Child benefit withdrawal will make it better to work less for families with over seven children

And come 2076, that will be the case for every family in the nation.

The child tax credit withdrawal, taking effect on Monday, will lead to marginal tax rates of over 100 per cent on families with more than eight children earning between £50,000 and £60,000.

The IFS explains how the marginal rates are calculated:

Affected taxpayers will pay back one per cent of their family’s Child Benefit for every £100 by which taxable income exceeds £50,000. One per cent of Child Benefit is £10.56 per year for a 1-child family, and an additional £6.97 per child for larger families. Hence the marginal tax rate between £50,000 and £60,000 is increased by about 11 percentage points for the first child and by an additional 7 percentage points for each subsequent one. So, for example, while about 320,000 people will find that their marginal income tax rate increases to more than 50%, about 40,000 of them - those with three or more children - will find that it jumps to at least 65%.

They offer a chart with the rate calculated up to four children:

By seven children, the marginal rate rises to 99.35 per cent, and by eight, it breaks 100 per cent (106.32 per cent, to be exact). This means that any individual with a family of eight kids earning between £50,000 and £60,000 would be better off if they reduced their salary back down to £50,000. In fact, for that individual, they would have to earn £61,105 before their post-tax income was the same as it was at £50,000.

It's unclear whether any families actually exist matching that criterion - rather wonderfully, my back-of-the-envelope maths (which assumes that the exponential decrease in the number of families of each size continues: e.g., there are 1/8th the number of families with three or more kids as there are with two or more, so I'm assuming that there are correspondingly 1/8th the number of families with four or more as there are with three or more, and so on) suggests that there may be exactly one – but even if there are none at the moment, there's no reason why there won't be one in the future. Families with eight children do, after all, exist.

In fact, as time goes on, this problem will get worse. The IFS points out that child benefit is uprated with inflation, while tax bands aren't. Currently, each extra child after the first increases your "marginal tax rate" by around seven per cent, but suppose child benefit is uprated by two per cent a year. In that case, the marginal tax would exceed one hundred per cent for families with seven children next year; for six children in the year 2020; for five children in the year 2028; and, eventually, for families with just one child – i.e., every family – in the year 2076.

Hopefully the law will be changed before then, of course. But as a rule of thumb, laws which become ridiculously damaging unless you actively intervene ought not be signed in the first place. Oops.

Children. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

GARY WATERS
Show Hide image

In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt