In a series of five podcasts, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in the first week of January 2021, Amol Rajan and guests examine different aspects of inequality and consider the concept of fairness.
As the notes to the programme state:
The pandemic brought renewed focus on how we value those who have kept shelves stacked, transport running and the old and sick cared for. So is now the time to bring about a fundamental shift in how our society and economy work?
The first podcast, linked below, examines the distribution of wealth in the UK and how it has changed over time. It looks at how rising property and share prices and a lightly taxed inheritance system have widened inequality of wealth.
It also examines rising inequality of incomes, a problem made worse by rising wealth inequality, the move to zero-hour contracts, gig working and short-term contracts, the lack of social mobility, austerity following the financial crisis of 2007–9 and the lockdowns and restrictions to contain the coronavirus pandemic, with layoffs, people put on furlough and more and more having to turn to food banks.
Is this rising inequality fair? Should fairness be considered entirely in monetary terms, or should it be considered more broadly in social terms? These are issues discussed by the guests. They also look at what policies can be pursued. If the pay of health and care workers, for example, don’t reflect their value to our society, what can be done to increase their pay? If wealth is very unequally distributed, should it be redistributed and how?
The questions below are based directly on the issues covered in the podcast in the order they are discussed.
- In what ways has Covid-19 been the great ‘unequaliser’?
- What scarring/hysteresis effects are there likely to be from the pandemic?
- To what extent is it true that ‘the more your job benefits other people, the less you get paid’?
- How has the pandemic affected inter-generational inequality?
- How have changes in house prices skewed wealth in the UK over the past decade?
- How have changes in the pension system contributed to inter-generational inequality?
- How has quantitative easing affected the distribution of wealth?
- Why is care work so poorly paid and how can the problem be addressed?
- How desirable is the pursuit of wealth?
- How would you set about defining ‘fairness’?
- Is a mix of taxation and benefits the best means of tackling economic unfairness?
- How would you set about deciding an optimum rate of inheritance tax?
- How do you account for the growth of in-work poverty?
- In what ways could wealth be taxed? What are the advantages and disadvantages of such taxes?
One of the most controversial policy changes being made by the Conservative government relates to the tax credit system. For many years, the tax and benefits system in the UK has come in for significant criticism. It has been described as overly complex, a system that doesn’t reward work and yet a system that doesn’t provide sufficient incentives to move off benefits and into work.
The changes that the government is proposing are wide-ranging and focused in part on reducing the deficit. With changes to tax thresholds, the introduction of the National Living Wage (NLW) and changes to the thresholds at which tax credits are available, the Treasury suggests that £4.5 billion will be saved per year. It also says that most working families will be made better off. However, the IFS suggests that some families could lose up to £1000 per year following the changes.
In addition to these changes, the amount of tax-free childcare is also set to increase, helping those households with young children
Tax credits are designed to help low income families and working tax credit, in particular, is aimed to encourage people to move into work. A key change to this tax credit will see the threshold at which the recipient’s payments of this benefit begin to decline move from £6420 to £3850. The withdrawal rate – the rate at which the benefit is withdrawn – will also be increased.
The idea is that this will help to target the benefit more tightly – make it more vertically efficient. But, the concern is that this will also mean that low-income working households are worse off, despite the introduction in April 2016 of the National Living Wage. The Chancellor suggests that anyone who is working full time will be better off following these changes and that as such the changes will actively encourage work and lead to an increase in the supply of labour. This, the government argues, is a good policy for the working population, tax payers and for the wider economy.
This policy will remain controversial, with changes set to come in from 2016 and then 2017. It is certainly difficult to assess the impact of these changes on households and part of that stems from the complexities of the existing system, which mean that some households are eligible for some benefits, whereas others are not.
The final impact, if such changes are approved, will only be known once the tax credit changes are implemented. The House of Lords will vote on whether to ‘kill’ the tax credit cuts and Mr. Osborne, despite some concerns from Conservative back-benchers has said he is ‘comfortable’ with the policy and that the House of Lords should respect the views of the other house. Until we see the results of the vote and, even then, the impact of the changes on households, both sides will continue to produce data and estimates in support of their views.
Tax credit changes: who will be the winners and losers? BBC News, Brian Milligan (20/10/14)
Tax credit cuts: Osborne ‘comfortable’ with plan despite pressure from fellow Tories The Guardian, Rowena Mason and Heather Stewart (22/10/15)
George Osborne insists he signalled tax credit cuts before the election Independent, Jon Stone (22/10/15)
George Osborne: I am “comfortable” with tax credit cuts The Telegraph, Steven Swinford (22/10/15)
Commons Speaker warns Lords not to block tax credit cuts The Guardian, Patrick Wintour (21/10/15)
Tax credits: George Osborne ‘comfortable’ with ‘judgement call’ BBC News (22/10/15)
Osborne stands firm despite tax credits unease Financial Times, George Parker and Ferdinando Giugliano (22/10/15)
Austerity was a political choice. Now it’s starting to look like a bad one The Guardian. Heather Stewart (25/10/15)
- What are tax credits?
- How do they aim to affect the supply of labour?
- Using indifference analysis, explain how the income and substitution effects will work, following a change to tax thresholds.
- What is meant by vertical efficiency and the targeting of benefits?
- Why would the changes to tax credits help those in full-time work more than those in part-time work?
- What are the main arguments for and against the changes to tax credits?
In a post last August we looked at the rising number of workers employed on ‘zero-hours’ contracts. These are contracts where there are no guaranteed minimum hours. Such contracts give employers the flexibility to employ workers as much or as little as suits the business. Sometimes it benefits workers, who might be given the flexibility to request the hours that suit them, but usually workers simply have to take the hours on offer.
Latest figures published by the Office for National Statistics show that zero-hours contracts are on the increase. In 2014 quarter 4, 697,000 workers were recorded as being on zero-hours contracts. This represents 2.3% of people in employment. Ten years ago (2004, Q4) the figures were 108,000 or 0.4%: see chart. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
Around one third of the 697,000 people on zero-hours contracts wanted more work if they could get it and most wanted it in their current job rather than having to move jobs. These people wanting more work can be classed as underemployed. They also include those not on a zero-hours contract who would like to work more if they could.
According to the ONS:
‘People on zero-hours contracts are more likely to be women, in full-time education or in young or older age groups when compared with other people in employment. On average, someone on a zero-hours contract usually works 25 hours a week.’ (See section 4 of the report for more details.)
As we saw in the earlier post, many public- and private-sector employers use such contracts, including many small and medium-sized enterprises and many well-known large companies, such as Sports Direct, Amazon, JD Wetherspoon and Cineworld. It gives them the flexibility to adjust the hours they employ people. It allows them to keep people in employment when demand is low. It also makes them more willing to take on staff when demand rises, as it removes the fear of being over-staffed if demand then falls back.
As we also saw, zero-hours contracts are not the only form of flexible working. Other examples include: ‘self-employed’ workers, contracted separately for each job they do for a company; people paid largely or wholly on commission; on-call working; part-time working, where the hours are specified in advance, but where these are periodically re-negotiated; overtime; people producing a product or service for a company (perhaps at home), where the company varies the amount paid per unit according to market conditions.
The extent of zero-hours contracts varies dramatically from one sector of the economy to another. Only 0.6% of workers in the Information, Finance and Professional sectors were on zero-hours contracts in 2014 Q4, whereas 10% in the Accommodation and Food sectors were.
The flexibility that such contracts give employers may make them more willing to keep on workers when demand is low – they can reduce workers’ hours rather than laying them off. It also may make them more willing to take on workers (or increase their hours) when demand is expanding, not having to worry about being over staffed later on.
However, many workers on such contracts find it hard to budget when their hours are not guaranteed and can vary significantly from week to week.
lmost 700,000 people in UK have zero-hours contract as main job The Guardian, Phillip Inman (25/2/15)
UK firms use 1.8m zero-hours contracts, says ONS BBC News (25/1/15)
Zero-hours contracts jump in UK Financial Times, Emily Cadman (25/2/15)
Zero-hours contracts ‘disturbingly’ hit 1.8 million in 2014 International Business Times, Ian Silvera (25/2/15)
Zero-hours contracts a reality for almost 700,000 UK workers, ONS figures show Independent, Antonia Molloy (25/1/15)
Contracts with No Guaranteed Hours, Zero Hour Contracts, 2014 ONS Release (25/1/15)
Supplementary LFS data on zero hours contracts – October to December 2014 ONS dataset (25/2/15)
Analysis of Employee Contracts that do not Guarantee a Minimum Number of Hours ONS Report (25/1/15)
- Distinguish between open unemployment, disguised unemployment and underemployment?
- Distinguish between functional, numerical and financial flexibility? Which type or types of flexibility do zero-hours contracts give the firm?
- In a ‘flexible’ labour market, what forms can that flexibility take?
- Why does the Accommodation and Food sector have a relatively high proportion of people employed on zero-hours contracts?
- What are the benefits and costs to employers of using zero-hours contracts?
- If a company introduces a system of zero-hours contracts, is this in accordance with the marginal productivity theory of profit maximisation from employment?
- What are the benefits and costs to employees of working on zero-hours contracts?
- Why has the use of zero-hours contracts risen so rapidly?
- Using the ONS data, find out how the use of zero-hours contracts varies by occupation and explain why.
- Identify what forms of flexible contracts are used for staff in your university or educational establishment. Do they benefit (a) staff; (b) students?
- Consider the arguments for and against (a) banning and (b) regulating zero-hours contracts.
Officials from Rugby Union’s Aviva Premiership recently announced that the salary cap used by the league would increase from £4.76 million to £5.1 million per team for the 2015-16 season. It is not the only professional sports league to use this type of regulation. The NFL currently has a salary cap of $133 million/team while in the NBA it is set at $63 million/team. What is the rationale for placing restrictions on the amount an organisation can pay its employees? How do these caps work in practice?
A salary cap is a regulation that limits the amount that an organisation can pay its employees. Sanctions are usually imposed if the ceiling is broken.
It is hard to imagine this type of policy being introduced in most industries. For example there may have been a number of calls for much greater regulation of the big six firms in the energy market with the Labour party suggesting that prices should be frozen for 20 months. However in amongst all the calls for more intervention, nobody has suggested that limits should be placed on the wages that these firms pay their staff.
One example where the authorities are thinking of intervening on pay is the proposal by the European Union to introduce a cap on the size of bonuses that can be paid by firms in the banking industry. However this is more of a constraint on the method of remuneration rather than an absolute limit on the level of pay. If the policy was introduced there would be nothing preventing firms from increasing basic salaries in order to make up for any shortfall caused by the reduction in bonuses.
There is one sector of the economy where salary caps are widely used – professional team sports. There are a number of different ways they have been implemented. For example the Football Association once placed a limit on the amount that a club could pay an individual player. This was originally set at £4/week in 1901 and increased to £20/week before it was finally abolished in 1961.
In recent times it has been far more common for salary caps in professional sports leagues to place limits on the size of a team’s total wage bill rather than the amount that can be paid to an individual player. This is the case in the Aviva Premiership, the NFL and the NBA. Perhaps it would be more accurate to refer to these policies as a cap on payrolls rather than on salaries.
The Aviva Premiership gives the following 4 reasons for having the payroll cap that it first introduced in 1999:
||To ensure the financial viability of the clubs;
||To ensure a competitive Aviva Premiership Rugby competition;
||To control inflationary pressures on clubs’ costs;
||To provide a level playing field for the clubs.
It is claimed that the policy has helped the league to achieve these objectives as (a) more clubs are now breaking even and (b) compared with other rugby competitions it has the greatest number of games that finish with less than one score between the teams.
There are a number of different ways that a payroll cap can be implemented. With an absolute payroll scheme all the teams in the league, no matter what their size, face the same constraint. This is the policy adopted by the NFL, NBA and the Aviva Premiership. An alternative is to implement a percentage payroll cap. Examples of these can be found in League 1 and League 2 of the English Football League. League 1 teams can spend up to 60% of their turnover on wages while League 2 teams can spend up to 55% of their turnover on wages. Obviously this means that well supported clubs with a larger turnover can spend more on players’ wages than less well supported clubs with a smaller turnover.
Another way that payroll caps differ is whether they are ‘hard’ caps or ‘soft’ caps. With a ‘hard’ cap there are no exceptions to the scheme. All the teams’ payrolls must remain within the same limit set by the league officials. With a ‘soft’ cap the authorities identify some exceptions that enable clubs to exceed the limit. The payroll cap used in rugby union is an example of a soft cap and works in the following way.
There are a number of elements to the scheme:
||The senior salary cap;
||The academy credits.
The senior salary cap is the major part of the regulation and the Aviva Premiership announced that this would increase from £4.76 million per team in the current season to £5.1 million per team for 2015-16. The Academy credits enable teams to exceed this £5.1 million limit if they train and develop younger players. The teams have to prove that they have young players that meet the following criteria:
||They are under the age of 24 before the season started;
||They joined the youth academy before their eighteenth birthday;
||They earn more than £30,000 per year.
For a player who meets these conditions it is only their salary in excess of £30,000/year that is considered. For example if a young player was paid £50,000/year then only £20,000 of his wages would count towards the team’s payroll cap. The first £30,000 would not count. The Aviva Premiership recently announced that a home grown player credit would replace the academy credits. Under the new scheme the upper age limit will be removed and clubs can claim up to £400,000 in allowances. This means that teams could spend up to £5.5 million a year on wages if they train and develop younger players.
However other exceptions means that teams can exceed even this figure. The payroll cap arrangements allow teams to identify one player whose wages are not included when the payroll cap is calculated. In order to be nominated the exempted player has to meet certain criteria. In the 2015-16 season teams will be allowed to have two excluded players.
Sir Iain McGeechan has suggested that these changes will increase the effective salary cap to £7 million/year with some star players earning £1 million/season. However this would still be below the level of the basic salary cap in the French Rugby Union Super 14 League which is €10 million per season (approximately £8.5 million)
Premiership salary cap will leave small clubs playing catch-up The Telegraph (20/9/14)
Bath line up move for Australian Will Genia as new salary cap regulations come into effectThe Telegraph (15/9/14)
The salary cap in Rugby Union Law in Sport (15/4/14)
Barwell blasts salary cap ‘cheats’ ESPN (1/3/13)
Salary Cap changes confirmed Premiership Rugby (17/9/14)
What is meant by a salary cap in Sport and would this ever be used in English football? In Brief (accessed on 22/9/14)
- Draw a diagram to illustrate the impact of a salary cap on a perfectly competitive market and explain your answer.
- Which teams in the Aviva Premiership would be in favour of the increase in the salary cap and which teams would be opposed? Explain your answer.
- Do you think that an absolute or percentage salary cap would be more effective at maintaining competitive balance in a league? Which teams would be more in favour of an absolute salary cap?
- Why do think some leagues have introduced a ‘soft’ rather than a ‘hard’ salary caps?
- To what extent do you think that salary/payroll caps are consistent with European single market principles about the free movement of people?
- Officials from the Aviva Premiership provide the clubs with a long list of payments which must be counted as part of a player’s salary. These include holiday costs, school fees, payment for off-field activities on behalf of the club, payments in kind and signing on fees. Why do you think that the authorities provide such a large list?
- Find out the criteria that must be met in order for a player to be exempted from the team’s payroll calculations. Provide some reasons why you think these criteria were used.
A previous article on this website (Why buy a football club?) focused on the issue of why people buy football clubs. This blog refers to the somewhat strange situation where people who have made large amounts of money from a very successful business career always seem to lose money when they invest in a football team.
The Deloitte’s report into football finance found that in the 2012/13 season only half the clubs in the English Premier League (EPL) made an operating profit – profits excluding net transfer expenditure. When the impact of transfer expenditure is included, even fewer clubs make any money. For example, the three teams battling it out for the EPL title this year, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City, reported losses for 2012/13 of £49.4 million, £49.8 million and £51.6m respectively.
What makes the size of these losses even more astonishing is that they have occurred in a period when the revenues earned by the top clubs have increased rapidly. In 2004/05 the combined revenue of the 20 EPL clubs was £1.3billion. By 2011/12 this figure had increased to £2.36 billion.
Given these rapidly rising revenue streams, the main explanation for this poor profit performance is the growth in players’ salaries. It has been estimated that approximately 80% of the increase in revenues generated by the team in the EPL since it began in 1992 have gone to the players in higher wages. In 2011/12 the total wage bill in the EPL was a staggering £1.658 billion, with an average wage bill of £83 million per club. The average weekly wage of a player has doubled over the past six years and is now estimated to be between £25,000 and £30,000 per week.
One deal which recently hit the headlines was that of Wayne Rooney who signed a five-year contract with earnings of up to £300,000 a week or £15.6m annually. However, Mr Rooney is still a long way short of the highest paid sports star. When based on wages and win bonuses, Forbes reported this to be American footballer, Aaron Rodgers, who was paid £25.75m in 2012-13!!!
One major factor that can partly explain this rapid increase in players’ pay is the increased competition for their skills. The potential impact of the transfer system on players’ mobility and wages was discussed in an article on the website in December (Recent challenges to the football transfer system). The career of Tom Finney provides an interesting case study of the impact of the monopsony power that the transfer system and maximum wage used to give the clubs.
Finney was one of the most talented footballers of the 1940s/50s but he played at a time when there was still a maximum wage and a transfer system that was far more restrictive that it is today. He first played in the youth team for Preston North End in 1936 aged 14. Apart for a three-year period between 1942 and 1945 when he served in the army during the Second World War, he remained with Preston for his whole career. He finally retired in 1959 at the age of 38 having scored 210 goals in 473 appearances. He also played in three World Cup final tournaments and scored 30 goals in his 76 international appearances for England.
When he died in February of this year many people talked of his loyalty to Preston and the fact that he only earned £20/week when he retired (the maximum wage at the time) and had to supplement his income by working as a plumber. However, interestingly in 1952 an Italian club – Palermo – tried to sign Finney from Preston on a deal which would have paid him a basic weekly wage of £32.25, a bonus of up to £100 per week and a signing on fee of £10,000. At the time he earned the maximum wage of £14 per week with Preston and received a win bonus of up to £2 per week. Palermo also offered him a luxury Mediterranean villa, a brand new sports car and unlimited travel between England and Italy funded by the club. Unsurprisingly, Finney was tempted by the deal and commented that:
There was a genuine appeal about the prospect of trying my luck abroad, not to mention the money and the standard of living.
However, because of the transfer system in place at the time, Preston could block the move. The chairman explained to Finney:
Tom, I’m sorry, but the whole thing is out of the question, absolutely out of the question. We are not interested in selling you and that’s that. Listen to me, if tha’ doesn’t play for Preston then tha’ doesn’t play for anybody.
The club also announced that they would not consider selling Finney for any transfer fee below £50,000. Palermo had offered £30,000 and the transfer record at the time was less that £20,000.
It is highly unlikely that football will ever return to a type of transfer system and maximum wage that gives the clubs the sort of monopsony power they had in Finney’s days. However a new set of policies have been recently agreed and introduced to try to slow down the increase in players’ pay. Financial Fair Play rules set limits on the size of financial losses that clubs can incur over a three-year period. If these rules are broken, then UEFA could prevent the guilty team from entering lucrative competitions such as the Champions League. The EPL also has the power to award points deductions.
With the combined revenues of the 20 EPL clubs forecast to increase by 24% to £3.080 billion in the 2013/14 season, it will be interesting to see how much of this money improves the financial performance of the clubs and how much goes into players’ wages.
- Draw a diagram to illustrate the impact of a maximum wage on a perfectly competitive labour market and explain your answer.
- Analyse the impact of the maximum wage on worker surplus, firm surplus and deadweight welfare loss. Draw a diagram to illustrate your answer. Comment on the impact of the maximum price on economic efficiency.
- Draw a diagram to illustrate the impact of a maximum wage on a monopsonistic labour market. Assess its impact on economic efficiency.
- Some authors have argued that the Financial Fair Play regulations are a form of vertical restraint/agreement. What is a vertical restraint?
- Find an example of a vertical restraint in a different industry. What impact will it have on economic welfare?