The Third Economy

Jeremy Rifkin’s works, in particular ‘The End of Work’ and ‘The Zero Marginal Cost Society’ have had the world talking because they are a take on a very real problem, the decline of the (non-specialist) labour market which together with burgeoning population predicts huge proportions of the world’s populations facing unemployment and poverty while an ever diminishing proportion of specialists (the elite) are stunningly successful and affluent, all the time while capitalist productivity rises and demand falls. In short they are arguing that Capitalism will become the victim of its own success and end up producing large volumes of goods for which there are few markets and (presumably) capitalism will eventually implode.

Rifkin imagines that the employment slack will be taken up by the rise of a third economy (the first and second being the public sector and the private sector economies). This third being largely a social economy or a ‘social commons’, servicing diverse community needs through non-profit non government organisations powered largely by a low-paid, oft-times voluntary and probably relatively unskilled workforce. Rifkin imagines that the third economy will service the social needs of society which are not being met by a shrinking public sector economy, which is under constant budget constraints, nor being met by a disinterested private sector economy for which there is little profit in public service. Rifkin also envisages much shorter working weeks with more workers earning lower weekly wages, to try and help take up the employment slack.

Writing here in 1995, Lance A Compa, then of Cornell University, notes that in addition to the reduced working hours, Rifkin proposes a social wage funded by a value added tax (VAT) (in the USA) but excluding vat on basic necessities, along with defence spending budget cuts. Aronowitz and DiFazio in their book ‘The Jobless Future’ also propose reduced working hours but with more progressive income taxes instead of a VAT, along with a host of other measures, many of them in support of social welfare type expenditure along with infrastructure spends to help take up labour slack.

According to Compa, both books imply “a willing turn toward a shared genteel poverty”. However, Compa does not seem to share Rifkin’s nor Aronowitz and DiFazio’s sense of gloom regarding employment, and instead argues that history and the current experience suggests “that there is still plenty of work to be done and plenty of people wanting to work”. In short he is suggesting that while the mix of supply and demand for work is changing, it is not evaporating.

The Direct Democracy Forum (see DDF) have a slightly different take on these problems, agreeing in part with Rifkin et al’s perceptions, on the one hand, and in part with Compa’s contrary view, on the other.

We agree that three separate economies are emerging, the already existing public sector and formal private sector economies and a third economy that we would categorise as an informal private sector economy, an alternative to the formal sector economy of the Fortune 500 corporates and their ilk. We imagine this economy as being a merging of the formal and the commons economies of Rifkin’s imagining, but definitely not a second class economy of genteel poverty as Compa interpreted Rifkin et al to imply.

We do not believe a social wage will work as an adequate motivation for employment (as demonstrated by the failed Finnish so-called Basic Income Grant experiment), rather we see the need for a UBI or BIG (Universal Basic Income or Basic Income Grant) which, being universal and unconditional, goes to every adult citizen in an economy. We believe that an adequate UBI/BIG will to a large extent pay for the basic needs of most recipients. Those needs which cannot be met by a UBI/BIG we believe will motivate folk to trade with others in their communities and in this ‘third economy’, for mutual profit. Some may be content to seek low income service positions in NGOs and other service organisations but nothing will stop the more ambitious from exercising their entrepreneurial skills to rise above a mere survival level.

The DDF anticipate there could be significant movement between the formal and informal economies, of skills and labour and finance, as members of all three economies interact and move between the economies, as and when circumstances allow or dictate. So the DDF don’t see a rigid stratification where the ‘have-nots’ cannot or may not enter into the domains of the ‘haves’. Nor do we envisage the opposite.

Rather we see a more fluid society with movement between the different economies occurring more or less on a voluntary basis. Because whichever economy one occupies, the basic needs of everyone could be met from the UBI/BIG, there would be less importance attached to which economy one occupies at any point in time, and less stigma attached to not being a part of a formal economy if one is part of the informal third economy. That is not to say that one should lack ambition, just that it would not be a question of life or death, or survival or poverty, so much as to how one can move up (or down) in society, either within the economy one occupies or between economies, so as to improve one’s circumstances.

The question of how to pay for this UBI/BIG leads us to the topic of tax reform. A UBI/BIG in most economies would exceed the GDP. So, if one were to tax the GDP to pay for a UBI/BIG, that would be the same as having a higher tax than one earns, say a 120% tax on income. Clearly that would not work.

Before we look at an alternative to income tax, think of how iniquitous income tax is. What the tax authorities say, is, if you succeed, if you earn a wage or salary (you are one of the employed and therefore a success when compared to the unemployed), or if you trade at a profit (you are a success compared to those who trade at a loss), we will take from you, a part of that wage, salary or profit. Generally, the goal is to collect 30% or more of one’s income (or the GDP) in taxes. However, if you fail (do not earn an income or declare a real or concocted taxable loss,) you get off scot free, or tax free.

So what is the alternative? Both Rifkin and Aronowitz and DiFazio suggest that we add more and more complex taxes, when we should at least be trying to simplify taxes and make the collection process less complex and less expensive, even if we cannot actually reduce the taxes themselves. The DDF believe that is too complex and too costly and also believe they have a more effective and more economical alternative solution.

The DDF has a core policy to replace income tax and all other taxes, direct or indirect, with a Total Economic Activity Levy or TEAL. TEAL levies all the funds flowing through an economy’s banking system. In South Africa, where we have a good idea of what that amounts to, a ½% levy on all the transactions debited or credited to one’s bank account in all the bank accounts in the land, would collect about 30% of the GDP. This in effect reduces one’s tax payments from 30% or so of one’s income and profits, to 1% of one’s income or 1% of all of one’s trading activities (½% on all debits and ½% on all credits in your bank accounts). This presumes that you spend all that you earn. By comparison, banks in South Africa can charge more than ½% on all transactions for bank fees.

The DDF think TEAL is a far more equitable system than income and profits tax. Some of the advantages of TEAL are:

  • 1) All will pay the same low ½% TEAL.
  • 2) TEAL effectively works like a progressive tax, thus the more active you are in the economy the more TEAL you pay in absolute terms.
  • 3) TEAL is uncompromising and unconditional – all persons active in the economy’s banking system pay TEAL, so there are none who get away scot free (or tax free).
  • 4) TEAL broadens the tax base from the narrow GDP tax base to a much broader tax base, encompassing all economic activity in the economy. In South Africa this broader tax base is, on average, some 30 times the value of the GDP.
  • 5) TEAL can be thought of more as a rent that everyone pays rather than a tax that only some pay.
  • 6) The cost of collecting and administering TEAL is estimated to be some 10% of the costs of administering the conventional tax systems.
  • 7) The savings from implementing TEAL would more than pay for the costs of implementing and running a Senate, drawn from the streets rather than from a political party base, thus broadening and strengthening the reach of democracy at little or no extra cost.
  • 8) TEAL makes a UBI/BIG fiscally possible.

So how does TEAL make a UBI/BIG possible?

In South Africa’s economy, a 2.165% TEAL on all the economic activity, as measured by the flow of funds through the banking system, will pay for;

  • 1) the fiscus
  • 2) a moderately significant UBI/BIG
    • including funding for a National Health Insurance scheme,
  • 3) an Advancement Grant
    • to pay for Tertiary Education or any other advancement initiatives,
  • 4) help seed a Sovereign Wealth Fund.
  • 5) A UBI would effectively be an investment in the demand side of the economy, stimulating both the demand side and the supply side of the economy and both the formal and informal economies.

We believe the above makes TEAL an eminently more desirable alternative to income and profits taxes and makes a UBI/BIG and an informal third economy a viable and preferable alternative to genteel poverty in a social commons.

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