Category Archives: United Kingdom

How to Write About Tax Havens

Cold Morning in a suburb of Torino, 1955 by Riccardo Moncalvo

I interviewed my buddy Nic Shaxson for Longreads. Here’s a clip:

Last year Shaxson published a Vanity Fair article, ‘A Tale of Two Londons,’ that described the residents of one of London’s most exclusive addresses—One Hyde Park—and the accounting acrobatics they had performed to get there. 

Here’s how it works: If you’re a Russian oil billionaire or a Nigerian bureaucro-baron and you want to hide some of your money from national taxes and local scrutiny, London real estate is a great place to stash it. All you need to do is establish a holding company, park it offshore and get a-buying. Here’s Shaxson:

These buyers use offshore companies for three big and related reasons: tax, secrecy, and “asset protection.” A property owned outright becomes subject to various British taxes, particularly capital-gains and taxes on transfers of ownership. But properties held through offshore companies can often avoid these taxes. According to London lawyers, the big reason for using these structures has been to avoid inheritance taxes. [...]

But secrecy, for many, is at least as important: once a foreign investor has avoided British taxes, then offshore secrecy gives him the opportunity to avoid scrutiny from his own country’s tax—or criminal—authorities too. Others use offshore structures for “asset protection”—frequently, to avoid angry creditors. That seems to be the case with a company called Postlake Ltd.—registered on the Isle of Man—which owns a $5.6 million apartment on the fourth floor [of One Hyde Park].

Shaxson argues that this phenomenon has taken over the U.K. real estate market—extortionate penthouses for the ultrarich sitting empty while the rest of us outbid each other for the froth below.

Now go read the whole thing!

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Filed under Journalism, London, Personal, Serious, United Kingdom, Work

Britain Discovers Food Banks, Can’t Decide If It Likes Them

Originally posted at The Billfold

Meet Joanna. She’s a 31-year-old British single mom who earns just above the minimum wage managing a thrift store. She can’t afford to buy enough food for herself and her teenage daughter, so most mornings she watches her daughter eat from the kitchen doorway, drinking a cup of tea with three sugars. She drinks 20 cups of tea, and eats one meal, per day. She’s lost 49 pounds in the last three months.

Britain is in the middle of a food crisis. For the first time since World War II, a significant number of Britons don’t have enough to eat, and an even more significant number can only afford processed junk food, the biscuits and TV dinners that are always cheaper, always more available, than fresh fruits, vegetables and meats.

Joanna is one of the people profiled on Great British Budget Menu, a BBC show where celebrity chefs live, cook and shop with families getting by on poverty-level wages and shrinking welfare benefits. The show also profiles a pensioner who eats a boiled egg and half a can of minestrone soup for dinner every night because that’s all his £1.04 (about $1.60) daily food budget will allow.

You know the food crisis is a Thing when there’s a reality show about it. The Great British Budget Menu crescendos with a banquet where the chefs compete to make the best meal for just £1 per person. Joanna is invited to come down and help chop onions.

“Budget Menu” is indicative not only of the kind of country Britain is, but the debate over what kind of country it wants to be.

In the U.S., we take it for granted that government help is not enough to live on, that private charities and philanthropic donations fill the holes in income, housing and health care our welfare system leaves gaping. Disaster relief, meals on wheels, homeless shelters—for us they’re just part of the economic landscape, the extra stitches in our safety net.

But in Britain, the idea of a significant portion of the population being fed, clothed and housed by private charities is genuinely new, at least in the post-war era, and the British haven’t decided how they feel about it. Are privately run social services a scandal of government neglect, or simply a country taking responsibility for its runaway spending?

The debate over Britain’s food crisis has been going on since last year, but has exploded since May, when Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty released a report showing that in 2012, an estimated 500,000 Britons relied on food banks to feed themselves and their families, an increase from just 70,000 three years ago.

Not only that, but food bank use has reportedly tripled just since April of this year, when welfare payments were cut nationwide. The food banks themselves say most of their customers are there because their benefits were cut (“sanctioned” is how the Coalition would like us to put it) or simply delayed due to mistakes in administration.

“Food banks should not replace the ‘normal’ safety net provided by the state in the form of welfare support,” was the quote from Church Action on Poverty’s chief executive in the press release announcing the report, and most of the initial press coverage was basically, “what he said.”

The Guardian printed a news story followed by a handful of commentaries expressing the kind of shock and “aw hell naw” you would expect from Britain’s leading left-wing paper. The IndependentThe Guardian’s slightly less Keith Olbermanny fraternal twin—also covered the story extensively, and published its own case studies of food bank users.

Even The Sun—the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid—ran a sympathetic article and sent a reporter (they have reporters?) to some London food banks to see how they work.

What’s interesting about these—to an American anyway—is how utterly foreign and scandalous the very idea of a food bank is. Every article goes out of its way to describe how food banks work, where the food comes from, how they are funded. Comparisons to WWII breadlines are near-mandatory.

“This is what it looks like when someone else picks the food your family is going to eat,” the BBC ominously intoned in a report last year over B-roll of food bank workers taking cans off shelves. “This is a food bank.”

Even the right-wing papers seemed offended. The Daily Telegraph published an editorial that said, “It is obviously a tragedy–and a scandal–that in an age of unimagined riches, there are still those who go hungry.” But it also made sure to lament that the report “politicized” the issue of hunger by blaming it on the political party that was cutting the welfare.

The inevitable #slatepitches response came from The Spectator—basically a right-wingAtlantic—in a series of articles that investigated Britain’s newly thriving feeding-poor-people sector and concluded, “food banks are not soup kitchens, nor a sign of a society gone bad. In fact, their emergence ought to be seen as a sign of how strong Britain’s social fabric is. The real scandal, according to those who run food banks, is that that they haven’t been around for longer.”

But this point—food banks are not a failure of government welfare, they’re a triumph of private generosity—is undermined by how food banks actually work. Food banks in the U.K. don’t simply provide boxes of food to random people who come in off the street. If you want food aid, you have to get referred to the food bank by charity case workers, “Job Centres” or social services agencies—the same people issuing (or cutting) your welfare benefits. Furthermore, you can’t use food banks indefinitely. You get vouchers to last you a specific amount of time, then you go back to relying on your welfare benefits again.

This nuance, however, did not stop British right-wing politicians from taking up the argument.

“Food banks are not part of the welfare system.” That’s Lord Freud, the work and pensions minister, discussing the issue in the House of Lords. “Local provision that reflects the requirements of local areas is absolutely right. Charitable provision is to be admired and supported.”

Two days later, the welfare reform minister, the Bishop of Truro (these names!), responded in an interview with The Independent: “It is a scandal we have any food banks at all in the 21st century,” thus taking us right back to where we started.

Reading these dueling quotes is like sitting in on a debate between Brits over how American they want their country to be. The left and the right don’t disagree about whether food banks are the government admitting that it can’t provide everything its citizens need. They disagree on whether that’s a bad thing.

David Cameron’s Tories got elected on a platform promising to deliver “The Big Society,” a country where people don’t rely on the government to solve their problems, where private charities and “social entrepreneurs” are the ones responsible for improving social conditions. Anyone impressed by that idea would look at the proliferating food banks and go, “Great! What shall we improve next?”

The British left is afraid of a country in which the things the government can’t do become things the government won’t do, a country where hunger and poverty and homelessness become not the government’s problem, but yours and mine. A country, in other words, a lot like America.

As an American watching this from northern Europe (the two cities I’ve lived in, Copenhagen and Berlin, have just one food bank each), I don’t know which side I’m rooting for. Part of me is proud of the philanthropy culture of the U.S., and I sometimes find myself bragging about how Americans volunteer, how we wear bracelets to cure cancer and run marathons to house the homeless.

But then I wonder if all this generosity is just a reaction to the stinginess of our government, a way of coping with complicity in watching our fellow citizens freeze and starve. If FEMA had its shit together, I wouldn’t have to give money to The Red Cross. Is the fickleness, the fragility of charity really something we want to export?

I don’t know when America had this debate, if we did at all. If Britain really wants to trade in welfare rolls for Rockefellers, they can’t say they didn’t know what it would look like on the other side.

At the end of The Great British Budget Menu, Joanna’s celebrity chef gives her a box full of food and a recipe for chicken and coleslaw that cost nearly double her daily food budget. Just before the competition begins, Joanna triumphantly announces that she’s already started resolving her own personal food crisis: She’s reduced the amount of sugar in her tea to just one spoonful.

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Filed under America, Food, Serious, United Kingdom

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Chain Restaurants

Originally posted at The Billfold

 

Last weekend in London I had a cute little lunch at a cute little patisserie in Soho, and was feeling all satisfied with myself until I was on the Strand later in the day and saw the same patisserie—same food, same interior, same smell coming out the door.

Oh, I thought, deflated. It’s a chain.

Suddenly I felt scammed. These punks tricked me! They made me think their little bakery was all artisanal and small-scale, when actually it’s some venture-capitaled, focus-grouped, conveyor-belted profit factory. They probably have a corporate headquarters in midtown Manhattan, some Yale econ grad staring at the surveillance cam footage of my purchase, trying to moneyball me into buying more next time.

So my immediate reaction was Well! Never going there again. But now that I’ve thought about it, I’m less sure of my reaction.

First, let’s get the obvious out of the way: Of course it’s a chain. Soho is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the world. Thatcher, gentrification, celebrity chefs, they ran mom and pop outta there decades ago. The only businesses that can afford Soho rents do so through high volume, high margins and manufactured cosiness. That “grandma’s cinnamon roll” smell coming out the door is as deliberate as the font above it. What did I expect?

So I should have known. Next up: Who cares? I had a tasty meal at a reasonable price in a pleasant environment. It was precisely what I wanted. What’s the difference if there is a duplicate of my experience happening elsewhere? Or 100 duplicates? Or 1,000?

When I lived in Copenhagen, my favorite bakery was called Lagkagehuset (“layer cake house”), and it had the best bread on the planet. There was only one location in Copenhagen, family owned, and I glowed with self-satisfaction every time I bought a dense loaf of bread or a misshapen (artisanal!) breakfast roll there.

A year after I left Denmark, it was bought by a private equity firm. Now there are nine of them in Copenhagen (industrial!), and last time I visited I walked past one at the airport (monetizers!).

But you know what? The products are exactly the same. Still dense, still misshapen, still crazy-overpriced, still so salty you want to dip them in a cup of water like a hot dog eating contest. The only difference, as far as I can tell, is that now I can buy them in nine places instead of one.

Which brings me to my last point: What am I actually against?

Among my people (urban, lefty, low BMI), places like Starbucks, McDonald’s and Applebee’s have take the role of a kind of punchline, the culinary equivalent of Coldplay. For us, they’re not restaurants or cafes, they’re totems of America’s—and the world’s—relentless, inevitable march toward sameness.

I’m generally sympathetic to this. Starbucks kills independent cafes, McDonald’s cuts down rainforests, Applebee’s wants you to have diabetes.

But in every other aspect of my life, this doesn’t bother me. I wear Nikes, I shop at Safeway, I use rapper-endorsed headphones to drown out the clacking on my MacBook. All of this is just as mass-produced as anything from Starbucks, and yet I willingly (OK, maybe grudgingly) submit.

But chains underpay their workers, my conscience shouts. They get foodstuffs from poor farmers and nonrecyclable lids from petroleum! They donate to ugly political causes!

All that’s probably true, but there’s no reason to think an independent restaurant or café is any better by default. Maybe the guy handmaking the gluten-free scones at that ‘small batch’ bakery makes the same minimum wage as the teenager at McDonald’s. Or maybe he owns the place, and thinks women never should have been given the vote. Just because I have no way of knowing his conditions, impacts or beliefs doesn’t mean they’re not there or that they’re not problematic.

So if I don’t object to chains in principle, and I don’t object to the goods and services of some chains in particular, then all I’m left with is opposition to chains as a class signifier. I reject them not because the food is bad or they’re worse for the planet than other corporations, but because I personally don’t want to be associated with them. Starbucks is for tourists, Applebee’s is for flyovers, McDonald’s is for the poor.

I’m not defending chains, really, I’m not going to start actively seeking them out or anything. I just need to be honest with myself about what I’m avoiding, and why.

My favorite cafe in Berlin is called The Barn. Silky lattes, snobby staff, handwritten prices, brownies dense as Jupiter—it’s perfect. Just before Christmas they opened a second location, closer to my house than their first. If I’m lucky, next year they’ll open a few more.

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Filed under America, Berlin, Food, London, Personal, United Kingdom

In Continent: Pictures of Europe’s Boringest Cities

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For the last two weeks I was on an epic work trip.

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To Geneva, Brussels, London and The Hague. This is the ceiling of the UN!

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You know that movie that you liked when you were a kid, and you watch it now, and it sucks, and it makes you hate it, and it makes you hate your younger self for ever liking it? That’s exactly how I feel about Geneva.

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Look how obnoxiously beautiful it is, the whole country is an elaborate commercial for LL Bean.

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Even the statues are look passive-aggressive, like, ‘oh you only have one watch?’

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Next up: Brussels! The only people who hate it more than the tourists are the people who live there.

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The city’s neighborhoods are either dioramas for tourists or slums, nothing in between. Walking long distances is like going from Narnia into Mordor.

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Hoping Belgium had more to offer, I took a daytrip to Gent, which is Flemish for disappointment. I ate canal fish and waited for the rain to stop. The local residents have been doing little else for 600 years.

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I did go to a great art museum, though, where I got shouted at for taking pictures of a quotidian machine and a projected image.

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I have no idea what these signs mean.

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Did I mention that I’m a 30-year-old man?

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Later that week, I went to a meeting at the European parliament. The wallpaper symbolizes how you can all be the same color, yet still not mix.

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This building is only two stories tall, I’m just that short.

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Europeans have to color their cities to make you forget how little alcohol is in that hot wine.

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London is only photogenic twice a year. The queen alerts all her subjects by text message.

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Here’s some graffiti that I thought looked kind of like me. Especially the buildings coming out of the face. 

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The Shard was just completed, but it’s being torn down next year because it makes it harder for the pigeons to see St. Paul’s.

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Two weeks later, I’m back in Berlin, same as I left it: Cold, grey and covered in cocaine. Thank God. 

 

 

 

 

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Two Fun Things to Do in London

Program new autocorrects into all the iPhones at the Apple store:

Cover up the top hole in the saltshaker and shout ‘It’s a miracle!’

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Filed under Funny, London, United Kingdom

Why Doesn’t Britain Do Longform?

America has dozens of magazines that print long, investigative narrative feature stories: Vanity Fair, GQ, Harper’s, Mother Jones, the New Yorker, I could go on.

Yet Britain, from what I can tell, doesn’t have any. The London Review of Books publishes longform, and some of the Sunday papers have magazines, but the features are mostly celebrity profiles/interviews and long reviews. The FT and the Guardian both publish promiscuously, but little in the 3,000-5,000 word range.

Are there cultural or economic reasons for this? Or are tons of great stories actually getting published I’m just missing them?

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Filed under Journalism, United Kingdom

The First Page of Don Delillo’s ‘Cosmopolis’

When I used to work at the Seattle Times, I hung out a bit with the book reviews editor. I asked her once how she decided among the dozens of books she received every week, which ones to review.

‘Read the first page,’ she said. ‘If you want to keep reading, do.’

This has given me a weird compulsion to read first pages of novels whenever I’m in bookstores. Yesterday I spent about an hour in Foyles in London doing this, and the best one I found was Don Delillo’s Cosmopolis:

Hella wanna read the whole thing now!

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Stuff That Happens When You Go to London For the Olympics

You are struck at the emptiness of London’s rotisserie attractions

You are bored by modern art, and the indoors generally.

You marvel up close at the brontosaurus legs and tyrannosaur arms of Olympic cyclists.

You remark that London is more pleasant when all its rich have left.

You watch lady weightlifting in Hyde Park, and fail to make any out-loud comment that doesn’t come off sexist, classist, racist or looksist.

You are simultaneously consoled and unnerved by the ubiquity of Britain’s security apparatus.

You make normal-sized chairs appear larger.

You appreciate that, between colonialism and the 2012 Olympic Games, there were about 50 years there where British patriotism wasn’t OK.

You join the throng, expecting elbowing multitudes

But find London’s temporary epicenter strangely serene.

You display your own nation’s flag incorrectly.

You wait for fucking ages to get this shot, and it doesn’t even turn out that great.

You conclude from limited experience that Olympic athletes are small, gregarious and bewildered in person.

You notice that the Olympic park planners got the flag proportions all wrong.

You didn’t know they played basketball in Tunisia. After seeing them play the USA, you’re not sure they want to anymore.

Leaving the park, you speculate what this this area was once, and what it will become.

You never find out. And for a minute, you don’t even wonder.

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Filed under London, Pictures, Travel, United Kingdom

Newspapers Are Terrible

This week I’m reading Andrew Marr’s ‘My Trade: A Short History of British Journalism’. I should have known better than to read anything with the author’s giant face displayed on the cover, but here we are.

News is a relatively recent, made-up human commodity. It is designed, copied and passed on in a tradition that goes back only a few hundred years. Almost all reporters are imprinted after a while with the sense of how news stories read, but they didn’t get this from their DNA. There may be inquisitive and persistent people, but there are no ‘born reporters’.

Charles Reiss, former political editor of the London Evening Standard, told me he was struck how, sitting at the back of some interminable, tedious committee of MPs he and rival hacks suddenly found their pens moving across their notepads, all at the same time. Barely conscious of why they were doing so, they had restarted a shorthand note of what someone was saying. Why? Years of listening to political language and being able to spot the unexpected nuance.

This is one of the unremarked-upon structural weaknesses of our current media landscape. Have you ever read a speech, watched a debate or seen an event in full, before it was chopped up, interpreted and re-packaged as news? Your impressions about what is notable about it are inevitably different than the groupthinky interpretations of the press corps.

Try watching a presidential debate this year without watching CNN or reading the newspaper afterwards. For you, a citizen, the news will be the things the candidates said that will impact your life. Higher taxes, fewer buses, a war with a faroff country in which a relative or friend might participate. To the journalists watching, news is simply where a candidate deviated from the script. Marr’s journalists aren’t furiously writing legislative changes in their notebooks, they’re counting gaffes.

Here’s where Marr completely misses the point of his own book:

Because of its problems, one could simply try to opt out of the news culture. I know people who barely read a paper and who think most broadcast news is mindless nonsense. I think, however, they are wrong. They might go through their weekly round, taking kids to school, shipping, praying, doing some voluntary work, phoning elderly relatives, and do more good than harm as they go. But they have disconnected themselves from the wider world. Rather like secular monks, they have cloistered themselves in the local. And this is not good enough. We are either players in open, democratic societies, all playing a tiny part in their ultimate direction, or we are deserters.

Notice how he never answers the question of whether newspapers, as they currently exist, are the shimmering informers of democracy that they could be. It’s objectively the case that a populace needs accurate information to vote and participate in a true democracy. But the media landscape that we have fails consistently to provide us with the information and tools we need.

Check out Marr’s own example of how newspapers distort the news:

Take the great British paedophilia panic. The number of child sex murders in Britain carried out by a stranger is roughly static, about five to seven a year. The number of convictions or cautions for sex crimes involving children has fallen in recent years. An exhaustive study of the statistics on the abuse of children reveals only that we have no knowledge at all of how widespread it is: ‘The number of children sexually abused each year in England and Wales lies somewhere between 3,500 and 72,600. In other words, a detailed analysis of the statistics produces such a wide margin of possible error that no published figures can provide the basis for reliable assumptions, let alone sensible policy-making.’

Yet the number of stories about pedophiles has rocketed since the mind-1990s, particularly in the tabloid press. The effect has been enormous, not only on the government legislation on sex crimes, and onl the treatment (or lack of it) for pedophiles, but onl the way families live their lives–How much children are allowed out by themselves, how worried parents are about the internet, how suspicious society in general has become about men who work as Scout leaders, in youth groups, for swimming clubs and so on.

In other words, our chimpanzee brains like to be fed grisly anecdotes in which children are kidnapped and murdered. If there aren’t enough real ones to go around, we’ll settle for panic about ones that have already happened.

Apply this principle across all of the challenges we as a polity confront—economics, crime, abortion, hunger games, global warming—and you have a severe distortion of what’s actually happening ‘out there’ and what we think is happening. The institutions we’ve entrusted to inform us have ceased interpreting their mandate beyond entertaining us.

Journalists like Marr will always tell you that journalism is the first draft of history. Unfortunately, the journalists we’ve got never pause to write a second one.

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Filed under America, Books, Journalism, Serious, United Kingdom

Cambridge

The year I lived in London, I didn't visit the rest of England once.

Bath, York, Manchester, Edinburgh, I skipped it all.

It's only since I moved on that I've visited smallertown Britain. Last weekend I checked out Cambridge because my folks are living there at the moment.

It's cute! British cities and towns make you forget that you're traveling around what was once the seat of an empire

whereas London never lets you forget.

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