Cypriot counterintution part one: "It was a good thing"

Should we be cheering one of the first wealth taxes of this millennium?

As the Cyprus saga continues, the interesting counterintuitive takes are starting to bubble up. Obviously there's a tendency, when so many people agree on the broad strokes of the news – that Cyprus is in a crap position, that the tax is pretty stupid, and that there's not a whole amount of other options – to go against the grain for the sake of it, but each of these arguments have merit to them.

First up is Philip Inman in the Guardian, who argues that we should ignore the "hysterical reaction" to the tax, because "it is a wealth tax – and about time too." Inman writes:

A wealth tax on bank deposits, where most wealth is held, is consequently a practical solution that also fulfils a basic economic need, which is to shift taxes away from income to wealth. Poorer citizens need to feed themselves, and a tax on incomes, especially for those with no savings, is the worst outcome.

It mimics an argument that was going around Twitter yesterday, pointing out that "a 1 [percentage point] rise in Sales Tax would be way more regressive and not even raise an eyebrow." Of course, it's questionable whether that increase increase in sales tax could raise quite as much as the tax on deposits, but that's even more of an argument in favour of the deposit tax.

The real hope for all of this, in fact, is that the Cypriot government will struggle through the negotiations and come out the other side with a deposit tax which applies entirely to deposits over €100,000. As Ben Hammersley tweeted:

 

 

Given that many of the wealthier depositors in Cypriot banks are engaged in questionable financial practices – and even outright money laundering, it seems – it's not a terrible thing to ask that the entire weight of the bailout be put on their shoulders. Of course, even if they weren't, it still wouldn't be that bad an idea, because putting the greatest burden on the broadest shoulders is almost the definition of a progressive tax system.

Except, of course, for the fact that the Cypriot economy benefits from its status as a financial haven. A rebalancing of the economy may still be a good thing for poorer Cypriots, but it's not clear that the hit the country is taking to pay off the ECB is bigger than the hit it would take if it scared away its questionably legal golden goose.

Interestingly, it seems that Cyprus agrees. France has confirmed, and credible reports indicate Germany and Finland back it up, that the negotiations with the Cypriot government only required it to implement a tax on deposits over the insurance threshold of €100,000. Insured deposits were considered sacrosanct to the Troika, but not to the Cypriot government, which needed to "spread the pain".

But the big reason why Inman's counterintuitive take is likely to remain counterintuitive is that a bank run for deposits above €100,000 – or even a bank stroll – is still a bank run. Deposit insurance lessens the chance of people trying to take all their money out, but it still happens, and it does nothing for the money you have above that value.

The chance of contagion is looking slim – although it is still the case that if you're a Portuguese depositor you're likely to be sitting markedly less comfortably than you were last week – but the situation in Cyprus itself is by no means solved yet. If the trust in the country's banks and politicians isn't restored, there will be worse ahead.

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.

Photo: Getty
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Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.

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