November 4, 2021 at 2:38 pm #224002PJShannonKeymaster
As the lead speaker in the FAQ The Tax Argument (Pt.1) cited by PGB, I should add an anecdote that I don’t think I mentioned at the time, which was that when I attempted to explain the tax argument to a friend who ran her own cafe, she got it straight away. ‘Of course I’m the one who pays my workers’ income tax,’ she said, ‘it’s a different cheque that I write, on a different day in the month, and it goes straight to the Inland Revenue, so it’s obvious’. Her view was that workers don’t understand who really pays tax because they’ve never run their own business or employed anyone.
Incidentally, it’s possible that in 1817 no worker paid income tax, but it was already a familiar concept because it had been introduced by the Pitt government in the 1790s as a fundraiser to fight Napoleon, and kept being ‘temporarily’ reintroduced in succeeding years. That’s why it was a hot topic and why Ricardo said what he did. The state needed to grow, which meant taxing the rich who had all the money, but they kept evading every attempt to tax them directly (windows, horses, dogs, shoe buckles, wig powder etc) so the Exchequer increasingly resorted to an indirect tax via wages, which the rich couldn’t evade. This sleight of hand had the possibly unintentional consequence of persuading workers that they are stakeholders in capitalism when in fact they aren’t.November 4, 2021 at 8:05 pm #224006
I was going to make the same point about income tax deducted at source as in the Pay As You Earn scheme in Britain (I assume there’s a similar scheme in whichever dollar-land PGB is in). Workers can’t even be said to pay that, let alone it being a burden on them. It doesn’t come out of their pocket. They don’t even see the money. It is paid by the employer direct to the tax people. What workers have to maintain and reproduce their labour power is their take-home pay.
This is even recognised by the government statistical offices that calculate cost of living indexes. The only taxes taken into account for these are those which workers do pay out of their own pocket such as, in this country, council tax and car licence. (Indirect taxes are taken into account insofar as they increase the price of what workers have to buy). This makes sense as these payments do enter into calculating the money cost of living (to which money wages are tied).
I must confess I have doubts about saying, as in that old SDF pamphlet that wages tend to “subsistence” level (even if subsistence includes a historical element as Marx pointed out). That sounds too similar to Malthus and the Iron Law of Wages.
I think a more accurate formulation of the law of wages is: that wages tend to reflect the money cost of reproducing and maintaining labour power of a particular type. This covers skilled workers as well as those doing jobs that don’t require any particular specialist training.November 5, 2021 at 7:44 am #224010
PGB, you write:
“But hang on – what about the bulk of the tax I regularly pay to the state? That hasn’t changed. Like, where I live, average FT weekly earnings are around $1,700 and the average tax (at 24%) on that would be around $400. A tax increase from 24% to say 25.5% would raise my weekly tax burden by around $33. Now, as explained, the typical SP response to this tax increase would be to say that ultimately or in the long run, the burden of that $33 would fall upon the capitalist. Accepting the major assumptions behind this reasoning, I agree. But what about other $400? This hasn’t been passed on to anyone, so the burden of the workers tax doesn’t fall upon the capitalist.”
I don’t see the problem with the established $400. Even if it wasn’t literally paid by the employer as under PAYE schemes but had to be paid by the worker out of the money wages they received from their employer, it would be a money payment like council tax or car tax that entered into the necessary monetary cost of reproducing and maintaining labour power.
In other words, it would already have been taken into account by the labour market and reflected in the level of wages.November 7, 2021 at 4:59 am #224071
When I read the comments here by PJS and ALB I think at last I can understand what Wittgenstein was getting at when he said that the meaning of a word is given in its use in a particular “language game” – a human rule -governed activity integrated with social behavior which is context dependent and purposeful. It’s clear that SPers and I are in different “language games” and so our opposing arguments, and the words we use, pass “like ships in the night.” Take for example ALB on income tax deducted at source as in any PAYE scheme: “Workers can’t even be said to pay that, let alone it being a burden on them. It doesn’t come out of their pocket. They don’t even see the money. It is paid by the employer direct to the tax people.”
For Marxists who put so much store on emphasizing the difference between appearance and reality, I find this very odd. Since when does “seeing the money” mean that money belongs to you only if you can see it – when it’s already in your hand so to speak? The reason that workers don’t see the money is, as ALB says, because “it is paid by the employer directly to the tax people”. But that doesn’t make it the employer’s money. The employer’s money pays the employer’s tax – company tax, profits tax, payroll tax etc.- not the worker’s tax. Here we can see the confusion in conflating different meanings of the word “pay”. There is pay(i), a verb, which means to give money due for a debt incurred, like eg. the debt the worker owes to the tax office; and pay(ii) a verb, which means to pass on or transfer a money payment from debtor to creditor via a third party, like when an employer passes on the employee’s tax to the tax office.
Perhaps I can make my position clearer by referring to two examples, similar but different to the tax business. When I worked for a while in a government department, my union dues, payable each fortnight, were paid directly to the union by the department (my employer). I didn’t see this payment. It was shown on my fortnightly pay slip, along with my tax deduction which I also didn’t see. Does this mean that my union dues were not actually paid by me? Certainly the union never thought so: when I left I received a notice from them asking where my dues were (they hadn’t caught up with my change of job).
Second example: I once worked with a guy who had been through a bitter divorce. As a result, he was ordered by the court to pay maintenance to his two children. For a while he succeeded in avoiding this, but the state eventually caught up with him and then ordered his employer to garnishee his wages to cover the amount he had to pay to his former partner. Again, the money payable under the garnishee order was taken directly from his pay, same as his tax. He never “saw” either. So, applying SP logic, does that mean that in fact he did not pay maintenance to his family? Of course he did. The money was taken directly from his wages. It was his money.
The anecdotal evidence cited by PLS shows that a business pays its workers’ wages on one day of the week and sends money off to the tax office on another. But that tells us nothing about the source of the money that is paid on different days to different people. The source surely is the same; it’s the workers’ wages. The employer pays the workers’ tax out of the workers’ gross wage, and pays what’s left – the net wage or take-home pay – to the worker on pay day. There is no rule saying that these two payments must be made by the employer on the same day from the same pot of money surely? Listening to the participants in the SP’s FAQ The Tax Argument (Pt.1) responding to PLS’s question left me feeling that they saw the two day/two pot theory of employer payments as “proof” that the burden of tax falls upon the capitalist. I haven’t yet listened to Part 2.
ALB doesn’t see the problem with the $400 I referred to in my example of tax paid by the worker which, in my view, is a burden upon the worker and not upon the capitalist. Whether or not the $400 is reflected in the level of wages is not part of the “problem” I was referring to. As the $400 would become state revenue it would probably end up being part of the income of an unproductive worker, like a bureaucrat or whatever, whose income would also be taxed just as it was for the worker who paid the initial $400 to the tax office. The $400 considered as a direct money payment like council tax or whatever may indeed enter into the reproduction cost of labour power. OK, but I wasn’t discussing that.November 7, 2021 at 3:24 pm #224081
PGB, it is you that are playing the language game, first over “burden” now over “pay”.
Saying that workers literally don’t pay income tax deducted a source is a factual statement not an economic analysis.
Deductions paid by the employer for a workers’s debts are a burden on that worker (though deductions for union dues can hardly be regarded as a “burden”) as it does reduce the money they have to pay for other things.
Economic analysis of deductions for income tax shows these to be a burden on the employer. Their economic effect is, as you concede, similar to if the workers had paid them from their pockets — being passed on to employers as higher money wages due to the higher money cost of maintaining and reproducing labour power. The money that goes to the state comes in the end from profits (higher money wages means lower profits).November 7, 2021 at 3:27 pm #224082
There is another comment, from a reader, under the original article :
“‘Taxes are the sinews of the state’ – attributed to Cicero. True in his time and true today. Since the state is a coercive body the servant of the exploiting class it will collapse with the advent of a socialist society.”November 12, 2021 at 12:31 am #224200AnonymousInactive
This is an issue that many Marxist can not understand yet, and the opposite idea has been used by the right winger to claim that workers are the ones paying for the social services provided to the emigrants in the developed countries, they can not understand that the state is financed with surplus valueNovember 25, 2021 at 8:54 pm #224691
This article, reprinted in the January 1909 issue of the Socialist Standard from an American publication of the time, shows that our position on taxes and the working class was held by others besides us.
The last-but-one paragraph sets out clearly the case against some popular reforms under capitalism. Today we could add UBI as a universal payment.November 27, 2021 at 6:17 am #224723
If, as ALB says, “our (SPGB) position on taxes and the working class was held by others..” I am wondering why I cannot find in the posted article any explicit reference to the SP central proposition – that which started this thread – that the burden of taxation falls on the capitalist only. In the penultimate paragraph, the writer says that the great majority of workers don’t pay tax because they have nothing to tax. John Keracher said the same thing twenty-six years later when I imagine worker’s real wages were higher than in 1909. Simple common sense I’d call it. Nothing about burdens or tax incidence there. The second sentence in that paragraph refers to a worker who possesses a “small property” (not many of those I think in 1909!) and so may pay tax in the form of rates. These taxes “enter into the cost of living, and, again, the necessary cost of living determines the wages.” He doesn’t define what he means by “the necessary cost” but his general statement in the first paragraph makes it fairly clear: “wages always hover about the cost of subsistence”. So the necessary cost is the cost of reproducing labour power just sufficient to ensure that the “(employer’s) wage slave is in working condition”. Just like the farmer’s horse that needs hay. So a rational capitalist must increase the worker’s wage to cover the tax impost which has reduced his wage below the level where his labour power can be reproduced. What capitalist is going to kill the goose that lays the golden egg? So in the case of the worker who pays rates, likewise the worker who has to pay rent, the cost of housing is usually included in official measures of standard of living. Fair enough.
But what if the “necessary” cost of reproducing labour power is well below the average wage, as it is in most countries of advanced capitalism today? Marx suggested it could be because of an historical/social/moral component in determining the cost of re/production of labour power. Which makes labour power an exception to the “law of value”. If the worker’s wage is set well above the “necessary cost” of reproducing labour power, then the State can take a chunk out of the worker’s wage but not so big a chunk obviously that the after- tax wage is reduced to bare subsistence level. Since the State doesn’t produce any wealth or income from its own activities it can only get funds to pay for what it does from those who do receive income and/or own wealth. So the worker’s income is taxed, the capitalist’s income is taxed, the landowner’s income is taxed, the financier’s income is taxed, all bar the worker’s tax coming out of profits, rent and interest, the money equivalents of surplus value. But the worker’s tax (income tax) comes out of his/her wages which are paid out of variable capital, and they are not transferred or redistributed to fall as a burden on the capitalist.
I’ve just been reading a piece by Jack Fitzgerald, published in 1904, called The Bogey of the Taxes. It reads very well despite being written 117 years ago. Again, I can’t find anything in it which suggests that the burden of taxation falls upon the capitalist only. Fitzgerald’s argument seems to be that tax imposts (he’s talking about a tax on consumption goods)
do not have a determinate relationship to prices. He uses empirical evidence to make his case. Eg: “articles that are easily produced are often taxed without affecting the retail price at all, as shown in the taxes on beer, tea and spirits”. And “when duty was removed the wholesale price of corn rose”. What I found significant is that Fitzgerald’s argument at heart is that workers should forget about taxes because whether high or low, they have no effect on the worker’s wage because “subsistence is all that upon average he obtains”. The upshot of all this is that the tax issue obscures the only real issue that matters, which is that while the worker produces all the wealth in existence, he only gets a small share of it – the rock-bottom socialist argument. Forget so-called tax robbery, this is the real robbery, so “tax reform” is not something that workers should concern themselves with. This is much the same as the conclusion in the posted article “Where Labor is Robbed” (last para). And when I listened to Parts 1and 2 of the FAQ on taxation, I began to think that this was the main point being made. One of the participants suggested that if workers get concerned about the inequities or whatever of the tax system, they are prone to believe that they “have a stake in the system”. But according to him, workers don’t have a stake in the system. OK, I can accept all that, but why stick with a crappy theory about tax burdens falling only on the capitalist, using a blinkered reading of Marx’s LTV, when it’s unnecessary? You already have an appropriate response to tax reform etc. under the SP’s common policy on reforms and reformism. Why build a sound socialist political strategy on bad theory? I guess I’ll never understand it.November 27, 2021 at 9:41 am #224724
Our case is not that taxes are not levied on things that workers buy or on wages but, wages being tied to the cost of living, anything that increases or decreases the money cost of living, including an increase or decrease in taxes, will affect the money wages paid. It won’t necessarily affect what workers consume, their standard of living, which will remain the same as what they need to consume to recreate and maintain their (particular type) of labour power.
This works both ways. The standard of living will not be permanently increased if taxes on what workers consume or taxes on their money wage are reduced or removed, as money wages will eventually adjust to the decreased money cost of living. The standard of living (what workers consume) will remain the same. So anything that decreases the money cost of living is ultimately self-defeating. It won’t increase the standard of living.
Similarly, the standard of living won’t be permanently reduced if taxes on what workers buy or on their pay are increased. In so far as this increases the money cost of living it will eventually lead to an increase in money wages, leaving workers with the same standard of living as before.
So, who benefits from a reduction in taxes or suffers from an increase since, in either case, the workers standard of living remains the same? On which class in society are taxes a burden? On who do they fall in the end?
Actually, in the period we are talking about (pre-WW1) this theory was employed more to show that a reduction in taxes on what workers consumed would not benefit them rather than to show what would happen if taxes were increased. The question of direct taxes on wages did not arise as it was generally accepted (by capitalists too) that workers simply weren’t paid enough to allow this ie that they couldn’t pay this as they didn’t have enough money to.
You introduce a new element by arguing that today workers are paid more than enough to buy what they need to consume in order to recreate and maintain their particular type of labour power:
“But what if the “necessary” cost of reproducing labour power is well below the average wage, as it is in most countries of advanced capitalism today?”
In other words, you are challenging the basic assumption that money wages are tied to the money cost of living as a worker, and are claiming that they are in fact higher than this.
But are wages really higher than the cost of creating and maintaining a modern worker’s labour power?
The floor is yours to try to make that case.November 29, 2021 at 12:46 pm #224800
ALB, aren’t your first two paragraphs repeating the standard SP case of what happens when there is an increase or a decrease in the direct or indirect tax paid by the worker? You say “An increase or decrease in a worker’s income tax will affect the money wages paid”. Yes, a direct tax increase on income will lead to a reduced after-tax wage (net wage). You then say that this won’t necessarily affect what workers consume or their standard of living. To any ordinary person this will surely sound counter intuitive. Like, if disposable income is now reduced, wouldn’t this affect a worker’s level of consumption and therefore standard of living? Same thing if the indirect tax paid on consumer goods goes up, wouldn’t this also affect the level of consumption and standard of living, assuming no change in his money income?
Your answer is in the second paragraph where you say that the standard of living will not be permanently increased if direct or indirect taxes are reduced or removed, as money wages will eventually adjust to the decreased money cost of living. Of course the unstated premise here is that labour power always exchanges at its value (the so-called Law of Value), so that money wages must always adjust directly to changes in a tax impost, leaving the worker no better off. The same applies where tax is increased – it will eventually lead to a proportionate increase in the worker’s money wage. So in either case, an increase or a decrease in the tax eventually means a return to the status quo.
But what is the status quo here? It is a prevailing level of taxation in a tax structure which is the product of a long period of contestation and class struggle which has established a fairly stable consensus on what is fair and reasonable regarding individuals’ tax obligations. So when there is a change in tax, as in your example of a tax increase or a tax reduction, all wage negotiations and contestations occur within that context. Returning to the empirical example I gave before (#223996), the “prevailing level of taxation” is $400 from a gross wage of $1700. The tax increase of $33 pw is a change in the prevailing level. It is the increase of $33 which is the target of worker contestation, not the $400. And regarding that increase, the SP model as you have applied it (and let’s all remember, it is but a model!) makes sense. It may cry out for empirical evidence to back it up, but as far as a model goes it is logical and internally consistent. The problem is that the SP doesn’t make clear that when it talks about tax, it’s only talking about a change in tax, as in a situation where tax reform so-called is part of a public political debate. And so people will continue to wonder what you mean when you say that in the long run the worker’s tax falls only on the capitalist, because they will be thinking of their prevailing level of tax (in my example, $400) which certainly doesn’t fall upon the capitalist.
Re your last paras. The phrase ‘“necessary” cost of reproducing labour power’ was taken from the article you posted (#224691). It belongs to a subsistence theory of wages, as held by Ricardo and Marx whose views are often cited by SPers today to prove the case about taxes falling only on the capitalist. The subsistence theory of wages hardly has any traction in today’s world of advanced capitalism because average wages are well above a subsistence level. I’ve taken “subsistence” to mean what it meant to Marx and to the writer of the article and to Fitzgerald amongst others, as the minimum required to reproduce the aggregate of a worker’s mental and physical abilities exercised in the production of use values. Returning to my example of a real life contemporary wage level, yes, I am saying that the wage of $1700 pw is well above a subsistence level, which means that the tax people can take $400 out of it, leaving the worker with more than enough disposable income to maintain this modern worker’s labour power.
That’s it for me ALB. But I would like to ask you: given awareness of the failure of workers to understand the SP position on tax – I refer again to the FAQ “The Tax Argument” Parts 1 and 2 where the lead speaker says “workers just don’t get it” etc. – can you tell me why workers don’t get it? My answer is that workers don’t get it because the argument is unsound (illogical, misplaced context etc.) but for you it must be something else. Like, a problem of communication for example. So what is it in your view?
Thank you.November 30, 2021 at 10:21 am #224814WezParticipant
‘To any ordinary person this will surely sound counter intuitive.’
‘…speaker says “workers just don’t get it” etc. – can you tell me why workers don’t get it? My answer is that workers don’t get it because the argument is unsound (illogical, misplaced context etc.) but for you it must be something else. Like, a problem of communication for example. So what is it in your view?’
You may not have noticed pgb but the entire case for socialism appears as ‘counter intuitive’ and ‘illogical’ within a bourgeois culture which is dedicated to normalizing the sick ideology of capitalism. This is evidence for the fact that workers are manipulated and conditioned by such propaganda and that if our understanding of reality did not appear as counter intuitive, or antithetical, as us Marxists would say, then we would know that our case was unsound. I leave it to ALB to answer the rest of your economic misunderstandings.
December 1, 2021 at 8:59 am #224824
- This reply was modified 2 years, 2 months ago by Wez.
“ the unstated premise here is that labour power always exchanges at its value (the so-called Law of Value).
Yes it is. Or, to be more precise, tends to do so in the long run with fluctuations below and above cancelling each other.
In challenging this you are challenging a key concept in Marxian economics — that labour power is a commodity whose price reflects its value. You seem to have argued yourself into the corner of saying that the value of labour power is only what is “necessary” to keep a human alive. But it is much more than that. It is the cost of what is necessary to reproduce and maintain the ability to do a particular job. This cost is the money cost of living. Which is much higher than bare subsistence, the poverty line or the minimum wage. The vast majority of workers get more than these because the value of their particular kind of labour power they are hired to exercise is (due to ability, training and/or the kind of work they do) higher than this.
If you really are saying that most workers are able to get themselves paid more than the value of what they are selling then you need to explain how they are in so powerful position compared with other commodity sellers who are unable to do this.
In fact the link between wages and the cost of living is so empirically obvious that even non-Marxian economists recognise it. Here, for instance, is Investopedia:
“The cost of living is the amount of money needed to cover basic expenses such as housing, food, taxes, and healthcare in a certain place and time period. The cost of living is often used to compare how expensive it is to live in one city versus another. The cost of living is tied to wages. If expenses are higher in a city, such as New York, for example, salary levels must be higher so that people can afford to live in that city.”
Or have you some other explanation as to why wages in New York are higher?
The Marxian theory of taxation is really a corollary of the Marxian theory of wages as the price, reflecting the value, of labour power. As is the theory that anything provided free or at a subsidised price won’t lead to a permanent increase in the standard of living of workers as it will eventually lead to lower money wages.
I suppose people find this counter-intuitive because an increase in tax, direct or indirect, does leave them worse off in the immediate just as a free service or a state handout (like UBI would be) or less expensive imported food makes them better off for a while.
But is it all that difficult to explain or understand that, due to the operation of market forces, these will only be temporary? In any event, those on both sides — employers and unions — who negotiate wage rates understand this perfectly, the one side pointing to price increases the other to measures that mitigate this, in the course of reaching a deal.December 3, 2021 at 12:47 pm #224889
Me: “the unstated premise here is that labour power always exchanges at its value (the so-called Law of Value)”
ALB: “In challenging this you are challenging a key concept in Marxian economics – that labour power is a commodity whose price reflects its value”.
What is this “challenge”, and with respect to what exactly? My post (#224800) where the above sentence is found doesn’t challenge anything you said, in fact it implies agreement. I have always argued that the application of the LTV to explain how a change in tax can trigger a proportionate change in money wages via the operation of the law of value and the collective action of workers such that wages are restored to their real pre-tax level, in which case the tax burden initially on the worker is transferred to the capitalist, is a coherent position. While there are caveats I would want to add to that, I believe it is deducible from Marx’s LTV in relation to real wage determination. But if you read again what follows immediately from what I said on that para. you will see that the same argument cannot logically support the standard SP claim that “in the long run taxes are a burden on the capitalist only”. That is simply not true in relation to the full amount of tax which workers are obliged to pay to the tax people. I gave the example of a weekly wage of $1700 which bears tax of $400. You haven’t explained yet how it is that the $400 which comes out of the worker’s pay and is thus a burden on him, eventually becomes a burden on the capitalist only. It’s a real mystery, which SPer’s dispose of by treating the worker’s gross wage, from which the worker’s tax obligation is paid, as “theoretical” (“A to Z of Socialism”) which makes his gross wage and the tax paid from it appear unreal, thus removing them from view.
In saying that the value of labour power is only what is “necessary” to keep a human alive, I was considering the 1909 article you posted – “Where Labor is Robbed” – where that word is used. I said that the “necessary” cost of reproducing workers’ labour power was equated to the “subsistence” cost, around which “wages always hover”. So I took the view that the author held the subsistence theory of wages. However, I am aware that talking of “necessary costs” within a Marxist context can carry an expanded meaning, by including an historical/social/moral component in addition to the physiological minimum subsistence level. And given the significance in Marx’s model of the role of the reserve army of labour in pushing the price of labour power down towards its value, then the long-run equilibrium price of labour power or its “necessary cost” will be fairly near to its value. This is Marx’s model of wage determination in the context of early capitalism, and I see it as broadly agreeing with your statement that “(labour power) tends to (exchange) at its value in the long run etc. etc.” But since Marx’s time there has been a massive increase in real wages (at least regarding countries of advanced capitalism) and as a result the price of labour power need no longer correspond with its value. The possibility ought at least to be considered. But this cannot be done if the value of labour power is defined in terms of the level of real wages. It reduces Marx’s theory of wages to a tautology.
I have no interest in entering into a long debate on Marx’s theory of wages nor the LTV which has always raised problematic issues given the unique character of the commodity labour power. And in any case, in this debate on tax, I don’t see a need for it. You have already shown how by quoting from a non-Marxian economist in Investopedia who notes the obvious link between wage levels and the cost of living. Nothing unusual there! And no need to talk about the value of labour-power. You can’t say anything definitive about the relationship between wages, taxes and the cost of living without using money quantities. So let me repeat my numbers: an average worker on $1700 pw pays $400 in tax, leaving $1300 as the net wage. Question: Is $1300 pw enough to cover his cost of living, commensurate with social norms of what it means to live in modest comfort in a modern civilized capitalist state? Answer: Yes. So how is it that the $400 becomes a burden only on the capitalist?
I am still hoping that you can tell me why you think that workers “just don’t get it” (the SP position on tax). The answer given by Wez (#224814) is that workers are “manipulated and conditioned” by capitalist propaganda “within a bourgeois culture which is dedicated to normalizing the sick ideology of capitalism”. All I can say to that is that if true, it makes the workers look less than bright, if they can so easily be manipulated and conditioned. Not very encouraging of the prospects for socialism.December 3, 2021 at 1:37 pm #224890alanjjohnstoneKeymaster
“I thought that the price of labour-power (wages) was defined, like all other commodities, by the amount of labour time that creates and sustains it.”
Perhaps it is more accurate to say that what you say is the general cause of pay differentials between various workers.
But I always thought that the value of labour-power was unique; because unlike other commodities, it was determined by the combative power of the respective antagonists, the employer and the employee, and the level of wages stemmed from the class struggle, albeit contained within certain parameters, subsistence level at the low end (and that varies historically) and the employers return vis a vis labour costs at the high end and his ability and flexibility to intensify the work process to extract more surplus value to compensate for high wages.
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