24 Hr Politics People; Why Laffer Curves and Universal Basic Income have become 2 of the most influential daft ideas of the modern age.

fullsizeoutput_1f8aIn case anyone had missed it we live in a 24/7 media culture.  Politicians rise and fall based on their ability to shape or react to a continuous churn of news.

This has created a bias for action not ideas.  Tough new measures rather than well thought out policies. Clampdowns on pretty much everything.  An endless parade of action oriented political virility.   More tough new measures.  A raft of tough new measures. 

Sometimes it doesn’t even matter if the new measures mean anything.  When David Cameron was PM he would regularly announce radical new measures with no intention of actually implementing them.  Renting out surplus Government Offices to entrepreneurs was one such phantom policy, allowing start ups to trade share options for workers rights was another.  Both were announced with a fanfare and then totally forgotten.   Blair would announce the same policy multiple times to create the impression of action.

In such an environment complexity and compromise are treason and treachery.   In all the noise across traditional and social media simple ideas and slogans shouted loudly cut through more easily than thoughtfulness and nuance. Take back control! Build the Wall! For the Many, Not the Few!

All of this has created a bias in favour of the rapid implementation of rubbish ideas.

Some ideas in politics and economics are better if they are never implemented.  Sometimes ideas work best as concepts – something to help people think through complex problems, but which aren’t really meant to be acted on.   Maybe Cameron instinctively knew this, or maybe he was just shallow and lazy and couldn’t be bothered seeing things through. 

You can decide which for yourselves. 

If that seems a bit philosophical think about the Laffer curve.   This is one of the most influential ideas in modern economics – the idea that if tax rates rise too high it will disincentivise wealth creation and lead to a lower tax take.   

The concept was explained by Arthur Laffer to Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney by drawing a simple graph on a napkin at a dinner party.   It was meant to be a simple way of understanding the concept of the elasticity of taxable income in response to changes in tax rates. It was soon taken up by right wing politicians to justify the idea of the self funding tax cut.  Most recently George Osborne claimed that his reduction in the top rate of tax had increased the tax take:

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It is worth noting that although Osborne was claiming in March to have brought in an extra £8bn in revenue thanks to the Laffer curve only 4 months later he abandoned his plan to eliminate the deficit by 2020 due an unexpected deterioration in public finances. 

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In fact every time a claim has been made for self-funding tax cuts based on the Laffer curve there was an unexpected deterioration in public finances shortly afterwards.

Laffer himself was surprised that politicians thought this was a policy to be implemented, and would have been baffled that anyone might think that it was possible to recalibrate the income tax rate of a major economy using this simplistic device.  The way the individual interacts with the state is too complicated for such crude policy measures to work. 

Often these simplistic concepts are the hardest to pin down and disprove precisely because of their simplicity.  They sounds truish, and because they were never meant to be taken that seriously there is little there to disprove.  The Laffer curve was popular among a particular group of politicians and economists because it gave an easy to understand and simplistic solution to a complex problem.  Laffer curves fit a right wing world view that believes in cutting taxes and shrinking the state, things that are popular with a core group of voters and political donors.   

One of the biggest ideas right now in political economy is the concept of the Universal Basic Income (UBI).  The basic principles of UBI are that it is an unconditional payment made to everyone, regardless of current income, to allow them to live at a basic level, whether they are in work or not.

UBI is an idea which has proponents on both sides of the political divide.   Left wingers like it because it looks like a simple solution to problems of poverty and inequality.  Right wingers like it because it provides a way of managing social welfare systems without intrusion into peoples lives – in fact it started off as an idea on the Libertarian Right.   It is also one of the pet projects of Tech billionaire Elon Musk, and has lots of support among the very rich.

Recently it has jumped from being a right wing idea to being a left wing idea.  It appeared in the 2015 Green Party Manifesto, is being trialled in Scandinavia, and has a planned trial in Scotland.  Bernie Sanders flirted with putting it in his manifesto, and it will be a key policy aim of Yanis Varoufakis’s new political party when he can decide what it is called. The Guardian even claimed that failure to embrace UBI cost Hilary Clinton the Presidential election.  Even the Labour Party, who are normally anxious of any policy ideas more modern than 1979 have started to think about it.

The attraction of UBI as a left wing policy isn’t hard to work out.  While the National Minimum Wage has revolutionised the wages of people at the lowest skills level in the Labour Market it has also led to a group of workers being pushed into unwilling self employment, where income is often well below NMW levels.   UBI would be as transformative for self employed workers as NMW would be to employed workers.

UBI is also being promoted as a solution to the potential labour market problems arising from new technology – what happens if large numbers of manual or even white collar jobs vanish over the next decade?  How could our current democratic system cope with lots of structurally unemployable people?

This fear of technological change is really a restatement of an age old fear that the middle classes have about angry unemployed working class people coming to get them, combined with the dreams of lots of burnt out middle aged middle class people who would like do something more rewarding like retrain as yoga instructors, grow organic parsnips, or become boutique Gin producers.    

I like UBI it because it offers the opportunity to reduce the costs of administering benefits, in particular it reduces the costs of administering conditionality.  It is the increasingly complex and irrational rules around conditionality that are at the heart of much of the cruelty in the modern benefit system. 

I also like that UBI might be a way to give economic value to caring for people, but this is such a huge issue that it needs is own blog.

There is however a massive reactionary problem at the heart of UBI, which explains why it started out as a right wing idea. 

To illustrate this lets start by looking at the proportion of GDP taken up by Government Expenditure:

When the Attlee Government came into power in 1945 Government Expenditure was over 60% of GDP. This isn’t surprising as the UK was a wartime siege economy.  While Attlee is famous for nationalising lots of things in reality most of the industries nationalised by the post-war Labour Government were already controlled by the state, and had been for some time; coal and steel for examples.   Rail had come under increasing state control from WW1 onwards.   

Attlee shrunk the size of the state from 65% to 35%, where it remained for about 20 years.   From Wilson onwards Government spending as a % of GDP starts rises due to the extension of the Welfare State, for example the introduction of universal child benefit, and the costs of the oil price crisis, hitting 45% by 1979.    

Thatcher had an ideological desire to bring down Government Spending, but struggled to achieve her target of 35% due to the high costs of unemployment.  Major achieves little of note.

Blair and Brown increased the size of the state to 47.5% – the highest ever peace time share of GDP. This increase was largely driven by spending on the NHS and a big expansion of the benefits system through the introduction of tax credits.  Oh, and they spend a fair bit nationalising the banks. 

Cameron and Osborne tried but failed to get spending back down to 40% of GDP, while the current Labour leadership are committed to push up Government spending very modestly to roughly 43% of GDP, a bit short of New Labour or Harold Wilson. 

Using 2016 data (we don’t have all of 2017 data in yet) state spending was £747bn or 41% of GDP.   Government income was slightly lower than this which is why we are still running a small budget deficit. 

Of this £258bn was social protection, the largest component of which was pensions at £108bn.   This means that the state spends about 15% of GDP on supporting the incomes, mostly of older people, and people on lower incomes.   

This is where  universal incomes, average incomes and Government spending start and collide.

If the UK scrapped all social protection spending, pensions, benefits, everything but set a UBI at 25% of average income Government Spending would increase to over 50% of GDP – it’s highest peacetime level, but this would give a UBI of less than £6k per year, which would do little for the poorest in society.   

To achieve a UBI of £10,000 a year Government Spending would have to increase to 60%+ GDP, which is roughly the kind of siege economy we ran in WW2, an era of food rationing. 

This looks like a massive burden to taxpayers, however this is a big mistake – the Universality bit of UBI means that is transfers wealth away from people who are currently in receipt of means tested benefits and gives the money to people currently too rich to access them.    UBI would in fact be hugely regressive, which is probably why it started off life on the right of politics, not the left.   

For anyone interested in progressive politics this should be a fatal flaw.

The same problem occurs with proposals to make tech companies to pay for it.  A recent proposal in the Guardian suggested levying Amazon, Google and Apple to pay for a UBI of £10,000.  The article rightly points out that at the moment high tech companies with substantial development costs who operate in multiple tax regimes find it too easy not to pay tax.  But same problem exists with this proposal.   

Google’s turnover in the UK is £1bn, Amazon is the same.   I tried to find out Apple turnover for the UK, but all I got was recipes for fruit based pastry treats. 

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Lets assume that we were able to squeeze £1bn extra tax pa from tech multinationals operating in the UK, this is several 100 times what they currently pay. 

That £1bn would be enough to pay £10,000pa to 100,000 people.    As there are 52m people in the UK aged over 16 this is nowhere near Universal.

Anyway you cut budget the Universality bit is unaffordable and helps the rich more than the poor, but his doesn’t mean that UBI is a bad idea.   It just means that it is a helpful way of thinking about whether the current benefits system needs means testing, or conditionality, and how we give an economic value to caring, particularly for people caring for other family members. 

I don’t have a particular problem with means testing benefits, believing that without means testing we can never achieve a welfare system that meets the criteria of:.

“from each according to their ability to each according to their need”

I do however have a massive problem with the huge industry which has grown up around conditionality, making people jump through daft hoops to access small sums of money.  The cost of running the massive bureaucracy of DWP is disproportionate to the work they do in managing public funds.    We could scrap all of Job Centre Plus, make basic payments unconditionally and use some of the savings to set up a government wide counter fraud service that would tackle the relatively small numbers of benefits fraudsters across Government.   The limited range of support to job seekers that DWP do offer could be delivered locally by charities, small businesses and Local Authorities. 

UBI is a brilliant though experiment, a way of thinking differently about how the state spends money and what it values.   If for example we took the £1bn levy and used it to pay 100,000 young people to set up new businesses how would this change the economy?   What if the state funded ecology activists to work on challenging new projects to tackle climate change? What if the state funded talented young writers and musicians from working class backgrounds to make the pop charts less awful and TV more interesting?  What if we recognised the economic value of caring and the state paid for it directly?

These are all the kinds of solutions which a limited form of non-universal basic income might unlock.   Just don’t actually try to implement UBI in it’s crude form because it doesn’t work!

I do have one final problem with UBI which I wanted to highlight.  I think it is popular because it avoids having to answer the really difficult question – how to create meaningful jobs for people.   

People writing policy on left and right are so far divorced from the actual world of work that they are unable to meaningfully conceive of what work looks like for most people.   Even the Trade Unions are really just white collar civil service staff associations ruled by a small clique of left wing bureaucrats. 

The problems in the UK Labour market are about the decline of the dignity and security of Labour.  It is easy to blame this on Government policies, cruel and heartless Neo-liberals. In fact individuals rights in the workplace have increased not decreased over the last 20 years, largely due to the legislation passed in the late 90s and early 2000s.  The increased Labour market flexibility that has led to low employment isn’t due to taking away peoples rights as a small group of right wing politicians and economists have claimed, but by enticing them into the workplace with greater protections, more support.

Blaming the awfulness of politicians is just as daft as blaming immigrants for the problem.

What we are experiencing is a huge fall in demand for manual labour, disguised by the National Minimum Wage, mass underemployment, bogus self employment and zero hours contracts.   All of this is taking place at a time when employment and business investment are both very low.   This would indicate that far from technology displacing low income employees we have an artificially high demand created by lack of investment in high tech.

If things are this bad now think how bad they will be if Business investment starts to increase?

It seems to me that people, particularly on the left, are talking about UBI because they don’t know how to create meaningful jobs for people in the future, nor have they thought about the extent to which people get a huge amount of their identity from work, a sense of purpose in life.   

UBI dodges these questions and instead dumps people with some money and tells them to make the best of it.  If you have built up enough capital in life to afford gym membership, or travel, or have a wide social network, and are engaged in clubs and hobbies having the time to persue them paid for by the state sounds great.   Being able to devote your energies to charity work, or helping to save the environment

But this isn’t the reality of life for lots of people on low incomes.  And for people who are already lonely UBI looks like a way of making life even more isolated.   I wrote a while ago about the way that obesity, prescription opiates and guns were killing white Americans in rural areas at a prodigious rate.   This growth in despair and the decline of jobs which support an American lifestyle go hand in hand, and we are starting to see the same decline in life expectancy in parts of the UK with high levels of manual employment.

So, at the end, why does this matter?

Because the way ideas in economics are portrayed in the media dumbs things down, and simplify things which means that good but subtle ideas don’t get airtime and simple but daft ideas thrive.   That’s why austerity, which was a deeply stupid idea, prevailed for years, even when it was palpably failing.   Good ideas and bad ideas get jumbled together in a way that discredits the good with the bad.

Ultimately Laffer curves and UBI share 2 qualities – the are both regressive fiscal measures that transfer funds from the poor to the rich, and they are both popular polices because they avoid the need to think about really difficult issues – how do you stop the erosion of the tax base while cutting taxes (Laffer curve), and how do you deal with a structural over supply of manual labour, and the decline in jobs which give a sense of meaning to peoples lives (UBI).









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