Sunday, 29 April 2012

Aberdeen City Council Elections 2012, Lower Deeside Ward: Candidates & Platforms

So I got my ballot through the post for the Aberdeen city council elections a few days ago, and I realised that I have no idea who stands for what. Remedying this situation wasn’t easy, either. Incredibly, none of the candidates seem to have any web presence whatsoever. Since they wouldn’t come to me, I decided to go to the candidates. Over the last few hours I have interviewed four of the seven candidates for the Lower Deeside Ward to get an idea of their platforms. The Independent Andy Anderson and Labour’s Tauqeer Malik are not in the telephone directory. I couldn’t get hold of the Conservative candidate Raymond Murchie either. However, some information is better than none, so I hope this summary of my interviews is useful to anybody similarly confused about who to vote for. Democracy wins again!


What motivated you to stand for office?
  • Fed up of arguing about decisions reported in the media – wanted to make a difference herself.
What do you consider to be the main issues in this election?
  • Planning system: developers have more influence than ordinary residents e.g. they can represent themselves in person.
  • Infrastructure e.g. link road from North Deeside Road to Inchgarth Road.
  • Education: Curriculum for Excellence, Pupil Support Assistants.
What are your personal priorities if you succeed?
  • Reforming planning.
  • Funding Mechanism for Union Terrace Gardens: mustn’t come at the cost of services.
Why should we vote for an independent, rather than one of the main parties?
  • There shouldn’t be party politics at this level.
  • Accountable only to voters and nobody else.
  • Coalition looks likely – would sit down with anyone
What have you achieved as a councillor?
  • Defended Pupil Support Assistants: negotiated budget to avoid 1/3 proposed cuts, pushed for impact assessment.
  • Helped numerous individual people e.g. with housing.
  • Speed signs on Countesswells/Kingswells Road – cut accidents by 100%.
  • Student bus fare for 16-18 year olds, who previously had to pay full adult fare.

What do you consider to be the main issues in this election?
  •  It differs from area to area, person to person.
What are your personal priorities if you succeed?
  •  Securing the best education for the city.
  •  Investment and funding for infrastructure.
  •  Lobbying the Scottish government for more funding: social care
Why should we vote for the Liberal Democrats?
  • In a local election, people should vote for individual candidates.
  • Hopes people appreciate the hard work she has put in for the area over the last nine years.
What have you achieved as a councillor?
  • Building ten new schools, including Cults Academy.
  •  Investment in roads, street lights etc.
  •  First new council houses built in ten years.
  •  Putting Aberdeen on an even financial keel, despite receiving only 85% as much central government funding as the average council.

What motivated you to stand for office?
  • Was a lecturer at RGU, wanted to use background in health and education to benefit the community.
What do you consider to be the main issues in this election?
  • How to deal with development in Aberdeen.
  • (Especially youth) unemployment.
  • Protecting the environment and our way of life.
What are your personal priorities if you succeed?
  • Equality of opportunity in education: improving schools across the city.
  • Addressing the pressure on schools from new developments.
  • Dealing with health inequality, especially focusing on prevention.
  • Educating schoolchildren about social responsibility.
Why should we vote for the SNP?
  • Hasn’t always been SNP, considers herself a Socialist.
  • SNP willing to take tough decisions as sympathetically as possible: willing to listen and safeguard frontline services.
How does your previous experience equip you to be a councillor?
  • Used to dealing with people.
  • Good grasp of issues surrounding education and health.

What motivated you to stand for office?
  • As Chairman of Cults, Bieldside and Milltimber Community Council became frustrated by dealing with City Council.
  • Didn’t have faith in politicians, didn't feel communities were being listened to.
What do you consider to be the main issues in this election?
  • Planning.
  • Infrastructure Management: No coherent, affordable, long term strategy.
  • No strategy for schools.
  • No strategy for public transport: higher fees for worse services
  • Lack of transparency.
What are your personal priorities if you succeed?
  • More transparency in the planning system.
  • Detailed 5 year plan for infrastructure, with signposted milestones.
  • Coherent affordable housing plan based on concrete estimates of what we need.
  • Robust financial plan for roads, parks etc.
  • Review of public transport system.
Why should we vote for an independent, rather than one of the main parties?
  • Too often ideas are supported or opposed just because of who proposed them.
  • Hopefully plenty of independents in the next council: should make things more consensual.
How does your previous experience equip you to be a councillor?
  • Leading mediation with the planning department on behalf of Community Councils: trying to get more influence.
  • Had discussions with housing department: need to be clear about what we have, what we need, and who contributes what.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

What’s at stake in the debate over the ‘charity tax’?

The British government has come in for a lot of criticism over its proposal for a so-called ‘charity tax’. Despite the misleading label, the plan is not to introduce any new tax. Rather, all that has been suggested is that tax relief on charitable donors should be reduced, so that nobody can claim relief on donations greater than £50 000 or 25% of income, whichever is higher.

Now there’s been a lot of confusion about the motives behind this move, and it doesn’t help that the government keeps changing its story. As far as I can make out, there seem to be three types of argument in favour of limiting tax relief on donations:

1. That the tax relief is being abused by the rich as a way to avoid tax.
2. That the tax relief involves an unfair asymmetry between high and low earners.
3. That individuals ought not to be able to pick and choose the social causes they support.

I’m going to leave aside the first argument, which seems pretty dubious without evidence, and which the government appears to be abandoning anyway.

The second argument, as I read it, is that it is unfair that higher-rate taxpayers can financially benefit from donating to charity, while the average taxpayer cannot. Higher rate, unlike basic rate, taxpayers can have some their tax refunded. Now it is important to be clear that higher-rate taxpayers are not better off overall as a result of their charitable donations, since the tax relief will be less than the money they have given away. But the rich get bribes that the average taxpayer does not for giving to charity. To see this, consider an example (from the HMRC website):
  • If a basic rate (20%) taxpayer donates £100, the charity receives an additional £25 from the Treasury through gift aid: all the tax is refunded to the charity.
  • If a top rate (50%) taxpayer donates £100, the charity receives an additional £25 through gift aid as before, but the donor receives the rest of the tax refund – in this case they would receive £37.50.
Now in one sense, there is no asymmetry here: from the Treasury’s perspective, it has refunded all the tax it could charge on both donations. It respects Stephen Tall’s principle that “we shouldn’t tax income that is voluntarily foregone for public benefit”. Yet if it is just a matter of respecting this principle then it is not clear why higher-rate taxpayers, but nobody else, should get personal refunds. It would surely be fairer either to abolish gift aid, and allow all taxpayers to fully claim back the tax they would have paid on donations for themselves, or only to refund all tax to charities and not individuals. The current halfway house doesn’t make a lot of sense. As for the current proposals, they fail to address the root of the problem. Merely limiting tax relief for the rich isn’t good enough: it should be abolished or extended to all.

The third argument above is more radical, in that it seems to imply the rejection of Tall’s principle that all income foregone for the public benefit ought not to be taxed. In its strongest form, it raises the question of why it should be the case that the state should subsidise charitable activity at all.

Mark Steel is one of the few people to see that best defence of the government’s plans (though I strongly doubt he advances the argument out of any desire to defend the government) comes in the form of an assertive defence of the state. As he observes, there are certain ways in which private charity can never adequately substitute for the state (although certain anarchists and libertarians might object): “Instead of punishing this kindness [of philanthropists], we should extend it, so rather than funding the NHS through compulsory taxation, we get millionaires to wander round a ward and give a few pounds if they see a patient they think deserves curing”. Steel’s point is that forcing people to contribute to the state ensures that services are consistent, universal and not left to the whims of the generous rich. By contrast, allowing people to pick and choose which services are funded means that services will be less reliable and coordinated. If we took this argument to its logical conclusion it would imply that it is never justified to use tax refunds to promote charitable giving, since that money would always be used better and more equitably in the state sector.

Against this, we might object that private charity has advantages over state action. Its voluntariness is a major point in its favour – all else being equal, it is surely better for people to do good things because they want than because they have to. Moreover, it might be thought that cutting out the middle man of the state will create a more engaged, altruistic community. This view, that private charity should be encouraged because “Human kindness, generosity and imagination are steadily being squeezed out by the work of the state” seems integral to David Cameron’s vision of the ‘Big Society’. As a number of critics have pointed out, the ‘charity tax’ is entirely at odds with what was supposed to be the guiding vision of the government.

These two extreme positions are probably straw men, and I imagine most people believe neither that the state is always more efficient and fairer than charities, nor that charities could ever hope to replace the state. In that case, we might want to use tax to encourage charitable donations up to a point, but not so much that it involves significant losses to the Treasury. If this is our aim, then a sensible policy might be to set some sort of cap on how much tax the Treasury has to give up. Oh, wait…

Monday, 16 April 2012

Why isn’t John Terry ashamed of himself?

In yesterday’s FA Cup semi-final, Chelsea were mistakenly awarded a goal despite the ball not crossing the goal line. John Terry, the closest Chelsea player to the incident (he was literally sprawled on the line at the time), has basically admitted that he knew the decision was mistaken.

Why isn’t this scandalous? Why does Terry not appear remotely contrite or remorseful? He has effectively admitted cheating and deception on the most public of stages.

Now, if you look closely at what he said, Terry expresses a measure of doubt. Maybe he genuinely thought the referee was in a better position to judge. But surely the incensed reaction of the Tottenham players would have cleared that up? Terry certainly wasn’t going to help the officials, as is commonplace in sports like cricket.

I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating: sportsmen will only live up to our expectations of them. If they know that they can behave like Terry’s, and face no judgement or condemnation, then they face little incentive not to. And if we want higher standards, we have to make that clear and unambiguous.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Can deontologists defend punishment?

27 years ago, Michael Philips set deontologists a challenge – to show how their principles could be reconciled with the institution of punishment. It’s an interesting paper, and I wonder if anyone has satisfactorily met that challenge yet.

A common objection to consequentialism is that it sometimes appears to justify punishing innocent people. This objection is vividly presented by H.J. McCloskey’s thought experiment, which invites us to imagine a scenario in which framing an innocent person for an atrocious crime will help to calm a furious mob and avert a riot. Utilitarians, fearing the possibility of death and destruction, are supposed to accept that punishing the innocent person might be the right thing to do. This apparent perversion of justice is often seen as grounds for rejecting consequentialism.

Yet as Philips points out, deontologists who accept the criminal justice system are in many ways in the same boat. It is a consequence of imperfect human institutions that the police and courts will make mistakes, and wrongly convict innocent people. This is more or less inevitable and predictable. A famous legal principle is that  it is “better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” But how can it be justified for even a single innocent to suffer? The deontologists who condemn consequentialism for countenancing the possibility of punishing the innocent are (presumably) willing to defend a justice system that does exactly that – punish the innocent.

The obvious line of defence for the deontologist is to invoke the doctrine of double effect – the punishment of the innocent is permissible because it is a foreseen but unintended consequence of the institution of punishment. I have a couple of problems with this response. First, the problem that what is taken to be foreseen or intended seems to depend greatly on how an act is described. Insofar as the deontologist supports a policy that they know will result in punishing innocent people, they can be said to intend the punishment of the innocent. Alternatively, the consequentialist’s punishment of an innocent person can be taken as a side effect of averting a riot. Second, if I were an innocent person wrongly convicted of a crime I don’t think that the intentions of the person or system that punished me would make me feel any less wronged.

Another possibility is that the wrongness of letting guilty people escape unpunished is bad enough to justify occasionally punishing innocent people – perhaps not 1:1, but maybe in the 10:1 ratio suggested above. I don’t see how anybody who held this position could still criticise consequentialists with a straight face. Effectively what they’d be saying is that death and injury of those caught up in McCloskey’s riots is not of sufficient moral weight to count against punishing the innocent, but that punishing people is. Causing harm is more morally significant than preventing harm.

Maybe there are other ways out of the dilemma, but if it is a real one, which side should deontologists choose? Philips suggests that they should give up their objection to punishing the innocent, but Michael Zimmerman uses a similar argument (alongside a number of others) to urge us to relinquish the notion that punishment can ever be morally justified. Are there other options I’ve missed?

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

When is campaign finance undemocratic?

That the recent cash for access scandal that has hit Prime Minister David Cameron and his Conservative party has put campaign finance back on the agenda is certainly a good thing. Yet I worry about the current focus of the debate. Most people seem to be under the impression that the major problem with the current system is that single individuals or organisations contribute too much, and therefore wield too much influence. However, I think it is at least as worrying that there are such great disparities between the resources of the different parties. In the 2010 British general election, the Conservatives spent twice as much money Labour, and enjoyed over three times the budget of the Liberal Democrats. Unsurprisingly, there is a strong correlation between how much a party spends and its electoral performance. It has been estimated that an extra £2.25 of electoral spending corresponds to an additional vote. If this is correct, then the £8 million more that the Conservatives spent than Labour were worth over 3 million votes to them. Since the Conservatives received just over 2 million more votes than Labour at the election, this implies that their vote share could even have been less than Labour’s had there been a level financial playing field.

These calculations are a bit sketchy, but the point I am trying to make should be clear enough: there is significant inequality of wealth between parties, and this almost certainly influences electoral results. This seems fundamentally undemocratic. The idea of ‘one person, one vote’ is often taken to be essential to democracy. Yet for a donation of as little as £2.25, a person can effectively double their political influence – voting once themselves, and basically buying a second vote.

Obviously this ‘multiple voting’ is more heinous in the case of larger donations where more votes are ‘bought’. But the argument applies in the same way to the ordinary trade union members whose support Labour keep stressing. The implication of the argument is that all privately funding of political parties is undemocratic.

Yet funding electoral campaigns is clearly not the same as straightforwardly buying votes. The voters who are influenced by it still get to freely choose who to vote for. Campaign spending may be a way of deploying one’s resources so as to alter people’s voting intentions. But the same could be said of rational persuasion, and it is very hard to argue that that is undemocratic. We do not think that it is undemocratic ever to try to influence others, that democracy requires us to leave voters to make up their minds alone. On the contrary, better informing fellow citizens of their options is seen as a democratic virtue.

So how, if at all, is spending money different from other forms of political campaigning? I think the intuition which explains the unease that people like me have with the role of money in politics is expressed by Jurgen Habermas’ claim that democracy requires the “force of the better argument” to prevail. This is doubtless idealistic, since elections are influenced by any number of factors which have nothing to do with the arguments: personalities, tribal loyalties etc. But it is a regulative ideal: the more that elections are decided by arguments, the more democratic the political system is; the more that other influences intrude, the less democratic it becomes. If campaign spending becomes a more significant determinant of electoral success, this moves us away from democracy.

A certain level of campaign spending brings us closer to the ideal of elections decided by arguments. If parties could not spend, they would be unable to publicise their message, and the electorate would be relatively uninformed. However, this beneficial effect is counterbalanced by the malign effect of uneven electoral spending: if some parties have far more money than others, then they are likely to do better regardless of the success of their arguments. This implies that it might be better to have a relatively ignorant electorate, as long as they are equally ignorant about all parties.

This would seem to be a case for the public funding of parties, since this would ensure that voters are (a) better informed, but also (b) not much more informed about some parties than others. However, it would also seem to have other radical implications. If parties are to triumph only by the force of their better arguments, then this means that they cannot base their success on more enthusiastic grassroots volunteers. It seems like the use of volunteers by political parties for canvassing and leafleting is subject to the same trade-off as their spending of money: more is better, but only if it is evenly spread. Yet the implication of this thought is that there should be limits on the use of volunteers. This seems like an even more puzzling paradox than campaign spending. On the one hand, it seems undemocratic to prevent people volunteering their time and efforts to promote a political cause. Yet on the other hand, it seems undemocratic for the party with the most loyal volunteers to win on that basis alone. Have I gone wrong somewhere?