9 Dec 2014, 12:59pm
economy living intentionally
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  • The case for a Universal Income

    Those clever fellows at Oxford University have identified a problem with social mobility – it’s increasingly downwards. I have to run with the Guardian’s description of this because it looks like the paper is published by Wiley and is therefore going to be £££££ to get.

    The Grauniad will bring to the party their own biases, and yet their summary of the problem seems pretty clear and gels well with Humans Need Not Apply  – a storm of globalisation, automation and the shift of power from labour to capital is stripping out premium jobs – to wit

    The UK’s boom in managerial and professional level public services and industrial jobs during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s saw an increase in the proportion of children born into professional and managerial families. The decline in these jobs meant that the number of individuals at risk of downward mobility were higher.

    Goldthorpe added: “Politicians are saying that a new generation of young people don’t have the same opportunities for social advancement as their parents, and these results seem to bear that out. The trend shows that, while social mobility has not stalled, more mobility is going in a downward direction than in the past.

    “ The emerging situation is one for which there is little historical precedent and that carries potentially far-reaching political and wider social implications.”

    I’m not totally sure there’s no historical precedent – the story of humanity is not a monotonic increase in wealth from generation to generation, but it is a problem. The issues boil down to that Britain’s GDP is being produced with fewer people. In itself that shouldn’t be a surprise – after all if you look at how many people it took to make anything a generation ago it’s obvious that you need far fewer people to make it now. There was a programme called The Secret Life of the National Grid that showed how the old CEGB used to erect pylons – basically about a hundred men and a lot of rope! According to the ONS, the real value of Britain’s manufacturing output is much higher now than in what we think of its heyday. When I entered the workforce over a quarter of the UK workforce was involved in making stuff, whereas now we make more stuff, but with  fewer than 1 in 10 of us compared to more than 1 in four. As the ONS succinctly says

    productivity in the manufacturing industry has risen by around 2.8% a year since 1948, compared with 1.5% in the service industry. While only 8% of UK jobs are now in manufacturing, compared with 25% in 1978, today’s workers are significantly better skilled and more experienced.

    We booted those humans out, and manufacturing does this quicker than services. Now whenever you say this might not be an unalloyed good loads of people come down on you like a ton of bricks and holler Lump Of Labour Fallacy until you can’t hear anything any more. The Economist gives a good summary too. The LoLF is predicated on the assumption that it is always possible to improve things for people in the world by putting more people to work, so Schumpeterian creative destruction is all to the good, as it can reallocate capital and work to where it can do most good.

    This assumes people are always as flexible as they were in their 20s. So they had better not get old, have children or otherwise tie themselves down to any one place or way of doing things. If you want to see the counterfactual, take a drive to some of the Welsh valleys – the Ermine started work and got to retire all in the space of time since these areas were nuked by Mrs T in the early 1980s and they still haven’t recovered by the looks of it.

    The other trouble is the modern economy produces great jobs and crap jobs, with nothing in between. And it’s producing fewer and fewer great jobs, though these seem to be higher and higher paid. At the moment we fight that – but the battle is being lost. At the moment we tell people work is the way out of poverty, which is bullshit.Let’s have a bit of fun with Google, shall we, on the theme of work is the way out of poverty. Let’s start with the dude who ought to know

    Bloomin' eck, I thought we've already done Halloween. Oh, wait. That was the other guy...

    Bloomin’ eck, I thought we’ve already done Halloween. Oh, wait. That was the other guy

    Iain Duncan Smith: ‘My mission is to lift people out of poverty and I will not give up’ there’s a hint of the Terminator in there, Iain. Always pays to investigate whether the thing you’re trying to do can actually be done, if only to find out which impediments to take on first…

    Sweatshops: A Way out of Poverty – Ludwig von Mises institute. Loosely paraphrased to  ‘get ’em by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow’ 1

    For millions of people, work is no longer a way out of poverty – Archbishop of York/George Osborne

    Seven ways UK wages have changed over the past four decades – the proletariat has been losing this fight for the last 20 years

    Is Social Mobility Really Going into Reverse – only if you think about the money, according to the Telegraph

    We now have to subsidise crap jobs with tax credits for people to survive on them. I don’t think work is the way out of poverty unless you are unusually skilled. It’s time to strike a new bargain with the 1%. Along the general lines of

    Dear 1% – Britain provides opportunities for you to sell us stuff, move money around in complex ways and get rich on that, and hell, invest in London property. We the people of Britain are easy with that. In return, we require that you give us something in return, and that is a tax on economic activity in terms of corporation tax, CGT and income tax. And we also require that you obey the law of the land as far a polluting the environment etc. Let’s cut a deal. Make as much money as you want, within the rules. If you don’t like that, piss off to Monaco or wherever.

    The standard riposte to that is the wealth creators and owners of capital will up sticks and take their toys with them. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand is the long-form version of that. In balance  there should also be a call to the rest of the 99%, along the general lines of a fantastic rant I overheard from someone describing why the 99% were moaning about the cost of living so much

    People go through life picking up unnecessary accessories like dogs and children without thinking how much it all costs. No wonder they get themselves into trouble.

    It’s hard to argue with her observation, and this is from one of the 99% 😉 Mr Squirrel takes a slightly softer line.

    It appears that that august organ, the OECD takes issue with the claim that all the wealth creators will cram into Monaco or a seastead with their capital leaving the remaining starving hordes to eat each other. Unlike  Wiley who act as Gollum to knowledge the OECD publishes their stuff – short form here and full monty to be had from here. It’s worth a read – basically in contrast to Ayn Rand they take the view that we are our brother’s keeper in terms of the maximum aggregate human societal benefits:

    The most direct policy tool to reduce inequality is redistribution through taxes and benefits. The analysis shows that redistribution per se does not lower economic growth. Of course, this does not mean that all redistribution measures are equally good for growth. Redistribution policies that are poorly targeted and do not focus on the most effective tools can lead to a waste of resources and generate inefficiencies.

    Now before we all become communists it is possible for this to be true and yet nevertheless some people’s end of the boat may end up going down, even if most of the boat and inhabitants rise. Somewhere the John Galt in me does and did object for paying for other people’s lifestyle choices, for most of my working life I was paying towards my colleagues’ child benefit, though I am very happy that this has been stopped now. They are/were rich enough to pay for their own choices in life 😉

    The OECD’s stats are also backward-looking, over a period where the assumption that it is always possible to improve things by putting more people to work probably held. I have a lot of time for the thinking that we are in the middle of a third industrial revolution, and I will probably not live to see the full effects of this one. It takes far longer than a human lifetime for the rubble to stop bouncing in an industrial revolution, and the transformational effect of the improvement in communications, data handling and processing on economic activity is probably not complete. Unlike Roger Bootle, however, I wouldn’t necessarily bet on human ingenuity this time.

    We have a lot more humans to draw on, and capital can be more picky about which humans it uses. When I graduated, I was bright enough to be able to work in research and development. The twenty-something me was 2 nowhere near bright enough to work for Google. So we could have a lot more economic activity and vast increases in GDP with fewer humans aided by machine ingenuity, but the spoils of war would increasingly accrete to those that own the means of production, otherwise known as Capital.

    As a result the idea that we can improve economic efficiency by educating people better is not a given for the future in my view. It may be a good thing for their quality of life – after all having reached the end of my working life the economic value of my education is now entirely spent. There is still some intangible value in terms of being able to read, write and have a basic grasp of how things work, infer conclusions from experimental data and have a cultural reference to the world around me – the value of education is not purely as a way to amplify earning power. It’s possible that the OECD’s narrative is accurate for the past – the historical economy had the capacity to employ more human capital and ran below full bore because it was starved of skills and boots on the ground. The global economy has got access to a hell of a lot more people now than it did when I started work, and this seems to be at the same time as it needs fewer people per unit economic activity as a result of the various issues in Humans Need Not Apply.

    Which then brings us to the point of what the hell is the economy for? Is it to make as much stuff as possible and get as many people to buy this as possible, even if they can’t add enough economic value to pay for their consumption? Is it to maximise the sum total of human experience? These are political issues, but we don’t really seem to be tackling those issues as to what all this economic activity means and whether it is serving us well, we just know that we want ‘growth’ because it sprinkles some fairy-dust and seems to have made people feel better over time. Charging around telling people work is the way out of poverty seems to be pissing more and more people off, because it’s just not true. Eighty years after Keynes observed

    The decadent international but individualistic capitalism in the hands of which we found ourselves after the war is not a success. It is not intelligent. It is not beautiful. It is not just. It is not virtuous. And it doesn’t deliver the goods. In short we dislike it, and we are beginning to despise it. But when we wonder what to put in its place, we are extremely perplexed.

    he could still make the same observation.

    The Citizen’s Wage/ Universal Income – an alternative to the Occupy movement

    The Occupy movement is one response to the rise of the 1%, which is basically to try and tear them down. But it isn’t the only one. There’s another one. Let the 1% (and the 20% below) earn shedloads of money. After all, take a look at the Grauniad’s excellent analysis from Mona Chalabi  – people paying higher-rate tax and above make most of the running in tax revenue – about 2/3 of the tax take comes from them.

    Then set a flat rate of tax, at 40%. Abolish the personal allowance. But give everybody a universal income of about the National Minimum wage once they reach 18.  At the old higher rate tax threshold of ~ £40k you will have paid 32% of £30k which is about £10k in tax leaving you with £30k, under the new regime I guess you’re paying £24k in tax leaving you with £16k to which is added £13k resulting in ~ £30k in total

    Abolish all special interest pleading – nearly all of the Welfare state goes away, we presume that the NMW is enough to basically live on, be you pensioner or 19 year-old. No special case for having children – a couple on the NMW is a little under the average household income. Now, without the requirement to work, you can enjoy your children, see them grow up, walk them to school. You can now live anywhere in Britain we don’t all need to pack ourselves into the SE because that’s where all the jobs are – maybe even repopulate the North of the country – fabulous countryside.

    If you don’t have kids, well, you have a bit more money then, follow your interests. Have a better house or car, or go on holiday more. If you want more than the NMW, then by all means, if you are talented enough, go get a job. Your universal income won’t be taken away or taxed, but everything you earn would be taxed.

    The uber rich will now have to pay decently for their shit to be cleared, their houses to be cleaned and for fire service in London. But they can afford it, so the wages of shit-shovelling service industries will go up to whatever is needed that people will sell their time to do that sort of thing electively. But both parties will have a choice, and it’s up to the market to set the right price.

    This isn’t a fully formed idea – there’s no doubt endless problem with it. For starters until globalisation makes everybody in the world equally well off and we have ended war, entitlement needs to managed. Britain allocates citizenship/residency largely by jus soli as far as I can see, and some steps will need to be taken such as requiring you to be born in Britain by people here legally to get the entitlement. Before I get charged with being a card-carrying nut-job – immigration is no problem but the parents will have to be here legally and presumably work of be of independent means. And it seems fair enough that if you aren’t entitled to the citizen’s wage you at least get a personal allowance re your earnings of the same amount 🙂 The devil would be greatly in the details.

    The problem we have at the moment is that we seem to be trying to micromanage our way out of macro sociological changes. The disenfranchising of a large part of the human population of a First World country isn’t necessarily a problem if it is caused by improvements in productivity caused by technology 3, but the way we allocate resources is going to drift out of track with the assumptions that underlie our societies.

    With the industrial revolution we managed to dramatically reduce our use for human physical labour, but increased our capacity to use intellectual human labour. With the Information and computing revolution we are reducing our need for intellectual human labour, because we can solve many of these problems using IT (and outsource a lot that doesn’t). It’s not absolutely clear to me where we are going to put these now idle hands to work, though I don’t have the Protestant Work Ethic that always assumes the Devil is going to be the employer of last resort. There are many things that would be nice that more human effort could do, but in general we don’t seem to be prepared to pay hard cash for them.

    That which we can’t do automatically demands much more cognitively of the humans 4, and it is beyond what many can do, we are way beyond the central bump in The Bell Curve and out there in the tail. I’m not really sure I’m bright enough to get ahead in this economy if I were starting now, the leading edge is way out there. We aren’t doing less, but the fruits of the productivity enhancements are accruing to people with capital and to people with power. CEOs and the 1% are skimming off a fair amount of the capital, but it is interesting that they have streaked ahead particularly through the use of equity allocations as well as higher pay.

     

    Notes:

    1. Charles Colson, possibly
    2. I am making the slightly ageist common assumption that this fades with time – accumulated experience has much less value now in technical fields than it did when I started work
    3. if the improvements are caused by globalisation then it is a problem, because living standards must fall to equalisation otherwise there will be balance of payments problems with the countries doing the work
    4. Not all future work is cognitive. There will still be work for some other types of skills – being a footballer, or a Kardashian doesn’t require smarts, and artistic creativity requires a different type of smarts
     
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