Friday, April 16, 2010

Harry Potter and the Marginal Tax Rate

Harry Potter and the Marginal Tax Rate

One of the gaps in the Harry Potter universe is the political process. There's plenty of political metaphor throughout, of course, and there's a full-blown government and bureaucracy; who can forget Half-Blood Prince starting out in Tony Blair's office? (I know time line geeks-and who am I calling anyone a geek?-will insist it's John Major, But I always thought of it as Blair.) There are also at least four transitions of government mentioned.

But other than one brief mention that a good-luck potion is illegal to use in sports or elections, there's no mention of exactly how wizards choose their leader. It appears to be a mysterious "selection," the way the UK's Conservative Party chose its leader until 1970 or so.

Great Britain's Muggles, of course, are now in the midst of their brief electoral campaign, and as usual with UK elections I'm vicariously enjoying the show. It's likely to be a split decision or what they call a "hung Parliament," with the end result a short-lived coalition government. But that's not what's important right now.

What's important is that J.K. Rowling has written something. About the election.

And anyone who expects that the richest woman in the UK (except the Queen) would side with the Tories obviously hasn't gotten the political subtexts of the Potter series.

The Rowling story exists alongside the Potter story, and it's a rags to riches narrative: single mom scribbles book in coffee shop, becomes best selling author in history. But what the Tory bootstrappers don't get is that Joanne Rowling never forgot where she came from, and who helped her when she needed it:
I had become a single mother when my first marriage split up in 1993. In one devastating stroke, I became a hate figure to a certain section of the press, and a bogeyman to the Tory Government. ..

Women like me (for it is a curious fact that lone male parents are generally portrayed as heroes, whereas women left holding the baby are vilified) were, according to popular myth, a prime cause of social breakdown, and in it for all we could get: free money, state-funded accommodation, an easy life.

An easy life. Between 1993 and 1997 I did the job of two parents, qualified and then worked as a secondary school teacher, wrote one and a half novels and did the planning for a further five. For a while, I was clinically depressed. To be told, over and over again, that I was feckless, lazy — even immoral — did not help.

The new Labour landslide marked a cessation in government hostilities towards families like mine. The change in tone was very welcome, but substance is, of course, more important than style. Labour had great ambitions for eradicating child poverty and while it succeeded, initially, in reversing the downward trend that had continued uninterrupted under Tory rule, it has not reached its own targets. There remains much more to be done.

This is not to say that there have not been real innovations to help lone-parent families. First, childcare tax credits were introduced by Gordon Brown when he was Chancellor, which were a meaningful way of addressing the fact that the single biggest obstacle for lone parents returning to work was not innate slothfulness but the near-impossibility of affording adequate childcare.
There's not an explicit "Vote Labour" in the piece, but notice that she managed to work in Prime Minister Brown's name specifically.

Rowling also addresses a question she gets a lot: why doesn't she, as most of Britain's upper-upper-upper income people do, abandon the UK for a tax haven?
I am indebted to the British welfare state; the very one that (Tory leader David) Cameron would like to replace with charity handouts. When my life hit rock bottom, that safety net, threadbare though it had become under John Major’s Government, was there to break the fall. I cannot help feeling, therefore, that it would have been contemptible to scarper for the West Indies at the first sniff of a seven-figure royalty cheque. This, if you like, is my notion of patriotism.
Just as coincidence this lands right at American tax day. Remember when Joe Biden was mocked for saying it was patriotic to pay taxes?

Any scrap of Rowling is always worth a read. Meanwhile, while she's working on her scraps and notes Potterverse encyclopedia, she can work in exactly how the Minister of Magic gets chosen.

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