Colin's Journal

Colin's Journal: A place for thoughts about politics, software, and daily life.

December 18th, 2002

Possibly the worst idea on taxation ever

There could be other candidates for the worst form of taxation possible, but the one described in this BBC article seems like a front runner to me. The idea is that it’s bad for university graduates to have an individual debt to pay off (i.e. a loan) and that instead it’s some how preferable for graduates to pay a special tax for the rest of their lives.

Now it could be that the duration of a graduate tax, as proposed, would be limited, but that in turn doesn’t make much sense. It would mean that the best thing to do after graduation would be to take a cheap job until this time limit expires, at which point you can get your high paying job and not pay the extra tax. Unless they tie the duration of the tax to how much you pay, in which case it’s effectively the same as individualised debt.

I used to be a big fan of free university education, after all I benefited from it myself, but it’s become clear that the current system is unsustainable. General taxation can not rise enough (and can not be justified) to cover the costs of providing a world class university education. The idea of some sort of graduate tax doesn’t work, and so the only real option left is loans that are tied to the individual that received the education. To make them palatable they should have only minimal interest, payments only triggered once a certain wage threshold is reached, and a limited life span so that they are written off if you still have them after 20 years.

Once this issue is resolved the next major step for the UK in terms of university education will be whether private universities can develop. From the point of view of generating more choice and giving the existing state universities some competition it seems like a good idea. Once the fees for the top state universities reach the levels that are required to keep top notch facilities and staff, the potential private universities will not be priced out of the market as they are today.

December 17th, 2002


A good article on what happened to the cod in Newfoundland in 1992. It’s a story I hadn’t heard before – about how Canada (with a little outside help) managed to fish the waters so completely clean that the entire industry collapsed. The article is meant as backdrop to the current debate on setting the EUs fish quotas issue, and it does a good job of it.

The best piece of the article for me is a couple of quotes from a marine scientist:
“If you look at the data on the catches-per-unit of the trawler fleet, the highest ever recorded in this fishery were in 1992, when the stocks were on the verge of collapse,” said Professor Rose.
“So if fishermen are still saying they can find concentrations, that’s good news for now, but it should give no reassurance that you couldn’t take those last bits of fish down and push the whole thing right over the edge.”

It just goes to show that the “common sense” response (there’s lots of fish – see!) isn’t always superior to scientific advice.

December 16th, 2002

EU Expansion

A couple of interesting weblog posts on EU expansion (via Davos Newbies). I have to agree with the first on Turkey, as I’ve posted before, I see no reason to limit entrance to countries based purely on geography.

I’m not so convinced on the question over whether the EU will now become too large to continue along the federal route. The EU as it stands today is considerably further along the path to a true federal state than most people would have predicted at the beginning; after all todays members are not known for their history of peaceful agreement. With the enlarged EU I think we will see the same thing – countries will find themselves heading more and more in that direction (at least on certain matters), and end up going further than they would have initially signed up to.

On one front however I’m sure that we agree – the idea of financial harmonisation seems like a bad plan. Having some level of federal spending is not a bad thing, and I would not be surprised to see this element increase over time (it’s actually very small as a proportion of GDP), but keeping financial decisions at the state level will in the long run be for the best. This way each state can compete in terms of taxation, minimum wage (something promoted by the political right), and also in terms of promotion of quality of life through public services and regulation (something generally forgotten by the political left). I’m looking forward to the day that British politicians are willing to campaign on a platform of emulating another member states policies (on say health or level of taxation) rather than trying to invent something new as though these issues have not been tackled by anyone else before.

December 15th, 2002

Architecting software

I’ve just read (a little belatedly) the latest Joel on Software. The point that the article makes is that to really know a platform inside out takes a huge amount of time and energy, and so the people that do know a platform inside out are extremely valuable. It’s all summed up at the end as “So for now, my advice is this: don’t start a new project without at least one architect with several years of solid experience in the language, classes, APIs, and platforms you’re building on.”

There is however another side to the coin – the people that know lots of different platforms and technologies reasonably well, rather than in depth, are able to adapt to new situations better than those that have concentrated on one area to exclusion. When architecting out a new product you need to pick a platform (or platforms) and then define the functional areas of responsibility (this bit talks to web clients, this bit talks to the databases, etc) and corresponding API layers. Determining coding standards and support libraries is also important (otherwise you end up with 3 different types of logging none of which can be configured) at this early stage. While it’s extremely helpful to have platform experts working with you at this level there is a danger if they have the final say because the vision they will layout is the one they have always used, not necessarily the one that is best for this particular product.

However the role of platform expert is far less important in integration work. When integrating different systems on different platforms you are almost always going to be working with things you have never seen before. In these situations the best kind of person you can have is one that has seen and understands how multiple different platforms work. This general background in multiple different platforms enables you to easily define in generic terms the terminology used by a particular vendor/system, as well as understanding the limitations as they are described to you. I still see plenty of room in IT for those that wish to deal with multiple different platforms – especially as the integration of existing systems or new systems into an established environment is the mainstay of the IT world.

December 12th, 2002

Poverty in the UK

A short series of slides from the BBC on poverty in the UK. The most interesting to me was slide 3 which shows the percentage of those receiving means tested benefits as a break down by category. The vast majority are composed of pensioners (46%) and the sick and disabled (29%). Lone parents come in at 19% with the unemployed coming in at 3%.

Those that can reasonably be expected to eventually get out of poverty through employment (the unemployed) make up a tiny percentage of those receiving benefits, compared with those that can not reasonably be expected to work out of poverty. A few things come to mind:

  1. Is the measure of poverty reasonable?
  2. What is the comparative break-down of those deemed below the poverty line?

On the first point I’m not sure the measure used here is reasonable. Saying that anyone with less than 60% of the median wage is in poverty seems highly artificial. If the cost of living went down, and the median wage went up, the numbers would show an increase in the level of poverty. Admittedly if you do not use a arbitrary measure such as this you then have to make a judgement as to how much money is required to be deemed ‘above the poverty line’. Any such judgement is going to be difficult to make, but it could result in significantly more or less people being regarded as living in poverty and so change the proportions of those affected.

The second point is one of concern – what if those that are receiving means tested benefits are not those in poverty? For example there could be large numbers of people from any of these groups that do not receive means tested benefits and yet are classed as being below the poverty line. There’s no figures given by the BBC that answer that question, but if you find the original report you can see that they do not correspond in the slightest. The report quotes that “Just 4 per cent of households where all adults are working have low incomes, and 19 per cent of households where one of the couple is in full-time work but the other is now working. In contrast, three-quarters of households where all the adults are unemployed have incomes below the low income threshold”.

In fact the more you read through the report the more it becomes clear that the absolute levels and figures quoted are not that important (too many arbitrary assumptions), rather it’s the change in the figures over time that can tell you things.

December 9th, 2002

More on The European Convention

The International Herald Tribune has an article praising Giscard d’Estaing and his handling of the European convention. I agree with the first half of the article – he has certainly ensured that all aspects of the debate are being heard after a long time when few would dare raise the topic. Their take on the question of admitting Turkey however seems strange to me.

If Turkey does join the EU (and I would like to see it happen) then indeed other countries in the region may well consider applying. Having a growing EU though does not in my mind dictate that the union has to be a loose coupling with only an economic scope. In fact the freedom of movement of people means that the EU will always be more than just an economic union. If other countries outside of (geographical) Europe wish to join, and meet the criteria for doing so, then it seems to me that it’s to the advantage of existing members to let them. If countries currently outside the EU do not want to be part of a tightly coupled union then they will not apply to join. The EU should be defined in terms of what it does; the number of countries that wish to be party to it will result from that definition, not the other way around.

My guess is that a lot of countries will see advantage in being member of a tightly coupled union if the EU is defined in terms of equal rights for all EU citizens, free trade, security, and co-operation. At the end of the day though the definition of the union should be in the hands of the current and about to join members, without worrying about those that may wish to join in some hypothetical future.

December 9th, 2002

Update on the Ransom Model

In a post last month I talked about the “Ransom model” for software development. This was partly inspired by the effort to purchase the source code to a text editor called pepper, and release it as open source. It appears that this effort has failed (via Hack the Planet) and that those who donnated are to have their money returned.

December 7th, 2002

German defence cuts

Germany seems to be taking the wrong approach to reducing its budget deficit. On the bright side at least they are trying to stay within the current spending rules, but by cutting defence spending they will reduce what little influence they have on foreign affairs. Additionally the cuts will not address the real problem Germany has – which is unemployment.

Hopefully we’ll see Schroeder’s coalition government collapse and elections called – although I’ve no idea how likely that will be. It seems it’s only with a change in government that we’ll see some serious economic reforms taking place and the long awaited drop in unemployment happening. One aspect of Germany’s current woes however is encouraging to hear: more Germans are looking to work elsewhere in Europe. The more that Europeans live and work in other parts of the EU the faster the EU will grow, and more importantly the more understanding of others will spread. I’m hoping to work on the continent myself one day, so I’ve got added interest in seeing others working throughout the EU.

December 6th, 2002

Paying for University

When I was at Uni there were no tuition fees – in fact I was given a grant by the government to help pay for my living expenses. Today fees are part of the British University system – but they don’t bring in enough funds to pay for the higher wages and better facilities that the UK needs to compete internationally.

For once there is a piece in the Guardian that I actually agree with almost completely: on how this University funding gap can be closed. There is one thing that must be said however, the proposal to use student loans in this way to cover tuition fees does not strike me as particularly “3rd Way”. The loan description given here is almost exactly the same as that introduced by the Conservatives (I had one by the time I graduated), and it’s only the interest rates and forgiveness clauses that set it aside from the common situation in the US. Still it’s good that this long outstanding issue is finally being tackled.

December 5th, 2002

Convention on Europe

As most will already know we are currently part way through the convention on Europe – the talking shop/convention that is meant to propose reform on what the EU is and how it should work. When it first started it seemed to me that it would inevitably produce a report that would be haggled over and negotiated into such a messy compromise that the resulting changes to the EU would not resemble any agreements made during the convention. However, as time has gone by, it seems that the convention is being taken fairly seriously, and there is a good chance that the resulting EU structure will reflect the results of it.

Everyone is trying to make their own power grab of course, but the important thing for me is that the question of what the EU is for is actually being debated fully with all of the options and ideas coming out. The one big achievement that should be welcomed is that the idea that the EU should have a constitution has been accepted by most (all?) of the major governments. This is a huge step forward in that it will define what the EU is in such a way that the basis of it’s existence can be explained to people without having to consider the scope of the latest treaty.

The battle is now on for what will be in the constitution, with the large powers generally in favour of a permanent (e.g. a 5 year term instead of the current 6 month term) president of the EU. This seems like a good move to me – however one of the big concerns I have is that the talk is not of this president being elected by popular vote, but rather selected by the heads of the national governments. It’s hard to predict how that will work out over the years, but if you want to bring the EU closer to the people then having them vote for someone to define the direction of it seems like the best bet.

The European Commission of course would rather see it’s power extended – I think this is a non-starter. I generally think that the EC does a fairly good job overall, the bureaucracy is fairly small compared to many governments, and they do push hard for members to respect and enforce EU law. Generally the EC is portrayed as being a large over-regulating body, but a lot of their work is instead about forcing members to open up their markets to competition, something that is good for all EU citizens. So why do I think they are wrong to push for more power? The one thing that the EC does that I’m not keen on is the proposal of legislation – to me this is something that elected government should do.

Many people have put together proposed constitutions for the EU (the most memorable one for me being the one the economist did). I’m not sure myself what I would like to see, except to say that I want there to be a strong directly elected component that has the power to overturn existing legislation and to propose new legislation. This would provide a simple and direct way for citizens to change the direction of EU legislation. The problem with acting through national governments is that EU level issues get left behind during election campaigns – and so despite politicians claims otherwise they do not represent the views of the people when dealing with issues at the EU level.

Copyright 2015 Colin Stewart

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