We’ve actually tried negative income taxes, and they seem to work

The latest issue of Chicago magazine has a great piece on the 1970s experiments with the Negative Income Tax (NIT) including in the deprived city of Gary, Indiana (famous for being the birthplace of the Jacksons). Inspired by Milton Friedman, and in an effort to reduce time, effort and effort spent administering welfare as well as stigma in receiving it, some of the poorest residents of Gary and four other poor areas received cash in randomised controlled experiments.

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A lot of research was done into the treatment groups in Gary and across the other NIT experiments.

One study found that kids born to mothers in the treatment group had birth weights 0.3-1.2lb higher. Another found significant and substantial improvements in reading scores for children in treated families. And what’s more, kids whose families had been in the programme for a number of years performed significantly better than those in it for a shorter time. School performance also increased significantly across a wide variety of metrics for early-grade students in a rural experiment in North Carolina, although the effect did not appear in the other major experiment, in rural Iowa.

It’s not clear exactly where this effect came from, but the most plausible source is probably better nutrition and spending the extra money on housing in better areas. Most of the evidence suggests that recipients did not spend their windfall on expensive consumption goods.

There were no overall robust effects on marital stability, but this was misreported, and the mistaken belief that the NIT had led to black families breaking up was a significant factor in killing the proposal as a political possibility under Richard Nixon.

However, as well as the effects seen, the experiments seemed to find that the income effect—having more money overall—outweighed the substitution effect—lower and more predictable effective marginal tax rates making it more attractive to work—especially when it came to women. A glance at the table below makes this clear.

But it’s possible to conclude that the fall in the amount of labour those getting the NIT supply (something like 5% for the poor groups studied, and around 2% estimated for the population as a whole) is quite small, and within the bounds of what we’d be willing to accept to substantially reduce poverty.

What’s more, there are countervailing factors. One issue is the level of the guaranteed income. Some of the families received were guaranteed an income 150% of the poverty line. With a benefit level closer to the existing system, merely structured more clearly and predictably, we might expect a weaker or even positive response (although we alleviate less poverty).

A second issue is the long-term response. If the negative income can counteract large environmental problems, allowing families to move away from pollution and feed their kids better and achieve more in school, we might see these people enjoy improved long-term life outcomes. Even looking at things from a narrow labour supply perspective, we know that more educated and more intelligent people supply more labour over their lives, so the long-term effect may be neutral.

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(Tables sourced from Widerquist (2005))

We need a Negative Income Tax, not a Living Wage

The new Living Wage rate was announced today. I’ve written a bit about the Living Wage already. If it’s private, it’s probably not a big deal, although it could still lead to unemployment. I suspect it’s done by big firms that don’t have many low-skilled workers as a PR move but I quite like PR moves that involve paying low skilled people more. And I worry that people will generalize from those big firms to assume that the whole market could bear a mandatory Living Wage, which is almost certainly untrue and would be very harmful to many of the people it’s supposed to help.

What’s more interesting is the problem of low pay in general. Even though unemployment has fallen a lot in recent years in the UK, real wages have barely risen at all. Even as wages do begin to rise on average, it’s possible that wages for low skilled workers may not as jobs for them are outsourced to cheaper countries. The ASI has proposed raising the personal allowance (including National Insurance threshold) to the minimum wage rate, but this doesn’t do much good for part-time workers or currently-unemployed people who would earn below the minimum wage if we scrapped that, as I think we should.

So low pay may be a problem without any clear solution, for which most popular ‘solutions’ don’t actually work.

But there may be a fix that does work – a Negative Income Tax or a Basic Income. As I’ve written before these are actually very similar even though one is almost exclusively supported by right-wingers and the other almost exclusively by left-wingers. As ever in politics, we’re speaking different languages.

A Negative Income Tax is a form of income top-up that only looks at an individual’s income, not whether they are in work or not, and tops that income up automatically if they are earning less than a given amount. The extra money is withdrawn at a tapered rate, so that for every pound you earn from work, you lose (say) fifty pence in top-up, ensuring that workers always have a clear incentive to demand higher wages, and that work always pays more than joblessness for unemployed people.

This would replace lots of existing working age benefits, including Jobseekers’ Allowance, council tax relief, the Employment and Support Allowance and tax credits. You could probably implement a decent one without increasing total expenditure. The exact rates can be determined by running trials across the country.

A Negative Income Tax like this would almost certainly be a boon to people on low pay, and would avoid most of the problems that minimum wages and current welfare schemes face.

Indeed the main objection may simply be that it is redistributive. That’s where I break with many of my fellow libertarians – I want free markets because they make poor people’s lives better, and I am OK with redistribution if it’s done in a market-friendly way that makes poor people’s lives better too. If this sounds surprising, remember that this puts me in the same boat as Milton Friedman (who campaigned for a Negative Income Tax) and FA Hayek, and indeed in the same utilitarian philosophical camp as Ludwig von Mises.

I suspect low pay will continue to be a problem for many years, maybe becoming even worse as automation renders some people permanently unemployable. It is necessary but not sufficient to simply rebut other people’s bad ideas.

In the Negative Income Tax we have a policy that can actually go a big way to solving the problem, and hopefully replace some of the harmful policies we have right now. Rhetorically, I think we free marketeers need more positive solutions to policy problems, and if we could get over our squeamishness about endorsing certain forms of ‘good’ redistribution, we may be able to surprise people into listening to and maybe even agreeing with us. If low pay is indeed the long-term problem that it seems to be, the Negative Income Tax’s time may finally have come.

£8 minimum wage hype: political trick, economic disaster, moral outrage

Britain’s Labour Party leader Ed Miliband says that a Labour government would boost the national minimum wage to £8 an hour, an increase of about £60 per week, by 2020. He says the UK economy is booming, and the low-paid should get a bigger share of it.

Actually, at present rates of growth, the minimum wage will be close to £8 in 2020 anyway, so this is a one of those political sensations that doesn’t amount to much. Even so, it is foolhardy now to commit UK businesses to pay any specific figure in 2020, since anything could happen in the meantime.

The minimum wage gets unthinking politicians (and not just Labour leaders) dewy-eyed. ‘We can’t have people being paid a wage that isn’t enough to live on.’ ‘Businesses should pay their workers more, and take less profit.’ ‘The minimum wage hasn’t killed jobs as the doomsayers say.’ You know the story.

In fact, high minimum wages do destroy jobs. in particular, they destroy those starter jobs, the low-paid, temporary jobs that once gave young people their first step on the jobs ladder – pumping petrol (as I did), stacking bags in supermarkets, ushering people to their seats at the flicks. Now those jobs don’t exist, because they are not worth the minimum wage (plus all the National Insurance and the burden of workplace regulation that goes with them – a particular burden on small firms). So we have a million young people out of work.

As for profit, try using that argument on anyone running a small business, already weighed down by taxes, rates, and regulation. Often they are getting less than their lowest-paid employees, and working longer hours for it Higher minimum wages mean they can afford to employ fewer people, or provide less generous perks and conditions.

I don’t want to live in a country where people can’t afford to live on what they take home either. That is why we have a welfare system, to top up the earnings of the lowest paid. We need a negative income tax – above the line, you pay tax, below the line, you get cash benefits – structured so that you are always better off in work than out of it. A paying job, even a low-paid job, is the best welfare system the human mind can devise.

And we must take low-paid people out of tax and national insurance entirely. Then more small firms could afford to take on more low-skilled workers and give them that first step on the jobs ladder.

If we could simply vote ourselves higher pay, why stop at £8? Why not fix the minimum wage at £800 an hour. The answer is obvious. The only people who would be worth that amount to anyone would be a few Premier League footballers, rock stars, investment bankers and high-class hookers. The rest of us would be out of a job.

The minimum wage does no harm to people who are already earning it, though it does them no good either. But it does positive harm to those earning less, or those who cannot get a job at all. The former will be let go, or will have to endure worse conditions; the latter will find it very much harder to get a job. And all that, of course, has already happened.

The Negative Income Tax and Basic Income are pretty much the same thing

I’ve been talking about the Negative Income Tax lately, and equating it with the idea of a Basic Income. I think most of the policies’ respective advocates would deny that they’re the same policy. In this post I’m going to outline why that’s incorrect and I’m happy to say that they’re basically the same thing.

For the uninitiated, a Negative Income Tax is a form of welfare that replaces most existing welfare schemes with a single payment that supplements the income of the unemployed and low-paid. The payment is withdrawn as your earnings increase, ideally at a gradual enough rate that increasing your earnings (and hence reducing leisure time) is always worthwhile.

An example: a £5,000 basic payment at a 50% marginal withdrawal rate (this means that for every additional pound earned, the worker will receive 50p less in NIT payments). Someone with an income of zero would receive an NIT payment of £5,000, or just under £100/week. If they took a job that paid £5,000/year, they would receive a top-up of £2,500/year; that paid £7,500, a top-up of £1,250/year. Once they reached £10,000/year, they would receive nothing in NIT.

This idea was supported by Milton Friedman, among others, and has a reasonably strong pedigree on the right. Even libertarians who object to income redistribution in principle usually concede that a Negative Income Tax is the least bad form of welfare, because it is administratively simple and perverts incentives less than most welfare schemes. It is particularly appealing to many liberals and libertarians because it is unpaternalistic.

A Basic Income, on the other hand, is usually conceived as a flat payment to everybody irrespective of circumstance. This leads to a very big problem: assuming it replaces most forms of welfare as an NIT does, a basic income high enough for unemployed workers to subsist on would simply not be affordable to pay to everyone. A policy that ideally would be designed to help the poor ends up being a very expensive subsidy to people who do not need extra money.

Advocates of the Basic Income recognize this, and their solution is typically to use the tax system to ‘claw back’ the payment from relatively high earners. So everyone gets the money, but it is withdrawn according to earnings.

In practice, that’s more or less the same as a Negative Income Tax – the only difference is whether the withdrawal takes place at the ‘front’ of the payment (as with the NIT), or the ‘end’ (as with the Basic Income). Strange as it may seem, the policies advocated by Milton Friedman and the Green Party are the same in all but the technical detail.

But even if there is a surprising amount of agreement in terms of the kind of welfare we’d like to see, the detail may be more difficult to agree on. How much should a ‘basic income’ be? When should it begin to be withdrawn, and at what rate?

Questions like this are, I think, likely to be where what breaks up this (unholy?) alliance. But maybe not. Traditional policies like the minimum wage probably do more harm than good, and, rightfully, the question of how to improve the lives of the low paid does not seem to be going away. It will take compromise, but in the Negative Income Tax / Basic Income, we may have an answer.

An alternative ‘Agenda for Hope’

Owen Jones has written a nine-point ‘Agenda for Hope’ that he argues would create a fairer society. Well, maybe. I’m not convinced by many of them. Then again, it would be quite surprising if I was.

But it got me thinking about what my nine-point agenda would be — not quite my ‘perfect world’ policies, but some fairly bold steps that I could just about imagine happening in the next couple of decades. Unlike Owen’s policies, few of these are likely to win much public support. On the other hand, most of the political elite would think these are just as wacky as Owen’s too.

Nine policies to make people richer and freer (and hopefully happier):

1) The removal of political barriers to who can work and reside in the UK. Removing all barriers to trade would increase global GDP by between 0.3% and 4.1%. Completely removing barriers to migration, though, could increase global GDP by between 67% and 147.3%. Those GDP benefits would mostly accrue to the poorest people in the world. We can’t remove these barriers everywhere but we can show the rest of the world how it’s done. Any step towards this would be good – I suggest we start by dropping the net migration cap and allowing any accredited educational institution to award an unlimited number of student visas.

2) A strict rule for the Bank of England to target nominal GDP instead of inflation, replacing the discretion of the Monetary Policy Committee. Even more harmful than the primary bust in recessions is what Hayek called the ‘secondary deflation’ that comes about as people, fearing a drop in their future nominal earnings, hold on to more of their money. That reduces the total level of nominal spending in the economy which, since prices and wages are sticky in the short run, leads to unemployment and a fall in economic output. NGDP targeting prevents those ‘secondary deflations’ and would make economic busts much less common and harmful. In the long run, we should scrap the central bank altogether and replace it with competition in currencies (see point 9, below).

3) Significant planning reform that abolished the Town and Country Planning Act (which includes the legislation ‘protecting’ the Green Belt from most development) and decentralised planning decisions to individuals through tradable development rights (TDRs). This would give locals an incentive to allow new developments because they would be compensated by the developers directly, allowing for a reasonably efficient price system to emerge and making new development much, much easier. The extra economic activity from the new home building alone would probably add a couple of points to GDP growth.

4) Legalisation of most recreational drugs and the medicalisation of the most harmful ones. I think Transform’s outline is pretty good: let cannabis be sold like alcohol and tobacco to adults by licensed commercial retailers; MDMA, cocaine and amphetamines sold by pharmacies in limited quantities; and extremely dangerous drugs like heroin sold with prescriptions for use in supervised consumption areas. The sooner this happens, the sooner producers will be answerable to the law and deaths from ‘bad batches’ of drugs like ecstasy will be a thing of the past. Better yet, this would bring an end to drug wars like Mexico’s, which has killed around 100,000 people in the past ten years.

5) Reform of the welfare system along the lines of a Negative Income Tax or Basic Income Guarantee. As it is, the welfare system disincentivises work and creates dependency without doing much for the working poor. A Negative Income Tax would only look at people’s incomes (not whether they were in work or not in work), reducing perverse incentives and topping up the wages of the poorest earners. This would strengthen the bargaining position of low-skilled workers and would remove much of the risks to workers associated with employment deregulation. Of course, the first thing we should do is raise the personal allowance and National Insurance threshold to the minimum wage rate to give poor workers a de facto ‘Living Wage’.

6) A Singaporean-style healthcare system to replace the NHS. In Singapore, people have both a health savings account and optional catastrophic health insurance. They pay a portion of their earnings into the savings account (poor people receive money from the state for this), which pays for day-to-day trips to the doctor, prescriptions, and so on. The government co-pays for many expenses but the personal cost disincentivises frivolous visits to the doctor. For very expensive treatments, optional catastrophic health insurance kicks in. This is far from being a pure free market system but it is miles better (cheaper and with better health outcomes) than the NHS. (By the way, if you really like the NHS we could still call this an ‘NHS’ and still get the superior system.)

7) A school voucher system and significant reform of the state education and free schools sectors. This would include the abolition of catchement areas and proximity-based admission, simplification of the free schools application process, and expansion of the free schools programme to allow profit making firms to operate free schools. These reforms, outlined in more detail in two ASI reports, would increase the number of places available to children and increase competition among schools to drive up standards.

8) Intellectual property reform. As both Alex Tabarrok and Matt Ridley have pointed out, our IP (patent and copyright) law is too restrictive and seems to be stifling new innovation. Firms use patents as barriers to entry, suing new rivals whose products are too similar to their own. In industries where development costs are high but imitation costs are low, like pharmaceuticals, patents may be necessary to incentivise innovation, but in industries like software development where development can be cheaper than imitation, patents can be a terrible drag on progress. Tabarrok recommends that we try to tailor patent length in accordance with these differences; as a sceptic about our ability to know, well, anything, I’d prefer to leave it to private contracts and common law courts to discover.

9) Last but not least, the removal of the thicket of financial regulation and the promise of bailouts for insolvent banks. Known as ‘free banking’, this system of laissez-faire finance has an extremely strong record of stability – though bank panics still occurred in free banking systems, they were much less severe and rarely systemic. Only once the government started to intervene in the financial system to provide complete stability did things really begin to go wrong: deposit insurance, branch-banking restrictions, and other prudent-seeming regulations led to extremely bad unforeseen consequences. The financial crisis of 2008 probably owes more to asset requirements like the Basel accords, which heavily incentivised banks to hold ‘safe’ mortgage debt over ‘risky’ business debt, than anything else. Incidentally, the idea that having a large number of local banks is somehow better than having a few large banks is totally wrong: during the Great Depression, 9,000 of America’s small, local banks failed; at the same time not one of Canada’s large banks failed. The small banks were more vulnerable because, unlike the big banks, they were undiversified.

Now, if only there was a think tank to try and make these dreams a reality.