Sunday, 31 January 2016

Conclusion: Institutionalising the constructed desert base (8/8)

In my previous blog I presented a new form of desert base that I believe is more attractive than the traditional approaches to economic desert. I will conclude my series by considering the institutional implications of this.

1.       Implant and monitoring

If we could insert chips into everyone’s heads to measure reliably how much time, energy and dissatisfaction they are expending at a given point in time. They would also be monitored somehow so it can be known if they are engaging in economically productive activity. This technology could then monitor how much people are expending when they engage in productive activity we would be able to share out incomes accordingly. However, we cannot currently do this, and perhaps would worry about doing so—it might be quite invasive to follow people’s activities and mental states that closely.

2.       An endowment tax.

For the time being it would be easier (though still not that easy) to take account of people’s incomes, the time they expend and their abilities. Essentially, an endowment tax would be the most obvious stand-in for the constructed desert base.

This would tax people differently depending on their abilities so, where this is measured by test results, someone with top IQ and high school test results could be assigned to a higher tax band throughout the remainder of their life than those with lower scores. Even then the practicalities are difficult—how much weight should be given to the different measures such as mathematical vs. emotional intelligence, creativity vs rule-following etc.

Stuart White proposes a system which puts people into three categories to make this easier (see also chapters 4 & 5 of his book The Civic Minimum). However, while this makes the endowment tax much easier to administer and much less controversial it also reduces its effectiveness at taxing people according to the ability and therefore

There are several serious complaints against endowment taxation, such as that it would be invasive to test for this and that it would unfairly limit the talented. Some people have talked of the ‘slavery of the talented’ as talented people would not be able to take lower paid work that would be open to less talented individuals—the low paid work would not be enough to pay their higher endowment tax.

So if endowment is considered too difficult to accurately measure or if endowment taxes are considered unfair, what is the next-best option for the constructed desert base?

3.       Hourly averaging

I would suggest that my hourly averaging proposal is the next closest option to the constructed desert base. This system taxes those who receive large incomes after expending a small amount of time working and provides subsidies to those who work long hours for small rewards.

I have suggested that time spent working should be one of the factors in the desert base as it is something that people can control. One complaint might be that some people who work long hours do so in low-productivity activities which are do not make them deserving. However, in some cases this might be because the person cannot obtain more difficult higher paid work.

It is quite different from endowment taxation in that people with a lot of potential to contribute but who do not do so will not be penalised. However, it may not be that someone who has more potential finds a particular job easier than others and therefore render them less deserving. It might be that someone with the potential to be a lawyer finds being a waitress just as stressful as the person who would struggle to master legal procedure.

I would also add that my CLIPH-rate tax system which combines hourly averaging with a comprehensive tax on personal gains would track the desert base very well. This is because each person’s income would be tied to the number of hours they have worked in their lifetime, and those who have not worked would have their unearned income taxed at 100%.

The downside of the CLIPH-rate tax is that it would not be able to distinguish readily between two people who receive large hourly incomes due to the sacrifice involved vs. earning rents on their skills and talents. However, one factor is the way that prices will react to the tax—those who earn large incomes from rents will not require more pay when the tax would be introduced. On the other hand, jobs which people would be unwilling to do when taxes rise substantially are likely to be those which are both productive and involving a lot of sacrifice.

So a variation of the hour-credit system proposes itself. Those jobs which begin to go unfilled with the introduction of hourly averaging could be ones for which workers could receive ‘bonus hour credits’ as a way to recognise their sacrifice. Dangerous work such as deep sea diving might be one example of this—people might be happy to take these risks if they thereby earn a large net income and have a lot of leisure time to enjoy it.


I began this series of blogs explaining that some people find deservingness the appropriate way to determine how much each person should receive from their society. I explained the existing theories of economic desert which begin either from desert bases or from market earnings and why these are all problematic despite their various attractions. After highlighting the various links between economic desert and markets I proposed a new form of desert base constructed from the intuitively attractive elements of the existing desert bases. In this final blog I have considered the options to institutionalise the constructed desert base. I still remain sceptical of building economic justice from desert but I would challenge those who do to propose a more feasible and less controversial way to give people what they deserve than the CLIPH-rate tax.

1 comment:

Physiocrat said...

If they have earned it though work, then it is their just reward. If it is rent or a reward for any other monopoly privilege, then it is not.

So we levy tax on the land that people are occupying at as close as possible to 100% of the rental value, and work out a method of charging for patents, copyrights etc, which a agree would be trickier.

I am surprised that you have not spotted this yet but your just deserts concept is leading in that direction.

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