I thought Charlotte Zalens’ article “Does £70,000 make you rich?” (Solidarity 436) was really useful, informative and thought provoking. Charlotte made three important points.
One, that £70,000 is way beyond the £22,400 median wage. Two, that a salary of £70,000 places someone in the top tenth of the population by income. And, three that income inequality at the top of the scale is far greater than at the bottom.
So, while £70,000 will place someone in the top tenth, this is relatively small beer when compared with the average £270,000 for the top 1%, chicken feed compared with £1 million plus for the top 0.1%. Charlotte might also have noted that one reason why the mass media get so over excited over rumours of tax plans for those on over £70,000 is that the great majority of the “commentariat”, those journalists who produce and communicate through the mass media, the big daily newspapers, who front the TV news programmes, are themselves earning well over that amount.
Interestingly, Charlotte suggests we should be aiming for the majority of the population to enjoy the benefits and relative security of those currently earning over £70,000, which sort of implies she is against additional taxation on this income band. I don’t think we should over-estimate the security of those who happen to get around £70,000. It is a truism that we are all just three or less pay cheques away from homelessness and destitution. Given £70,000 is hardly comparable with £1 million, do we really regard people earning (say) between £70,000 and £100,000 as fully paid up members of the capitalist class?
The capitalist class are surely defined as those whose income is a number of multiples beyond which it is necessary to compensate for their socially necessary labour. £70,000 to £100,000 hardly represents a significant share of the total surplus product of society. If one was trying to manage capitalism fairly, you could argue that those earning (say) more than £40,000 should pay more in taxation, and progressively more as you go up the income scale. It is obvious from Charlotte’s analysis (itself drawing on HMRC figures), that the real serious income and wealth is held by the top 1-5%, and if a progressive government wanted to raise serious additional sums of revenue, that is where new additional taxation should fall. i.e. we can raise tax rates for the £70,000 to £100,000 bands, but comparatively little additional revenue would be raised. However, targeting the majority of the required additional revenue on the 1% and 5% would instantly raise the class divided and antagonistic nature of our society, who would see this as an implied threat to their continued existence and would be expected to respond accordingly.
So, the choices facing a progressive government on taxation seems to include: loading the majority of the additional tax requirement on what is effectively the capitalist class and inviting an almost counter-revolutionary reaction; loading the majority of taxation on upper working class and middle but non capitalist class strata, causing sharp reductions in their living standards and pushing them towards the capitalist class. Or, lastly, give up any real hope of raising significant additional tax revenue this side of socialist revolution, and try in vain to manage capitalism better than the capitalists, with inevitable demoralisation and demobilisation of the labour and working class and wider potential movement.
Judges should be elected
Between 20 and 27 April the US state of Arkansas rushed through four legal killings of death row prisoners, to get them done before the use-by date for its stocks of a sedative used in the killings.
Stephen Larkin’s article in Solidarity 436 indicted the macabre penalties; but, oddly, seemed to conclude by blaming not the death penalty as such but the USA’s practice of electing judges: “the moral bankruptcy of a state where the judicial system is inherently political, and human beings can be sacrificed for short-term electoral approval”.
In fact, three of the eight prisoners whom the state governor wanted to kill were reprieved at the last minute by the judges of the Arkansas Supreme Court (elected for staggered eight-year terms), and another reprieved by a federal district court (judges appointed by the President). In the UK, judges were appointed by a government minister until 2016, and are now appointed by a government-selected commission which currently comprises several senior legal figures, a retired general, a retired top civil servant, a J D Wetherspoon boss, and a medical professor.
Judges are political. They make law, as much as parliament does. In a settled bourgeois democracy, like the UK (and the USA too), they work in a system and a culture of constraints, tied by precedents and public opinion. But they are not non-political. Witness the 1982 case in which the House of Lords banned the Labour Greater London Council’s reduced-fares scheme, a central part of the manifesto on which it was elected, because Bromley’s Tory council pleaded that the policy was too expensive. The judges said that councils must not “treat themselves as irrevocably bound to carry out pre-announced policies contained in election manifestos”.
Such cases are unusual only because, sadly, Labour councils and Labour governments rarely push the envelope. The Erfurt Programme, the classic detailed socialist programme of the 19th century, specifically endorsed by Frederick Engels, demanded “judges elected by the people”. The socialists presumed that judge candidates would need qualifications, that they would have some security of tenure to give them autonomy from ephemeral public moods, and so on: but they were right, I think, to want judges elected by the people rather than appointed by pub bosses, generals, and ministers.