Sunday, 8 September 2019

2019-20 Courses for the general public

Just an update about availability of my Oxford Continuing Education courses for the upcoming year as one is already fully booked.

For the latest info on my courses see here.

Online courses in Political Philosophy

I will be teaching on all three runs of the Political Philosophy: An Introduction course this academic year.

The first one is fully booked, but there may be a waiting list.

Only the next one will be available to book at any one time. Once it commences booking is opened for the following one, so note down the date when booking comes available on your chosen run as it usually fills up!

Tuesday Evening Classes in central Oxford

Spaces are currently available on both my upcoming evening classes.

What Would an Economically Equal Society Look Like?
October to December 2019

Many people assume that a just society should aim at equality between all citizens. But what does this actually mean? How does equality trade off with other values? Do people's choices matter? In this course we consider rival visions of an equal society.

International Ethics and Global Justice: What Do We Owe Those beyond the Border?
January to March 2020

Explore the ethical and economic issues arising from an unequal world with borders. This course considers whether and why we have more responsibility for our fellow citizens and the implications for trade, aid, tax and immigration.

Saturday Day School on Post-truth in North Oxford 

On the 30th of May 2020 Dr Julia Weckend and I are offering a day school where we consider whether we are now living in a post-truth world and how this relates to philosophical ideas about truth.

Truth in a Post-Truth World

It is said we have entered a post-truth age. Has philosophical skepticism, cultural change or new technology led us on this path? What is truth anyway? This day unpacks the notion of truth, why it might be changing and whether it is still relevant today.

Summer course in Oxford

I will again be offering an accredited summer school course in 2020 at the Oxford University Summer School for Adults. The course webpage is not yet live but hopefully it will be soon and you can find it via the link above.

Can economic inequality be justified? Should some get more than others?

I gave a lecture on this topic at the 2019 summer school which can be found here.

The week-long course will be in early August.

Full listing

The full listing of my upcoming courses can be found here.

Saturday, 27 April 2019

Preface for a book I might never write

Preface for a book I might never write: Arguing for the CLIPH-rate tax

Lately I’ve been teaching or planning courses about distributive justice and I’ve mapped out a book I’d love to write if I had the time. It's probably about third on my list of projects though I sometimes mentally change the order of priority.

In fact, I wouldn't be starting from scratch. As well as having taught some of the theories, I could use a couple of pieces I’ve published, and I have written some blogs on the topic too. However, I thought it might be nice to note down the idea here, just as no doubt countless authors have written a preface but never completed the actual book.

The basic idea is to write a three-part (or even volume!) work presenting the argument(s) for my CLIPH-rate tax system from three different theories of justice; Egalitarianism, Consequentialism and desert theory.


The egalitarian argument is the easiest one to reproduce as I’ve already written a couple of pieces about this, in an edited collection and in my article “Arguing for hourly averaging.” Resource egalitarianism is the theory of distributive justice I find most compelling, and so this has been my primary concern up until now.

However, not everyone is convinced by egalitarianism and I think that it is possible to make strong arguments for the CLIPH-rate tax from two other theories.

Consequentialism and prioritarianism

Consequentialists about distributive justice believe that the economy should be designed to bring about the best total consequences. The good consequences could be subjective welfare, preference satisfaction, freedoms or some mixture of goods. Consequentialism is a totalising theory; bring about the most good. It therefore doesn’t matter how the goods and bads of society are distributed. Someone might be very badly off both absolutely and relatively under a consequentialist system and they would have no grounds for complaint (except by rejecting consequentialism). For many people, this is enough to reject consequentialism; everyone is just a means to bring about the best total consequences.

In fact, consequentialism does not have to ignore distributive matters entirely. Prioritarianism is a consequentialist theory which gives priority to those who are worse-off when undertaking the consequentialist calculation. The weighting towards the worse-off could vary; with greater emphasis on maximising the total amount of good or with greater priority given to those who have less. Prioritarianism seems to make consequentialism a lot more acceptable, though it doesn’t fully resolve all concerns about it.

How can you argue for the CLIPH-rate tax along consequentialist or prioritarian lines? I’ve made some points in previous blogs and in my book about the ways that an economy with the CLIPH-rate tax at its heart would combine incentives to work, save and invest with a great deal of redistribution to assist those on low incomes. Consequentialists, and particularly prioritarians, would want to ensure that there isn’t an impoverished class of workers at “the bottom” of society. Raising the standard of those who are badly off should bring about better total (let alone prioritised) consequences if we accept that nearly everyone gets declining marginal utility from resources. A poor person will get more utility (or whatever other good you specify) from a £10 gift than a rich person would. A successful economy should therefore focuses on making the worse off as well as possible, where this can be done without damaging overall economic productivity too much.

I would like to do more to show that the CLIPH-rate tax can both help to enlarge the pie while ensuring that everyone gets a decent slice. Hour credits are a key part of the tax calculation, and the only thing that someone can do (by choice) to get more hour credits is to undertake more work. The incentive to work is therefore built into the system. Meanwhile the tax calculation should generate as much taxation from unearned income as possible, representing the ideal form of taxation.

This is because the CLIPH-rate tax should do a good job of taxing not just unearned income but, relatedly, all forms of economic rent. Economic rents accrue to someone when they get more than they need in order to make the economic transaction in question. So if a landlord is considering renting a room and would accept £100 for it, but can get £200 due to high demand, then fully half of the rental income they get is economic rent. If this landlord has a tax rate of 50% they would still rent out their room, but instead of their getting the economic rent, it would go to the government. This revenue can be used to assist the less fortunate members of society, increasing their happiness.
That is a summary of the theory anyway, and I’d like to have more to back up my claims. It would be great to work with economists to help make the case.

Desert theories

I also think that a very strong case can be made for the CLIPH-rate tax from the perspective of desert theory. In a CLIPH-rate tax economy people get more income if they either get more hour credits (more hours worked) or have a higher income. Income made from working will therefore generate much more of a reward than unearned income, something which chimes well with desert theory.
Desert theories aren’t particularly popular with political philosophers, though they seem to be more popular with the general public, who often talk about particular people getting more or less than they deserve. A dodgy banker, crook or tabloid “benefit/welfare queen” could be said to have much more than they deserve. On the other hand, people might claim that nurses, kindly and charitable soul, or other hard-working person get less than they should.

Philosophers have delineated a few different bases for these desert claims. One is that some are more productive than others and should be rewarded accordingly. This is the productive contribution desert base associated with David Miller, Jonathan Riley and Gregory Mankiw.

A second desert base holds that people who do more burdensome jobs should get more than others. This is the compensation for burdensomeness desert base associated with Julian Lamont.  According to this theory, the person who does dangerous or unpleasant work deserves more than others who have less burdensome jobs. Someone working very hard in the cold on a North-sea oil rig with a high risk of death deserves much more than someone who works in a comfortable office.

The third desert base has features from the two above and attempts to get around the problems they have. This is that people who put in more effort should get more than others. This view is associated with George Sher, Wojciech Sadurski and Heather Milne. There are issues with all three desert bases though they all have some intuitive appeal. One is the extent they link to what people earn on the labour market.

I believe there is strong case to be made that the CLIPH-rate tax does a very good job of tracking these desert bases. Under a CLIPH-rate tax system people will get more if they get more hour credits (work longer hours) or if they have a higher income, and particularly if they do both these by working longer hours for higher pay. This seems to track all the desert bases above, since market pay rates reward productivity, burdensomeness and effort, and the hourly element also represents a productive contribution, the burden of giving up one’s time and an effort. Meanwhile, people who receive mostly unearned income from gifts or economic rents will be taxed very highly.

Other theories

I don’t think that there is much traction in arguing for the CLIPH-rate tax from libertarianism, though perhaps it might work from a few of the less common versions of left-libertarianism. Nevertheless, it would be a stretch and I don’t find libertarianism compelling anyway so I can live without trying to make that argument.

Sufficientarianism is another theory that is plausible. While I’m sure it’s possible to make an argument from sufficientarianism I’m not sure whether it is worth attempting it. After all, there are lots of forms of sufficientarianism and many people advocate a pluralist theory anyway (sufficientarianism + some other theory). Plus I don’t see why the CLIPH-rate tax particularly does any better at getting people above thresholds except perhaps for the consequentialist/prioritarian reasons set out above. Let me know if you disagree and think I should write about this.

Prospects and next steps

What are the prospects for ever writing this book? We’ll see. I might be able to do it fairly quickly if I could devote a chunk of time to it, but other things always seem more pressing. Perhaps I can start with a few journal articles and see if anything develops from there. Maybe this is as far as it will get? If so, its nice to have a record at least.

And if anyone has any suggestions or wants to collaborate do drop me an email.

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Maine tax proposal: Working hours, effort and desert

I was interested to discover that a Republican legislator in Maine has proposed that overtime payments should be exempt from taxation. Its interesting to note why he thinks it would be a good idea and the links to my hourly taxation proposal. Its proponent, Chad Grignon, is quoted on a local radio station:
I submitted this bill on behalf of all working Mainers who put in more than 40 hours a week and deserve to take home more of what they earn. That being said, working overtime should not be viewed as something we wish to see discouraged. In my opinion exempting overtime pay from taxation should reflect the sacrifices that working Mainers make going beyond the 40-hour threshold.

The word that sticks out for me here is deserve, perhaps because I've been teaching about desert theories of economic justice this term. Why is it that people who work longer hours deserve more (and to be taxed less) than those who work fewer hours? The theory that most obviously supports this view is effort desert theory; people who put more effort into their economic activity deserve more than those who put in less.

Effort desert theory, associated with philosophers like Wojciech Sadurski is a very progressive theory, for three reasons:
  1. Talents shouldn't make a difference. Some people find it easier to be productive than others. Effort theory says people should be rewarded for their efforts relative to others, not how successful they are.  
  2. Gifts shouldn't be allowed. If income should relate to effort put into the economy, then people shouldn't be able to get money without putting in the effort. Those who got their wealth as a gift from their ancestors should then face punitive tax rates.
  3. Investment income isn't deserved. People who generate income from investments rather than working aren't deserving--they aren't expending effort. So landlords (except when they are making improvements or providing services) aren't deserving. 
The Maine proposal, however, isn't obviously progressive; it is a reduction in tax for a select group. This would then leave the state with less revenue to assist the poor. However, perhaps this is actually progressive to tax some people less if they are working long hours for it.

Perhaps what this latest proposal picks up on is that there is a group in society that is often ignored by both the left and the right--people who work very long hours for low wages. Because their hard work gives them a reasonable total income they might not qualify for much assistance from the state. Some on the left might not like their materialist attitude as well. The right ignores them because they aren't talented and they generally don't want to give people extra support.

Effort and hours spent working

Time spent is one way to measure effort, particularly when the work you do is directed so workers aren't able to vary how intensely they work; the intensity is fixed by the nature of the work.

My hourly-averaging proposal might be of interest to the Maine legislature as this calculates people's tax-rate according to the number of hours worked. Those who work longer hours to attain the same pay would be taxed at a lower rate. It would apply the principle not just to a limited case of hourly-paid workers who cross a threshold, but on a sliding scale across all workers.

Practical questions 

There are of course practical questions with both my proposal and Rep. Gringon. How do you reliably measure people's hours? Well, his bill points out that employers are required by law to pay the overtime compensation to the employee. So the legal system is already taking account of the number of hours that people work. In this case, presumably, the worker has an incentive to insist on their rights against their employer whereas there is a problem for the Maine proposal and mine in that the employee and employer could collude to overstate the number of hours they work.

Getting around this practical problem is difficult but not impossible. Monitoring employment contracts, pay-rates for different kinds of work, and investigating unusual cases could do a lot of the job. Furthermore, employers are increasingly using technology to monitor workers. If the authorities had access to this information then it would be easy to verify the amount of time people spend working.

Prospects for hourly taxation

This is just the latest example that shows the relevance of time to distributive justice; numerous forms of tax credits being an obvious existing example. Hopefully people will take greater note of this as my hourly averaging proposal is the most thorough application of the principle that people who work longer hours should be taxed less.

Friday, 21 December 2018

What does it mean to be left-wing?

I’ve noticed a lot of name-calling on the social medias lately, with words like ‘neoliberal’ and ‘centrist’ being hurled at bemused people who consider themselves progressive left-wingers.

This has caused some to decry that they don’t know what neoliberal means, since they know they aren’t one but are being called one anyway. Queue false incredulity from ‘true believers’ on the left.

The simple fact is that the loss of faith in state planning by many on the left has led many away from the traditional left. This creates problems when viewing through the familiar political compass.

Traditional political compass

According to the traditional compass, above, left-wingers are split into libertarian (anarchists) and authoritarian (socialists). But what does it mean to be left-wing?

One answer is that left-wingers want government control of the economy so that it is run for the benefit of the people or the workers. On this view the political spectrum runs from free-market to government-control.

 The problem with this is that it leaves no room for left-wingers who don’t believe that state-run industry is a good idea, or that it is simply wrong as the state should not exist.

Another answer is that left-wingers want governments to redistribute resources from the economically successful to the less successful. This is less radical in one respect—it doesn’t require the overthrow of capitalism and this isn’t its aim. It requires tough regulation of firms to ensure that they act in the public interest, including price regulation if there are natural monopolies. More distinctly, it requires large-scale redistribution from the more economically successful to the less.

 But if left and right are understood in the ‘old’ way then on this compass there is no place for the distinction between those who would want state control of all industry, those who seek the abolition of private property and those such as myself who advocate a maximally redistributive form of capitalism. Personally, I argue for extreme interference in people’s post-tax income, but not for state control of industries or the removal of all state apparatus.

The kind of position I am referring to was called the ‘third-way’ in the 90s, but is more correctly termed liberal egalitarianism. Liberal egalitarians support whatever economic system works best for the worst-off and want to ensure that everyone has political and personal freedoms. 

The 'third way' was castigated after the failure of the Clinton and Blair governments to that much redistribution. As a side, note, I think they did more than credited, it was nowhere near what many supporters of a ‘third-way’ would want. Critics would point out that this is inevitable since the position acquiesces in a pro-market ideology, while defenders would point out these movements were either unambitious or hamstrung by the political climate.

When compasses fail

Something is wrong with a spectrum or compass if two very different political positions come out as being the same. Or if someone would label themselves in one position but others would place them somewhere completely different.

Both of the above compasses (compii?) fail to reflect the variety of left-wing thought. The simple fact is that the left splits into represent different dimensions – statist/central-planning, reformist/redistributive, and anarchist/utopian.

Does authoritarian-libertarian axis do the job?

Most people will be thinking that I’m missing the importance of the other axis, which adequately allows us to take account of the old-new division. We could ascribe authoritarian as state-control and libertarian as less state control over the economy. This is plausible, and it is probably how many people see that axis. But I don’t think this solves the problem.

After all, this means that the bottom left section contains radically different political views in the same positions. Traditional left-wing anarchist/libertarian thought would appear here as they are against state interference. However, so would supporters of redistributive capitalism, even though these are totally different systems.

The other (authoritarianism) axis is also of course multiply-ambiguous too.

It refers to the level of state interference in people’s lives, but it isn’t necessarily the case that more interference in one realm implies greater interference in another (though libertarians would no doubt claim this). This axis could instead be considered the distinction between social conservativism and libertarianism.

There could be a theocratic state which was very intrusive regarding people’s personal relations, but quite laissez-faire when it came to economic interventions. On the other hand there could be a state which was very libertarian about people’s lifestyle choices but very interventionist as far as private property ownership was concerned.

So, we could ignore the social-conservative dimension and focus on economic interference alone. But then the highly redistributive liberal comes out.


So, should we come up with a hologrammatic cube?

Or an even-more multi-dimensional representation of political space (using sounds or something)?

I don’t know.

But I do know that the left is, as ever, split between various factions with incompatible views while the (perhaps less numerous) right is broadly in agreement on the issue of (relatively or selectively) free markets.

What I don’t appreciate is when people mis-represent the left-wing redistributive liberals such as myself as having a view with which we vehemently disagree. Left-wingers who agree with us on the badness of free-market capitalism label us as ‘neoliberal’ supporters of free-market capitalism.  Right-wingers who agree with us about the badness of state-run economies or the abolition of private property label us as socialists or communists. But we support private property and freedom of enterprise.

Perhaps the only solution is to acknowledge that redistributive capitalism is a valid position and engage with it properly rather than in name-calling. People don’t just hold this position solely as a result of cynical electoral calculation and triangulation (though that be the case for some politicians). Liberal egalitarianism is an attractive political philosophy and can plausibly be considered to offer the best life prospects for working people.

Monday, 17 December 2018

Where is the fairness in the climate talks?

Carbon Emissions talks are very fraught.

They often end in fudges and disappointment, as has happened again recently at the latest round of COP talks. Some important issues have been postponed to future talks, all while humanity continues to pollute at record levels.

It is in everyone's interests to have fewer carbon emissions, but rarely in anyone's interest to reduce their own emissions. Everyone wants everyone else to do something about climate change.

Further, the benefits of reducing CO2 arise in the future, and those who have to alter their lifestyles (or pay more) are in the present. We are a myopic species, though unlike other animals we can think our way out of our myopia.

Climate talks are particularly fraught because there are so many dimensions at play. There is the inter-generational dimension - we can do more, less or nothing for the benefit of our successors. Different states care more or less about these future generations. Governments also want more for their own citizens at the expense of the citizens of other states. This leads to greater intransigence, particularly where countries extract or use a lot of fossil fuels or have a very populist nation-first attitude. Perhaps it is no coincidence that one of the latest stumbling blocks is Brazil, which has recently voted in Jair Bolsonaro as President.

You can see carbon talks as a power game where all states try to get the best deal for their own states with the prospect of undermining the whole process if unsuccessful. That is not only dangerous because it risks a complete breakdown. It also means that the overall package is going to be much less ambitious than it might be otherwise.

It is this kind of attitude--everyone out for themselves and damn the consequences--that has got us into our current environmental mess.

We need ethical principles - of fair distributions - as a baseline in order to proceed in a sensible manner.

That isn't to say that philosophers (and others, such as economists) agree on the fair distribution of benefits and burdens. Matters are complicated even more because there are so many empirical inputs into economic climate modelling. Changing those inputs slightly will have a huge effect on the equation.

Those who wish to challenge economists and policymakers on questions of climate change therefore need to understand the different theoretical approaches by which to do so.

My Summer School course on Environmental Justice sets out some of the ways of thinking about how we should think about the environment and fairness to future generations. Whether you can attend the course or not, I recommend the book Climate Ethics: Essential Readings (edited by Gardner et. al.) as a good starting point.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

Free time advocated by the UK Green Party!

It was very heartening to read this weekend that a major political party here in the UK is taking the issue of free time seriously!

Political philosophers and economic researchers have recently been emphasising how this issue has been much overlooked. Bob Goodin's Discretionary Time and Julie Rose's Free time are good examples. In my book Rethinking Taxation I propose a taxation system that takes account of the amount of free time people have.

The Green Proposal is that the state should aim to ensure that people have more free time year-on-year, which I'm not sure about. If people really want to work then that is their choice. However, my concern is that a lot of people have to work very long hours just to get by, not because they really love working in their jobs.

What is needed is an economic system that works for those who work long hours for low wages and something like my proposal would do so.

Measuring the amount of free time that people have, and linking this to their incomes is the first step to taking this issue seriously and I hope the Green proposal gets this point across to a wider audience.