The Social Wage as a Definitive Component of Political Parties' Philosophies
Revised version of a paper presented to the Conference of the New Zealand Political Studies Association, 8-10 July 1996.
© 1996 Keith Rankin
Economics Dept., University of Auckland.
The term 'social wage' is used frequently in a journalistic sense, to mean the provision of an illdefined set of public services which invariably include education and health care. The term does not have widespread currency in international academic circles. This paper proposes a careful and comprehensive definition of the social wage, recognising that 'wage' is a word for the remuneration for a factor of production and that 'social' implies universal coverage. Thus the social wage comes to be seen as a form of collective property income, including 'royalties' for the use of natural and intangible 'sovereign' resources that are not subject to freehold ownership. As such, the social wage constitutes all public expenditure, including an income support system that pays pensions, benefits, subsidies and tax concessions. This paper proposes that political parties' philosophies essentially reflect (i) differences in the appropriate size of the social wage relative to other factor components of gross national product, and (ii) differences over the extent to which government or individuals should determine how the social wage will be spent.
The term 'social wage' is used frequently in New Zealand in a journalistic sense, to mean something like public expenditure on health, education, housing and social welfare. Raising the social wage is seen as a 'left-wing' alternative to tax cuts as a means of spending public sector surpluses. The term, not easily pinned down, is not widely used by economists. To some extent, it is a term associated with a 'political economy perspective', used by Marxist or 'social' economists rather than neo-classical practitioners. When using the term, social economists tend to focus mainly on the four items listed above, over which there is a near consensus. However, cash benefits (transfers) are sometimes excluded, as in the phrase "transfers and social wage benefits" (abstract to Castles 1988), while all noncash benefits have also been excluded (Gough 1979, p.116).
My definition of social wage focuses on the word 'wage', taking it to mean any factor payment rather than a payment specifically to 'labour'. Thus a salary is a wage. Profits and interest are the wages of capital. The social wage is the income accruing to the public interest, transcending the traditional class interests of labour and capital.
As a factor income, the social wage fund can be seen as a slice of a country's national income; a flatrate levy on producers and consumers in return for the use of social - ie public domain - inputs, plus the earnings of publicly owned capitalist enterprises. As such it includes an element of economic rent, justified by the Georgeist view (Henry George, 1879) that private capital gains are largely a result of changes in the social environment, and that such economic rents ("free lunches", Mokyr 1990, p.3) should therefore be equally distributed as part of the public interest. Thus the social wage is effectively a form of property income. Because it is equally owned by everyone in the population, it should be distributed equally. The social wage should not be seen as redistribution, although it may be subject to redistribution.
Once accepted that taxation is one of the prices producers pay for their factor inputs 1, then that price can be seen as the present company tax rate; 33 percent in New Zealand, 39 percent in Australia. Indeed, all income tax can be regarded as company tax; as a tax on producers' contributions to gross domestic product (GDP). The New Zealand goods and services tax (GST) rate of 121/2 percent can be taken as the price consumers pay for their use of the public domain. These are current prices, not in any sense 'efficient' prices. From this point of view, any tax concessions - eg subsidies or personal tax allowances - can be seen as disbursements from the social wage fund. The social wage fund 2 is gross public revenue. The individual social wage is gross public revenue per capita. Tax allowances, tax credits and subsidies are no different from benefits.
This social wage approach to social accounting - "social wage accounting" (Rankin 1995, 1996) - gives a baseline against which redistributive flows of public income can be assessed. As such, it is a way of making hidden subsidies visible - eg any instance of a firm not generating public revenue to the value of 33 percent of its contribution to GDP - as well as a means of rationalising social assistance payments. Thus, while income distribution in any present or past economy can be investigated through the tool of social wage accounting, it is also an approach that can help us to formulate socioeconomic policies, and it is a means of interpreting political ideology.
There is no entry for 'social wage' in either the New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics or the New Palgrave reference works on Marxian economics and social economics, although the contributor on social welfare in the latter work, Ian Gough, has elsewhere given a definition of the social wage (Trethewey 1994, p.365; Gough 1979, p.116) as cash benefits. The recent Routledge Dictionary of Economics (ed. Rutherford, 1992) has no entry either, while the American McGrawHill dictionary (ed. Greenwald, 1993) does have an entry for 'social dividend'; "refer Negative Income Tax".
The social wage concept seems to be more widely used in Australia than any other English speaking country. Peter Saunders, Director of the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, is one who frequently uses the term. Author of Welfare and Inequality: National and International Perspectives on the Welfare State (1994), and principal author of Aspects of the Social Wage: a Review of Social Expenditures and Redistribution, published by the Australian Economic Planning Advisory Council (EPAC) in 1987, he focuses on the "minimum" definition, namely government spending on education, health, social security and housing (EPAC, p.8). Fred Argy, EPAC director, defines the social wage as "that part of government spending which provides benefits, either in cash or kind, to individuals and families" (Saunders 1987, forward). Alternative definitions (p.46) - eg Ann Harding - include some tax concessions, and other areas of government spending such as public works infrastructure, as distinct from "social wage infrastructure" (Harding 1994, p.1). In 1982, Harding noted (pp.13,21):
Some would regard all government expenditure as the social wage, on the grounds that all public expenditure is ultimately for the benefit of the entire community. Others would adopt a much narrower definition and view it as expenditure on education, health, social security and housing ... There is no consensus about exactly what the social wage consists of, how it can be measured, or the extent to which it is to be an instrument for achieving greater equality.
For Rob Watts, the social wage is simply "the value per capita of federal social services" (Watts 1987, p.ix), with the word 'federal' apparently reflecting the nature of the story he has to tell rather than a conscious exclusion of State social services. Keith Norris notes that "there are no clear criteria for deciding which goods and services to include as part of the social wage". For his empirical estimates of the social wage index, he settles on "education, health, housing, culture and recreation, and roads". Saunders (1994, pp.163164) recognised the conceptual difficulties underlying the social wage concept, and chose to avoid them through a pragmatic approach:
In principle [the social wage] encompasses all government transfers and services, even though it is often difficult if not impossible to quantify the size of all of the effects. Government spending on defence, law and order, or subsidies to industry, all provide benefits which raise living standards, yet none is included in conventional accounts of the social wage. The rationale for their exclusion is not based on any clear principle ... The more one searches for a [conceptual] solution, the more difficult the issues one uncovers. Rather than pursue this further, a pragmatic approach is adopted which includes the social wage expenditures in the areas of education, health, social security, welfare services, and housing and community amenities.
Saunders (1994, p.161) summarised the relationship between private incomes, taxes and the social wage as follows:
This differs from my approach, in that
I treat all personal tax allowances and tax credits as "Direct Social Wage Benefits".
Mark Trethewey (1994:365-366), an Australian, addresses the definitional issue: "Questions of what public and private expenditure to include in the social wage hinge on two considerations: first, on the value judgements that must be made regarding the definition of a 'benefit'; and, second, on the context within which the concept is to be applied. On the first question clearly opinion differs ... A conventional definition of the social wage may include government outlays under the budget classifications of education, health, social security and welfare, and housing and community amenities ... On other views it would include only the group of government cash transfers that confer a direct and measurable benefit on individuals and groups [or] it could embrace all government expenditure on the grounds that all public expenditure ultimately is for the benefit of the entire community." The union of all the above definitions in currency in Australia includes all government spending on goods and services, and all cash benefits, including tax allowances.
Adam Jamrozik goes further, emphasising the product mix rather than public supply (Jamrozik 1991; see also Graycar and Jamrozik, 1993, pp.6880). Public goods available through the public sector are part of the social wage, as are what other have called "employment rents" (Schor 1991, van Parijs 1991). He says. The privatization of the social wage is the issue of concern here. Jamrozik says (pp.242243):
The problem [of the two-tier welfare state] is well illustrated by the concept of the social wage ... the public system for the poor, and the private system (supported by public funds) for the affluent. ...Whenever a service is available in the public and the private sector (the market), inequality in access, usage and quality of service will increase. ... Provisions located in the private sector but paid for from public funds tend to become 'invisible' and their users do not see themselves, and are not seen as 'welfare recipients'. For example, tax concessions or business subsidies are not 'visible' benefits and they do not appear in government publications as welfare expenditures. Moreover, such benefits as tax cuts, once they have been implemented, are no longer seen as benefits. Yet, it is in the area of income tax cuts that the Labor government has provided the most substantial benefits.
Jamrozik is clearly seeking to establish a form of social wage accounting which regards the impact of tax cuts on an equal footing with benefit increases, while showing a tendency to greater inequality in the distribution of the social wage. One difficulty in this approach would be in differentiating a cut in the company tax rate from a cut in personal rates. It is clear that tax concessions must be considered relative to a baseline such as company tax. In this case, a fall in the company tax rate reduces the social wage fund while also reducing tax concessions paid from that fund and, as in Australia where top personal tax rates exceed the company tax rate, raising penal taxes.
Fred Moseley (1995, p.204) acknowledges the unfamiliarity to mainstream American and British economists of the term 'social wage' when reviewing Shaikh and Tonak's Measuring the Wealth of Nations: the Political Economy of National Accounts, by the use of single quotation marks. Shaikh and Tonak (and Moseley) define the workers' social wage, in Marxist terms, as the value of government services received less taxes paid ("net taxes", Shaikh and Tonak 1994, p.164). Shaikh and Tonak conclude that in the 1980s, the "net social wage" (Shaikh and Tonak 1994, p.141; Miller, 1989) paid to American workers became increasingly negative, and that it had also been significantly negative in the 1950s and 1960s.
Within Marxian and "neoMarxist" economics, there was a "social wage debate" (Miller, 1989, p.82) in the 1980s (ref. Bowles & Gintis 1982, Shaikh and Tonak 1987), essentially around the circumstances of American workers and the net social wage. Bowles and Gintis call the social wage "citizenwage expenditures" (p.75).
In choosing to regard income tax as a factor payment paid by producers, the debit side of the Marxian net social wage disappears from my definition. My definition of the social wage is thus consistent with the Marxian views of a gross social wage, although it is understood as property income, rather than as a redistributive offset to workers' taxes. While Miller's title - "Social Wage or Social Profit?" - is intended to convey the idea of a negative net social wage (a gain to capitalists), it unintentionally reinforces the idea that a social wage is in fact a profit; a return on capital - on social capital, broadly defined; the interest to society from producers' social or public domain inputs.
Friedland and Sanders (1986, pp.203204) consider "two forms of social wages ... transfer payments to households and government services". Unlike the Marxists, they do not restrict their social wage constituency to wage earners: "First, social wages are directed toward individuals who would otherwise depend upon those who earn private wages or upon entrance into the labour market ... Second, social wages are a measure of income outside the private wage system ... a pool of politically manipulable resources available for buffering the incomes of those who cannot find sufficient work or wages to survive." While their definition reflects economic orthodoxy, and a degree of cynicism about the ability of government to manage a social wage fund, it is not exclusive of a more general definition and approach. They conclude that "the best way to hold back private wage increases is to have a better, not a worse, welfare state" (p.216).
In Sweden and Britain, the term 'social wage' has been used to mean a coherent watertight package of supplementary benefits (Rainwater et.al., 1986, pp.131132). As such, it comes to mean a universal welfare system, which guarantees a minimum adequate income to all citizens:
In Britain, welfare is designed to supplement contributory and universal programs, hence the name 'Supplementary Benefits' ... Unlike the American scheme in principle, the benefits are designed to fill the whole gap between available resources and requirements.
In Sweden, a system of local discretionary standards [of adequacy] prevails. In 1970, Stockholm added together the multiple discretionary benefits available to social aid recipients into a single standard of requirements; it became known as the 'social wage'. The standard immediately became the subject of political controversy, because many Conservatives believed that the social wage was too high and threatened work incentives. In Stockholm as in Britain individuals were entitled to receive all of the shortfall between their resources and their requirements.
Bill Jordan, in a 1984 article titled "The Social Wage: a Right for All", uses the term as analogous to "social dividend": "the social dividend approach, which is sometimes described, as by David Sheppard in the recent Dimbleby lecture, as the 'social wage'." This approach draws in the concepts of universality and factor distribution ('dividend'), away from the traditional focus on redistribution. A concept of a social dividend as at least an accounting identity within a social wage is central to my social wage accounting approach to income distribution. The social dividend can be seen as a 'distributed social wage' or a 'social wage tax credit', and the remainder of the social wage can be seen as a 'retained social wage'. The parallels to orthodox company accounting practices are obvious.
Nobel Laureate, James Meade, has been a long standing advocate of the social dividend approach (ref. Atkinson, 1995) as a basis for social policy. Furthermore he recognises that a social dividend can be constructed from existing graduated tax scales (Meade 1993, p.153):
The second stage [to a social dividend 'adequate' to replace conditional benefits in 'Agathotopia'] was to abolish all personal allowances under the Income Tax and the replace them by a tax-free Social Dividend of equal values. ... This purely administrative change in fact made no difference to anyone's income [added emphasis], the Social Dividend replacing the Conditional Benefit in some cases and replacing the loss of personal tax allowances in other cases. ... The third stage was an attempt to raise the Social Dividend or, as it may be called, the Unconditional Benefit.
Here we have a transparent social dividend which can be simply placed within the social wage, at the expense of the tax allowances which blur the divide between the social wage and private incomes. The 'third stage' represents a political strategy to raise the social wage by raising the social dividend part of public expenditure. Meade's form of social wage accounting comes close to the "Basic Income / Flat Tax" proposals discussed by Atkinson, which specify the key parameters of a politically contestable system of social wage accounting, although not actually using the terms 'social wage' (specified in essence by the 'flat tax' concept) or 'social dividend' (specified by the 'basic income' concept).
A final use of the term 'social wage' is that used by J.C. Weldon, a scholar of classical economics. He uses 'social wage' to mean the income of the sovereign, whether or not the sovereignty is democratically constituted (Weldon 1988, p.41 incl. n62).
The theorist today who would follow the classicists in deferring to reality must notice at least one great change in the structures that determine distribution. There is an ever widening difference between the private and the social wage, between the private and social share of the surplus. ... One would not be at all surprised, incidentally, to learn that the ratio of social to private wage declined from Petty to Marx, and that its rise in this century has been a return to the much earlier proportion.
This seems to be a very useful general approach to the social wage, in that it introduces the whole issue of economic sovereignty as a basis for evaluating the allocation of the social wage fund. We can say that the sovereign receives the "lion's share" (Lowry, p.228) of the social wage.
The central idea is that the social wage fund is a slice of GDP; 3 or, more accurately, three slices. The biggest slice is income tax, which is a simple percentage of GDP at factor cost - eg 33 percent in New Zealand. The next biggest slice is 'indirect taxes'; which essentially make the difference between GDP at factor cost and GDP at market prices. The smallest slice is the value added by 'State Owned Enterprises' and other public investments in national and international capital markets; strictly speaking, this is a slice of gross national product (GNP), not GDP. 4
Because the price attributed to social inputs taken collect represents a slice of national income, it must be specified as a flat tax rate. The key parameter that determines the relative size of the social wage is the company tax rate, which we can call the 'base rate of income tax'. In New Zealand, that rate is 33 percent. There is no reason why the 33 percent cannot be deducted by firms before they dispense wages and refundable tax credits to their employees, especially as 33 percent is also the upper rate of a twostep scale. 5 In reality, that does happen already to a large extent, in the form of PAYE and dividend/interest withholding tax. 6
The GST rate is also an important determinant of the size of the social wage. To some extent there can be a trade-off between income tax and GST. While, GST is harder to avoid, income tax is payable by foreign owned domestic firms. It is my view that foreign enterprises operating in New Zealand should pay a significant amount for the public inputs they use; therefore the emphasis should be on income taxation.
The individual social wage is the equally divided aggregate social wage; estimated at $11,600 per man, woman and child in New Zealand in 1996/97. The individual social wage is itself divisible four ways:
There can be some caveats on full universality; for example, children's social dividends can be accounted for separately from those of adults. And, it is possible to have a tax surcharge as a means of clawing back some people's social dividends; indeed that is exactly what does happen to low income earners under the present taxtransfer regime. Conceiving existing tax allowances as a formal social dividend or basic income, the amount can be accounted for as a Social Wage Tax Credit (SWTC). Thus we can say that all adult New Zealanders receive an SWTC of $3,933 per annum, a tax credit that is subject to a low income clawback, a lowincome surtax (LIS). Table 1 shows how we can think of existing tax allowances as universal tax credits, using the concepts of a base rate of income tax (33%), a social wage tax credit ($3,933), and a lowincome surtax.
Beneficiaries and superannuitants in New Zealand can be said to receive a social dividend of $3,933 plus one or more transfer payments; ie existing benefits can be considered as a sum of two parts. In that way, the already legislated for 1997 round of tax cuts which raise the SWTC from $3,933 to $5,130, could be paid to beneficiaries as well as employed persons.
The lower the social dividend the more such social wage funded redistribution is required to keep people from falling below the poverty line. In order to escape from the poverty trap which results from an accumulation of abating benefits and surtaxes, 9 there could be a single abating supplementary benefit which would be set in accordance with some kind of points system. Points could be awarded on account of, say, the number of children being supported, soleparenthood, being over retirement age, disability, unemployment, excessive rent. Under this approach, there would be just one abatement regime to contend with.
Applying social wage accounting to New Zealand at present, we can call all transfer payments in excess of the $3,933 SWTC 'supplementary benefits'.
Being a slice of national income, the social wage is automatically indexed to GDP; ie the tax rate stays the same unless adjusted through the political process. In the long run, the relative contribution of intangible public domain inputs almost certainly has risen. Certainly, the base rate of income tax should be rising over time in any economy experiencing longrun 'total factor productivity' growth.
In this paper the emphasis is not on the evolution of the social wage; rather it is on the differing views of political parties, at any point in time, with respect to two parameters in particular (i) the appropriate base rate of income tax (flat tax) which more than anything else determines the size of the social wage relative to national income, and (ii) the size of the social dividend (basic income) relative to the individual social wage. The social wage is essentially an accounting device; it is not a scheme. However, "Basic Income / Flat Tax" (BI/FT; Atkinson 1995) schemes logically follow from the social wage concept.
In general, the two parameters represent the two distinct sides of the fiscal equation: (i) revenue; the creation of an social wage fund through a potential combination of taxes, capital market investments and deficit finance, from which the major share will be an income tax, and (ii) expenditure; the subdivision of the individual social wage into a potential combination of social dividend, government expenditure, redistribution and debt repayment.
Some elements of (i) or (ii) might be missing (ie zero-rated) in the policies of any particular political party. For example, a party like ACT, 10 with a flat tax scale and no universal tax credits, has a zerorated social dividend. A party advocating a universal basic income as the sole form of cash welfare provision has zero-rated redistribution.
The parameters of the social wage - once made visible to the public - are politically contestable. The political difficulty, at present, is that, in the absence of a formerly adopted set of social wage accounting principles, the key social wage parameters are not transparent to the public; hence they cannot be central to political debate. I see these social wage parameters as the defining characteristics of political parties' philosophies. Thus, a leftwing party is one which favours a high social wage relative to national income; the key parameter being the base tax rate that they advocate. 11 Conversely, a rightwing party would favour a low base rate of income tax. (The present 33 percent tax rate defines current government as rightwing.) Both would claim to be in favour of economic justice; central to leftwing philosophy is the idea that economic justice means a relatively equal distribution of income. The "left vs. right" philosophical axis is about variations of social inequality.
The other key parameter is the "libertarian vs. authoritarian" axis. 'Libertarians' - believing that individuals can best spend or invest their own incomes - favour a high social dividend relative to an individual's social wage. Conversely, 'authoritarians' distrust individuals, and seek to spend their social wage for them in the form of public expenditure and targeted transfers. Current National Party ideology with respect to this axis is confused, thanks to the lack of transparent social wage accounting principles. Essentially higher social dividends are being granted at tax cuts, but for all lower income recipients, beneficiaries and caregivers, the increased social dividends are being recovered through effective lowincome surtaxes. The social wage tax credit as an individual's social dividend - expressed as a percentage of the individual's social wage - would be the key parameter which would place a party on the libertarianauthoritarian spectrum.
It is not really possible to fairly classify most current political parties as authoritarianleft, libertarianleft, authoritarianright or libertarianright; social wage accounting principles are not as yet common currency. 12 But, the Alliance is genuinely committed to a universalist high social wage policy, and at least the Greens and the Democrats within the Alliance have a history of support for social dividends. It would be plausible to suggest that the Alliance could become the basis of a libertarianleft party. On the other hand, one could imagine both Labour and the Alliance dividing and reforming into libertarianleft and authoritarianleft parties. National would probably show up as moderately right and moderately authoritarian. ACT is distinctly authoritarianright, 13 due to its strong preference for a fullytargeted income support system, compulsory retirement savings, and minimal if not zero income taxes. Libertarianz would clearly fit as libertarianright, 14 although the social wage would be so small that the difference between libertarian farright and authoritarian farright wouldn't matter very much.
Bill Jordan said in 1984 (p.144): "The market and socialist versions of the social dividend approach differ sharply from each other. The market version emphasises the benefits of rising productivity, flexibility of wages and labour, and lower costs to industry. It runs the risk of keeping [social] dividends below true subsistence level ... The socialist version, which I favour, would ... involve a much more active role for the state, and give higher priority to industrial democracy, participation and freedom." He clearly establishes his position as libertarianleft.
Much of the essentially European academic debate about basic incomes and the priority they should take vis-à-vis other forms of public expenditure represents the clash within the left between libertarian and authoritarian socialists (van der Veen & van Parijs et.al., 1986). The division on the right is more characteristic of debate in the United States, where the social wage is small; between adherents of Friedmanite negative income tax proposals (Greenwald 1983; ref. "social dividend" / "negative income tax") and between those who seek highly conditional and targeted forms of income support characteristic of "the New Social Contract" (Davey 1995).
In New Zealand, social wage accounting concepts are compatible with the economic rationalism behind the 1991 Employment Contracts Act (ECA). They can also provide some clues about how a leftleaning government could use the social wage to reverse the tide of inequality which appears to have accelerated in the 1990s, 15 and the simultaneous benefit cuts that gave the ECA space to bring about a significant degree of downwards wage flexibility.
While a government should not need to make any changes to its revenue collection or to its expenditure in order to make use of social wage accounting concepts, the use of the social wage perspective in national and public sector accounts does reveal hidden sources of existing inequities - such as the effective surtaxes on the social dividends of lowincome earners. Hence, social wage accounting principles can become an indirect agent for social policy reform. The direct agents, in a democracy, remain the political parties and the voting public.
I will conclude with a quote from Albert Hirschman (1994) about the fear of change on the part of established interests, and about how that fear is transmitted to the public in a way that consolidates public support for the reforms. When obviously interested parties actively campaign against political reforms, those reforms become a "selfrefuting prophecy".
With a [popular] reform having been adopted in spite of strenuous [conservative] opposition, it often turned out, to much surprise, that the reform, that famous "leap in the dark", could be lived with. The result was enormous relief among the owners of capital, political stabilization, and a period of sustained economic growth and prosperity.
The concept of the social wage may be threatening to established interests, given that it is highly suggestive of a pattern of reform that would reverse the direction of recent trends towards lower tax rates. It is perhaps better for public discourse that they promote rightleaning political parties explicitly advocating a low social wage. In the end, the private sector stands to benefit from a prosperous community. If a high social wage goes some way to achieving such prosperity, then the result can be a winwin outcome; increased economic efficiency and improved economic justice. To give one historical example, the private sector was very fearful of changes a Labour Government might bring in 1935. That fear had evaporated by 1938; New Zealand businesses had become much more prosperous than they were five years earlier.
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© 1996 Keith Rankin