Stupid ideas in tax policy

"Let's tax people more than they earn, that'll work."

On both sides of the Atlantic, there have been some truly terrible suggestions recenty as to how to "improve" the tax system.

In the US, [some Republicans are proposing what amounts to a great than 100 per cent marginal tax rate on incomes hovering just over $400,000], as the New York Times' Jonathan Weisman reports:

One possible change would tax the entire salary earned by those making more than a certain level — $400,000 or so — at the top rate of 35 percent rather than allowing them to pay lower rates before they reach the target, as is the standard formula. That plan would allow Republicans to say they did not back down in their opposition to raising marginal tax rates and Democrats to say they prevailed by increasing effective tax rates on the rich. At the same time, it would provide an initial effort to reduce the deficit, which the negotiators call a down payment, as Congressional tax-writing committees hash out a broad overhaul of the tax code.

That would mean, Slate's Matt Yglesias writes, that:

A person with an Adjusted Gross Income of $399,995 is going to have a higher after tax income than someone with an Adjusted Gross Income of $400,005. And it's not a small difference! You're talking about a tax penalty in the tens of thousands of dollar range for popping slightly above $400,000 rather than staying slightly below.

Meanwhile, in Britain, Chris Skidmore MP is arguing for massive marginal tax rates on the poor:

For individuals aged under 25 who have not yet paid National Insurance contributions for a certain period, perhaps five years, unemployment benefit should be in the form of a repayable loan. An unemployed teenager would still receive the same amount of cash as now, for example, but they would be expected to repay the value once in work. A New Beveridge calculates that this could recoup the government over £1.3 billion a year. Even if someone were unfortunate enough to be out of work for the entire seven years between 18 and 25, the total sum repayable would be £20,475 – considerably less than the tuition fees loan, repayable by many of his or her peers. This would also create an additional incentive to take on paid work.

With the numerous benefits which get phased out rapidly in the first few thousand pounds earned each year, making work pay is already tricky. That was the stated motivation behind the government's introduction of its own Universal Credit, which will replace six means-tested benefits and tax credits in an effort to ensure that the phase-out is controlled.

All of that would be for nothing if, the minute you started earning, you were expected to pay back a multi-thousand pound loan. Even taking Skidmore's "solution" at its most charitable, and assuming he literally means a tuition-fee style repayment option, people currently claiming unemployment benefits are, pretty much by definition, the last people you ever want to raise marginal tax rates on.

If your first priority is to punish the unemployed, then this is a proposal which makes sense. If it's to help them back into work, it's a ridiculous idea.

A political cartoon mocks William Gladstone. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Can Trident be hacked?

A former defence secretary has warned that Trident is vulnerable to cyber attacks. Is it?

What if, in the event of a destructive nuclear war, the prime minister goes to press the red button and it just doesn't work? 

This was the question raised by Des Browne, a former defence secretary, in an interview witht the Guardian this week. His argument, based on a report from the defence science board of the US Department of Defense, is that the UK's Trident nuclear weapons could be vulnerable to cyberattacks, and therefore rendered useless if hacked. 

Browne called for an "end-to-end" assessment of the system's cybersecurity: 

 The government ... have an obligation to assure parliament that all of the systems of the nuclear deterrent have been assessed end-to-end against cyber attacks to understand possible weak spots and that those weak spots are protected against a high-tier cyber threat. If they are unable to do that then there is no guarantee that we will have a reliable deterrent or the prime minister will be able to use this system when he needs to reach for it.

Is he right? Should we really be worried about Trident's potential cyber weaknesses?

Tangled webs 

The first, crucial thing to note is that Trident is not connected to the "internet" we use every day. Sure, it's connected to the main Ministry of Defence network, but this operates totally independently of the network that you visit Facebook through. In cyber-security terms, this means the network is "air-gapped" - it's isolated from other systems that could be less secure. 

In our minds, Trident is old and needs replacing (the submarines began patrolling in the 1990s), but any strike would be ordered and co-ordinated from Northwood, a military bunker 100m underground which would use the same modern networks as the rest of the MoD. Trident is basically as secure as the rest of the MoD. 

What the MoD said

I asked the Ministry of Defence for a statement on Trident's security, and while it obviously can't offer much information about how it all actually works, a spokesperson confirmed that the system is air-gapped and added: 

We wouldn't comment on the detail of our security arrangements for the nuclear deterrent but we can and do safeguard it from all threats including cyber.

What security experts said

Security experts agree that an air-gapped system tends to be more secure than one connected to the internet. Sean Sullivan, a security adviser at F-secure, told Infosecurity magazine that while some hackers have been able to "jump" air-gaps using code, this would cause "interference" at most and a major attack of this kind is still "a long way off". 

Franklin Miller, a former White House defence policy offer, told the Guardian that the original report cited by Browne was actually formulated in response to suggestions that some US defence networks should be connected to the internet. In that case, it actually represents an argument in favour of the type of air-gapped system used by the MoD. 

So... can it be hacked?

The answer is really that any system could be hacked, but a specialised, independent defence network is very, very unlikely to be. If a successful hack did happen, it would likely affect all aspects of defence, not just Trident. That doesn't mean that every effort shouldn't be made to make sure the MoD is using the most secure system possible, but it also means that scaremongering in the context of other, unrelated cybersecurity scares is a little unjustified. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.