‘None of the above’

Mark Wadsworth highlights a new political survey called Take The Quiz. Along the lines of the utterly pointless Political Compass, but slightly more worthwhile [*], it takes (paraphrases of) manifesto commitments and other policy statements from the major UK-wide [**] political parties, and asks you to pick the one you most like / least dislike on a given topic.

Oddly enough, I’ve turned out 63% Labour, despite opposing many if not most of their actions. I think this is primarily because the other parties are even more ridiculous on economic/tax issues, which were the ones I flagged as ‘most important’.

For example, on question 4, ‘what should we do about university fees’, Labour is the only party who’s answer isn’t about abolishing the eminently sensible principle of making people pay a small contribution towards the education that massively enriches them (whilst still retaining a large government subsidy for said education, more than reflecting its benefits to society). For Question 6, ‘how should Britain tax its workers?’, all the options are moronic:

1) Britain should phase out VAT and instead introduce eco-taxes.
2) We should replace council tax with a local income tax. This will be fairer and help pensioners.
3) Our tax system is the 2nd most complicated in the world. Introduce a simple flat tax system instead, which would take 4½ million people out of tax altogether. No tax on minimum wage.
4) We should cut council tax for pensioners and boost pension savings.
5) We should keep the current tax system as it makes public expenditure more affordable.

2 is the most stupid idea ever, and almost in itself stops me voting Lib Dem – at the moment, income is taxed too much and wealth too little; council tax (along with inheritance tax) is a very half-hearted but at least positive step to redress the balance. The core assertion in 3 is almost certainly a lie, and while simplifying taxes would be a good idea, a flat tax is a really quite grossly blatant piece of letting off the rich (equally, having a system of two or three marginal tax rates administered by PAYE that kick in at income thresholds would be no more complex than having one – in both cases, all you need to do is feed your total net pay into a computer and it can work it out. It’s the credits, exceptions, top-ups, and suchlike that cause the complexity). 4 is also stupid, given that the current generation of pensioners are the best-off generation of people ever to have lived (and most likely who ever will), as they were the ones lucky enough to live to an average age of 80 with a guaranteed pension system based on an average life expectancy of 65.

1 isn’t a terrible plan in theory, but it’d be impossible to implement (domestically you can raise the price of CO2 permits, but you can’t sanely assess the carbon footprint of every imported product without destroying trade). 5 is almost completely incoherent, and is presumably Labour policy, but manages to be the least ridiculous of the alternatives available.

The picture is similar across the other questions. Probably the stupidest options of all are for Question 16, ‘Should the age of retirement be increased?’:

* Yes – retiring at 65 isn’t sustainable. The retirement age should eventually rise to 70.
* No – 70 is too old to continue working in full time employment.
* People should have the choice whether or not to continue working if their health is good enough.

This is akin to a man with his hair on fire asking the question ‘should my hair be on fire?’ – perhaps in an ideal world it wouldn’t be, but it is, and there’s no real room for debate. A pensions system can only work when the age of pay-out is the median age of death. Raising the pensions age to 70 might help, but we’d also need to raise rates of smoking, alcoholism, obesity and dangerous sport among our seniors in order to get life expectancy back down to sustainable levels…

So yeah. If you wonder why people don’t vote, if you wonder why I laugh at anyone who suggest there’s innate value to democracy (I support representative democracy because it’s empirically less bad in the medium term than everything else we’ve tried, but the suggestion that it has any moral worth in itself is just bizarre), and most importantly if you wonder why some people still hold their noses and vote Labour despite its obvious ineptitude, corruption and nannyism, then this look at the reality of UK parties’ policies will both help and utterly depress you.

[*] the best ever such survey was conducted by the late Chris Lightfoot, who used empirical data to determine which attitudes are *actually* correlated among members of the public, rather than taking an undergraduate political philosophy framework and pretending that it correlates to real people’s real beliefs. He discovered that the Political Compass is, indeed, nonsense – the most important set of correlated beliefs are “we should hang ‘n’ flog people, politicians are crooked bastards, screw Europe, the poor and immigrants, and cut taxes” (and their opposites, obviously), mirroring stereotypical left-right splits completely. The only other set of correlations with any significance were “we should have free markets, less tax, be more like America, and invade Iraq” (this was in 2004), I guess reflecting the Economist vs Jacques Chirac…

[**] well, GB-wide.

28 thoughts on “‘None of the above’

  1. Well ta for link, but I have to disagree on (at least) one point.

    UKIP's flat tax policy (flat tax across all sources of income, getting rid of most tax breaks, with a £10,000 personal allowance) is rock solid. I ought to know, having been there at the time.

    You do realise that most of these tax breaks (in particular pensions) accrue mainly to higher rate taxpayers? Simultaneously scrapping these and higher rate tax is more or less revenue-neutral and far from being a 'rich giveaway'.

  2. The UKIP flat tax, if you look at their own chart of the marginal rate of income tax paid, was barely "flatter" than the current system.

  3. On a more general point, I wonder if there is a law which goes something like 'Good tax proposals shouldn't need to assume huge spending cuts/dynamic effects to make them palatable'.

    It's probably wrong of me, but whenever any of these thinktanks or so on come out with their tax simplification ideas or CBI, and they announce 'dynamic' effects to make up £20bn here, or 'efficiency gains' to make up £20bn there, I tend to stop reading it. Changing the tax system and raising a lot less money seem to me things that can and should be separated, or at least one should contrast your new simplifed system with the current system modified to raise the same amount (eg with a £12k personal allowance, or a 15p lower rate etc). Of course this is unfair if there really are dynamic effects.

  4. @Mark – I'm sure it's rock solid for certain definitions of rock solid, but what is your definition? Least burden on the poorest? Incentive to earn? Maximum tax take?

    Not being snarky, just interested.

  5. Matthew, first comment, if you mean 'average' rather than 'marginal', then you are probably right.

    That's the whole point (or half of it, anyway) – to keep the average overall rate (which raises the revenue) about the same (or a bit lower, hopefully) while reducing the marginal rate (which distorts the economy and reduces the tax base) quite a bit.

  6. …OK, so there was a silent 'with the kind of non-onerous levels of contribution and generous levels of pay-out that characterised the post-war British pensions system'.

  7. Yes, I'm a bit doubtful about that statement too. Apart from anything else, if median life expectancy = pensionable age = 65 (say), then it's true that half your population won't live to draw a pension, but you'll also lose a lot of their most highly paid – and thus most lucrative for the system – contributing years – a bloke who dies at 55 has just deprived the system of ten years of pension fund contributions. I would think quite a bit depends on the shape of the life expectancy distribution. Also, you're assuming that the pension system is self-financing rather than being topped up from other sources of government revenue.

  8. "but you’ll also lose a lot of their most highly paid – and thus most lucrative for the system – contributing years"

    hmm. xcept that those who die below the median life expectancy tend to have been long-term-ill anyway, and therefore not contributing at highly-paid levels.

    "Also, you’re assuming that the pension system is self-financing rather than being topped up from other sources of government revenue."

    Doesn't make a difference. The equation either goes:
    Net worker income = salary – tax – pension contribs
    Net pensioner income = pension contribs


    Net worker income = salary – tax – pension contribs – more tax
    Net pensioner income = pension contribs + more tax

    The 'more tax' and the 'pension contribs' are the same thing under a different name.

  9. @ AZ:

    Least burden on the poorest? Yes.

    Incentive to earn? Yes.

    Maximum tax take? The gummint wastes £100 bn a year on three million quangista. UKIP's proposals pencilled in a quarter of that for income tax cuts.

  10. Matthew's point applies here. It's not reasonable to assume government spending reduction (aside from direct transfer payments to people with low incomes who are also paying tax) as part of your tax proposals – rather, you have to separate the two.

    My hunch is that an incoming UKIP government (hahahahaha!) would find it harder than it expects to fire 750,000 public sector workers – so you'd need an interim tax solution.

  11. 750,000? Three million more like.

    Another good way IMHO (but politically contentious) would be to scrap tax relief for pension contributions (cost £50 billion-odd per annum), or reduce it to basic rate relief or something. That'd easily cover doubling the personal allowance and getting rid of higher rate tax.

    AFAIAC, the flatter the tax the better – if it's low and flat, that's better than high and flat, but it can't possibly be right to have a whole mess of rates between 20% and 77%, even a flat 40% would be better than that. But flat 30% is better than 40%, and so on.

  12. xcept that those who die below the median life expectancy tend to have been long-term-ill anyway

    by definition, half the population dies below the median life expectancy.

    Toy example here; we have an economy with full employment from age 20 and steady state population. All the women die at the age of 65 and all the men die at the age of 60. The median age of death is therefore 62.5.

    If I ignore investment returns and set the retirement age at 59, then at any one moment in time, out of every 125 people, 40 would be children before working age, 76 would be working men and women and there would be one retired man and 6 retired women. To give the 7 retirees a pension equal to 66% of the average wage would require a contribution of 6% into the pension scheme.

  13. "scrap tax relief for pension contributions". Mmm that always goes down well with the Daily Mail/libertarians/right-wingers/etcf


    * sorry it's escaped me

  14. So sacking 3 million people because they don't have the correct type of job is would *not* go down like a cup of cold sick?

    Are you quite sure you've thought this through?

  15. "by definition, half the population dies below the median life expectancy."

    aye, but most people who die were seriously ill before they died.

    you've convinced me that I was wrong about needing the median age – however, 62.5 is still pretty close to the retirement age in your example.

    If we use your model, but put in the retirement and median death ages of the UK in 1950 and in 2008, life expectancy rises from 67.5 to 80 over the period, with a retirement age of 62.5 (because men are overrepresented in the real-life working population, that's probably a bit low – but they die sooner, so that offsets it, back-of-envelope-ishly).

    In 1950, pensions represent 5% of GDP; in 2008, they represent 19%. To get the claim on GDP back down to 5%, the retirement age needs to rise to 70.5.

  16. Neil, it might go down pretty well with the 41 million voters who aren't climate change officers or street football advisors or heads of Commision for Equality and Human Rights (or whatever it's called).

  17. "in 2008, they represent 19%"

    Is that right? It would mean per pensioner share of national income is higher than other adults?

  18. You know I'm talking about Dan's hypothetical society but with the median ages of retirement and death set to those in the UK, rather than the actual UK, right?

  19. Commision for Equality and Human Rights (or whatever it’s called).

    Glad to see you've checked all the details, rather than just pulling some stereotype fogey bollocks out of your arse!

  20. Or, better still – vote UKIP to get rid of useless quangos like the Medical Research Council, the Teacher Training Agency, the Ordnance Survey, the Met Office and the Food Standards Agency.

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