My 24 (ineffective) hours of fighting fascism

Last Friday I read that discredited historian, holocaust denier, racist and all round arsehole David Irving was due to give a talk in central York.

Irving was demolished as a historian in 2000. He lost a libel case against historian Deborah Libstadt, who had called him a holocaust denier. The judge described him as someone who “makes … unfounded assertions about the Nazi regime which tend to exonerate the Nazis for the appalling atrocities which they inflicted on the Jews” and “he is an active Holocaust denier; that he is anti-Semitic and racist and that he associates with right-wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism”. He was even jailed in Austria in 2006 for publications he’d made 15 years earlier.

That’s not someone I wanted preaching hatred and selling books in my home town.

I started a Twitter account to see what I could gather about the man’s appearance, and to co-ordinate a protest. We discovered quickly that the tip was false – the landlord of the Blue Boar pub strenuously denied he was hosting. Irving was clearly speaking, but we didn’t know where.

We met up regardless, and I bonded with a lovely bunch of strangers, the first time I’ve done that in a while. There were 15 who were ready to meet at a moment’s notice, and defend their town against fascism. They were all smart, working and politically engaged. If there is a next time, I might be quicker off the mark.

Tracking and shutting down rats like Irving was going to be exhausting and emotionally draining. He sent me a sneering email the day after his talk, hoping that I had made “lots of new friends” at the “homosexual haunt” at which we’d met [what, that sounds quite nice]. There were pot-shots from a couple of supporters on Twitter. You want to snap and sneer back, but I can see how that kind of bile takes over your life.

We needed a journalist’s instinct to research, some planning ahead of time. Even though we failed, Irving and his nazi-sympathising supporters already know that they will be run out of town if they met in public. It seems like he successfully pulled the same trick in Newcastle, putting out a false lead and causing a group of anti-fascists to meet in a random pub. Without those false leads put out to anti-fascist groups, nobody would even have known he was coming (judging by Twitter searches). So this is some bizarre attention-seeking, serving only to bring anti-fascists together, and draw attention to himself. I’m led to understand this is in character.

I did notice that Irving’s web site and email were at a reputable US host, Dreamhost. I asked whether they were comfortable hosting his far-right hate speech, which is illegal in Germany and Austria. Pleading the first amendment, they declined to take it down. I’ve asked the Vienna police to help make the point to Dreamhost, but I have to leave it there and go back to the day job now.

I was glad to find the UAF, particularly that they appear politically neutral and avoiding the traditional anti-fascist language of “comrades” etc. This ought to be a fight for everyone across the political divide, and I always thought it a shame that the loudest voices were politically divisive in other ways. Good luck with all your efforts, and I’ll work harder next time if fascism comes back to York.

Our little flat in York is available for rent

Our first home is now a cosy holiday let, 25 minutes walk from the centre of York, and dogs are welcome. You can book it at www.ourlittleflatinyork.co.uk - the first few bookings will get pretty steep discounts. The renovations should be done this week end, but here’s a nice photo of it beforehand:

There is now a 32″ TV, broadband, pictures on the walls and lots of other little amenities that ought to make it way better than a hotel room for the same money! So if you’re looking for a short let in York do take a look.

It’s also a business experiment, as I’m seeing whether it’s possible to make more money without using from Hoeseasons / cottages4u who wanted a pretty massive 21% + VAT! So if you run a holiday let in York and were looking for a more flexible, cheaper way of taking bookings, drop me a line.

The Big Bang Theory: your TV isn’t laughing at you

Some “true nerds” think that The Big Bang Theory is offensive, and uncomfortable. They write about it as if it were a latter-day Love Thy Neighbour. I occasionally hear the phrase “nerd blackface” and Jeff Harris covered why that’s a ugly turn of phrase: nerds are not a race, they’re not oppressed, and have not suffered generations of segregation and exclusion.

Oh, but you might go through secondary education thinking that you are a special snowflake, and that your exclusion is uniquely painful, or exclusive to your group of friends.  You hide in lockers, or run home from school to program computers, and sigh away the days listening to the Bowie, or the Smiths, or Nine Inch Nails. That experience shapes you, and the feeling of exclusion lingers. But, with a tolerable home life too, we put those experiences in perspective. We recognise exclusion as the self-inflicted wound it is, and that it stems from universal adolescent bullshit: enormous vanity, self-pity and a lack of empathy – basically comedy gold.

So it’s the point of the show, and sitcoms in general that we’re not laughing with the nerds, we’re laughing at them. Why can’t we also find them sympathetic, cheer them on, and identify with them, all at once?

The wounded Big Bang haters, without exception, feel that Leonard, Sheldon, Raj & Howard are very intelligent, yet are abused by the writers despite that virtue. They’re academically bright, but like all good sitcom characters (and Raj), they have to be naive and flawed to be funny, and for the writers to work those flaws. Nobody watches a sitcom with intelligent, well-rounded and balanced characters.

Sheldon is an over-the-hill child genius, now struggling to achieve anything in his 20s. Howard is mocked the most for his lack of PhD and home life, despite achieving among his peers when he becomes an astronaut. Where are they all going, stuck in nondescript academia forever? This is just the “dead end job” sitcom setting. It works not because Penny is injected as the “everyman” – it works because the audience do relate to the nerds. The greasy pole of academia is as slippery as anyone’s work; deadlines, presentations and flattering the right people are familiar. Nobody would watch a sitcom filled exclusively with characters and situations they can’t relate to.

The stinging criticism is, the audience is directed to laugh at who these characters truly are: Dungeons and Dragons is played by losers! Ha ha! Well, this two minute opening scene from last year is set around a D&D game, but what jokes does it frame? Old, tested sitcom stuff: Howard’s Jewish mother is an ogre, his wedding list is full of boring china and  Leonard’s girlfriend is far away so he will be taking a long shower. Raj is comfort eating  and wants to leave because he’s feeling lonely. But the punchline – D&D would be in trouble if lonely people never played it! Raj is persuaded, and picks up the dice again. Is that really a cheap jab at nerds with a nerdy hobby? Or a prime-time celebration of tabletop role-playing as a social activity, with Raj buoyed by his friends? Nobody would watch a sitcom without that glimmer of warmth.

You don’t have to like TBBT (or keep watching, or moaning about it).  It certainly went off the boil as much as any seven-season comedy. Its characters are far more inventive, silly and different than just “four nerds” – they’re not all you, or all me, or anyone I know (even if you share interests with them). It’s fundamentally optimistic. It doesn’t need “true nerds” to enjoy it, even if some of them used to. But it’s absolutely not oppressing or marginalising you, whoever you are. If it were pure cruelty, nobody would watch it either.

A gamble that can’t lose: how to cheat at tax

A couple of weeks ago, the very day that Jimmy Carr was on the front page of the Times, our company accountant had arranged me & Pete a presentation with a tax-avoidance specialist, or “profit extraction” service.

I didn’t really get a say in participating, so sat through this woman’s presentation, slightly open-mouthed. It was fascinating, apparently scandalous and we declined to take part. But according to a poll on moneysavingexpert.com, 58% people would go to any legal length to dodge tax, so here’s to you guys, knock yourselves out!

This is what she described to us, a scheme for removing profits from a UK company,  largely tax-free. I think I am describing this correctly, but if I don’t, I it’s because something was being hidden from me, or I’m getting my terminology wrong. I’d be glad to take clarifications or corrections.

For this dodge you will need a) an individual who wants to receive their tax-free cash (that’s you), b) a company from which to pay the money, c) an arbitrary investment fund (or “basket”), and d) a casino bank.

You go to the bank, and strike two deals:

1) you buy a spread bet, betting that the investment will go up in price by a small and fairly sure percentage. This costs you a stake of e.g. £7,000, for a £100,000 payout;

2) you sell an option to the bank at the same time, contracting to pay the beneficiary £100,000 if the investment performs, to the same condition as the bet. The bank pays you £4,000 for the privilege of becoming the beneficiary of that option.

So you’re now personally £3,000 down – that’s is the bank’s commission. Nobody pays any taxes on these transactions, which are fundamentally risky. Individually, they’re to nobody’s obvious benefit.

The casino bank is on the hook for a spread-bet that is very likely to pay out. But the bank also has a position over you by being the beneficiary of the option you sold them. If the bet pays out, so must the option, which would leave everyone back where they started (except for the commission).

The dodge is: you’re able to assign the obligation for this option to your company. That’s a benefit to you, because you would no longer owe the bank in the event of a pay-out.

However – this is now a large potential liability for the company. Because it’s a liability, nobody sane would take it off you for free, right? Your company is providing a “benefit in kind”, as if it had bought you a holiday or car, and you’d have to be taxed on that at an equivalent cash price. You can’t just give money away (that would be tax evasion, which this isn’t).  How should we value this gamble?

Apparently, the “proper” way to value the option (the £100,000 liability) is the Black Scholes model.  Its model calculates the benefit to the employee at a value of only £6,000. Really, it does. So after the transfer is done, your company not you is on the hook for this £100,000 liability, and this has only “cost” you £6000 as a taxable benefit (so e.g. you might pay £2400 at 40%).

At the end of the bet period (90 days), the performance of the investment is evaluated, and the spread-bet & option conditions are very likely (though not certain) to be triggered.

When that happens, the casino bank pays out £100,000 to the individual. Winnings on a bet attract no income tax, so you receive the full amount – hurrah!

The company pays out £100,000 to the casino bank. But it’s not a dividend on profits any more, it’s a bad investment that can be written off altogether. It’s completely tax-deductible, so there is no corporation tax to pay on it.

So the end position is that £100,000 has been transferred from the company to the individual. Through lies and smoke, this transfer has been valued at only £6000, i.e. the apparent value of the option assignment, not the eventual payout.

One wrinkle: if the performance of the investment didn’t meet the bet criteria, you have to start again and re-place the contracts, and wait another 90 days. This means it costs e.g. another £3000 in fees to the bank. I was assured that this has only ever happened once in the history of the scheme. If there wasn’t risk, it wouldn’t be a bet. And that wouldn’t be “proper”.

The certainty of the bet is set at a level that the tax planners (and – apparently – HMRC) consider “proper”. I heard assurances (from a circle of people paying each another to say so) that it was “proper”, including a tax barrister. She actually said “of course if we’d bet against a rise of 1.75% that would clearly be a scam, which is why we put the bet level at 2.35%”. My question, “so it’s literally 0.6% away from being a scam?” got laughter but no response.

I thought this artificial loss would fall under the description of tax avoidance established by the Ramsay Principle. Could I see their independent legal opinion of the scheme? They had one, but I wasn’t allowed to see it unless I signed a non-disclosure agreement. Which would have ruined this post.

The firm assures me they have a £500,000 fighting fund, in a trust, against an investigation they think of as “inevitable”. That’s only to cover their clients’ costs in defending an investigation – this is mere advice, and they can’t guarantee we wouldn’t have to pay the tax. But that would be years down the line (i.e. implicitly, after we are long gone from the business, and if HMRC were being properly funded instead of cut to the bone). And for their pearls, the firm only wants £13,000.

The scheme doesn’t even demand large sums, just a limited company where you can withdraw a few tens of thousands of pounds, a cooperative casino investment bank, and a strong desire to leech off the entire rest of society. I was told this firm’s clients are putting tens of millions through their scheme, and they’ve even declared and explained it to HMRC “because we’ve got nothing to hide”. ”Proper” was the word I kept hearing – a cast-iron assurance that there were solid, well-researched and slightly technical reasons that not paying tax was OK.

It’s not. I don’t get why disclosure shouldn’t get the scheme instantly shut down. I don’t get why we have a tax & legal system that makes this complex dodge even possible. I don’t get why our own accounting firm thought it was ethical to take kickbacks from this firm to sign their own clients up. And I’d hope that one day, people who take advantage of these schemes gets shamed as publicly as Carr did, because they’re the UK’s real scroungers.

[thanks to generous sxc.hu users svilen001 at effective.com, mzacha, nazreth and kkiser for their stock imagery]

Tax planning is not just for the rich

When a government minister is turning out to be incompetent or corrupt, why does the Telegraph need to resort to a petty smear on Jeremy Hunt’s tax position? They write:

Jeremy Hunt avoided more than £100,000 in tax in a £1.8 million property deal weeks before the 2010 election, The Daily Telegraph can disclose.

The Culture Secretary was paid a dividend by the company he founded in the form of half its office building. The offices were then immediately leased back to the same company.

Accountants said that the deal allowed Mr Hunt to legally reduce his potential tax bill by more than £100,000 because it was completed just days before an announced 10 per cent rise in the tax on dividends in April 2010.

A dividend is a payout from a company to its shareholders. Hunt and his partner took the step of paying themselves with a building. Before the transaction, the company owned half a building. After the transaction, it did not, and it starts to pay rent to the new owners. The company is less valuable as a result, less secure to borrow against, and has a new bill to pay. Hunt gained the same half-building, but paid tax on the transfer, as he should. Each position has its trade-offs, both for the business and its shareholders.

Jeremy Hunt actually incurred a greater personal tax liability than if he’d left the building in the business’ hands. It’s a cash-out, exactly the tidying of affairs you might expect from a shadow cabinet minister who might be expecting election. So yes, he did do it “weeks before the 2010 election”. Because every general election since 1979 has fallen within “weeks of” the end of the personal tax year. Is it avoidance that he raced to complete the transaction before that date? If that’s the case, every ordinary saver racing to use their ISA by April 6th is a tax avoider. It’s not a secret; everyone who completes a tax return will know its implications.

In January, The Guardian also smeared Emma Harrison in the same way. She is a personal friend of the Prime Minister, runs a company ridden with fraud, but neither of these are obstacles to receiving even more public cash. But the Guardian tried to foment an iota of extra outrage with the headline “Welfare boss Emma Harrison made a pile renting out her stately home to A4e”. Yes £1.7m it is a lot of money that their readers won’t have. Yes inherited wealth is distasteful. And yes yes yes, it’s truly disgusting and cowardly that government would pay half a billion pounds to a cost-cutting private firm to take on a basic crutch of the welfare state, rather than employing people directly from the public purse. But there should be no outrage at renting out your home to your business, even if you own both. Every freelance journalist working for the Guardian will have done the same thing on their personal tax return, counting their rent & electricity bills against their taxable income – HMRC tell you how.

Ordinary salaried workers should know about tax planning, and not automatically equate it with the moral swamp occupied by Vodafone and Topshop. Both of these smears distract from scandals that deserve focussed attention. They suggest that any step taken to pay less than the maximum possible tax bill is cheating, and that only the rich can ever benefit. That’s choosing to swap coverage of public scandal with the promotion of ignorance and envy. And with that choice, the Telegraph & Guardian make their readers poorer.

Why a Playstation 4 would be suicide for Sony

Having coffee with Ben yesterday, we reckoned the rumours about  the PS4 sound pretty awful.

Firstly, that it will squash the market for second-hand games.  All games will be registered to a given user, whether they were downloaded or bought on disc. This is what happens with Steam on the PC. So trade-ins are useless – the the second owner of a disc saves themselves a big download, but they’ll still have to pay Sony again to play. The only reason customers are willing to spend £40 for an entertainment product is because they know they can reclaim some of that value through a trade-in. Before the UK’s game retail chains started going bust, that trade-in value is usually in the order of £28-32. So that gives you an idea of what most people are really willing to pay for a brand new game. Take that capability away, and Sony will see sales crash until they bring their prices down. It pulls a profitable rug from under HMV, and the last remaining high street stores for their games. It’s anti-consumer pricing model, and in 2013, it won’t fool anyone. Steam shows that at the right price, customer-locked games can work, but that price is a lot less than £40.

Secondly that it won’t be backwards compatible with PS3 titles. It’s a magnificent achievement that my first-generation PS3 can play all Sony-branded games dating back to 1995 – my PC can’t do that. Not everyone cares in the long run, but it affects when a consumer chooses to “jump ship” and partition their back catalogue. It’s not just the big investment in a new console with few games that makes people hold off. It’s the extra living room space, doubled-up controllers, even missing TV inputs, that makes even a rich customer hold off.  And Sony wanted the PS3 to be their customers’ main entertainment device. So they are not just asking people to upgrade their games machine, but for a lot of families, their DVD player, Netflix, iPlayer, photo viewer and so on. Wherever that “living room hub” strategy succeeded, Sony have dug themselves a bigger hole when it comes to upgrades.

Thirdly (the reason for the lack of backwards-compatibility, I imagine) – developers will have to re-tool for a more PC-like architecture. Those developers who are committed to a next generation might sigh with relief at a more conventional computer than the PS3 & PS2 ever were. But they also must partition their efforts and (at this stage) be funded handsomely by Sony for doing so – all of this adds to the cost that the consumer will be hit with when the thing launches.

It doesn’t help Sony to have unconfirmed rumours flying around their next console and they probably didn’t want this to be the first news about the Playstation 4; but still, what could possibly be in it for the customer?

The “living room hub” stuff was sewn up in 2011 – both major games consoles now feature all the online TV and films you could ever want, and a raft of smaller, quieter DVD players provide all of that for well under £100. Nobody except gamers need a Playstation or XBox.

Nicer graphics? There’s a graphics whore in any games buyer, but playing Call of Duty 3 on a 42″ LCD in Ben’s normal-sized living room, it’s hard to see a single pixel that hasn’t been buffed to perfection. We’ve hit the point of diminishing returns- better graphics needs a larger screen, and a larger room.  3D has been a joke that the entertainment industry foists on the film & game-buying public once a generation for the last 50 years. In the long run, nobody pays extra for stupid glasses and a headache.

Exclusive titles? Sony can’t afford more than a handful – one way or another they will have paid Naughty Dog for the loss of income they could have made making Uncharted for the 360, and that kind of loyalty won’t come cheap.

Using the PS Vita as a controller? Making it more expensive still? Look Sony, we understand copying Nintendo’s waggle-sticks 4 years too late, but if Nintendo told you to jump off a cliff, would you do it? Don’t. Please.

Technically,  this can be no more than a Playstation 3+. There is no secret sauce or innovation that hasn’t already happened on the PC. A few more pixels, a bit more speed, a bit more RAM, and (unless they are completely barking mad) those standard components had better come a lot cheaper to the consumer than the PS3′s £400 launch price – can they make a locked down PC for £150 at launch? That seems like a minimum.

But why go to the huge risk of marking it as the end of the line for the PS3? Why not put out a “Playstation 3+” – quadruple the RAM, slim down what can be slimmed down, and have games titles support an “enhanced mode” for owners of the new consoles? God knows that some developers can’t make their games work on the PS3 and no wonder with only 256MB RAM. Give developers a “plus” platform where they can make the same games with less effort, less cost. Customers can maintain their catalogues and upgrade their consoles when they’re ready. Sony can stop trying to think of big-bet “revolutionary” features, and concentrate on selling more hardware, and more games.

The reason Sony ought to be scared, paring back its plans? Apple’s £100 AppleTV  will   surely become a gaming platform before the PS4 launches, and legions of developers will jump on it with their titles costing pennies. They have investment in chip fabrication, graphics technology and whatever tiny technical advantage Sony might still have over a cost-conscious AppleTV will be obliterated by a tidal wave of cheap, accessible, fun video games. My friends at Revolution make more money per unit from selling their back catalogue to iPad owners for £4 than they ever did selling to Playstation 2 owners for £40, and I know they’re not the only ones. Sony will have to pay and pay and pay to get those triple-A titles, as many developers find they can go it alone, without publishing contracts.

I hadn’t even thought about the long load times, the clunky patches, the huge OS updates, and  the 10 splash screens that stand between a PS3 owner with a disc in his hand, and the experience of playing the game. Unless you pay them £40 a year, they won’t let your PS3 update its operating system automatically. They issued six huge mandatory updates in the last 12 months. Each one stopped my PS3 from logging into the network until I’d downloaded and applied it, costing 30 minutes each time, and stopping me from playing a game I wanted to play.

Sony should be sinking their money into fixing their rotten buying and playing experience, and enhance what they’ve got. They were still losing money on the PS3 two years ago, after the console had been out five years! Why would they not want to extend it just as it is making a profit? There just is’t enough value left in any wholly new video game console, for Sony or anyone else to ask consumers to chuck out their investment again. I’m certain it’ll kill Sony if they try.

Three things Twitter haven’t got right yet

Popular chat-room operator Twitter is complaining that Google are competing with them. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking – you’re on your own here, Twitter. People keep trying to improve your product, and you keep knocking ‘em back. It’s not hugely surprising that Google find your service easy to replicate and improve – there is just nothing to love about Twitter’s product any more.

So let’s start with search: Twitter have never actually published their users’ old tweets in a searchable form. If you want to look up something you said a year ago, you simply can’t find it. You can dig around the awfully slow search.twitter.com but after a certain number of tweets, it doesn’t let you see any more. Google made a deal with Twitter in 2009 to allow them to search tweets, but that deal has now expired and Twitter has just gone back to its pre-2009 usability with no explanation to users.

You can’t even download all of your own tweets – after 3200 they’re stuck in Twitter’s attic. At some point they might work out how to make money from your old data, and sell it back to you somehow, but I wouldn’t count on it. Even services like backupmytweets.com which offer this can’t delve past the 3200 tweet limit. It’s not even clear that Twitter have been able to keep old tweets.

[As an aside- to anyone thinking this is some kind of unearthly "big data" problem - let's assume Twitter has averaged 2000 tweets per second for five years - they've not quite been going that long and not always that strong, but from the "record tweet rate" press releases, it seems like a reasonable guess. That's ... 315.36 billion tweets. We know they are 140 characters, plus a little bit of linking and attribution information, is 200 bytes fair? So that is some raw data of around 58 terabytes. That's around 20 hard discs full - to contain all of Twitter, ever. The highest advertised peak data rate from Twitter on this basis is a pretty paltry 40Mbps or so, and the second-highest is about 15Mbps. Why can't we search this data again?]

Then they have been running pics.twitter.com since June 2011, and that doesn’t work. How often do you click on a link, see your browser jump through three redirects, and show a “broken image” link? (well, for me, a lot). twitpic and yfrog never seemed to have this problem, but now tweetdeck’s default has been changed to Twitter’s crappier in-house service.

And at some point in the last 12 months after “competition” from bit.ly, is.gd and all the rest of these utterly trivial add-on services, link-shortening suddenly became compulsory. So even if you post a nice short link to your followers, Twitter insist on bouncing it through their in-house redirect service t.co. This makes links take longer to load (and Twitter get to track your clicks).

So that’s the list of things that Twitter can’t do very well after three years: searching, publishing photos, and linking to other sites.

Right now Twitter are lucky to still have a user base that don’t care how unreliable the product is, because of a very sticky network effect. But at some point, a new Twitter will spring up,  or rather people will find a better piece of software or network to communicate on. Over the last 10 years, social networks change like the tides. If Twitter Inc. want to play for a bit more time (and a surge in loyalty), the best thing they could do is find a better way of co-operating with the companies that want to improve their service, and making money from opening their rather small amount of data.

Let the rich go, there’ll be more along soon

This is the first year I’ve felt maybe more politically engaged and opinionated than I ever have. The Tories have worked tirelessly and unashamedly to benefit their rich friends. Labour is invisible, led by a robot with a faulty speech chip (he only communicates with other robots). And the Lib Dems’ only meaningful political statement would be to stick a knife into the coalition, demand an election and leave the Tories isolated, on whatever principle they have left.

But this year 38 Degrees and UKUncut have genuinely swayed UK politics, supported in their anti-tax-dodging campaigns by the investigative work of Private Eye (still worth a subscription, despite the 1950s prudishness). The support and change that these groups are achieving makes me really proud of the popular socialist majority in the UK – the majority of people who didn’t vote for the Conservatives in 2010, or 2005, or in fact in any vote since the second world war.

UKUncut’s work has got the Eye’s 2009 story about Vodafone’s £6bn tax dodge onto the front page of the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph, and the total amount of unpaid tax from corporations estimated to be £25bn. It seems a huge step for the Mail, a Conservative-supporting, free market newspaper to come out against uncollected taxes from businesses (even if they didn’t contrast it to their favourite figure, the rather smaller estimate of £3bn in annual benefits fraud, the bill for “dole scum”).

Suddenly it seems hugely important that our tax office is fair, accountable to parliament, and funded to do its job. They are the engine for funding the UK,  and of all the government departments, surely no expense can be spared to ensure it runs smoothly and properly. We’ll see how that plays out over the next few months as its well-lunched chief is eyeing the door.

Since there’s a chance of taxation reform becoming a political issue, we’ve started to hear fresh complaints about the 50p tax rate for personal earnings over £150,000, which was introduced nearly two years ago.

Londoner Charlie Mullins, owner of a plumbing firm, argues on the BBC that it should be dropped. ”If you tax a man too much there’s going to come to a point where he says enough is enough and chucks down his tools.” – I think that might be paraphrased from Atlas Shrugged. Strolling through his call centre, he says he doesn’t need to work, and could take his entrepreneurial talent abroad, but wouldn’t. The problem with that argument is that he hasn’t made an argument. Charlie might be able to own a plumbing firm and live abroad, depriving the exchequer of some tax but you’d struggle to bring the call centre for a London plumbing firm to Singapore, and definitely not the plumbers.

In the mean time, Charlie would probably find his firm competing with locally owned, better-informed firms who are willing to stay in the country where they find a competitive edge. If he closed down his firm, London’s pipes wouldn’t stop bursting. Someone would be paid to fix them.

What percentage of English-born “talent” would really choose to take a job that necessitated them leaving the country? On a annual salary of £250,000, that’s £10,000 less take-home pay per year, leaving the best part of £140,000 take-home. Is that enough to leave the country you were born in for? Who exactly are these rich people who have so little personal connection with their home that they apparently threaten government policy with threats to up and leave, to take their business elsewhere? Because Charlie says has already told us he’s not one of them.

No British-born company owner, at the start of their business thinks, “one day I might paying myself £150,000 so the first thing I’d better do is move to Singapore and start my business there”.  Only after years of slog are you able to take home that amount of money, and if you own your company outright and pay yourself through dividends, you pay only 36.1%. The tax incentive to entrepreneurship and local business ownership is right there already.

So that leaves the £150,000+ salaries that are paid by large companies, and only to a tiny percentage of their work force. How many of Diageo’s 40,000 employees are earning that much? And how much does it cost a £10bn company to nudge its salaries north to keep them competitive in such a market?

High salaries are surely far more common in industries where the rich are paying to make themselves richer: fund managers, casino bankers, planners of complex tax avoidance schemes etc., arguably the very activities that caused a global economic crash. None of these activities make the country wealthier, only a very small number of people who happen to be in it.

So if this (or a future) government is serious about entrepreneurship, it can stop worrying right now about a “globally competitive tax regime”, and shake off its negotiations with big business. Nobody wants the UK to be subjects to the caprices of mega-corporations who are simply looking for the best deal for their HQ – what good did Ireland’s low corporation tax rates do for it? Surely it’s in a global company’s best short-term interests to locate in a country that has not just a low corporation tax rate, but where jobs are scarce and salaries low? George Osborne’s humiliation should have put the brakes on such a race to the bottom.

Anyone truly creating wealth and jobs will already never be troubled by the higher tax bands. In a properly-run economy, the personal and corporate whiners who threaten to leave are welcome to. They will be gladly replaced by people who want to live, work and incorporate in the UK, reaping the advantages of doing real work, not just high-stakes market manipulation.

The coming Apple lock-out

Apple are getting ready to tighten the screws on the Mac App store;  that’s the main route through which Mac owners browse, pay for and install software, just like on mobile phones. Apple run the store, make sure it’s front-centre for all Mac owners, and take 30% of the sale price from developers who sell through it.

The news is that from March 2012, Apple will only be accepting applications which use a  “sandbox” mode of OS X. Again, much like mobile phone applications, a Mac application will need to declare before installation what files and system resources they need, and the OS will enforce this access.

I’ve not got a horse in this race (I don’t use OS X or sell software), but I was interested to read the opinion from Paul Olavi Ojala who pointed out that under this policy, third party applications have no way to take a screenshot, access Bluetooth, interact with 3rd-party applications or even access arbitrary files (at least not without popping up a standard system dialogue for every one). So if you want to do those things in your software, from March, you’ll have to do without the revenue and exposure from the Mac App Store, and do your own downloads.

As Macs get more popular, Apple want to stop malware from becoming a problem for their customers. I can see that OS X would be a more tempting target for virus writers: I’d bet Mac owners are both wealthier and more trusting of their computers than the larger demographic who run Windows. But Apple had to release an OS security update just to get rid of the first widely-distributed Mac malware earlier this year, and they probably don’t want to make a habit of it. Sandboxing might stem the damage from a compromised application, which is one attack route for malware but it wouldn’t have stopped Mac Defender which just tricked users into installing it. Users who got “infected” merrily waved it through with their administrator password.

And Wil Shipley made a very good case that the App Store screening process simply can’t stop “evil” Mac software from getting certified, and installed onto user’s machines with Apple’s blessing. Sandboxing isn’t a good enough mechanism to add much to OS X’s security at this stage. [as I was writing this some wag demonstrated this fact, and got some malicious software onto the iPhone app store].

But extrapolating from Apple’s behaviour, my off-hand extrapolation on Twitter was:

next stop: no installations on your own computer from outside the walled garden. A free desktop is much more important.

That is to say, I am certain that Apple will choose to remove “root” access from Mac owners after maybe one or two more OS updates. After that point users will have to install software only through Apple’s approved channel, and developers will pay their 30%.

Rob Hague responded with the “Apple would never dare…” defence:

developers, designers, and those who see themselves as power users …  must still be a significant source of profit for Apple, and so they’d need a good reason to abandon them.

A locked-down OS X would not be an abandonment of those users, but Apple already ask $99 a year for the privilege of being a developer. That didn’t put them off. So after a lock-down, why would that developer fee not restore the unlocked OS to those that wanted to pay for it? They know the developers will still have to pay, but the developer could never ask the end-user to pay that $99 just to make their app work.

Apple have, several times dared to screw developers in the name of user experience or profit – the ban on Flash, or the ban on selling eBooks or music through your app except via Apple. The existence of the Steam gaming store must pain them; the clunky but popular video game store has its tanks parked on Apple’s lawn.

I thought Apple would head towards a locked-down Mac when I first saw the iPhone, and I don’t think any differently now. Their computers have always been the easiest to use, but never had such enthusiastic software support. In 2011, OS X has a decent set of applications, games, utilities and easy access to the online services so many people rely on. It has a growing market share, and Microsoft has been unable to improve their own user experience in 10 years. Meanwhile, Apple’s computers march closer to matching Windows machines on price.

By locking users out of their own computers, Apple will improve their computer security a little. But the main benefit for them will be to offer their rivals (mostly Microsoft and Adobe) the choice of handing them 30% of their Mac revenue, or pulling out of the Mac market altogether. As OS X grows in popularity, I’m certain the question on Apple’s mind is not ‘if’ but ‘when’.

Corrections: I know Apple charge $99 to publish software, XCode is free or $5 or something. All they need to do is put a price tag on “root access” such that only nerds will buy it, and app developers must go through the App Store, and pay their 30% tithe. A bit like the restriction that you can only upload in-development apps to your iPhone over a cable, not over the air. Jobs gave a ludicrous justification for it last year.  It’s about income and platform security for the iPhone, and it’ll be the same for the Mac when the time is right.