Why the future will be unfair

An economist argues that the US needs to start looking at inequality (as, indeed, do other developed economies) in a more dispassionate and analytical way.

Of all the many changes to American society since the 1960s, one of the most unexpected is also one of the most overlooked. Between 1969 and 2009 the median income for men in the US fell somewhere between 9 and 28 per cent, depending who you talk to. This is the departure point for Tyler Cowen’s new book, Average Is Over.

Having chronicled the US’s economic vulnerability in The Great Stagnation, Cowen, an economist at George Mason University in Virginia, says we have entered the age of “hypermeritocracy”, in which the top 10 to 15 per cent of Americans are “extremely wealthy” and lead “fantastically comfortable lives” and the rest work in “stupid and frustrating” jobs for falling or stagnant wages.

These trends are clearly evident in the US today. He writes that 60 per cent of the jobs lost during the recession were mid-wage jobs, while 73 per cent of the jobs created were for workers on $13.52 (£8.36) an hour or less. In the longer term, intelligent computers will further dampen demand for mid-wage jobs and only those with the ability to work with intelligent machines, or whose skills are irreplaceable, will benefit.

Free online education – something that Cowen is already pioneering with his online economics courses at the Marginal Revolution University – will offer opportunities to those from deprived backgrounds to join the new elite, and so the future will be both “more meritocratic and more unfair”.

Cowen says that many will struggle to reconcile this tension between meritocracy and fairness. “This juxtaposition is a kind of deliberate confusion,” he says to me when we speak over the telephone. “The point is that this world will be confusing and it will be disorientating . . . The final picture is one with both utopian and dystopian elements.”

He says he doesn’t want to tell his readers what to think, but argues that the US needs to start looking at inequality (as, indeed, do other developed economies) in a more dispassionate and analytical way. “There are many books on inequality but quite quickly they tend to run on the left to preaching some message; and on the right, maybe a kind of denialism or moralising about people who aren’t doing as well,” he says. “I tried to avoid both directions to see if we can get our understanding a bit further.”

Cowen was New Jersey’s youngest-ever chess champion, aged 15 when he won in 1977, and he devotes a whole chapter to the intrigues and wider implications of freestyle chess, in which players are allowed to use computer programs to improve their game. In the future, the “wisest” of us will entrust computers to make decisions for us, not only on chess moves but for affairs of the heart, he believes.

For Cowen, algorithms can hold the key to a happy marriage. He met his wife through the online dating site in 2003. She is a liberal but he describes himself as a “libertarian” and “conservative”, and admits that his wife might have been less keen on a first meeting if she had known his political leanings. The medium of online dating forced her to abandon her usual intuitions – to their mutual benefit.

“I have quite a few friends who are single and I find a lot of them have quite arbitrary standards,” he says. “Over time, programs are going to nudge us out of that. The people who are willing to be nudged will on average marry better and they will make a lot of better choices.” If average is over, so is romance.

Russian chess world champion Vladimir Kramnik plays his sixth and last chess match against chess computer 'Deep Fritz'. Image: Getty

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.