Wednesday, 12 May 2010

People and places

I think, when I left my last job at JPMorgan 10 years ago, that if someone had told me where the next decade would take me in terms of who I would meet and the places I would walk into, I'd have been hard-pressed to convince even my mother that I was anything but a fantasist.

But last night, as half of my friends were updating their Facebook statuses either with glee or in mourning, I was adding a name to my list of People I Never Expected to Meet: sitting immediately to my left at dinner was the controversial Conservative Party donor Lord Ashcroft.

And as a result, as David Cameron moved between the Commons, the Palace, and his new home, I got thinking about just how many people and places I have met and seen during my Betfair adventure. It really has been a spectacular world tour, the like of which you might expect to have to hold some serious Office of State to achieve.

OK, so the House of Lords and the Commons are perhaps somewhat run-of-the-mill; so, too, the European Commission. But St. James's Palace; Buckingham Palace; Clarence House; Number 10, Downing Street; the Office of the Majority Leader of the US Senate, where Lyndon Johnson brokered so many unlikely deals; the floor of the Senate itself at the signed invitation of the current incumbent (I still have the ticket!); the Australian Parliament; the Office of the Australian Prime Minister... All are places I never expected to see inside.

Nor did I ever think it likely I would sit next to a Prime Minister at dinner, as I did Down Under (John Howard wears a hearing aid in his right ear, I discovered when immediately to that side of him; that's presumably why he always cocks his head slightly when on camera, so it can't be seen); shake hands with the Queen or the Duke of Edinburgh (a story that merits telling another time for what the Duke said); or be kissed by a Princess. But the last ten years have, I realised as I thought about it heading home around midnight, brought all of the above.

Last night's dinner was held under Chatham House Rules. To be honest, I'm always slightly confused by what that means: if a dinner party comprises company and conversation, can you reveal either one or the other, providing you don't reveal both? Or does reeling off a guest list set you up for the firing squad?

I'm not sure. But, tempting though it is to relay the names of some of the fascinating people present - Ashcroft, though the most high profile currently, was certainly not the best-known in the room - I shall err on the side of caution in the interests of not upsetting my hosts.

Suffice it therefore to say little more than that in a crowded field, it was the most interesting and educational political evening I have spent in a long while, in part because of the obviously fortuitous timing for such a gathering, and in part because of the breadth of views expressed.

A leading politician was asked to grade his party's election campaign on a scale of 1 to 10. The question, 'is it better to have principles without power, or power without principles?' led to vigorous debate. Some present were significantly exercised and outraged by City remuneration packages, and demanded that others justify them. One person genuinely suggested that you are more likely to be over-paid as a bus driver protected by a union than you are if you're a hedge-fund trader protected by no-one; another argued eloquently that the obvious requirement for any government was to pluck its wealthy geese for as many feathers as possible without actually killing any of them off.

On which note, I was sent the following by e-mail the other day.

I think it's rather elegant.

Suppose that every day, ten men go out for beer and the bill for all ten comes to £100.

If they paid their bill the way we pay our taxes, it would go something like this...

The first four men (the poorest) would pay nothing.
The fifth would pay £1.
The sixth would pay £3.
The seventh would pay £7..
The eighth would pay £12.
The ninth would pay £18.
The tenth man (the richest) would pay £59.

So, that's what they decided to do..

The ten men drank in the bar every day and seemed quite happy with the arrangement, until one day, the owner threw them a curve ball.

"Since you are all such good customers," he said, "I'm going to reduce the cost of your daily beer by £20". Drinks for the ten men would now cost just £80.

The group still wanted to pay their bill the way we pay our taxes.

So the first four men were unaffected. They would still drink free of charge. But what about the other six men? The paying customers? How could they divide the £20 windfall so that everyone would get his fair share?

They realised that £20 divided by six is £3.33. But if they subtracted that from everybody's share, then the fifth man and the sixth man would each end up being paid to drink his beer.

So, the bar owner suggested that it would be fair to reduce each man's bill by a higher percentage the poorer he was, to follow the principle of the tax system they had been using, and he proceeded to work out the amounts he suggested that each should now pay.

And so the fifth man, like the first four, now paid nothing (100% saving).
The sixth now paid £2 instead of £3 (33% saving).
The seventh now paid £5 instead of £7 (28% saving).
The eighth now paid £9 instead of £12 (25% saving).
The ninth now paid £14 instead of £18 (22% saving).
The tenth now paid £49 instead of £59 (16% saving).

Each of the six was better off than before. And the first four continued to drink free of charge. But, once outside the bar, the men began to compare their savings.

"I only got a pound out of the £20 saving," declared the sixth man. He pointed to the tenth man,"but he got £10!"

"Yeah, that's right," exclaimed the fifth man. "I only saved a pound too. It's unfair that he got ten times more benefit than me!"

"That's true!" shouted the seventh man. "Why should he get £10 back, when I got only £2? The wealthy get all the breaks!"

"Wait a minute," yelled the first four men in unison, "we didn't get anything at all. This new tax system exploits the poor!"

The nine men surrounded the tenth and beat him up.

The next night the tenth man didn't show up for drinks, so the nine sat down and had their beers without him. But when it came time to pay the bill, they discovered that they didn't have enough money between all of them for even half of the bill.


  1. Hi Mark,
    Of course the cynical amongst us would argue that the richest person would base himself offshore so that he actually paid none of the bill. The next two richest would come up with some elaborate tax-avoidance vehicles and so only be taxed upon 10% of their income. Which would leave the 4th, 5th and 6th well off people footing most of the bill.

    I suppose what you're saying is that the more punitive the tax regime, the more likely those most affected will find ways around it, but I think that's already happening...

  2. I'm not saying anything, other than I thought it rather elegantly put together. I'm certainly not suggesting it's the whole argument.