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.

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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

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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…

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

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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).”