Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Philosophers utilising hours

Sometimes I notice political philosophers mentioning things like hourly pay that play a prominent role in my hourly averaging proposal.

I thought it might be useful to list these. Perhaps I should make a similar list regarding economics too.

Rawls and Pogge

Reading Thomas Pogge's Realizing Rawls (1989) prompted this blog. He mentions leisure as a good at several points in the book. I particularly noted the following table, which considers economic systems with different hourly tax rates to illustrate his discussion of Rawls' difference principle.



Pogge here considers how many hours people with different hourly incomes would work if they faced different levels of tax.

Rawls himself discussed leisure-time after being challenged by economists. He then added leisure-time to his index of primary goods. In Justice as Fairness Rawls notes that leisure-time can be added to the index of goods much more readily than native endowments and states of consciousness. He writes (p179) that "leisure-time has a reasonably objective measure and is open to view."

Pogge (1989, p198-9) writes "the index must also include leisure time as a distinct social primary good...Leisure time must play a role in interpersonal comparisons through which the least advantaged within an existing social system are identified. Even though their annual or lifetime income is rather low, those who choose to do only a few hours of well-paid work each week cannot plausibly be considered less advantaged than others who work many more hours per week in a lower-paying job."

Marxist economics

Marx developed a theory of surplus labour value from the pre-existing labour theory of economic value. Time spent working has a key place in this theory, since workers effectively have part of their working time stolen from them each day by their employer.

I'm not convinced by theories of economic value of this kind, and Marx's position isn't really the type of thing I'm interested in here. Nevertheless, I felt it should be mentioned that hours and working time do play some role in this approach as they have historically pushed activists to consider the issue. 

The Distribution of Time 

Other authors have considered how to conceptualise the distribution of time in society. Bob Goodin's Discretionary Time and Julie Rose's Free Time consider whether people have insufficient time available to them; time in which people have autonomy or over which they have freedom.

People's wage rate will influence how much free time they have. Hourly wage rate plays a part in determining someone's dicretionary time (Discretionary Time p43-5) and their free time (Free Time p40). One of Rose's illustrations contrasts people with differing hourly rates, and the difference this creates between them.

The focus of these works is different, but within the realm of work, different hourly wages will make a difference to the time they have available.

Endowment, Talent and Economic Rent

Other authors mention hours worked and hourly income when discussing the ideal form of tax or income.

Socialist philosopher G.A "Gerry" Cohen, for instance, argues that people should be paid the same per hour, unless they have a particularly onerous job. He says as much in Why Not Socialism? (around page 19-20). He writes that "under socialist equality of opportunity income differences obtain when they reflect nothing but different individual preferences, including income/leisure preferences. People differ in their tastes, not only across consumer items, but also between working only a few hours and consuming rather little on the one hand, and working long hours and consuming rather more on the other. Preferences across income and leisure are not in principle different from preferences across apples and oranges." So /leisure/work choices can lead to different levels of consumption even in a socialist utopia.

Stuart White in his book The Civic Minimum (p79-83) considers people's responsibilities to contribute to society in accordance with his "egalitarian earnings subsidy scheme." This determines people's pay with regard to their endowment, but also the number of hours they work. The approach is designed to get around some of the most troubling aspects of endowment taxation, and while it gets around the worst aspects of endowment taxes, it does not get around all of them. While White presents his subsidy as applying for each pound the person earns, my proposal is to apply the subsidy for each hour the person works (if their lifetime average is low).

Kristi Olson's paper "The Endowment Tax Puzzle" advocates a tax on economic rents and uses hourly income to illustrate the various cases she considers. Olsen argues that both endowment taxes and earnings taxes fail to distinguish between income based on economic rents to talent and earnings from other sources.

I believe my hourly averaging scheme gets closest to capturing the rents obtained by high earners, without requiring knowledge of people's endowments and setting of tax-rates accordingly.

Olson writes (p270) "Part of this problem could be alleviated simply by altering the current tax system to take into account not only the individual’s total earnings, but also the individual’s hourly earnings, such that individuals with lower hourly earnings would be taxed at a lower rate." 

Essentially, Hourly Averaging offers a way to put these suggestions into practice as well as can be without taking account of endowment (which could lead to a "slavery of the talented").

Conclusion

I have argued that hourly averaging is attractive from a broad egalitarian perspective, as an attractive hypothetical insurance choice, and that it can be appealing to non-egalitarians too.

Perhaps if the above authors had known of my proposal they could have invoked it as a close approximation of their own ideal.

It is also worth mentioning that the thinkers above mostly do not advocate a Universal Basic Income, but rather argue that income should track, however indirectly, the number of hours someone works.

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.

Summary

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.

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.

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.