Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for February, 2016

Change of venue

In the most recent Republican debate this exchange occurred:

TRUMP: If people — my plan is very simple. I will not — we’re going to have private — we are going to have health care, but I will not allow people to die on the sidewalks and the streets of our country if I’m president. You may let it and you may be fine with it…

CRUZ: So does the government pay for everyone’s health care?

TRUMP: … I’m not fine with it. We are going to take those people…

CRUZ: Yes or no. Just answer the question.

TRUMP: Excuse me. We are going to take those people and those people are going to be serviced by doctors and hospitals. We’re going to make great deals on it, but we’re not going to let them die in the streets.

Obviously, Trump recognized the trap of promising the great expense of keeping people from dying on the streets and sidewalks, so he quickly fell back to this compromise position: During the Trump presidency, poor people will be permitted to die on the sidewalks, but not in the streets. This leaves open the question of whether they will receive medical attention or merely cited by medical personnel to the sidewalk. It’s a win-win, since the dying would no longer impede the free flow of traffic.

It’s quite a bit like UK asylum policy: it would be unconscionable to send civilians back into a war zone, and we can’t just let them fend for themselves on the streets of London. So we need to make sure that as many as possible drown at sea, pour décourager les autres.

Of course, this may increase pressure to build barriers between the streets and sidewalks, at least in the vicinity of hospitals. Jobs!

None dare call it “evasion”

Just another example of how the business elites have normalised their criminal activities:

So when politicians, journalists and the public ask rude questions about how Google can pay its chief executive more in one year than it hands over to the British tax authorities, the company should have a simple answer. You make the rules, we obey them – if you don’t like it make some new rules, otherwise go away and leave us alone.

The article suggests that Google is suffering from a sick compulsion to hold itself to a higher standard than is just obeying the rules.

Except, they don’t actually obey the rules. What they do (as I’ve discussed at greater length) is to create structures to exploit the ambiguity in such legal terms as “residence” and “business activity” and “profits”, ambiguity that is in the rules because the lobbyists would otherwise squeal about unreasonable constraints and irrational behaviour being forced upon them by more specific regulations. The law doesn’t actually permit you to pretend your business is actually transpiring at the shell address in the Cayman Islands, but it’s sufficiently hard to prove otherwise, and the elite civil servants are sufficiently unmotivated.

In fact, despite the billions of dollars they spend on tax lawyers in lieu of taxes, they’re not even particularly conscientious about keeping their plausible deniability plausible. Former London Google employee Barney Jones gave evidence to HMRC:

He had watched Matt Brittin, his former boss at Google, give evidence to MPs on the Public Accounts Committee with interest but also mounting disquiet. Mr Brittin emphasised to the PAC one reason Google paid so little tax in the UK was that it did so little business here. The bulk of its work was generated through its Dublin headquarters – where corporation tax was lower than in London.

Mr Jones, a father of four and a devout Christian, knew that wasn’t true. He had worked in the London office from 2002 to 2006 and had his own view of the large turnover of work that was really going on in the UK. He took the facts to PAC chair Margaret Hodge and then on to Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC), which took his evidence but wasn’t exactly overjoyed by it.

“They seemed quite defensive and seemed to be more interested in justifying their position.”

For that matter, it’s not even entirely true that they don’t make the laws. Unless you think the US Treasury just decided in a purely independent and disinterested way that the European Commission doesn’t really understand its own tax rules.

Infinite sponsorship

I’ve just been reading the novel Infinite Jest, and immediately struck by the originality of Wallace’s conception of corporate sponsorship. Universities such as my own have been willing to paste sponsors’ names on buildings, institutes, libraries, posts, scholarships, quadrangles, and pretty much anything else that is identifiable on a map or organisational chart, but they have left the temporal dimension barely touched. Whereas in Wallace’s novel the naming rights to years are sold off, so that a date might be referred to as 1 November, Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, or Year of the Trial Size Dove Bar, we still name our terms for medieval feast days: Michaelmas, Hilary, and Trinity terms. Imagine if, instead, we had Nuffield Term, Sainsbury Term, and (Your-Name-Here) Term.

Of course, that is not the limit. (Of course!) There are periodic arguments in my subject over abandoning the dowdy name of “Statistics”. “Information science” and “Data science”are two alternatives that have been proposed. But if we are going to change our name, why not get paid for it? We could become the Department of GlaxoSmithKline. Across the way the Computing Laboratory would become the Department of Google. And what we now know as the Department of Mathematics would be more recognisable to prospective students as the Department of Goldman Sachs. They’re not fooling anyone.

Commitment to concrete steps

Apparently David Cameron has decided to take what he can get from the EU and call it victory. I was particularly struck by this “concession”:

a clear long-term commitment to increasing competitiveness and taking concrete steps towards better regulation and reducing administrative burdens

The “concrete steps” presumably to replace the current wooden steps that weren’t leading anywhere. Seriously, though, how does a vague promise to take “concrete steps” in the future differ from a vague promise full stop?

My guess is that the referendum will still go against EU membership.

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