Can the right be persuaded to back a "mansion tax"?

ConservativeHome editor Tim Montgomerie says the right should support higher property taxes.

Tim Montgomerie has a typically thoughtful piece in today's Guardian on social justice and the coalition. The ConservativeHome editor points out that the right has accepted significant parts of the Blair-Brown settlement - a ring-fenced NHS (at least in theory), higher international development spending, the minimum wage, a panoply of pensioner benefits - and asks if the left can make similar concessions. He writes: "[C]an the left acknowledge the harm caused by family breakdown? Can Labour politicians get to the point where they agree that single parenthood is sometimes wonderful, often unavoidable but rarely ideal?"

As luck would have it, this week's New Statesman is on that very subject. We asked ten left-wing politicians and thinkers, including Spirit Level authors Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, Marc Stears, Diane Abbott, David Lammy and Melissa Benn, to address the issue of family breakdown and you can read their responses in the new issue (out today in London and in the rest of the country tomorrow).

Blue Labour thinker Marc Stears, for instance, writes:

For far too long, many of us on the British left have spoken to the country like washed-out tutors of Marxist social science. All questions of family breakdown, domestic abuse and personal ethics have been rendered as issues of material distribution. Problems have been presented as the all but inevitable outcomes of inequalities in income, wealth or opportunity and their solutions said to lie almost exclusively with the redistributive power of the state ... The call to re-engage with the family presents the perfect moment for us to put this oversight right.

In his Guardian article, Montgomerie argues that we must rebalance the welfare state in a pro-family direction. As this week's NS leader noted, a remarkable number of the coalition's benefit cuts - from the abolition of baby bonds and the Health in Pregnancy Grant to the three-year freeze in child benefit - hit families hardest. In addition, as I revealed last month, Cameron has broken his promise to protect Sure Start, a lifeline for low income families, and 20 centres have already been closed. By contrast, benefits for the elderly - free TV licences, free bus passes, the winter fuel allowance [WFA] - have been ring-fenced for entirely political reasons (the elderly vote more than any other age group). Montgomerie proposes means-testing the WFA (80 per cent of recipients are not in fuel poverty) and investing savings of £2.2bn in early intervention programmes. It's a stance that Labour's boldest thinkers, most notably James Purnell, will be sympathetic to.

But Montgomerie also wants the right to make some more concessions of its own. He calls for greater taxation of wealth, including high-value properties, and supports a version of Vince Cable's "mansion tax". Britain, he writes, has taxed income too heavily and wealth too lightly.

It's a subject that the New Statesman has devoted considerable attention to over the past year. In a cover story published in October 2010 ("The coming battle over land and property") NS editor Jason Cowley argued for a new model of taxation that shifts the burden of taxation from earned to unearned income; from taxes on income and consumption to those on property, inheritance and land.

In our leaders, we have long argued that there are strong, principled and pragmatic arguments for higher taxes on property. As a recent editorial noted:

These automatically apply to largely untaxed foreign owners, target the source of much unearned wealth and are harder to avoid than taxes on income. In addition, they reduce the distorting effect that property speculation has on the economy.

As the coalition's internal debate on taxation continues (the Lib Dems want the 50p rate to be replaced with a range of new property taxes), it's encouraging to see one of the right's brightest thinkers take up this agenda.

 

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Donald Trump wants to terminate the Environmental Protection Agency - can he?

"Epa, Epa, Eeeepaaaaa" – Grampa Simpson.

 

There have been countless jokes about US President Donald Trump’s aversion to academic work, with many comparing him to an infant. The Daily Show created a browser extension aptly named “Make Trump Tweets Eight Again” that converts the font of Potus’ tweets to crayon scrawlings. Indeed, it is absurd that – even without the childish font – one particular bill that was introduced within the first month of Trump taking office looked just as puerile. Proposed by Matt Gaetz, a Republican who had been in Congress for barely a month, “H.R. 861” was only one sentence long:

“The Environmental Protection Agency shall terminate on December 31, 2018”.

If this seems like a stunt, that is because Gaetz is unlikely to actually achieve his stated aim. Drafting such a short bill without any co-sponsors – and leaving it to a novice Congressman to present – is hardly the best strategy to ensure a bill will pass. 

Still, Republicans' distrust for environmental protections is well-known - long-running cartoon show The Simpsons even did a send up of the Epa where the agency had its own private army. So what else makes H.R. 861 implausible?

Well, the 10-word-long statement neglects to address the fact that many federal environmental laws assume the existence of or defer to the Epa. In the event that the Epa was abolished, all of these laws – from the 1946 Atomic Energy Act to the 2016 Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act – would need to be amended. Preferably, a way of doing this would be included in the bill itself.

Additionally, for the bill to be accepted in the Senate there would have to be eight Democratic senators who agreed with its premise. This is an awkward demand when not even all Republicans back Trump. The man Trum appointed to the helm of the Epa, Scott Pruitt, is particularly divisive because of his long opposition to the agency. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said that she was hostile to the appointment of a man who was “so manifestly opposed to the mission of the agency” that he had sued the Epa 14 times. Polls from 2016 and 2017 suggests that most Americans would be also be opposed to the agency’s termination.

But if Trump is incapable of entirely eliminating the Epa, he has other ways of rendering it futile. In January, Potus banned the Epa and National Park Services from “providing updates on social media or to reporters”, and this Friday, Trump plans to “switch off” the government’s largest citizen-linked data site – the Epa’s Open Data Web Service. This is vital not just for storing and displaying information on climate change, but also as an accessible way of civilians viewing details of local environmental changes – such as chemical spills. Given the administration’s recent announcement of his intention to repeal existing safeguards, such as those to stabilise the climate and protect the environment, defunding this public data tool is possibly an attempt to decrease awareness of Trump’s forthcoming actions.

There was also a recent update to the webpage of the Epa's Office of Science and Technology, which saw all references to “science-based” work removed, in favour of an emphasis on “national economically and technologically achievable standards”. 

Trump’s reshuffle of the Epa's priorities puts the onus on economic activity at the expense of public health and environmental safety. Pruitt, who is also eager to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, spoke in an interview of his desire to “exit” the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. He was led to this conclusion because of his belief that the agreement means “contracting our economy to serve and really satisfy Europe, and China, and India”.

 

Rather than outright closure of the Epa, its influence and funding are being leached away. H.R. 861 might be a subtle version of one of Potus’ Twitter taunts – empty and outrageous – but it is by no means the only way to drastically alter the Epa’s landscape. With Pruitt as Epa Administrator, the organisation may become a caricature of itself – as in The Simpsons Movie. Let us hope that the #resistance movements started by “Rogue” Epa and National Parks social media accounts are able to stave off the vultures until there is “Hope” once more.

 

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman

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