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Amol Rajan

Amol Rajan is Assistant Editor on the Comment desk at The Independent. He was previously a news reporter and Sports News Correspondent, and writes columns for The Liberal and The Salisbury Review.

Why Cable's mansions tax is right

Posted by Amol Rajan
  • Friday, 25 September 2009 at 11:35 am
I'm not an economist (honest, guv, etc), but I have seen very little intelligent criticism of the Liberal Democrat's 'mansion tax'.

Assets are not productive parts of the economy.  Speculation on their inflated value is damaging to the economy. Taking money from the rich - not by taxing their income, but by taxing their good fortune in owning an asset whose value has boomed (and that, too, to over £1m) - to give a tax break to the poor struck me as intelligently redistributive.

It might not be good politics, because it could cost the Liberal Democrats in the south west, but that is a separate argument.

And it was poorly handled by Nick Clegg and Vince Cable, whose failure to communicate it properly to Cabinet led to damaging remarks, particularly by Steve Webb and Julia Goldsworthy.  They should have handled it much better. But that too is a separate argument.

As Digby Jones pointed out on Question Time last night, this 'mansion tax' is being used to take people earning under £10,000 out of income tax.
 
That increases the amount of money in the pocket of poor people.  

It increases their capabilities, which Amartya Sen (and I) are obsessed with

It gives them greater spending power in our economy. 

And it hugely increases the incentive to come off benefits and get into work.

I'd be grateful if a Tory or Labour party member somewhere in the country could explain to me why they oppose this. Or rather, explain to me why their party has not made taking people under £10,000 out of income tax one of their own policies. (I have some time for the argument that you don't appreciate what you don't pay for, but I'm not hearing it much at the moment).

All of which makes the intervention of Martin Wolf this morning rather important.  You should read all of his masterful column, but in case you're not an FT subscriber, here's one of the central points:

"Only in a country both besotted with property and determined to tax the middle classes, rather than the hugely wealthy, would people object to this obviously just idea".

Incidentally, Lord Heseltine made a fool of himself yesterday when trying to explain that those owning £1m+ houses in Putney (including, ironically and probably unbeknown to him, Nick Clegg) are hard done by, and should pay tax on their good fortune.  He cited a Head teacher earning £130,000.

If the former Deputy Prime Minister doesn't realise that people earning £130,000 and living in houses worth over a million are extremely well off, he should spend less time in Westminster.

Tory voters trust Cable more than Osborne

Posted by Amol Rajan
  • Wednesday, 16 September 2009 at 03:33 pm
That is very obviously the top line - the big discovery, the most striking fact - about the Times' Populus poll this morning, written up with typical elegance by Peter Riddell.

But for obvious (and mostly personal) reasons, that fact wasn't made explicit in the headline or in the introduction. 

The Times chose to focus on trust in Cable, not trust in Cable among Tories relative to trust in Osborne among Tories.

But the second of those is much more important.
He means it in jest, of course.  And it's very funny.  It's the highlight of a marvellous piece

Except for he's gone for the superfluous 'famous' too.  It's in his pull quote.

"Like the executed British admiral in Voltaire's famous phrase, the bank had to die pour encourager les autres".

'Famous' serves almost zero purpose there.  It lengthens the sentence without usefully adding to the author's meaning. It is not interesting.  It is a superfluous observation.  It is verbiage.

When will this fanatical behaviour stop?

Getting 'progressive' education wrong

Posted by Amol Rajan
  • Tuesday, 15 September 2009 at 11:12 am
I am a very big fan of Dominic Sandbrook, who I consider a superb historian and always engaging writer.

But he gets something important wrong in his piece for the Telegraph this morning.  And I'm not just talking about his use of "famously" in his penultimate paragraph, which, as I've explained before, is verbiage.

Mr Sandbrook's concern is that British children seem increasingly lacking in historical knowledge.  His contention is that this is the fault of "both parties, who have been systematically cheating and betraying our children since the 1980s".

He chides Thatcher's lot for their "meddling from the top". Then he (and this particularly excited the sub-editors who did the page furniture) chides:
 
"supposedly 'progressive' interference, meanwhile, that did away with old-fashioned essay questions and replaced them with empathy exercises and multiple-choice quizzes that sacrificed any sense of intellectual depth or discipline".

Now, I realise the inverted commas around 'progressive' are his way of saying that these people are not really progressive at all. 

But by even ascribing the notion of 'progressive' credentials to the present crop of Labour politicians, he commits a fallacy which is spreading by the minute.

The fallacy asserts that people like Gordon Brown and Ed Balls believe in progressive education.

They do not.

As I hope to explain in greater detail soon, ever since the disgraceful defenestration of Lord Adonis, Labour policy on education has been ruled by the confusion of schooling with skilling.

Our present government does not believe poor people are capable of a proper academic education, so it farms them off with vocational subjects (a point Mr Sandbrook makes well).

The utilitarian, skills-oriented conception of education promoted by Gordon Brown, which sees education only as a means to an end rather than an end in itself, has heavily tainted the Left.  It is now possible for people as intelligent as Mr Sandbrook to chide 'progressive educationalists' by accusing them of downgrading crunchy subjects.

This presumes that everyone on the Left agrees with the Brown-Balls approach.  This is not the case.

As I tried to explain in starting my campaign for rote learning in state schools, there is a long and estimable tradition on the Left that believes poor people are capable of a rigorous academic education.  Richard Hoggart's masterful 'The Uses of Literacy' is a landmark text in this tradition.

Of all the terrible things that Labour have done - and they have done very many great things too - dismantling state education by rendering it hostage to vocationalism is the most appalling.

As Mr Sandbrook probably knows deep down, there is nothing 'progressive' about that.


AJ4PM - from strength to strength

Posted by Amol Rajan
  • Tuesday, 15 September 2009 at 08:29 am
Ignore the statistics lower down in the Times splash.

My terrifyingly clever colleague John Rentoul's ongoing and charming campaign to make Alan Johnson Prime Minister just got a whole lot stronger.

It's in the headline, chaps.  The secret to your happiness.  It's in the headline.

It says "Give us any leader but Gordon Brown".

"HAPPENING NOW" vs "LIVE"

Posted by Amol Rajan
  • Monday, 14 September 2009 at 05:13 pm
We've got CNN on in the office, watching Obama's speech live.

The aston is beaming out "HAPPENING NOW".

That is, the speech is being broadcast live.  Or even "LIVE".

What does "HAPPENING NOW" say that "LIVE" doesn't?

If "LIVE" says the same thing in fewer syllables and words, why has it been substituted?

Is it because the internet and 24-hr news channels have thrown doubt on the concept of "LIVE"?

Is "LIVE" a victim of technological advance?

Or are CNN simply guilty of replacing clarity with mere verbiage?

John Gray's plea on legalising drugs

Posted by Amol Rajan
  • Monday, 14 September 2009 at 04:38 pm
He's said it for many years, of course, not least in Al-Qaeda and what it means to be Modern.

But here Mr Realist explains in the most detail he's yet proffered publicly why the case for legalising drugs mixes practical and philosophical arguments, and why that case is now "unanswerable".

As I've said before, the case legalising drugs isn't about promoting them or somehow celebrating them.  That notion belongs to the silly 'government-is-all-about-signals' brigade. 

It's about recognising that that the chief consequence of prohibition is to inflate indefinitely the salaries of the most vicious, brutal, and murderous people on earth.

Why The Shawshank Redemption really could be the best film ever

Posted by Amol Rajan
  • Monday, 14 September 2009 at 01:40 pm
It's certainly in my top five, and I reckon I've watched it more times - a minimum of 15, say - than any other film, except for The Usual Suspects and Pather Panchali.

But, though I knew the film was popular, I never realised just how popular.  I certainly didn't know that it was constantly being voted the greatest film of all time.

And all the while, there was something about the masculine heroism, and the sheer humanity, of this film that made me feel it had something very special about it.

Reading Christopher Goodwin's excellent interview with Frank Darabont, the man whose directorial debut the film marked, helped me get much closer to understanding the film's profundity.  It's about how heroism can beautifully defy such monsters as what Darabont elegantly calls "that big, bleak prison, this stone monument of man's inhumanity to man".

Whether or not it comes out top of Anthony Quinn's 100 Best Films list, you shall have to wait and see.

Note to hacks #96: "Famously" should follow "famous" into oblivion

Posted by Amol Rajan
  • Thursday, 10 September 2009 at 12:51 pm
Being the continuation of an occasional series aimed at humbly improving the clarity and cogency of popular journalism.

In the final entry to his Notes in this week's Spectator, the supremely elegant Charles Moore describes a speech of Winston Churchill's from June 1940 as "famous".  Churchill "famously warned...", he tells us.

In a historical glance at Presidents who have gone to Congress in emergencies from this morning's paper, we refer to the time when FDR "travelled to Capitol Hill to make his famous speech to joint session"

Here's a general rule, the justification for which comes from an early Dominic Lawson column in The Independent.  He (and Lord Reith - see the extended quote below) was referring just to people, but it applies in the case of events too.

- Never describe an event or person as 'famous', or use 'famously' as a means of reference.  As Lord Reith would have said, if the person or event is famous, it is superfluous to point that out; if they (or it) is not, you are lying. It is pure verbiage, and slightly patronising along the way.

***

No, it's all about being "famous". The founder of the BBC, Lord Reith, once wrote a wonderful memo – or so it is alleged – which touched on this. Upon hearing someone described in a broadcast as "a famous lawyer" he wrote: "The word famous. If a person is famous, it is superfluous to point out the fact; if he is not, then it is a lie. The word is not to be used by the BBC.

If there is one pointless word which is now spreading like a virus without an antidote throughout all of British journalism (and not just the BBC) it is "famously": as in – and this is just one example out of thousands that could be given – "Robin Cook, who famously resigned over the invasion of Iraq".

Lord Reith's stricture about "famous" is absolutely applicable here, but there is something even more to object to in the word "famously". It seems to be the way in which the writer or broadcaster tries to say "Of course I know this and you know this, but there might be some idiots out there who need to be reminded of this fact".

At the risk of becoming part of Mr Bruton-Simmonds' campaign for linguistic enforcement; let "famously" follow "famous" into oblivion.

***

James Surowiecki on inflated fears of inflation

Posted by Amol Rajan
  • Tuesday, 8 September 2009 at 05:05 pm
James Surowiecki's latest column in The New Yorker is fascinating.

It addresses something I, as a non-economist, have often wondered.  Why, given the remarkable capacity of American central bankers to control inflation over the twentieth century, are so many people so terrified of it?

Doubtless the experience of the 1970s, when inflation gripped the American economy, with consequences for the rest of us, is fresh in many memories. 

But the following passage goes to the heart of the matter, in suggesting that though inflation is a clear, present, and constant danger, other things might matter more. 

Indeed, the focus on inflation despite its general anonymity might tell us something about the prejudices of those who obsess over the matter:

***

...there’s something peculiar about how powerful fears of inflation are. In the past ninety years, the U.S. has had only one sustained bout with high inflation—in the seventies. That track record should engender some faith that central bankers are going to be responsible, and that a healthy industrial economy isn’t prone to regular inflationary spirals. It hasn’t. Instead, we’re always about to relive 1974 all over again, which is why last year, as oil prices rose, we were bombarded with references to “stagflation.” In a way, there’s something profoundly puritanical, in the original sense of that word, about the inflation hawks: we are always on the verge of sinning, always about to succumb to our worst impulses. Even the rhetoric of inflation—the “debasement” of the currency—carries a moralistic tinge.

***

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