To boost wages, alter the balance of power in offices

Publishing income tax records could help predistribute wealth.

Publicly posting tax returns is an idea that's mostly been explored in the context of tax avoidance. The idea is that if the amount of tax the rich and famous pay were made public, "the might be motivated to fill out their taxes correctly", as the New York Times' Anna Bernasek put it in 2010. It ought to be supported by small-statists, too, since the disclosure of the myriad loopholes used by the wealthy to avoid tax would lead to support for a simplified tax system.

But public disclosure of income tax filings also has a role to play in political sphere: that of redistribution – or, to use the Labourite buzzword of the year, predistribution – of wealth.

A TUC pamphlet, published today, looks at how to boost the wage share [pdf]. That's the proportion of GDP which is paid to employees, as opposed to ending up in the pockets of shareholders (or, to a lesser extent, small business owners – official statistics record them as a separate category from shareholders or employees, because they share characteristics with both), and it appears to have seen a permanent drop since the 1970s:

Howard Reed and Stewart Lansley, the authors of the pamphlet, examine a few different ways to counteract that trend, from raising the national minimum wage or boosting take-up of the living wage to extending the role collective bargaining. They argue that could be done through a re-establishment of the Wages Councils, which were empowered to set minimum wages in various industries until John Major's government abolished them in 1994.

But one of the strongest ways to boost the wage share of income is to make it easier for individual employees to negotiate their wages up; and that can be helped greatly by making income tax returns – and thus, incomes – public.

When it comes to negotiating wages, employees are usually at a disadvantage. That's largely because, for all but the smallest companies, being one person short on headcount is much easier for a business to live with than having no job is for a person.

But there's also an information asymmetry. You both know publicly available salaries (for jobs similar to yours which are being advertised), but your employer also has access to a second pool of information: they know what they're paying your co-workers. That's information they can cite when it's in their interest and hide when it's not. Over time, that adds up, to lead to wages lower than they ought to be.

One of the purposes of unions is to overcome this information asymmetry; so in my profession, for example, the NUJ maintains a list of reported rates for freelancers, to help people fight for fair pay. But that's only useful to a certain extent; being able to cite the pay of the person who sits next to you when arguing for a raise is far more useful than being able to cite an average for the industry.

The balance of power within corporations is one of the hardest aspects of our lives for the state to affect, but one where it could do the most good. Publishing income tax records, as is already done in Finland and Norway, could well be a first step on that road.

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.

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For 19 minutes, I thought I had won the lottery

The agonising minutes spent figuring out my mistake paired beautifully with hard, low wisdom tooth throbs.

Nineteen minutes ago, I was a millionaire. In my head, I’d bought a house and grillz that say “I’m fine now thanks”, in diamonds. I’d had my wisdom tooth (which I’ve been waiting months for the NHS to pull the hell out of my skull) removed privately. Drunk on sudden wealth, I’d considered emailing everyone who’s ever wronged me a picture of my arse. There I was, a rich woman wondering how to take a butt selfie. Life was magnificent.

Now I’m lying face-down on my bed. I’m wearing a grease-stained t-shirt and my room smells of cheese. I hear a “grrrrk” as my cat jumps onto the bed. He walks around on my back for a bit, then settles down, reinstating my place in the food chain: sub-cat. My phone rings. I fumble around for it with all the zeal of a slug with ME. Limply, I hold it to my ear.

“Hi,” I say.

“You haven’t won anything, have you” says my dad. It isn’t a question.

“I have not.”

“Ah. Never mind then eh?”

I make a sound that’s just pained vowels. It isn’t a groan. A groan is too human. This is pure animal.

“What? Stop mumbling, I can’t hear you.”

“I’m lying on my face,” I mumble.

“Well sit up then.”

“Can’t. The cat’s on my back.”

In my defence, the National Lottery website is confusing. Plus, I play the lottery once a year max. The chain of events which led me to believe, for nineteen otherworldly minutes, that I’d won £1 million in the EuroMillions can only be described as a Kafkaesque loop of ineptitude. It is both difficult and boring to explain. I bought a EuroMillions ticket, online, on a whim. Yeah, I suffer from whims. While checking the results, I took a couple of wrong turns that led me to a page that said, “you have winning matches in one draw”. Apparently something called a “millionaire maker code” had just won me a million quid.

A

Million

Quid.

I stared at the words and numbers for a solid minute. The lingering odour of the cheese omelette I’d just eaten was, all of a sudden, so much less tragic. I once slammed a finger in a door, and the pain was so intense that I nearly passed out. This, right now, was a fun version of that finger-in-door light-headedness. It was like being punched by good. Sure, there was a level on which I knew I’d made a mistake; that this could not be. People don’t just win £1 million. Well they do, but I don’t. It’s the sort of thing that happens to people called Pauline, from Wrexham. I am not Pauline from Wrexham. God I wish I was Pauline from Wrexham.

Even so, I started spending money in my head. Suddenly, London property was affordable. It’s incredible how quickly you can shrug off everyone else’s housing crisis woe, when you think you have £1m. No wonder rich people vote Conservative. I was imaginary rich for nineteen minutes (I know it was nineteen minutes because the National Lottery website kindly times how much of your life you’ve wasted on it) and turned at least 40 per cent evil.

But, in need of a second opinion on whether or not I was – evil or not - rich, I phoned my dad.

“This is going to sound weird,” I said, “but I think I’ve won £1 million.”

“You haven’t won £1 million,” he said. There was a decided lack of anything resembling excitement in his voice. It was like speaking to an accountant tired of explaining pyramid schemes to financial Don Quixotes.

“No!” I said, “I entered the EuroMillions and I checked my results and this thing has come up saying I’ve won something but it’s really confusing and…”

Saying it out loud (and my how articulately) clinched it: my enemies were not going to be looking at butt selfies any time soon. The agonising minutes spent figuring out my mistake paired beautifully with hard, low wisdom tooth throbs.

“Call me back in a few minutes,” I told my dad, halfway though the world’s saddest equation.

Now here I am, below a cat, trying to explain my stupidity and failing, due to stupidity.  

 

“If it’s any consolation,” my dad says, “I thought about it, and I’m pretty sure winning the lottery would’ve ruined your life.”

“No,” I say, cheese omelette-scented breath warming my face, “it would’ve made my life insanely good.”

I feel the cat purr. I can relate. For nineteen minutes, I was happy too. 

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.