Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Budget 2010

Just finished going through the official Budget Report.

To give Labour some credit, it could have been worse. However, it could have been a damn sight better.

First off, their forecast for the budget deficit this year has been revised down from £178billion to £167billion, due to higher-than-expected tax revenues. In fact, overall government spending has increased from an estimated £676billion to £704billion. Fortunately, the increase in tax revenues has bailed them out, otherwise they'd be in even more trouble. So the budget deficit has been reduced by £11billion by sheer dumb luck, rather than any serious attempt to cut it.




The Chancellor also reaffirmed that Government's commitment to halving the budget deficit over the next 4 years. And just how is this to be accomplished? A radical curtailing of a hugely expensive and bloated public sector? No. A progressive reform of a benefits system which gives incentives to idleness? No. What, then?

Same old Labour - indirect taxation.

Now, I despise indirect taxation. I think that tax should be redistributive, but indirect taxation does none of that. Indirect taxes are typically levied as fixed costs regardless of means, and therefore the lower paid tend to pay a higher proportion of their income in tax as a result. This is completely unfair.

Labour like them, because they're pretty difficult to avoid.

So we're slammed with them - a rise in fuel duty, a rise in alcohol duty (particularly on cider - a tax on apples? I ask you!), a rise in tobacco duty, and of course, the infamous Telephone Tax to pay for super-fast broadband.

Of course, indirect taxation can't account for the forecast reduction in the deficit by £100billion over the next 4 years. How is the rest to be achieved? Well, astonishingly over-optimistic forecasts for growth and tax revenues, of course! Oh, and don't forget some clever tax agreements that we're about to sign with the Dominican Republic, Grenada, and... wait for it... Belize.

Howls of delight from the Government benches. Yeah, too late - Lord Ashcroft has already agreed to become fully resident here.

There were some good points:
  • An increase of £3,000 to the ISA allowance, taking it up to £10,200 per year, and a commitment to increase the allowance in line with inflation for at least 4 years - a measure which is long overdue;
  • Increasing the Minimum Wage by 2.2% to £5.93 per hour in October - I know it's not particularly liberal, but if anyone has any complaints about the Minimum Wage, they should try living on it.

But generally, few and far between. Further increases to Gordon's favourite income redistribution tool, the tax credits system, are also listed. I'm not a fan. Tax credits are complicated, expensive to administrate, inherently unfair in the way they discriminate against single parents, and give financial inducements to have children.
The highlight of the event was the Stamp Duty announcement - 'the threshold for Stamp Duty has been raised to £250,000', trumpets the Grand High Witch of all the Taxmen. Closely followed by 'paid for by an extra 1% on properties worth more than £1million'. Cue rabid delight from the Government benches.

So, let's have a look at the report, shall we?

The threshold for Stamp Duty has been raised temporarily for 2 years, and applies to first time buyers only. The new 5% rate for properties worth over £1million has no such indicators of conditionality. In other words, it's here to stay.

We have a stealth tax! Couldn't be a Labour Budget without one!

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Astrophotography [UPDATED]

I'm starting to get into this astrophotography lark, after I got a proper telescope for Christmas.

It's pretty cool! I've only just started to get to grips with it, but I've already seen Mars, sunspots and solar flares on the surface of the Sun, and even Saturn's rings!

Pretty cool, eh?

Not as cool as what I'm now starting to figure out.

Astrophotography, here we come!

Now, in the days before digital cameras, astrophotography (taking photos using a telescope) was very difficult and expensive. You effectively needed a Single Lens Reflex camera, and fancy adapters and lenses to actually focus the light.

But now, there's a much simpler way of doing it - afocal astrophotography, which simply means pointing the camera down the eyepiece.

Hence, my first effort - a picture of the Sun. I'm pretty pleased with this first effort, given that I'm crap at using my camera, and have no real equipment to help me!

I need some stuff to help me produce some better images:

  • A mount to fix my camera to my telescope, to avoid wobbles
  • New eyepieces with long eye relief, i.e. wider apertures
  • The ability to use my camera's manual focus!

[UPDATE]

Now that Youtube has finished 'processing' (read: dicking about with) my video:


The moon!

    Wednesday, 17 March 2010

    Unemployment

    I have long been suspicious of the Government's official unemployment figures, knowing full well that they do not take account of people in full time education, or people on long term benefits. The statistical definition of 'unemployment' is a considerably (and probably deliberately) woolly one, for the purposes of propaganda.

    Far more interesting would be the figures for employment - how many people in the country are actually working. Imagine my delight today when good old Ollie Cromwell announced that he'd sifted through the official data, and come up with some interesting facts.

    I have taken them a little further.

    Ollie says that (as of December 2009) the total number of people in public sector employment is 6.10 million, and the total number of people in private sector employment is 22.76 million. This gives a total number of people in employment of 28.86 million.

    In comparison with the total population of the UK (approx. 61.4 million), this amounts to a total employment rate of 47%.

    In other words, 53% of people who live in this country do not work.

    Now, some may argue that this is an unfair comparison. After all, some people are too young or too old to work. OK, so let's reduce the total population of the UK to the working population of the UK.

    For this calculation we go back to Ollie. The inactivity rate (the proportion of people who are classed as 'economically inactive' rather than 'unemployed') of the working population is 21.5%. The number is 8.16 million. From this, we can calculate the total working population of the UK, which is 37.95 million. So, the total population excluding children and pensioners.

    On this basis, the total employment rate for the working age population is 60%.

    In other words, 40% of the people of working age who live in this country do not work.

    Not looking good, is it?

    Now, admittedly, some of the people in that 40% bracket will have justifiable reasons for not working. Some of them will be students. Some of them will not work because they can afford not to. Some of them will not work because they are unable to, either because they care for someone else, or because some illness or injury prevents them from doing so. Some will be actively seeking gainful employment.

    But there will be some who can work, and choose not to.

    Precisely how much dead weight should we be carrying?

    Just a thought.

    Thursday, 4 March 2010

    Political Party Donations

    Much fuss has been made of Lord Ashcroft's donations to the Conservative Party, especially in light of his recently declared taxation status as a 'non-dom'.

    Lord Ashcroft has been making large contributions to the Conservatives whilst not being resident in the UK for tax purposes. This means that he has effectively only being paying UK tax on income arising in the UK, and paying tax elsewhere on the rest.

    Why does this cause a problem? Well, should a person be entitled to make donations, particularly large ones, to a political party when they don't technically live in the country? Difficult question to answer.

    I, personally, believe that citizenship should be the defining factor. If you are a citizen of the UK, you should be eligible to vote, and should be eligible to make political party donations. Where you're actually living is largely irrelevant in that respect. I don't actually have a problem with Lord Ashcroft's taxation status - as long as he pays UK tax on his UK income, that's fine. If he wants to live in another country for his own personal reasons, then that's his own business.

    But there are a few other issues. Firstly, we're not talking about Mr. Ashcroft, but Lord Ashcroft. He is a legislator, and has a say in how the laws of this country are made. Secondly, there have been allegations that Lord Ashcroft has been instrumental in the development of Conservative policy, by virtue of his large donations. He has been noted to accompany William Hague on Shadow Foreign Secretary business.

    The issue is not whether 'non-doms' should be allowed to make political party donations. As long as they are citizens of the United Kingdom, and are permitted to vote, they should be allowed. The real questions are:

    • Should someone who doesn't live in the UK be allowed to determine UK law?
    • How much should anybody be allowed to contribute to a political party?

    These are different matters entirely. But given the longer list of 'non-doms' under the Labour whip in the House of Lords, and that the majority of their funding comes from a very narrow selection of donors (i.e. the unions, which also exercise a fair degree of control over the formation of policy), I suspect it will not be one that HM Government will be keen to address any time soon.

    It is also quite interesting to note that the only major political party with a manifesto commitment to cap individuals' donations to political parties, and to establish that legislators should be fully resident in the UK, is the Conservatives...