Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Are you sitting comfortably?


Whenever an actual sum of money appears in the news - someone’s salary; the price of a pint of milk; how much someone won on the lottery; how much someone spent on a boat – its wake has a very particular shape.  It’s distinctive because it is only when the theory and argument is converted into our common currency that we can get its measure.

How are you feeling, presently, about the sum of money known as £53?

It all depends on your perspective, of course.  But I suspect many of us are feeling just a tad uneasy.  £53?  That’s, er, well…

·         It’s the price of a designer t-shirt

·         It is the price of an obscure economics textbook

·         It’s how much you’d pay to watch a premier league football match

·         or to play the latest Tomb Raider

·         You could blow it on a single bottle of single malt

·         or on running away from London (you’d get as far as Nottingham)

And it is also, we are now painfully aware, the amount of money Iain Duncan Smith thinks he could live on if he had to.

Most readers of this blog will, I suspect, have spent £53 or thereabouts on something relatively trivial at some point in the not-too-distant past.  Maybe it made you fleetingly uncomfortable at the time; or maybe you have already reached the point where the sum needs to be considerably larger before it effects some hesitation in your system.  (It’s not just prices that are sticky downwards; so, too, are lifestyles.)  Either way, I know that I don’t want to stare too hard at the £53.  I may once have survived for a week on a sum of that kind; but I only did so in the belief and expectation that it was a situation from which I would at some point escape.

What if there was no prospect of that? Is that ‘fair’?

In Rawls’ formulation of justice, we need all to stare at this number, and our decision about whether or not it is ‘fair’ should be based (roughly) on the probability of us finding ourselves living the life in which we depend on it.  If that’s a bit too abstract, my favourite is the remark by Allen Carr, who suggested that there is not a single parent in the world that hopes that their child will grow up to become a smoker.  Similarly here: if £53 a week is something you hope your child will avoid, then it’s a pretty good indicator that it’s not fair.

What to do, eh? I think I think that there’s scope for action on both the income side and the expenditure side.  On the former, I’d like to consider some sort of ratio between highest and lowest incomes, operating firstly as a social target and, over time, as a requirement; and, on the latter, I’d like to explore some sort of variable purchase tax, with basic items (designated annually by the JRF?) subject to negative VAT and absurdly luxurious items subject to a very high rate of tax.

Loads of practical difficulties, no doubt, but that’s my starter for 10.  Or, ahem, 53.


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