Government, energy & environment

Flat tax idea

In 1994 Estonia became the first country in the world to adopt what is known as a flat tax system. This is essentially a system where there is just one rate of tax – in Estonia’s case, 26% for all individuals and companies. There is no schedule of rates and no exceptions. The idea proved so successful that seven other countries in Eastern Europe have introduced the idea and an eighth (Poland) is considering it. Critics who said that that the idea was unworkable have moved on to another objection, namely that it is unfair because it is not progressive (ie, everyone pays the same). However, while the amount is fixed there is nothing stopping countries applying a threshold (ie, exemption amount). The advantage of a flat tax system is its simplicity. Everyone knows how the system operates and administration and compliance costs are minimised. In the US the cost of running and regulating the tax system is estimated at between 10% and 20% of total revenue collected. That’s a sum equivalent to 25% to 50% of the US budget deficit.

Ref: The Economist (UK) 16 April 2005, ‘The flat tax revolution’.


Consequences of demographic trends for military recruitment

Given how interested companies and governments are in trends, it’s surprising that more attention isn’t given to demographic trends. After all, they are almost the only type of trend where a prediction can be made with almost laser-like precision. For example, if you want to know roughly how many 18-year-olds there will be in 15 years time, simply count the number of 3-year-olds today. The demographic trend du jour in countries like the UK and US is ageing. Put simply, there will be more older people in the future because people are living longer and there are less babies being born. This is a problem in many areas but one area that has generally been overlooked (especially by the mainstream media) is that this means there will almost certainly be a problem for military recruitment: military personnel retire much earlier than civilian workers, and older soldiers are generally not much use. You could solve this shortfall by recruiting more women into the armed services but most countries are still uneasy about women in combat roles (there is an argument that says only women should be allowed to fight wars because this would minimalise conflict, but that’s another story). You could also delay retirement or lengthen service but ageing would presumably reduce effectiveness. Another related issue is that the military needs young people given the shift towards technological competence and experience. To some extent, none of this would be a problem if future conflicts were confined to Military Operations Other Than Wars (MOOTW). This peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance role was the orthodoxy pre 9/11, but post Iraq, things have changed. So where are young people, especially those with computer or language skills, going to come from? One solution is from elsewhere. The idea of recruiting soldiers from other countries is nothing new (just think of the French Foreign Legion of the British Gurkhas), so perhaps this needs to be reconsidered in a modern context. In the case of the US, visas or citizenship could be traded for military service, which would allow the US military to compete with Silicon Valley for Indian computer experts or Arabic speakers. The other idea that dare-not-speak-its-name is compulsory national service. Unless a solution is found, the War on Terror could become an increasingly one-sided war.

Ref: Parameters (US) Spring 2005, ‘Demographic Trends and Military Recruitment: Surprising Possibilities’, G. Quester. Links: ‘Overstretched US considers dropping two-war doctrine’ Weekly Telegraph (UK), issue 729.


The torture trend

Torture is illegal in most countries and deplored almost universally. However, in 2003 Amnesty International received reports of torture in 132 countries including the US, France and Japan. Shocking perhaps, but hardly surprising. However, what is really shocking is that the idea of rehabilitating torture is not only defensible but necessary. An article in a US legal journal by two Australian academics (Prof. Mirko Bagaric and Julie Clarke) claims that torture is a force for good. It is, they argue, defendable because it can gather information that can save lives (the second point – stopping people from committing crimes they haven’t committed yet – is reminiscent of science fiction). The academics use the analogy of hostage takers where it is generally accepted that you can kill a hostage taker if he or she intends to kill someone else. This is a clever analogy but the two situations are not comparable because killing hostages is usually an action of last resort. Moreover, as George Orwell once famously said, ‘necessary murder’ is only possible ‘if you are the kind or person that is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled’. What is worrying about this idea is that it is perhaps symbolic of trends like the shift away from international law and the use of extreme measures to defeat extremism. In other words, the very future most feared by George Orwell. As Orwell also said, ‘if you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a face – forever’.

Ref: The Age (Aus) 17 May 2005, ‘A case for torture’, M. Bagaric. See also The Age (Aus) 17 May 2005, ‘A deeply flawed case for power abuse’, J. Sparrow; and University of San Francisco Law Review (US), ‘Not enough (Official) Torture In the World’.


Sound art

Procter & Gamble’s VP for design and innovation strategy uses the phrase ‘listening with your eyes’, which essentially means deep listening – an idea that is especially apt to describe a new trend in the art world. Sound art is exactly what it says it is – art made from sound. There is usually nothing to see but plenty to feel and experience. And thanks to some modern technical marvels, what we can experience has become quite extraordinary. One of the first mainstream sightings of sound art was at Sonic Boom show at London’s Hayward gallery in 2000. Since then it has been heard but not seen at the Tate Modern Gallery, Hampton Court Maze and, most recently, at Sound Out in Cork (Ireland).

Ref: Weekly Telegraph (UK) issue 726. ‘Listen – it’s the sound of a new art’, S. Davies. See also and