acknowledge the havoc that our behaviour is wreaking on nature. Even if it made no difference to global warming, virtually every activity that curtailed CO2 emissions would have a positive impact on the planet's ecosystems. So let's do it anyway.
Frampton Mansell, Gloucestershire
I commend The Independent on being one of the few media outlets not using the term "Climategate" in news coverage. That is the term preferred by those who deny the existence of man-made climate change, to refer to the recent illegal hack into the email systems of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia.
I find it surprising that so much of the rest of the media has fallen for this term. For "Climategate" seems to suggest that there is some serious doubt raised about our knowledge of the world's warming climate by the emails that have been made public: but our knowledge of the dangerous climate change that greenhouse gases are creating is of course largely consensual and uncontroversial.
Dr Rupert Read
Department of Philosophy
University of East Anglia
The credibility of the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change was crucial in the run-up to Copenhagen, so the leaked emails from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia could not have come at a worse time.
However the CRU provides only one set of data on global temperature. There are two other organisation which independently provide temperature data: NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies, and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. All three sets confirm that global temperatures have been increasing and all three are consistent with man-made emissions being the likely cause.
It is therefore dishonest of Saudi Arabia to claim that the debacle at East Anglia invalidates the need for action on climate change. Emissions of carbon dioxide have increased by an alarming 41 per cent since 1990, so the need for clear leadership and political action has never been greater.
Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire
I fear that the current preoccupation with climate change takes away focus from other environmental issues which we know, beyond all doubt, are caused by man's reckless activities: pollution, over-fishing, loss of wildlife habitats and natural resource exploitation – all problems which we can realistically solve.
Could it be that we are being manipulated into being so overawed by the colossal scale of climate change that we collectively shrug our shoulders and decide that it is beyond all hope of solution? With only limited media and public appetite for stories of our destruction of the planet, we therefore risk spurning finite global concern and cause the same feeling of hopelessness to pervade to all environmental causes.
Consequently we play into the hands of vested interests who wish to continue looting the earth as they always have and we set back the cause of environmentalism for decades to come.
The final Nazi Holocaust trial
As a long-time reader of The Independent and a historian, I was deeply disappointed to read David Cesarani's comment on the John Demjanjuk trial (1 December). Nobody wants to pursue an aging grandfather to the ends of the world without extremely good reason. If John Demjanjuk is guilty, he must be held responsible for his atrocities. He made a personal choice and crossed the line of human behaviour.
For those who lived through the Second World War and their descendants, the Holocaust never ended. My grandmother lost 11 brothers and sisters in the camps. The historical and psychological effects still reverberate in our family.
In an age when one in six children thinks that Auschwitz was a Second World War theme park, coupled with the imminent passing of the last person to have endured the terror of these camps, never before has it been so important to remind the world of humanity's potential for evil. Ivan the Terrible has had decades of freedom.
If we fail to recall history, we are responsible for genocides of the future.
Dr Sean Kingsley
A trial too far, surmises David Cesarani, commenting on the Demjanjuk case.
Yes. Having lost 14 members of my family in the Shoah, I believe we should let the dead rest in peace now. The political scientist R G Rummel estimates that between 1900 and 1987, about 169,198,000 people perished in genocides. Avraham Burg concludes: "We cling to the tragedy and the tragedy becomes our justification for everything." Move on. Choose life in 2009.
An expensive war in Afghanistan
After a great deal of press publicity, the equivalent of about a million dollars has been saved by the investigation into MPs' expense claims. This is undoubtedly morally right, but in terms of financial savings it is about the cost of one soldier in Afghanistan for one year.
The decision to send 500 more troops is a decision that costs 500 times the total savings from MPs' expenses. Had Brown decided to bring the troops back instead, he would have saved the amount lost because of the corrupt or shady behaviour of MPs 10,000 times over.
Since the economy is in recession and the UK deficit enormous, these comparisons matter. The UK, struggling with record levels of debt, chooses to spend more in Afghanistan than France and Germany combined. If the UK really does care about government waste, this is the direction it should be looking in.
Dr Mark Corner
The letter from K Mahmood-Choman ("Billions spent making the Afghans hate us", 3 December) is so full of patently obvious truths that it should be writ large on every MP's office wall. Mind you, Kipling said it first, and possibly best, in his "Arithmetic on the Frontier". Here are some lines that need very little updating:
With home-bred hordes the hillsides teem,
The troopships bring us one by one,
At vast expense of time and steam,
To slay Afridis where they run.
The "captives of our bow and spear"
Are cheap, alas! as we are dear.
Hailsham, East Sussex
Rupert Cornwell's central assertion that "Afghanistan until Tuesday night was Bush's war. No longer" ( 5 December) is not supported by the facts.
In his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention in Denver (28 August 2008), Obama stated: "I will end this war in Iraq responsibly and finish the flight against al-Qa'ida and the Taliban in Afghanistan." About the Iraq war, he said: "I stood up and opposed this war. . . . I argued for more resources and more troops to finish the fight against the terrorists who actually attacked us on 9/11."
Obama's stance was not anti-war but that American was fighting the wrong war. That is why the theatre of war has moved from Iraq to Afghanistan and Pakistan under Obama's administration, and why the Taliban and al-Qa'ida have responded by intensifying their efforts in the region.
Obama is only doing what he said he would do.
The Church of England is distressed at the election of Mary Glasspool but indifferent to the Nigerian proposal, with local clerical support, to make homosexuality punishable by imprisonment and death, even penalising friendship with homosexuals and failure to report them to the authorities. Obviously a mitre round a gay head more offends a loving god than a noose round a gay neck.
It is astonishing that Inna Tysoe (letter, 5 December) can state that she lives in "a great country once crushed by British imperialism", when she lives in California, where there are virtually no survivors of the original indigenous population. California was taken from its original Spanish colonisers by a piece of imperialism by American adventurers unsurpassed until the Jamieson Raid in South Africa. America's expansion westwards was imperialism in its rawest form.
You report (3 December) on people being stopped by the police when taking photographs of public buildings. In Cuba a while ago, I was in Havana airport. Its roof inside is covered with flags of all nations. I asked at the information desk if I could take a picture. The lady looked surprised and said: "Yes of course, why not?" And that was in a so-called communist police state – I freely took a photo without any problems.
George L Heath
Praise for the NHS
Christina Patterson (5 December) is understandably upset at being diagnosed with cancer, but she appears to be shooting the messenger. I attended the same clinic as her and experienced the usual professionalism and kindness that I have in the four years I have been going there, for diagnosis, treatment and exhaustive follow-up. I write this in fairness to the clinic but also to reassure any readers who might have been influenced to mistrust the unit.
I see that Swindon has become twinned with DisneyWorld in Florida. To celebrate this special relationship, councillors might consider entering the chamber to a loud broadcast of the soundtrack of "Heigh ho, heigh ho, it's off to work we go." However, given the cuts to its library network and swingeing reductions proposed to services for the elderly, too many could vie for the name of Sleepy.
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