Labour’s tuition fee plan will help the people who need it the least

Labour has re-announced a policy to cut tuition fees to £6,000. Last time they did this, Tim Leunig an economist at Centre Forum showed just who the beneficiaries would be:

Since no student has to pay upfront under either system, the proposal makes no student better off or worse off while they are studying.
Over half of the gain to former students goes to the richest 20% of graduates: those with lifetime earnings of over £2m in today’s money.
The winners are also disproportionately old. Less than 1% of graduates will gain from this proposal within 10 years of graduation. The typical winner will have graduated 28 years earlier, and will earn £72,500 at the point at which they benefit from this proposal.
In addition, there is a significant gain to students with well-off parents who pay their fees upfront, rather than borrowing from the government. European students also benefit, as they must make repayments under the loan system but would not be liable for a UK tax.
The proposal is clearly regressive.
Since this proposal leads to an increase in the number of people who repay their loans in full, it also represents a step away from a graduate tax.

Why would God flood the whole world? – Noah as truth and metaphor

The story of Noah is true even though it didn’t happen

Note for UKIP councillors: at the end of the story God promises not to do it again!!!

Note for UKIP councillors: at the end of the story God promises not to do it again!!!

There is a tradition in the John Wesley Society known as group services of occasionally sending students out to lead services in churches we would not normally visit. I found the text of a sermon I wrote for one of these from a couple of years ago. I think was about the second part of Genesis 8: the final part of the story of Noah.

I’m posting it here for two reasons. Firstly, because a new film about (and called) Noah staring Russel Crowe and Emma Watson is being released this week. And secondly, because what I wrote touches on a theme that is often of interest to non-Christians: how literally to understand the Old Testament and what to make of the apparently vengeful God who appears in it.

If you had asked my five year old self, what his favourite song was he’d likely have told you it was the animals march in two by two. Does anyone here know it?

Our adult perception of the story differs little from this children’s version. We shout “hurrah, hurrah” at the cute adventure of a family on a boat with a menagerie of animals, ignoring what is happening under the water. For all its superficially comforting familiarity, the story of Noah should be a shocking reminder to the contemporary Christian of just how violent the early section of the bible can appear. We tend to be more comfortable the New Testament God who tells us to turn the other cheek than the Old Testament God who in psalm 137 calls for the babies of Babylon to be smashed against rocks. And nowhere does God seem more barbaric than when he responds to the violence of the world, with the most immense act of violence conceivable, drowning virtually every living thing.

How then do we link the covenant we heard about in Genesis, symbolised by a rainbow but forged in a massacre, with the covenant established by Jesus’ resurrection?

The key point to grasp here is that the story of Noah did not actually take place. To see why consider the following fact, dinosaurs became extinct about 65 million years ago yet geologists can say with reasonable degree of certainty not only that it was caused by a large comet or meteorite colliding with the earth but that the impact crater from this collision is in present day Mexico. Now ponder this: modern humans have been on the earth for about 200,000 years and as the biblical account of the flood contains human characters, so if real then it would have taken place within that time. Yet despite this supposed event being of a comparable scale of calamity to the collision and having happened so much more recently geologists, archaeologists and palaeontologists have found no trace of it. No major disruption of the fossil record, no simultaneous disappearance of civilisations in different parts of the world, nothing in fact to indicate the entire world being flooded. In addition, the logistics of the whole thing are rather implausible – gathering together two of every species, building an arc big enough to house all of them and catering for the diverse dietary requirement of all of them for a year – did they have a bamboo farm on board for the Pandas? – doesn’t seem within the reach of a single Stone Age family. Oh and Noah is supposed to have lived to be a thousand years old. It is evident therefore that Noah and the flood are fictional.

Fiction and truth are not, however, mutually exclusive categories. The American theologian Reinhold Neibuhr was once asked if he thought that the account of creation in Genesis was literally true. He replied “no, it’s much truer than that.” The best fiction shows us truths. Frankenstein conveys a truth about the perils of playing God, Animal Farm a truth about how without democracy leaders will always turn on their people, and Adrian Mole gives you all the truth you need about how strange and uncomfortable it is to be a teenage boy. Jesus makes extensive use of this technique: the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son are not real but the insights their stories give us are.

Peter’s letter points us to the truth that is being conveyed by the story of the flood: the flood waters cleansing the earth of sinful people prefigure the waters of Baptism cleansing our souls.

My personal view is that the parable of Noah is essentially a thought experiment. It is asking what would happen if God tried to lead humanity out of sin by destroying everyone but a hardened core of righteous people. The answer is nothing at all, sin would persist as before. It does not take long for this to become evident. For after the flood, Noah winds up placing a curse on his own son. And this was just the start for the Biblical account would imply that all the humans alive today are descendants of Noah and we know all too well their capacity for harm. The problem is that sin is such an integral part of the human condition that even if God only saves the most righteous people they will still sin. If he destroyed all the sinners, there would be no humans left.

God knows that none of us can shake our own dark side because every time someone has tried and failed to shake it he has seen it. So rather than getting rid of a sinful humanity, he plunged into it, taking on human form and allowing himself to be murdered, but rather seeking revenge he offered absolution. And it is that offer of unconditional forgiveness for our sins that is the heart of the new covenant that Jesus makes with us.

God’s promise to Noah to never again flood the world is thus an essential prelude to Jesus’ covenant with us. He is promising never to do again, what he has never done and which on account of his loving, forgiving nature he could never conceivably do. He spares us violent destruction, so he can offer us loving grace. And while only members of Noah’s family, 8 people in total, were supposedly saved on the Arc, the new covenant opens salvation to everyone. Now that is something worth singing “hurrah, hurrah” about.

Reasons inheritance tax is actually pretty soft

It appears that David Cameron still wants to raise the Inheritance Tax (IHT) threshold to £1 million.

He told a Saga meeting in Peacehaven in Sussex that: “Inheritance tax should only really be paid by the rich. It should not be paid by people who have worked hard and saved and who have bought a family house, say in Peacehaven.”

This is a loathsome policy. An editorial in the FT rightly argued: “implementing a £1m threshold for IHT would cost the Treasury more than £3bn. But reducing the burden of income tax or national insurance contributions – if there is room for such moves – would be far more beneficial for the wider economy” and that “policy makers in the developed world cannot ignore how, in an era of slow economic growth, an increasing proportion of society’s total wealth is acquired through inheritance….Redistributing inherited wealth is a painful matter for the baby-boomer generation. But it is vital if inequality is not to be exacerbated.”

However, beyond these general points there was something about the Prime Minister’s comments that aggravated me. Only the ‘rich’ should pay IHT but it is fine for people on the minimum wage to pay income tax and for virtually everyone to pay VAT. The implication seems to be that there is something uniquely harsh about IHT.

The reality is rather different. For a host of reasons it is actually a very soft tax.

1. It has a huge nil rate band already

Income tax kicks in at £10,000, Capital Gains tax at £10,900 and VAT has no threshold at all.

By contrast, estates only become liable for IHT if they are worth more than £325,000. And for many estates it is even higher than this because someone passing on an estate can add any unused part of their spouse’s allowance to their own. The result is that the threshold can go as high as £650,000.

The result is that for all the handwringing about it trapping more and more people, the Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that just 4% of homes are liable for IHT.

If homes in the South East are now being caught by this tax that says more about the unreasonable value of some houses than it does the unfairness of IHT.

2. It doesn’t apply to spouses

Part of the reason that transferring of allowances between spouses is such a big deal is that it is unlikely that someone with a surviving spouse is highly unlikely to use their full allowance. This because anything passed between spouses is IHT free.

3. Its marginal rate is comparable with other taxes

IHT is charged at 40% which is the same as higher rate income tax, which is paid by many more people.

It is also possible to lower that to 36% by giving enough money to charity.

4. It has some pretty generous exemptions

In addition to the spousal exemption I mentioned, there are a host of others. Amongst them no tax is paid on money left to charity or on family businesses and farms.

5. It is often possible to pay in instalments

Payments on land, property and certain shares can be spread out over a decade. Bear this is mind next time someone talks about having to sell a house to pay IHT.

6. Death wipes out capital gains

The tax system makes concessions to death. If the owner of an asset dies then no tax is payable on the capital gains it has accumulated up to that point. Therefore, abolishing IHT would leave a series of transactions that would fall through the system altogether.


I am not saying that anyone is going to be grateful for paying IHT and I appreciate that it becomes payable at an emotionally difficult time. However, as I hope I’ve made clear it is not a uniquely harsh tax. And it can’t be ignored that it was more progressive and producers fewer disincentives to work than pretty much any other tax.

Muppets: Most Wanted (review)

It may be a mess but it’s a gloriously entertaining one

The new Muppet film begins with a song about sequels that includes the line: “everybody knows the sequel is never quite as good.” Following on as this film does from the excellent previous outing of the Muppets penned by Jason Siegel, this feels like a warning from its makers to audiences that they may be disappointed.

And there are indeed warning signs. It lacks its predecessors discipline: at almost two hours long it’s baggy, the music interludes are disposable and it doesn’t have anything like .

However, this is beside the point. It’s still entertaining, energetic and genre(s) savvy. The benefit of this installment being less carefully crafted than its predecessor, is that it’s funnier. It overflows with an anarchic humour. It may be scattergun but it hits plenty of targets.

There were only a handful of people in the screening I went to: me, my mum and two other mothers each with a daughter who must have been seven or eight or so. Both these young girls were at one point or another dancing along to the songs and my most abiding memory of this film will probably be one of them squealing with delight at Miss Piggy’s triumphant handbagging of the villain.

Verdict: 7/10 – it’s flawed but really who cares!

16 things you didn’t know about breast cancer

My friend Ben Krishna joins the blogosphere with an admirably fact filled post on breast cancer

Dr Siinfekl


On social media sites, women have been posting ‘no make up selfies’ to promote breast cancer awareness. A lot of people have been complaining about our image-obsessed society, the fact that not wearing make up is seen as a challenge for some, and that we hate selfies. Other people have already discussed this, such as the matteroffacts blog which looked at the social effect of make up, or noodlemaz who discusses the issue of ‘raising awareness‘ and exactly what this campaign is aiming to do.

Then someone on my facebook timeline said: “wouldn’t we raise awareness better if we included some facts and a powerpoint?”

Well, I hate powerpoint, but here are some facts about breast cancer, which will hopefully raise awareness and persuade people to donate to a cancer charity. Since I am using bullet points, I will give this blog post the buzzfeed-inspired title: 16…

View original post 706 more words

Can statistics tell us how big a deal it is to not to wear makeup?


If you use any kind of social media it is likely that you will have seen LOTS of photos of women minus makeup. This is part of an effort to raise money for Cancer Research.

For me this begged a question. Normally the things we do to fundraise – running marathons, shaving our hair off, bathing in baked beans –  are quite an ordeal. Could forgoing makeup really be such a big deal?

In a desperate effort to procrastinate from my studies, I looked into this.

As a starting point we can be very clear that how you look matters. It clearly shouldn’t but it does. It influences your success not just in obvious areas like work and relationships but also in more surprising matters like your prospects of staying out of prison. And unsurprisingly it is more important for men than women.

These effects trivial are also far from trivial. Yale economist Daniel Hamermesh found that people with above average looks generally get a ‘beauty premium’ in their earnings of 5% or more, while less attractive people suffer from a ‘plainness penalty’ of up to 9%.”

I’d already heard about studies like these before I started researching this post. However, I still guessed makeup would have little impact. This was because I assumed it would have only a marginal impact on overall attractiveness, which I assumed would depend overwhelmingly on things like age and bone structure.

Well it turns out I was wrong. Two experimental studies in real world situations by Nicolas Guéguen of the Université de Bretagne-Sud showed that applying cosmetics does have a big impact. One suggested that a woman sitting in a bar will – other things being equal – be 33% more likely to be hit on if she is wearing makeup. The other indicated that wearing makeup doubled the average tip received by a female waitress from male customers.

In both these cases, the observed change seems to have come about because women wearing makeup were perceived as more attractive. However, there are also studies that show a broader range of effects. For example,  “women presented wearing cosmetics were perceived as healthier and more confident than when presented without. Participants also awarded women wearing makeup with a greater earning potential and with more prestigious jobs than the same women without cosmetics.”

In addition, to influencing how women are perceived by others, makeup also seems – as the Cancer Research campaign would suggest – to impact their own perception of themselves and therefore their self esteem.

So it seems that my instinct was wrong. Wearing makeup or not wearing makeup really does matter.



P.S. Lest you are wondering, yes the authors of at least some of the studies above have taken steps to separate out the impact of cosmetics on women’s self perception and how they are perceived by others.

P.P.S. Despite all these impacts it doesn’t seem that you can describe buying cosmetics as an investment rather than a form of consumption.

P.P.P.S: There is also research on which makeup makes the most difference: “A recent study has found that eye makeup has the most powerful effect on female perceived attractivity, followed by foundation; lipstick, surprisingly, was found to have little independent effect (Mulhern et al., 2003).”





Tony Benn: a reality check

The best way to show respect for Tony Benn is to continue debating his beliefs and legacy


An example

In 2009, Richard Curtis released a film called the Boat That Rocked. It centred on the anarchic world of Pirate Radio, the small scale independent and unregulated radio stations that sprung up in the 1960s in defiance of the BBC’s monopoly. The film was sympathetic to this world and therefore needed a villain from the world of officialdom who would be hostile to it. A Guardian interview with Curtis from the time explained:

“Radio Rock’s fictitious nemesis is Kenneth Branagh’s minister, Dormandy, an archetypal killjoy toff. In reality, it was a future national treasure, postmaster general Anthony Wedgwood Benn. “He’s morphed into everybody’s favourite wise uncle,” says Walker. “But back then he was this wild-eyed, maniacal, fearsome, controlling character. If you see any footage of him being interviewed, he looks like he’s on speed.”

“When I tried to write a more Labour thing it didn’t work,” Curtis admits. “It didn’t make sense in story terms, so I ended up moving back towards a more authoritarian figure with a moustache.”

A man worthy of respect

This is perhaps rather typical of how generous we are to Tony Benn. It’s not hard to see why: he was not only one of the most eloquent politicians of his generation but also one of the most likable. He was a great example of disagreeing without being disagreeable. He put forward very controversial proposals without apparent venom. This is probably part of the reason that he was able to maintain friendships with people as far to the right as David Davis and Enoch Powell.

He was also clearly an inspiration for many people – well beyond the Labour Party. That includes me: he was one of an impressive array of speakers I heard at the 2003 demo against the Iraq War, the formative political event of my life. It will probably never be possible to work out the impact he had as a galvaniser.

However, this is far from being the totality of his legacy. Now a little time has passed since his death we ought to refresh our memories of those things that do not belong in gushing obituaries. Otherwise, we may forget them and end up with a skewed view of history. In our desire to commemorate him, we shouldn’t forget that his political views became rather extreme and increasingly misguided. He also wound up damaging many of the causes and movements he cared about.

So here are some parts of that legacy that need to be borne in mind:

1. He struggled to see how terrible others on the far left could be

Many of the eulogies to Benn described how he always stood up for the powerless over the powerful. This wasn’t entirely true. He had a huge blind spot over the sins of his comrades on the far left.

He called himself a ‘great admirer’ of Mao, possibly the worse mass murderer in history.

As the (notionally communist) Milosevic instigated the ethnic cleansing of much of the Former Yugoslavia, Benn blamed the crisis not on the machinations of Belgrade but on the IMF. He also suggested that in Bosnia “the main enemy is NATO.”

When Milosevic again attempted ethnic cleansing, this time in Kosovo; Benn was again at the forefront of opposing the NATO military action that would ultimately foil his plans.

Closer to home, he backed the thuggish fanatics of Militant. When the Observer published documents showing the group was manipulating Labour’s internal democracy, Benn argued with unbecoming paranoia that they were fabrications of the security services.

2.  He called the Cold War wrong

The conditions for peace in Western Europe after World War II and the liberation of Eastern Europe after 1989 were laid by two institutions: NATO and the EU/EC. Benn wanted to pull Britain out of both.

3. He got the EU wrong

Benn was as Eurosceptic as Farage.

On this as on so many other issues the rest of the Left left him behind. They saw that what many of them had assumed would be a ‘capitalist club’ had evolved into a ‘social union’ and a promoter of solidarity and human rights. He struggled to expand his notions of democracy beyond Westminster elections and to see that the political influence of the City would be increased not reduced by a Brexit.

4. He was not a man of ‘unswerving commitment’

When Benn is discussed it is quite common to hear the assertion above followed by the observation that “he was one of the few people to moved leftwards with age” with no apparent awareness that these two statements are contradictory.

The reality is that like any other politician Benn evolved. He came from a Liberal family, was initially affiliated to the right of the Labour Party, his spells in government were characterised by technocracy and it was only in the 70s that he associated himself with the radical left. This final move put him in a better position to bid for the Labour leadership.

Now to be clear I am not suggesting Benn’s move was cynical nor that his subsequent socialist convictions. What I am saying is that Benn shows we shouldn’t equate a shift in position with insincerity. And I don’t see why Tony Benn is the only one to be given this benefit of the doubt.

5. He made Thatcherism and Blairism possible

Tony Benn was an anomaly in the history of the Labour Party. Harold Wilson supposedly said the party was “more Methodist than Marxist” and “The Labour party has never been a socialist party, although there have always been socialists in it – a bit like Christians in the Church of England.” Benn’s mission was to turn the Labour Party into a more doctrinaire socialist. That led it to an electoral disaster that made Thatcher’s reign possible. The party responded to these defeats by further eviscerating its traditions under Blair. Benn may have been a good socialist but he was not good for socialism.

6. His concrete achievements were very modest

Thanks to Benn 18 hereditary peers have resigned their seats. That is not a great policy legacy.

7. No one (including the far left) actually agrees Benn on economics anymore

There is an understandable nostalgia for the post-war mixed economy with its equal and rising incomes. However, Benn (at least in his later incarnations) cannot be a symbol of this. He was as emphatic an opponent of it as Thatcher.

His vision was not of an economy that looked like Britain in the Sixties but Poland at that or Venezuela today. His plans would have extinguished any kind of meaningful private sector with dire consequences for productivity (and potentially democracy).

What is especially striking is that even the far left has fallen out of love with Benn’s economic vision. As a recent episode of Radio 4’s Analysis reported this section of the political spectrum is increasingly occupied by anarchists rather than socialists. The notion of an economy organised into monopolies run by government bureaucrats is as unappealing to Benn’s contemporary comrade as it is to everyone else. It may well be that the future of radical politics is closer is less like Benn’s than the pirate radio stations he shut down.


Tony Benn’s transformation from perceived demagogue into a national treasure was helped no end by his losing and our country’s fondness for noble failure. However, our affection for Benn personally should not lead us to rewrite history.

His defeats made it possible for Benn to be almost universally respected by generation. However, had we been around during his political ascendancy we would virtually all have been fighting to stop ensure that defeat took place, whether that would have been as Tories, members of the Alliance, some anarchist group or even/especially within the Labour Party.

Benn complained about being treated as “a kindly, harmless old gentlemen Well, I am kindly and I am old, but I am not harmless.” Let’s not insult his memory by erasing his more controversial political stances.

The Heresy of Fred Phelps

Trying to get to the nub of what is wrong about the theology of the Westboro Baptist Church tells us a lot about the core of Christianity

Protesters greet those from Westboro Baptist Church in St. Charles

Fred Phelps, the founder of the bigoted Westboro Baptist Church, has passed away. Much has been written about his death but I’ve yet to see anything that addressed Phelps on his own terms: as a purported messenger of God.

It is perhaps easy to see why this is. The church and its outrageous behaviour seem to positively invite analysis through an anthropological lens: they can look like a very strange tribe that happens to be found in Kansas rather than Papua New Guinea. By contrast, engaging seriously with its theology feels odd. Aside from its extremism and talent for generating publicity for itself, it is a pretty unremarkable outfit. Certainly its size does not command respect: it is ‘a church’ in the sense of a congregation not a denomination. Phelps had only a handful of followers who were mostly members of his extended family. Nor do they speak for anyone beyond this tiny circle: he achieved the remarkable feet of making his anti-gay crusade as unpalatable to conservatives as liberals. And it does not seem like Phelps ideas will be illuminating ones to engage with. In Louis Theroux’s documentary the Most Hated Family in America, the filmmaker is berated by one of Phelps’ followers for asking “the guy who has by far the most scriptural knowledge of anyone crawling on this earth” about anything other than theology. Yet when Theroux interviews Phelps again and this time questions him about his belief system, what becomes apparent is not the wisdom of the supposed scriptural supremo but the fact that he is not articulate enough to explain what he thinks in an intelligible way. Therefore, one could be forgiven for not bothering with the ideology of this unpleasant little cult.

However, I would argue that we should. We can debate whether or not they are a cult. But it is clear that unlike a stereotypical cult, their religious beliefs are not esoteric but recognisably Christian. Fred Phelps began his career as a minister within the Southern Baptist Church. And while he’s strayed far from even this very conservative denomination, his faith still retains the core elements of Christianity: Jesus, the Bible etc. It is instructive to ask how one of our own has reassembled these elements to build something so grizzly.

These beliefs are summarised by Rebecca Barrett-Fox, a visting professor at Arkansas State University who wrote her PhD on the Westboro Baptists, as follows:

Their theology states that, as hyper-Calvinists, that not only does God predestine who is going to heaven or hell but every other thing, good and bad, that happens to people. While the WBC does not believe that anyone can say who is saved and who is not (not even them), there is no hope of salvation outside of the church. Not everyone inside the church may be “elect” (saved), but it’s pretty clear that those outside the church aren’t. The church is like Noah’s Ark. All the people banging on the door of the Ark to get in as the flood waters rose — that’s the rest of us. Being on the outside of the Ark is terrifying. Nate Phelps, who left the church a generation ago and is a self-described atheist, has said that the fear of hell, a hell that is consistently described to members in graphic and horrific detail, is almost inescapable. This trauma is common for ex-members.

So what’s wrong with this picture? There are perhaps two obvious answers suggested by the Church’s behaviour. Firstly, that its hostility to ‘faggots’ and ‘fornication’ is wrong. However, this is beside the point: many Christians share these positions but don’t wind up holding signs saying ‘faggots eat poop’ by funerals. The other obvious answer would be that they need to be more loving. That’s true but trite. It just begs another question: what error lead them to a position so devoid of love.

I would suggest that the problem is that they make Christianity about damnation rather than salvation. They are ‘spreading the gospel’ not so that people will follow it but so God can punish them for not doing so. In Theroux’s documentary Shirley Phelps – Fred’s daughter and the day to day manager of the Church – actually scoffs at the notion that they are trying to save souls. The Church seems to luxuriate in the notion of God judging sinners. One of Phelps’ granddaughters smirks while explaining that Theroux will go to hell. When he asks her why, she explains it gives her “pleasure to know that God will…carry out his wrath.”

This focus is at odds with scripture. The Apostle Paul explains that: “God our Saviour…wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” The Church’s central claim that God came to earth, died on a cross and resurrected himself so that a single family in Kansas could be saved is absurd. To claim that he would delight in the demise of the rest of humanity is to insult him.

Phelps’ beliefs are so manifestly inaccurate and so universally condemned that I would be prepared to describe him as a heretic. All people remake God in their own image: for Phelps that meant making him into a bile spewing shepherd of tiny flock of Kansans. He would leave many victims in his wake, not least among them members of his own family. For his sake, I hope he finds God far more forgiving of heretics than he dared to imagine.


N.B: I do actually believe that last line. No one including Fred Phelps deserves hell.