Friday, 24 January 2020

The difficult case of the Greggs bonus

Another row has developed about the flaws in the Universal Credit system. This time after purveyors of pasties and sausage rolls (vegan or otherwise), Greggs, kindly decided to pay all of its workers a £300 bonus.

Some workers in receipt of Universal Credit would receive as little as £75 of the £300 bonus, an effective tax rate of 75%. Others get a higher proportion of the bonus, but still face a bill higher than the average tax-payer despite being badly enough off to qualify for benefit payments.

Obviously low-paid workers shouldn't be paying taxes at this rate, and the case has generated a lot of media coverage, petitions, and various proposals, including one from David Linden MP not to treat bonus payments as income.

The Universal credit scheme has been beset with problems. It is a good idea in theory to have a joined-up benefit system which gives people an incentive to work, but it is fiendishly difficult to put this ideal into practice.

The problem in the bonus case is that it is a one-off payment. But the Universal Credit system is looking at short term income levels.

My Hourly Averaging proposal aims to do the same thing as the Universal Credit; to make work pay and assist the poorest in society.

Hourly averaging, however, would have no difficulties with the bonus issue. Each person has a tax-rate determined by their lifetime hourly income. A bonus of £300 isn't going to affect that lifetime calculation very much, and so the recipient will receive whatever percentage of the bonus they get for the other work they were doing. Someone whose tax-rate is 0% will receive the whole lot. Someone with a 25% will receive £225 and so on.

Low earners would never face a high tax bill on a small bonus because their lifetime hourly average will be low. There could be exceptions; someone who works in a low-paid job but who received a huge inheritance could conceivably have a high tax-rate, say 70% on their bonus. But that is because they are genuinely fortunate--they have gained much more than their fellow workers, in this case because of their inheritance.

As so often, when there is hand-wringing about the tax-system or benefit system it occurs to me that hourly averaging would do it much better.

Friday, 10 January 2020

One simple rule for essay writing

There is plenty of good essay writing advice out there.

However, I was thinking today how frustrating it was that some very capable students do badly in essays. In some cases intelligent and diligent students fail for wholly avoidable reasons.

My 'one simple rule' advice is to focus on the question.

Throughout the process, students should keep the essay question in the back (and often the front) of their mind. There are two aspects to this:

1. Interpret the question carefully.

There may be several ways to interpret a question, and there will always be several ways to answer it (often "yes", "no" and "it depends").

Look at the syllabus and course materials; the essay is an opportunity to show your understanding of the material covered on your course. Think about which of those readings or topics are relevant to the question and why.

The most impressive essays show understanding that there are different ways to answer the question, and explain why the answer they have chosen is better than the alternatives.

2. Avoid diversions from answering the question.

When planning and writing the essay, make sure you are always working towards answering the question.

As an undergraduate myself I was prone to go off on diversions where something interested me, or to share my thoughts on some related topic. These diversions are best put to one side, perhaps for a future essay or your own interest. You could even write them up into a blog!

I don't mean to say you should be very simplistic in answering the question. You will need to consider rival views and explain why those positions that deny your view are wrong.


There are important conventions to follow when structuring and writing essays, which are of course very important. However, if you haven't responded to the essay question then it can be very hard for the marker to give you any credit, however good your essay is in other ways.

Tuesday, 7 January 2020

Drinking in nature: A worldwide experience?

In so many ways I am very lucky, and it is always good to acknowledge this.

Over the festive season we’ve been exploring the surrounding area a bit more on our dog walks, heading more for the downs (hills) than the Thames valley floor. The latter has been a bit muddy (if not flooded).

A few days ago we walked around the villages of Ipsden and Hailey and along a bit of the Chiltern way and Icknield Way walks. The pictures I took really don’t do justice to the scenery.

I stopped to take some photos because a thought occurred to me during a quiet and still moment as I gazed over the hills and valleys.

The thought was that there could be millions of people over the world doing something very similar to me at that moment—appreciating the stillness or majesty of the natural world.

Others might have been on a ship the sea, on a boat on a lake or river bend, in the mountains, surrounded by trees or on a plain. But were others also experiencing that absent-minded moment taking in a scene? I expect some were.

We were no doubt in a significant minority among the global population. Maybe a few thousand, maybe a million. Certainly not more—most people would be sleeping, eating, moving, entertained, worrying, hustling; all things we must do as humans. Many people would get very little opportunity to experience that kind of quiet scene.

I imagined flipping between those different people’s views, all different but unified and connected in some unreal manner. All swapping places for a split second with one another. Flicking between our views like a rapid slideshow.

No doubt a poet could express my thought much better.

My fellows and I might have completely opposed, maybe even alien, worldviews. Our cultural and religious attitudes could be radically conflicting. We are primarily social creatures, understanding the world through our language and cultural upbringing. We are different from any other species in that respect, we rely much more on knowledge rather than instinct and knowledge is transferred by language.

However, is this experiencing of nature potentially one of those universal human experiences that completely cuts across cultural differences? Mostly universal human experiences are going to be biological functions such as eating. Perhaps laughing and loving might also cut across cultural and linguistic divides as does experiencing nature?

During the cold war the great philosopher Sting said “I hope the Russians love their children too” perhaps making the same point at a time when mass destruction was quite a live option. Nuclear war hasn’t been such a prominent concern for a while, though chances might rise if the current US President thinks it might help him avoid impeachment or losing an election.

I’m very fortunate that I live somewhere I can access quiet nature; I have the time to go for walks and we have a car to get there quickly and easily. Many others won’t be so fortunate; those in a busy city, a slum or a refugee camp might have little opportunity to get away.

But at times like these, when there are those seeking to divide us in so many ways, it is good to appreciate the little ways we are perhaps united. That we all matter and that the quiet of certain kinds of natural environments matters too.