I have written several times now about changing capitalism and democracy to make them suited to the 21st century. Regardless of party politics, most people want a future where nobody is too poor to live a dignified and comfortable life. To ensuring that that is possible, we need to tweak a few things.
I suggested a long time ago that there could be a basic income for all, without any means testing on it, so that everyone has an income at a level they can live on. No means testing means little admin. Then wages go on top, so that everyone is encouraged to work, and then all income from all sources is totalled and taxed appropriately. It is a nice idea. I wasn’t the first to recommend it and many others are saying much the same. The idea is old, but the figures are rarely discussed. It is harder than it sounds and being a nice idea doesn’t ensure economic feasibility.
The difference between figures between parties would be relatively minor so let’s ignore party politics. In today’s money, it would be great if everyone could have, say, £30k a year as a state benefit, then earn whatever they can on top. 30k doesn’t make you rich, but you can live OK on it so nobody would be poor in any proper sense of the word. With everyone economically provided for and able to lead comfortable and dignified lives, it would be a utopia compared to today. Sadly, it doesn’t add up yet. 65,000,000 x 30,000 = 1,950Bn . The UK economy isn’t that big. The state only gets to control part of GDP and out of that reduced budget it also has its other costs of providing health, education, defence etc, so the amount that could be dished out to everyone on this basis is therefore a lot smaller than 30k. Even if the state takes 75% of GDP and spends most of it on the base allowance, 10k per person would be pushing it. So a family could afford a modest lifestyle, but single people would really struggle. Some people would need additional help, and that reduces the pool left to pay the basic allowance still further. Also, if the state takes 75% of GDP, only 25% is left for everything else, so salaries would be flat, reducing the incentive to work, while investment and entrepreneurial activity are starved of both resources and incentive.
Simple maths thus forces us to make compromises. Sharing resources reduces costs considerably. In a first revision, families might be given less for kids than for the adults, but what about groups of young adults sharing a big house? They may be adults but they also benefit from the same economy of shared resources. So maybe there should be a household limit, or a bedroom tax, or forms and means testing, and it mustn’t incentivise people living separately or house supply suffers. Anyway, it is already getting complicated and our original nice idea is in the bin. That’s why it is such a mess at the moment. There just isn’t enough money to make everyone comfortable without doing lots of allowances and testing and admin. We all want utopia, but we can’t afford it. Even the modest 30k-per-person utopia costs at least 3 times more than we can afford.
However, if we can get back to an average 2.5% growth per year in real terms, and surely we can, it would only take 45 years to get there. That isn’t such a long time. We have hope that if we can get some better government than we have had of late, and are prepared to live with a little economic tweaking, we could achieve good quality of life for all in the second half of the century.
So I really like the idea of a simple welfare system, providing a generous base level allowance to everyone, topped up by rewards of effort, but we will have to wait before we can afford to put that base level at anything like comfortable standards.
Meanwhile, we need to tweak some other things to have any chance of getting there. I’ve commented often that pure capitalism would eventually lead to a machine-based economy, with the machine owners having more and more of the cash, and everyone else getting poorer, so the system will fail. Communism fails too.
On the other hand, capitalism works fine when rewards are shared more equally, it fails when wealth concentration is too high or when incentive is too low. Preserving the incentive to work and create is a mainly matter of setting tax levels well. Making sure that wealth doesn’t get concentrated too much needs a new kind of tax.
The solution I suggest is a culture tax. Culture in the widest meaning.
When someone creates and builds a company, they don’t do so from a state of nothing. They currently take for granted all the accumulated knowledge and culture, trained workforce, access to infrastructure, machines, governance, administrative systems, markets, distribution systems and so on. They add just another tiny brick to what is already a huge and highly elaborate structure. They may invest heavily in their time and money but actually when considered overall as part of the system their company inhabits, they only pay for a fraction of the things their company will use.
That accumulated knowledge, culture and infrastructure belongs to everyone, not just those who choose to use it. Businesses might consider that this is what they pay taxes for already, but that isn’t explicit in the current system.
The big businesses that are currently avoiding paying UK taxes by paying overseas companies for intellectual property rights could be seen as trailblazing this approach. If they can understand and even justify the idea of paying another part of their company for IP or a franchise, why not pay the host country for IP for access to their entire culture?
This kind of tax would provide the means needed to avoid too much concentration of wealth. A future businessman might choose to use only software and machines instead of a human workforce to save costs, but levying taxes on use of the cultural base that makes that possible allows a direct link between use of advanced technology and taxation. Sure, he might add a little extra insight or new knowledge, but would still have to pay the rest of society for access to its share of the cultural base, inherited from the previous generations, on which his company is based. The more he automates, the more sophisticated his use of the system, the more he cuts a human workforce out of his empire, the higher his taxation.
Linking to technology use makes sense. Future AI and robots could do a lot of work currently done by humans. A very small number of people could own almost all of the productive economy. But they would be getting far more than their share of the cultural base, which must belong equally to everyone. In a village where one farmer owns all the sheep, other villagers would be right to ask for rent for their share of the commons if he wants to graze them there.
I feel confident that this extra tax would solve many of the problems associated with automation. We all equally own the country, its culture, laws, language, human knowledge (apart from current patents, trademarks etc. of course), its public infrastructure, not just businessmen. Everyone surely should have the right to be paid if someone else uses part of their share.
The extra culture tax would not magically make the economy bigger. It would just ensure that it is more equally shared out. It is a useful tool to be used by future governments to make it possible to keep capitalism sustainable, preventing its collapse, preserving incentive while fairly distributing reward. Without such a tax, capitalism simply may not survive.