Paradise Papers Reveal Absurdity of GST

As if the Panama Papers weren’t enough, we have had more information about the barely legal and unethical dealings of the super-wealthy following the release of the Paradise Papers. Much of the focus has been about how individuals and corporations with the help of tax havens are able to structure their affairs to minimise their tax bills. In effect, they are stealing from taxpayers who bear an undue brunt of the cost for keeping their respective governments functioning.

This scandal has largely gone unnoticed in New Zealand because the corporate media is too busy recapping events in reality TV shows such as Couples Spend More Money Than Anticipated on Ego Projects, and  Ignorant White People Discover That Arranged Marriages Aren’t That Great After All. So I’ll need to turn to international media again. The Guardian is the most prominent Anglophone newspaper that has covered the Paradise Papers and has put out too many articles to cover in any great detail, but I would like to discuss one that particularly caught my attention:

2017 Formula One World Champion Lewis Hamilton avoided paying up to £3.3 million of VAT (value added tax, known as GST in New Zealand) when importing a Bombardier private jet. The jet was made to look like it was available for charter, by doing so VAT can be claimed against the purchase and running costs associated with business operations. VAT can not be reclaimed when jet was used for leisure purposes. Depending on the breakdown of business and leisure travel, Hamilton may have been required to pay a proportion of the £3.3 million in VAT.

My disdain for the wealthy avoiding taxes is not limited just to Hamilton, but to everyone who has been caught out in the Paradise Papers. If you want to live in a civilised society, someone has to pay for it. It is only logical that those with the most wealth are liable for most of the taxation levied by governments. The quality of life of the majority of the population suffers when governments are not able to provide high quality services such as education, healthcare, and security.

Furthermore, the wealthy are only wealthy because of public infrastructure, an educated and healthy workforce, state-funded research and enforced intellectual property laws. Were it not for strong and effective government, they could not have achieved what they have been able to do. It is in their best interest to support government, and that means paying taxes. Weak arguments such as “the government would just waste money anyway” are just shallow excuses made by sad individuals trying to allay their guilt.

Of course it one thing to insist that the rich should pay their full amount of taxes voluntarily, but no one listens to me. Instead it is up to governments to close down the loopholes in the law that have been exploited. What I find interesting about Lewis Hamilton’s case is that he was able to avoid VAT, a consumption tax like GST.

GST has been defended by neoliberals because it was seen as “simple”, “efficient” and “hard to avoid”. The Paradise Papers have shown that all of these arguments are a complete sham. GST is nothing more than a regressive ideological act of faith that puts more pressure on ordinary people while allowing for the rich to become richer. Even worse, there are mechanisms which allow wealthy people to actively avoid GST on big-ticket purchases!

Governments are largely paying lip-service to the idea that something must be done, but don’t expect the oligarch-funded centre-right to do anything about it. Meaningful change starts by electing solid left/centre-left candidates to national office. It’s encouraging to see Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn come out against the practices highlighted in the Paradise Papers. The British government should also intervene in their overseas territories to harmonise the tax structure within the UK. That action alone would close so many loopholes featured in the Paradise Papers.

It’s vital to the long-term welfare of our society that it is properly funded by those who have the ability to fund it, who also happen to be those who have benefited the most from it.

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My Opinion on the Andrew Little Defamation Trial

On Monday, news broke that the Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Little has been partially cleared of defaming the owners of a hotel chain. This verdict makes writing the post easier as I know that some of Little’s statements were not defamatory and can report on them with less fear of negative consequences. Having read up on online defamation, I should be OK if I stick to verifiable facts and genuine statements of opinion. Of course that’s no guarantee. As Little has found out, you can be sued for defamation even when what you said wasn’t defamatory. The comments about the case on social media and other blogs were probably more defamatory than anything Little ever said. But I guess suing an internet random doesn’t have the same gravitas does it?

How did this all begin? The founder of the Scenic Hotel Group hotel chain donated $101,000 to the governing National Party prior to the last election. One month later, Scenic Hotel Group was awarded a government contract to run the Matavai Resort in Niue. That these two events occurred is beyond doubt, the issue is a matter of optics as to whether there is any connection between the events.

I think the timing could be described as “interesting”, or “unfortunate” as a cynical mind can’t help but wander, especially since there is history with National Party donors and unfortunately timed government contracts such as Beemer-gate. In that case, the dealer saw sense and didn’t sue anyone. With the hotel incident, Little made some comments where he alleged corruption. The Hagamans sued him for defamation prior to an investigation by the Auditor-General. Once the Auditor-General got involved and gave the process the all-clear,  Little apologised to the Hagamans.

From the reports of proceedings in the trial, Lani Hagaman said that she wanted a suitable public apology. I think that the statement on the Labour Party website was sufficient. They should not have expected an apology before the AG investigation when they sued him, why should Little apologise when the facts are yet to be determined? I found that Little was being sued for $2.3 million inconsistent with the claim that Hagaman just wanted an apology. I am unconvinced by the excuse that it is to restore Earl Hagaman’s reputation. Ironically, my opinion of Hagaman is diminished by the fact that Lani Hagaman thinks that his reputation can be restored by an amount of money that would bankrupt Little. If they didn’t want me to think poorly of them, then they shouldn’t have donated money to the National Party in the first place.

I am also concerned about the political motivations that could have been involved. National Party donors and presumably supporters suing a Labour Party politician unsettles me. Will suing for defamation under unconvincing circumstances become a tactic for the wealthy and powerful to censor dissenting voices? The integrity of our democracy is more important than the feelings of greedy multi-millionaires whose own actions do more to harm their reputation than anything Andrew Little could say. Fortunately, one of the findings of this case was that Little has qualified privilege as Leader of the Opposition to draw attention to potentially murky dealings. As noted by Antony Robins, this is good for democracy.

Unfortunately, it may not be over yet. Lani Hagaman looks to be seeking a retrial over the inability of the jury to decide whether Little had defamed Earl Hagaman. She also does not believe that Little is not protected by qualified privilege. Little has washed his hands of the issue as has the corporate media, who have moved on to other things.  By donating to the National party, companies are making a statement that they view their customers and New Zealand with contempt. However, contempt goes both ways so I will not be purchasing goods and services from Scenic Hotel Group in the forseeable future.

Academia Milestones: My First Invite from a Predatory Conference

At the moment I’m in the depths of my PhD. My days are spent agonising over reviewer comments, simulations that don’t work (and some that do!) and tutoring undergraduate students.

But after all that, it’s nice to get noticed and receive the recognition that I deserve. Today I was invited to speak at the 2nd World Biodiesel Congress & Expo (Theme: An innovative approach towards the green fuel). It was refreshing that my expertise has finally been acknowledged as shown by the high praise I have been given:

You are the person with significant experience in this field to deliver a speech of touchstones which ignite young minds to overcome the challenges in the field of Bioenergy.

It truly is a measure of my inescapable brilliance that I have significant experience in the field of bioenergy even though I have no experience in the field of bioenergy!\sarc

At this stage I was already suspicious because of the unsolicited nature of the email, the poor grammar and the fact that my private email server had highlighted it as spam. I thought I would have a look at the conference website. Looks science-y enough. At this point I am amused that it is organised by ConferenceSeries LLC. By adding LLC to the end of an organisation’s name makes them instantly sound untrustworthy (e.g. imagine Toastmasters International LLC).

About once a month, I find myself browsing the Retraction Watch blog. It makes me feel better about myself because while my progress may be slow, at least I haven’t resorted to scientific misconduct. It means that I’ve also become quite familiar with some of the unsavoury aspects of scientific publishing in the neoliberal era. The most unpleasant aspect would have to be predatory publishing. Predatory publishing is where open-access journals charge authors exorbitant fees to have an article published while not performing the necessary services associated with real journals (the Wikipedia article frequently cite Jeffrey Beall whose articles now redirect to “page not found” following the disappearance of Beall’s list in January).

A quick google search for ConferenceSeries shows “conferenceseries predatory” as the first predicted search term. ConferenceSeries is part of the spaghetti umbrella of brands that make up the OMICS corporation which has been sued by the US Federal Trade Commission for deceiving researchers.

Predatory conferences have false editorial boards and organising committees that list reputable academics who did not consent or may not even be aware that they are listed. Registration fees are excessively high and non-refundable (the motive of the organisers becomes a lot more clear). There are also huge numbers of conferences scheduled all over the world (e.g. let’s catch up at ICAMAME 2030: 32nd International Conference on Aerospace, Mechanical, Automotive and Materials Engineering in Penang, Malaysia! \sarc)

This is all bad for science. Emerging researchers are mislead into paying for low quality conferences that may be more harmful their reputation than doing nothing. Low quality work enters the public sphere where it can be seized upon by members of the public unaware of the swindle going on, especially considering that these “papers” are open-access, while real papers may be only accessible by purchase or subscription*. This could be a disaster for public policy where politicians rely on flawed information to make decisions (I’m surprised climate change denialists haven’t picked up on this and started sending papers to OMICS, after all they’ve got the money to do so)!

Researchers have long made a sport out of trolling predatory publishers and conferences with absurd papers from SCIgen, chicken chicken chicken, iOS autocomplete and my personal favourite: get me off your fucking mailing list. What sort of abstract should I send in? Here are some of my ideas:

  • A criticism of Northern Ireland’s Renewable Heat Incentive which quickly descends into an anti-unionist rant.
  • Argue that bioenergy is unethical from a plant rights perspective.
  • String together some Donald Trump/Deepak Chopra tweets (“The quantum consciousness of the biofuel, quantum, is so very tremendous. It’s just great”).
  • Ignore it and get back to doing my work.

When low quality papers are in circulation, public confidence in science is eroded, governments cut science funding and life gets harder for scientists producing quality research. Science is already broken with the obsession over researcher metrics and the publish or perish mantra. The inevitable result is easy submissions to fake journals, which only breaks science even further.

What a shame. The open-access model is great in principle, but has been cynically abused by greedy corporations like OMICS. I think the answer may lie in unconditional taxpayer funding of scientists whose work is exclusively published in government research repositories  which are freely accessible to citizens and businesses. Quality of work would still be monitored by blind peer-review and funding would be allocated for replication studies. Science is far too valuable to be left at the mercy of the merciless private sector. All the best to the US FTC as they hopefully grind OMICS into the ground.

*(hint: never pay for a paper, find a uni student to download it for you or use the interloan service that university libraries provide)

It’s Rigged Don, but Not As You Know It

The world is aghast as Donald Trump, the bigoted incompetent fraudster who ran as the Republican presidential nominee managed to win the US presidential election. One of his many bizarre actions was to claim that the election was rigged against him, presumably by some shadowy conspiracy orchestrated by special interests *wink wink*. Of course he has piped down about it since he actually won the damn thing, as one would expect from someone who has a childish obsession with not accepting defeat. However, I contest that he was right, the election was rigged; but not in the way that Trump left everyone to infer. Let’s cover the ways in which I felt the election was rigged in favour of Trump and the Republican Party:

  1. FBI dirty tricks: FBI director Comey staged an unconventional intervention less than 2 weeks away from polling day, suggesting that Democratic presidential nominee Clinton emails were still a problem. (I’ve forgotten what the accusation from her opponents was again, all they seem to do is scream “E-MAILS!!!1!11!!!!!!1”) Right before polling day, he then announced that there was nothing new. Why did Comey need to bring this to our attention? Why couldn’t they have investigated it in silence, like they did for Trump’s Russian connections? Oh that’s right, Comey’s a Republican and the FBI is Trumpland. They’ve put their self interest before due process and it worked: Clinton’s polling fell. This was a political hit-job of the highest order, something that the NZ Herald would be proud of.
  2. Gerrymandering: This doesn’t benefit Trump directly, but will no doubt help him as he tears the US to shreds. Very few congressional seats were up for play, in part because of the obscene amount of gerrymandering that took place. Gerrymandering is when electoral boundaries are redrawn considering local voting trends in order to maximise the number of districts that a party wins. It comes as no surprise to me that the Republican Party benefits from gerrymandering to the detriment of the Democratic Party. This could be solved in part by nonpartisan boundary allocation; however introducing proportional representation will be a more effective solution.
  3. Voter Suppression: What do you do if people don’t like you? Just make it harder for them to vote! Republican controlled states have been relentless in passing measures which make it more difficult for those who are likely to vote for their opponents to do so. Some of these measures include: purging of voting rolls, mandating ID, or under-resourcing polling facilities in “certain” areas. North Carolina received particular scrutiny for this, a state whose electors were grabbed by Trump.
  4. Electoral College: What a fucked up way to elect a president. Divide electors into groups along an arbitrary basis (by state) and then make (almost) every state winner-take-all. The effect: Clinton gets more votes, Trump gets more electors, Trump wins. Whatever happened to the idea of “majority rules”? Do the Trump supporters who see their win as a triumph of democracy care that their triumph isn’t actually that democratic?

The answer is that the Republicans don’t care about the inconsistencies in the US electoral system. As far as they’re concerned, it has done the job of helping them win. If Americans want to correct these injustices, then they are going to have to demand it, for their representatives won’t fix the system voluntarily. It can be done. New Zealand had two elections where the National Party gained fewer votes than the Labour Party, but was able to form a government because the FPP system resulted in them winning more seats. In the end, the political parties had no option but to give the public a say on electoral reform given the strong demand for it. As for voting, it takes me longer to walk to the local school to vote than it does to go in, get ticked off, vote and put the ballot in the box. I don’t even need to show ID! Take note America, that’s how it should be done.

Trump’s claims of a rigged election were not only false, they were the exact opposite of reality. His supporters are in fact not a silent majority, they are a hateful coward minority. The Republicans have won with a minority of the vote thanks to passive and active measures which are patently undemocratic.

Now the conman gets to face what should be his worst fear: having to deliver on his promises.