In hankering for wide and sweeping reforms of our public services, the smaller steps that can be taken towards meaningful change are often overlooked, dismissed as vote-catching fads or shunted off to the sidelines. A particular proposal taking form from the utterances of David Cameron’s Shadow Cabinet is one such specimen, and in forgetting about it, we risk jeopardising any further significant attempts at bringing greater choice and public decision-making into our public services.
In June, Cameron spoke of using information to enhance accountability, proposing that every item of government spending over £25,000 be published online, in full and for all to see. Although the reason for setting such a high figure seems odd and arbitrary, the potential for such a move is monumental. Far from simply encouraging and utilising “an army of armchair auditors” to hold government waste at bay, the information available could be used to agitate widespread public and political backing for very specific reductions in government expenditure. The largely ignorant outrage over increases or cuts in expenditure for specific departments by commentators outside government would be almost immediately replaced by calculated, precise and unequivocal suggestions from countless sources.
However, there is another aspect to reforming government transparency: as well as making spending restraint easier, there is the potential to transform the way public services are run. Governments are currently able to manipulate the choices of the public on a vast scale, often with unpredictable consequences: school league tables and hospital rankings can be manipulated to suit the political pressures of the day simply by including a new criteria, or restricting another.
The release of all government-collected data other than that pertinent to privacy or defence would do away with a system so open to abuse, as well as making it easier for the public to make fully informed choices about the services that they want. Cameron has so far cited a few possible examples, such as local crime maps emerging from the full release of crime data, allowing communities to hold the police and local council to account – to see whether politicians have really fulfilled a promise to cut crime, or where they would like to see more done.
In some ways, the prospects for accountability and the functioning of democracy are also revolutionary. Voters would be able to see exactly how much a particular administration has done for them, and hold politicians to account not only for their individual expenditure decisions in central and local government, but for changes in countless variables in their local area. Voters would be able to make more informed choices, seeing through the obfuscations and misrepresentations.
If Cameron’s vision of a “Post-Bureaucratic State” is to be fully appreciated, the potential of this reform should be looked at in far more detail – other than headline a Conservative party commitment to the NHS, the same speech in late August proposed the far more significant proposal to allow patients to control personal budgets and see their full “health records online in the same way they would their bank accounts”, allowing them to make decisions about the GP they want or the hospital they would like to use.
Some of the Shadow Cabinet have started to have ideas of what they may have the chance to do in this context: Michael Gove announced in August that a Conservative government would establish a free online library of past exam papers to allow parents to track possible grade inflation. Nevertheless, Gove simultaneously fails to appreciate the larger possibilities of transparency: just a few weeks later, he proposed a reform of school league tables, arguing for a change in the way certain subjects are weighted – such a proposal is really no better than Ed Balls’ “school report cards” in that it is yet another adjustment at the edges.
In the touted dream of a “post-bureaucratic state”, all data on schools would be freely available, and independent rankings would be able to emerge in the same way as a car price comparison website, or in the way universities are already compared by various newspapers. The public would then be able to choose from those lists based on the criteria they use and on their own individual merits, free from the chance that governments may use data to skew choices or steer us towards what they think is “best for us”.
Rather than simply creating choice, transparency in government data allows existing choices to be informed, increasing the quality of public choice. It paves the way for further choice creation, for example breaking up the postcode lotteries associated with schools and hospitals, part of which could be remedied by current Sweden-inspired reforms. But these Scandinavian or other imported reforms can only be effective if the choices between schools and hospitals are properly informed.
A recent Google-sponsored competition on the “Young Rewired State” in late August explored the possibilities of websites based on government information, that don’t, but probably should exist. Among them was a web-based tool to show the safest school routes based on crime statistics; a phone application to show when public transport will arrive, based not on timetables but on live data London buses already send back to their controllers; or even something as mundane as collating council tax bands for every single postcode in the country, or finding your nearest NHS dentist.
If there is anything to be positively excited about from a potential Conservative government, it is this move towards transparency. Cameron has already shown a willingness to display information instantly online in the form of MPs’ expenses, but if and when they do gain control of Whitehall, it is crucial that everything is done to make them see these commitments through.
GDP is not the be-all and end-all of our existence; it talks of value added to economies but has little to say about anything else.
Richard Layard and Joseph Stiglitz (one a Nobel Laureate, the other one of those who tried to jam some economic understanding into my brain) rightly tell us that gross domestic product isn’t in fact the be-all and end-all of how we should be measuring life, the economy and everything. They also, again correctly, point to various alternative ways in which we might measure, thus set as our target, things which are more important than merely the value added in an economy.
What is always interesting is to take such suggestions and follow them to see where they lead: so let’s do exactly that with the proposal from the professor at the old alma mater, my Lord Layard.
So I propose a campaign for the Principle of the Greatest Happiness. This says I should aim to produce the most happiness I can in the world and, above all, the least misery. And my rulers should do the same.
Sounds like a plan, so, using only the professor’s own work, where will this lead? Specifically, where will this lead us if we try to design a tax system which accords with this principle (that’s the “rulers should do the same” bit)?
Vital clues can be found in his book Happiness, something which if you haven’t read you probably ought to. There are two major points made about the taxation of incomes in it and we’ll add just one commonplace observation from the world around us to reach what we must assume will be the taxation system that will produce the maximal amount of happiness: the top fluffy kitten count, if you will.
The first point is that happiness does indeed rise with income – but only to a certain point. That point varies a little, dependent on where you are and with exchange rates and so on, but a reasonable estimate is about £15,000 a year. Less than that and earning more money makes you happier simply because you’re earning more money. More than that and you might be happier or not, but it’s not the extra money that’s making you so.
Excellent. So the first and most obvious principle of our high kitten-cuteness tax system is going to be that we’re not going to tax incomes below £15,000. This would clearly make people less happy, as it would take them below that number where higher incomes make them happier.
The second point is a little more complex. The contention is that when we earn more than £15,000 we create a kind of pollution. It’s never quite really nailed down: one way of describing it would be jealousy, the green-eyed god, over the fact that others have more than we do. Layard’s description is more gentle, in that others having more impels us to emulate them; we try to keep up with the Joneses. In doing so we strive for higher incomes, despite the way that these will make us no happier, at the expense of the many other things that will make us happier – time with family, with friends and so on.
Thus those earning more than £15,000 are imposing an externality of unhappiness on those around them: and we all know what happens to such negative externalities in welfare economics. We tax them! This is exactly the same economic argument behind carbon taxes, the congestion charge and air passenger duty. The polluter must pay the social cost of their pollution. Turning the argument around the other way, that positive externalities should be subsidised is exactly the economic argument used for tax contributions to basic science and such things as universal primary schooling. There’s nothing odd or strange about the economics here, only the aspect of life to which it is being applied.
Layard’s estimate is that the unhappiness caused by those on higher than £15,000 incomes is some 30% of the amount of those higher incomes. Someone on £1,015,000 a year is causing £300,000 of unhappiness elsewhere while someone on £45,000 is causing £10,000s’ worth (umm, OK, I’m using one third not 30%, but you get the picture). We should thus tax the two, respectively, £300,000 and £10,000 for the externality of the non-fluffy kitten time they are imposing on those around them.
Our third point is simply the commonplace that people do not like to pay taxes. Yes, yes, I know, there are endless screeds here at Comment is free insisting that no, really, offering up the sweat of our brow to the state is such a pleasurable experience that we’d all do it willingly, without the compulsion of law. Actually, this seems not to be the case. Last time I got the figures from the Treasury (for the tax year 2005), it turned out that only five people across the entire nation had voluntarily paid more than was their legally demanded due – and four of those were dead. So if we adopt the entirely uncontroversial economic idea of revealed preferences (don’t look at what people say but what they do) we can be sure that for the vast majority of the population taxes are not something paid for the joy of them. They are, in fact, something which make us unhappy.
This now gives us the details which we need to build our tax structure for optimal happiness. We can and should tax those who cause unhappiness in others by the value of the unhappiness they create through their higher incomes. We should not tax more than this for we will be creating unhappiness by doing so. Finally, we should not be taxing incomes below £15,000 a year because taking money below that sum will again increase unhappiness.
So our tax system with the highest fluffy-kitten count, the one that will “produce the most happiness” as our rulers should strive to do, just as we ourselves should, is a flat-tax system of 30% with a high personal allowance of £15,000 a year.
While this is, of course, very different from our current tax system, it is still progressive (yes, it is: work out the maths for yourselves – as incomes rise so do the portions of those incomes paid in tax) and it ticks all the boxes that will lead to maximal happiness.
In the UK, the US and Germany, happiness has been stagnating for decades. A civilisation based on the Greatest Happiness Principle would be a great improvement. Yes, indeed it will, as long as we actually accept the implications of that Great Happiness Principle as laid out for us by one of the great researchers into that principle, Richard Layard himself.
The only conundrum left is that there are only two organisations that I know of (that I am a member of both of them is entirely coincidence) which actually have as suggested policy anything close to this top cute-kitten system: Ukip and the Adam Smith Institute. But then the reason that I am a member of both is because they are both well ahead of the progressive crowd, in so many important ways.
Published on guardian.co.uk here.