Sunday Afternoon Radio

I spent the afternoon of the 24th October this year listening to two instructive, entertaining and even illuminating editions of two standards of BBC Radio broadcasting.

Desert Island Discs, running continuously on the BBC since 1942, interviews each week a ‘castaway’ entitled to choose eight sound records, a book and a luxury to console them in the event of them following in the footsteps of such archetypal castaways as Robinson Crusoe and Tom Hanks.

My maternal grandmother was a big fan of the show, though it’s the kind of thing I would only listen to if interested in the guest. On this occasion I tuned in on spec, and found myself engaged and intrigued by the castaway and his choices: Michael Sandel, a noted political philosopher. I’ve just re-listened to the edition, including the bit at the start I missed. Well worth a listen, Sandel’s choices include Hamilton, from the musical of the same name, which he mentions listening to more critically recently in light of his own critique of the ideology of meritocracy, Billie Holliday’s Strange Fruit and Nina Simone’s Feeling Good, as well as other delights I’ll leave you to discover for yourself.

Radio 4 being primarily a station of the spoken word, a valuable commodity, nevertheless produces a slight weakness in DID‘s format: we only hear the briefest of clips from each choice.

Radio 3’s Private Passions, in which guests are invited to share their favourite recordings usually of classical music or poetry, has the luxury of longer excerpts, but otherwise in form resembles nothing less than a slightly higher-brow version of DID. Indeed the emphasis remains on the conversations. Scheduled after DID, the two together form a good solid hour of enlightening listening both to musical choices, perhaps unexpected or familiar, as well as to the perspectives of some notable and fascinating people. On this occasion, Private Passions interviewed the ever-interesting Rory Stewart, former diplomat, Tory MP, and possibly spy. Stewart talks most interestingly of how little he misses being a politician. He’s particularly good on detailing an insider’s view on exactly how the political system corrupts those involved in it, so that by the time you get to cabinet level and thus power, all your ability to think critically and with nuance and compassion has been eradicated from your political practice. He even goes as far as to suggest if he had succeeded in becoming Prime Minister, which he had a crack at in 2019, he thinks he would have been ‘corrupted’. The interview also gives an insight into Stewart’s experiences in the Middle East, as well as his cultural interests there and in Scotland, including an interesting excerpt from a recording of Scottish folk singing, as well as usual suspects Handel and Bach.

Both episodes remain available on BBC Sounds, and repay a listen:

Taxing the Rich

A year or so ago there was a possibility I’d be interviewed for a story in the Daily Telegraph. I subscribed to the paper to check out the journalist involved, and have never got round to cancelling. The paper sometimes called The Torygraph, the paper of that party in effect, might be useful to read to keep an eye on what Britain’s most establishment political party is up to. It gave, to cite a relatively trivial but instructive example, the most in-depth coverage of the Handforth Parish Council episode featuring Jackie Weaver (if your memory stretches back that far), with the most detailed background information.

This week in the paper, an article on US politics caught my eye. The report, on Biden’s budget’s progress, seems to me a good summary. Though highlighting the views of billionaires and opponents to a proposal to tax unrealised capital gains, the details provide a more balanced view.

Biden stings the rich in $2 trillion tax raid

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2021/10/28/biden-stings-rich-2-trillion-tax-raid/

The headline reflects a plan, outlined in Biden’s budget proposals in the spring, for tax reform as a hedge against interest rate rises, which would increase the repayment burden on US debt. Biden is paying for renovations and additions to infrastructure, and social spending, with cheap debt; the new taxes ‘pay for’ the provisions by covering the risks of the debt becoming more expensive once interest rates rise. At least that’s the theory.

These tax reforms, in my understanding, include:

  • Biden’s global push for increased corporation tax
  • improving efficiency (that old favourite)
  • increasing reporting requirements for crypto-exchanges, including offshore entities, in a reciprocal international information sharing arrangement
  • income tax changes.

The Telegraph currently lead on the latter, with the Senate “poised to vote on a 5pc tax on earnings above $10m (£7.2m) a year, with an extra 8pc for incomes above $25m”.

As well as the corporation tax increase, the Telegraph reports on a one percent surcharge on share buybacks (the repurchase of stock by the company that issued it)

The White House said the share buybacks tax was aimed at curbing a practice it claims is too often used by executives “to enrich themselves rather than investing workers and growing their businesses”.

Telegraph, ibid.

Taxing ‘paper profits’ fails, but why not think about it?

The controversial proposal to tax unrealised capital gains, mentioned at the top of this summary, it turns out has been dropped.

The idea seemed to try to get round the problem of those with vast wealth paying no income tax, because they often don’t draw much of an income, preferring instead to borrow cash against their wealth, held in shares and other assets.

Authored by Democrat Senator Ron Wyden and backed by progressive former presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, the proposals unveiled this week would apply to taxpayers with more than $1bn in assets or over $100m in income for three years in a row.

At the end of every tax year, billionaires’ tradeable assets would be appraised. The increase in their net worth over 12 months would be taxed at the top capital gains rate of 28.3pc.

Telegraph, ibid.

Readers might feel entitled to ask: what is the issue with taxing the rich in this way? The Telegraph argues taxing unrealised assets opens “a hornets’ nest of issues.”

What issues?

The proposals, announced on October 25th by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, specified liquid assets; Yellen denied it should be considered a ‘wealth tax’.

A classical libertarian argument, militantly argues that taxing unrealised gains in this way is theft. I’m not so sure. But, is there something in the classical libertarian approach to consider, before dismissing it?

Venture capitalist Mike Novogratz made alternative suggestions: “maybe try eliminating step up basis first. And carried interest. That would be a start”.

Step-up basis apparently refers to a readjustment of the value of an appreciated asset for tax purposes upon inheritance. Carried interest means a share of profits that the general partners of private equity and hedge funds receive, regardless of whether they contribute any initial funds – a kind of performance fee.

Novogratz went on to argue taxing

“Unrealized gains on illiquid securities would be a unmitigated disaster” –

source

Something of a non-sequitur given Yellen specifies liquid assets only.

What of the ‘soft’ argument that the tax would force founder CEOs to sell shares, thus affecting the market’s valuation. We can’t know what the unintended consequences through the chaos of the markets would be. I think the proposal does raise complicated concerns around unintended risks, certainly at the highest capital gains rate; it’s a risky way to cover Biden’s debt. But what if the tax was at a much lower rate?

Perhaps we should consider this in context. Many factors are at play here. Tax avoidance by the wealthy, increasing the relative tax burden on the rest of us, seems ingrained in the whole structure of today’s capitalistic organisation. Are Novogratz’s alternative suggestions pointing to loopholes that could be closed before considering a straightforward tax on unrealised capital gains? On the other hand, if restricted to the 700 or so people planned, and at a lower rate to mitigate systemic risk, why not try it?

But opponents pose a challenging argument, pointing to creeping taxation: income tax, they point out, was originally ‘just for the rich’. Perhaps this is what Novogratz was hinting at by suggesting taxing illiquid assets might be a next step? Elon Musk, who reports estimate would pay $50billion over five years, took this line, suggesting that since the White House estimates this tax covers “~10% of the $3.5 trillion spending bill. Where will the other 90% come from? The answer is you.”

The Telegraph report, incisively, points out Musk

has raised few problems with government spending when it subsidised Tesla sales or funded rocket launch contracts for SpaceX – the other source of his paper wealth.

Telegraph, ibid.

Indeed, the profitability of Tesla depends in part on US Government tax credits to the company for being ‘ecological’. This allows them to increase their profits at the expense of public funds.

I don’t believe all taxes are destined to creep and encroach. Political will can override that. We may then consider, free of events, taxing unrealised capital gains on liquid assets, but a more modest tax than the October 25 proposal, so as not to risk disturbing the markets systemically. But we may also consider what would theoretically stop a covenant restricting it to liquid assets over $1bn? How do we stop any creep in such a tax towards the rest of us? Questions worth considering.

A new/old deal

In any case, Biden has announced a framework deal which excludes the Oct 25 proposal, considered too radical for the Senate’s centre to agree. The game of ambitious, even radical proposals, led to haggle and a compromise, a new deal which may or may not be what the parties were aiming at.

On the table now is a revised $1.75 trillion spending plan. It remains to be seen if simply raising income tax on the wealthiest, alongside increasing corporation tax, can cover Biden’s bet. By the end of his first term, we should be able to discern an answer, when the political games have been won and lost, and the consequences play out.

Addendum – breaking news

As I write, further developments related to this story and issue have unfolded. The headline here is that “Elon Musk is ready to spend $6 billion to end world hunger, asks the United Nations to provide a plan”.

Billionaires are occasionally criticised for, as in the recent case of Jeff Bezos, spending their wealth created by their companies, on pleasure jaunts into space instead of, for example, ending world hunger. Of course it’s not necessarily that simple; world hunger and poverty are properties that emerge from the system as we know it – throwing $6bn at it would not necessarily solve the underlying problem. But it could be a start.

According to Business Insider India, this was prompted by David Beasley, director of the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP), who tweeted commenting that one-sixth of the recent increase in Musk’s net worth, $6bn, could help save 42 million people who are suffering from famine. Musk responded, asking ‘exactly how’ the $6 billion will help solve world hunger. He pledged to immediately sell Tesla stock and fund the $6 billion, under the condition of “open source accounting, so the public sees precisely how the money is spent”.

So to be fair to Musk, he seems to recognise the complications. To be cynical, we could read this as a PR effort from Musk to avoid being taxed, by suggesting he could liquidate some of his net worth to directly tackle world issues through international organisation, sidestepping left-wing efforts to raise the tax burden on his ilk. This is a developing story and may well be a PR flash in the pan, but worth keeping an eye on to see how this unfolds, as Dr Beasly indicated a willingness for the WFP to work with Musk to see if anything can be put together. Full story from Business Insider India here.

Philip Martin

The writer Philip Martin has died. Probably best known for the 1970s TV play and later series ‘Gangsters’, which was set and filmed in Birmingham, ‘Gangsters’ stands up today partly as social commentary and partly as an exemplar of non-realist TV drama somewhere between Patrick McGoohan and Dennis Potter.

He subsequently wrote two rather idiosyncratic, very political and satirical Doctor Who stories of the mid-1980s, and in a strong field was probably the best new writer for the series in that decade. Martin, while taking Doctor Who in new and bravely uncomfortable directions, impressed fans at the time as a possible successor to Robert Holmes. Certainly of the 80s writers he was closest to Holmes’ style and approach to the series. Vengeance on Varos, his first Doctor Who story, satirised reality TV years before it was even invented, and features outstanding guest performances from Nabil Shaban and Martin Jarvis. Its sequel a year later seemed to inspire director Ron Jones to create some powerfully surreal, dramatic and moving moments of television, with strong performances from Nicola Bryant, Brian Blessed and Colin Baker. Nicola Bryant tweeted her tribute:

Martin went on to write for the excellent 1987 sf drama series Star Cops with the episode This Case To Be Opened In A Million Years, which gave us some of the best character moments for the protagonist Nathan Spring battling his demons – and the mafia – in Venice and on the Moon.

Philip Martin was a visionary, offbeat writer and deserves to be remembered as a legend for his contribution to British TV drama.

RIP Philip Martin 1938 – 2020

Art of Paris

Part One: The Public Sphere

In visiting Paris last year in pursuit of art I had two specific objectives: an exhibition and a gig., But as I outlined in my walking blog, the journey would be nothing without the unexpected. I thought I’d offer a more focussed look at what art I found, beginning with the art of the street, the public arena where commissioned sculpture, modern and historic, competes with graffiti, architecture, and gardens, to create an admixture, a many-voiced public conversation we call ‘the city’.

Elegy & Memorial

Angel Bear

Warning: bad French, and an Anglo-Saxon swear-word

In 2015, in advance of the COP21 climate change conference, France’s state owned national rail commissioned the Angel Bear sculpture from artist Richard Texier, which I encountered in front of the Gard du Nord’s classical facade. According to the Solis Art Conseil:

the 7.5 metres high silhouette seems to disintegrate under the effect of a mysterious evil…the silent cry of the bronze animal captures passers-by to raise awareness of the urgency to act. Air despite its 4.8 tons, the chimera spreads its wings in an attempt to escape, out of the world already

https://solisartconseil.com/en/notre-serie-de-lete-oeuvres-monumentales-a-paris-lartiste-richard-texier-2/

More memorials of Paris

Pasted on a pillar, letter by letter, one Zebodj Mohamed ‘killed by the police’ remembered alongside a graffiti artist’s memorial to 17 Octobre 1961, the Paris massacre; the Fontaine Molière, a memorial in the 1st arrondisment to the playwright with whose name the French language is sometimes associated, is the work of two sculptors directed by an architect; and tucked away in a park lies a small but powerful memorial to the Shoa survivor, writer and activist Elie Wiesel.

Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to be elected to public office, and assasinated a year later is memorialised with a Place name, while a street memorial commemorates some of France’s colonial history, the inscription reading ‘A Nos Morts (‘to our dead’) INDOCHINE ALGIERS,

Attraction Touristique

And then there are those big public statements of Paris architecture. My wanderings led me to my first view of the Eiffel Tower, icon of modernity, foreground traffic between us. An outdoor exhibition attracted me from afar, with its colour and shapes, to the Louvre, where I became fascinated by the people, their identities framed against the scene.

Next time…

I’ll take a look at the free open-air exhibition Cabanas Imaginaires autour du monde

Photographie de Paris

Twelve months ago I spent a few days wandering round Paris, in the symbolist tradition sketched in my walking blog, exemplified by Baudelaire. Taking photographs wasn’t uppermost in my mind, but I thought it would be good to make some kind of visual record, and so I offer a little video/photo journal of that visit.

Arrival

advert in Charles de Gaulle airport
in Charles de Gaulle airport

First day

Art for art’s sake

Last week, in my post on walking, I mentioned the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, in which the figure of the flâneur emerged. I first heard Baudelaire’s stuff as a youth, in translation, in this extraordinary recording made in 1968. It was good to hear it again, and I thought it worth sharing.

Walk the Walk

With an apparently innate antipathy to the internal combustion engine, I’ve always been a keen perambulator. I was born and brought up in Stourbridge, that strange interface between the industrial Black Country and the Worcestershire and Shropshire countryside. My beloved Grandfather was a great walker. In my late teens I journeyed to Birmingham to catch a gig and, not wanting to leave early to catch a last bus or train, and lacking any alternative, walked the twelve miles or so back home. I related this to my Grandfather, and it reminded him of the time he had some unexpected army leave, and had to walk a similar distance back home, only to find his wife saying “What are YOU doing here?”

Living on the edge of the town, we weren’t far from a small mature woodland, Norton Covert, once a working sand pit accessing the ice-age sand deposits in the area. The main access point to the Covert was on the junction of Sandy Road and the Sandy Lane bridleway. All this made for fine walking, and a valuable asset in my early years.

Anyone who’s engaged in country walks may have their own primal, formative experience of this. For me, walking brings up memories of those sandy lanes next to mature woodland, long straight roads leading to a topographically diverse Covert with great views of itself; an opportunity to observe nature. My first close encounter with a fox was in Norton Covert: a timeless moment between us where the fox, which had been rummaging in a pile of leaves, and I locked eyes for a moment before the fox remembered itself and scarpered. I remember some of my primary animistic experiences there, as well as observing how wildlife uses the canopy as a transport network, and observing the signs of human impact on the woods.

A walk, to me, is to embark on a journey of unpredictable possibilities. The word walk traces its history back to the Indo-European  *walg- (“to twist, turn, move”), via the Old English wealcian (“to curl, roll up”), to the  Middle English walken (“to move, roll, turn, revolve, toss”). I like this element of unpredictability in the word. As has been noted by such luminaries as Will Self, walking is political; the twisty-turny connotations of the verb ‘to walk’ leave the route to the destination – or even the idea of a destination at all – unwritten. The word is intimately bound up with political tensions around land, access rights, and liberty. Wikipedia contributors assert that:

freedom to roam takes the form of general public rights which are sometimes codified in law. The access is ancient in parts of Northern Europe and has been regarded as sufficiently basic that it was not formalised in law until modern times.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_to_roam

I’m curious as to the truth of this assertion. These islands historically are known for pioneering the practice of enclosure, erasing common land. This practice proved controversial in law and in letters, being criticised from Sir Thomas More to George Orwell. Tudor politicians were concerned about the effects of land enclosure on the well-being of the people and on the economy, and the people themselves also made their views known in a series of revolts, riots and rebellions.

Kinder Scout to Right to Roam

In 1932, an organised mass trespass of Kinder Scout in the Peak District took place, leading to violence as local landowners and gamekeepers tried to force the ramblers away:

several of the ramblers were arrested and imprisoned… over the following days and weeks much larger trespasses were held and public opinion started to sway in the trespassers’ favour

Ramblers Dot Org

Today, we can see this as the beginning of a journey, taking in the establishment of National Parks, footpaths and trails, and the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, codifying the right of free access to certain types of land in England and Wales.

Meanwhile

Luminaries of the Enlightenment wrote on the value of walking. Thomas Jefferson, the essential American politician (intimate with revolution, nation-building, war, and slavery) wrote to his nephew advising a course of study, including two hours a day of physical exercise. Jefferson advised “the gun…it gives boldness, enterprise and independence to the mind”. Jefferson continues:

Let your gun, therefore, be the constant companion of your walks. Never think of taking a book with you. The object of walking is to relax the mind. You should therefore not permit yourself even to think while you walk. But divert your attention by the objects surrounding you. Walking is the best possible exercise. Habituate yourself to walk very far. The Europeans value themselves on having subdued the horse to the uses of man. But I doubt whether we have not lost more than we have gained by the use of this animal. No one has occasioned so much the degeneracy of the human body. An Indian goes on foot nearly as far in a day, for a long journey, as an enfeebled white does on his horse, and he will tire the best horses. There is no habit you will value so much as that of walking far without fatigue.

The Writings of Thomas Jefferson: Volume I, pp298

In a similar vein, but more English mode, the English essayist William Hazlitt, celebrated in his time but little-read today, wrote:

One of the pleasantest things in the world is going a journey; but…I cannot see the wit of walking and talking at the same time. When I am in the country, I wish to vegetate like the country. I am not for criticizing hedge-rows and black cattle. I go out of town in order to forget the town and all that is in it. There are those who for this purpose go to watering-places and carry the metropolis with them. I like more elbow-room and fewer incumbrances. I like solitude…

Hazlitt touches on the therapeutic value of walking

There is hardly anything that shows the short-sightedness or capriciousness of the imagination more than travelling does. With change of place we change our ideas; nay, our opinions and feelings.

On Going On A Journey (1822)
Gustave Caillebotte - Paris Street; Rainy Day

A kind of freedom can be found in walking the city too.

Paris Street; Rainy Day  Gustave Caillebotte

We’ve explored the country walk as a journey without a destination, where in slowing down, and spontaneously exploring the sights and sounds, the mind can relax. Why not bring such an attitude to city walks too? The flâneur, from the French for “stroller”, “lounger”, “saunterer”, or “loafer”, emerged as a privileged and critical position in the project we call modernity, not unlike Auden’s Airman, emblematic of the changes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The flâneur stands, or rather strolls, to this day, “casual wanderer, observer and reporter of street-life in the modern city”.

The figure emerged through the writings of Charles Baudelaire, whose flâneur “wandered the streets and arcades of nineteenth-century Paris looking at and listening to the kaleidoscopic manifestations of the life of a modern city. The flâneur’s method and the meaning of his activities were bound together, one with the other,” according to Bobby Seal of the Psycho-Geographic Review. As Seal explains

In the twentieth-century Walter Benjamin returned to the concept of the flâneur in his seminal work, The Arcades Project.  This weighty, but uncompleted, study used Baudelaire’s flâneur as a starting point for an exploration of the impact of modern city life upon the human psyche…

Benjamin puts forward two complementary concepts to explain our human response to modern city life.  Erlebnis can be characterised as the shock-induced anaesthesia brought about by the overwhelming sensory bombardment of life in a modern city, somewhat akin to the alienated subjectivity experienced by a worker bound to his regime of labour.  Erfahrung is a more positive response and refers to the mobility, wandering or cruising of the flâneur; the unmediated experience of the wealth of sights, sounds and smells the city has to offer.  Benjamin was interested in the dialectic between these two concepts and cited Baudelaure’s poetry as a successful medium for turning erlebnis into erfahrung

Baudelaire, Benjamin and the Birth of the Flâneur

Greener Horizons

In working with vulnerable clients, we may find they lack access to green spaces within and outside the city. Services I work with have noted clients who have never, or rarely, been outside the city, and who are unaware or unable to access green spaces near them. Some clients have spoken of the benefits of breaks outside the city, and the benefits of walking in the green.

Liaison and Diversion Services in Birmingham work with clients with multiple health and social challenges referred from the criminal justice system. L&D Birmingham initiated a series of walks in green spaces in the city. Participants included staff and service users. The notion of peer support taking place in outside environments, on a walk, was thought might be beneficial, talking and healing while doing an activity – multi-tasking, in other words.

Walking, in the sense of free roaming in open green spaces, has a lot to offer in terms of improving the physical health and well being of clients on low incomes with multiple social challenges: turning erlebnis into erfahrung.

Walking as a post-trauma therapy has plenty of anecdotal evidence beghind it. Here for example is Jennifer Tennant’s essay “Walking Myself Home”, in which she writes

For me, walking makes space for reflection, much like church or meditation does for others.

Tennant argues walking may have physiological effects similar to eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and thus effective for symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress.

The evidence seems conclusive. The conditions for well-being include the need for walking, for exploring both the twists and turns of our environment, the world we live in, and the possibilities of our souls.

Thanks to three individuals for their invaluable contributions to this post: Emma for initially linking walking with EMDR, Matt B for information under greener horizons, and James E for putting me onto the Hazlitt essay.

Watching the Detectives

Tremendously interesting article in today’s NYT on the power of police unions.

When Steve Fletcher, a Minneapolis city councilman and frequent Police Department critic, sought to divert money away from hiring officers and toward a newly created office of violence prevention, he said, the police stopped responding as quickly to 911 calls placed by his constituents. ‘It operates a little bit like a protection racket,’ Mr. Fletcher said of the union.

Two days ago this happened:

Full 40 second WBFO news video, including aftermath. Contains blood and violence, and the suppression of the press.

When the officers were suspended, the entire Buffalo Police Department’s Emergency Response Team resigned (from the team, not from regular duties), in ‘solidarity’ with the officers responsible, who have now been charged. The NYT article includes this extraordinary invocation of the Nuremberg defence:

The president of a police union in Buffalo said the union stood “100 percent” behind two officers who were suspended on Thursday after appearing to push an older man who fell and suffered head injuries. The union president said the officers ‘were simply following orders.’

Well worth a read.