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.

Egalitarianism

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.