Action Plan for a Modern Society

Here is a plan to move towards a Modern Society. Some of these could be introduced immediately, some would have to be phased in. 

1. Reduce working week to 4 days

We want to reduce consumption and production, so a good place to start is by reducing the length of the working week. This has an immediate benefit in terms of quality of life for almost everyone. An opinion piece in the Guardian quotes a number of studies saying this would reduce people’s carbon emissions by 10% to 30%. Companies that have switched to a 4 day week have reported a number of benefits.

Employers would only pay workers for their 4 days work; the government would pay the fifth day at or near the country’s minimum wage. This obviously would cut people’s take home wage if they were earning above the minimum wage but the poorest in the population would be largely unaffected financially. The longer term goal would be to introduce some form of Universal Basic Income and essentially this is what we are doing for the 5th day. 

2. Volunteering replaces unemployment benefit. 

There are a lot of public services we want to provide and they obviously need to be staffed and the staff paid. The idea for the most part is to staff them with volunteers and to pay the volunteers at or near the minimum wage. As part of this we assume there are enough jobs for everyone that is unemployed, so we stop paying unemployment benefit and we let them volunteer. Some volunteers will be unemployed, some will be retirees and some may not want a normal job at all (e.g. a stay at home parent when the kids have moved out).

Volunteering allows people to work relatively flexibly but with security; e.g. an ex-teacher might volunteer to tutor two days a week. Volunteers might work in public parks, swimming pools, drive school buses, tutor, libraries, museums, local food cooperatives etc. 

Part of the rationale for no longer paying unemployment benefit is that volunteering provides a better solution; people re-engage in society, they can learn a trade and they are doing useful work. It’s also more predictable than zero hour contracts (these are used in countries like the UK) so people will move from zero hour contracts to volunteering and employers will be less able to force those contracts on people.

3. Radically better public transport

We want to encourage people to leave their car at home or, better, not buy one in the first place – so the first thing we need to do is to provide compelling public transport. 

Town and city centers would be car free and pedestrian friendly almost everywhere (with an exception for the handicapped). Towns and cities would offer free public transport. Cities would set up free car-parks / places for ride-sharing just outside the car-free zone. This is all part of a process of making town and city centers more attractive for people and commerces (and reducing the power of drive to shopping malls). 

The countryside has rather different problems; it’s less easy to provide alternatives to the car. The first thing is to have a good system of school buses so that parents don’t drive to school to pick up their kids. The next step would be to extend the school bus service in terms of hours so it could be used by commuters as well. They’d generally take commuters to train stations or ride-sharing car parks. 

Well managed pools of electric cars would allow more people to drive on demand without owning a car; they would be available in towns and in the countryside and link in to the school bus service at ride-sharing car parks. 

Train services would provide more opportunities to save money on regular journeys – e.g. special commuter cards.

Throughout we’d provide new services before discouraging ‘old’ services – e.g. we’d want to ban thermal cars, but only when electric cars have taken off and pool cars are available. We’d like to have more ‘pool’ electric cars and journeys than private ones. As a country, we’d like to use public statistics on these things to track the success of this programme. There would be subsidies for private operators of buses and pools of electric cars, but they would depend upon passengers actually using them as measured by those statistics.

4. Private sufficiency, public luxury

A key part of a Modern Society is that we have to consume less; we can’t all have our own swimming pools and cars. So we invest heavily in excellent public facilities like public parks, cool rooms, libraries, community centers, car pools, public transport, museums and swimming pools. All of those are adequately staffed and protected so that they are a pleasure to use; they aren’t all free but the prices have to be very reasonable.

5. Public, progressive and simple taxation system. 

Throughout the west, the rich have been getting richer for the last 40 years or so, largely because the state did less for its citizens so that the rich could keep their money. A Modern Society will reverse this pattern; it’ll do more for its citizens but in a financially responsible manner. So the wealthy – those that contributed most to climate change – will now be able to make a fairer contribution.

The basic approach is that taxation will be much more progressive, so higher earners will pay more while basic, primary products like food will be tax free. The tax system will also be a lot simpler – all sorts of exceptions and loopholes will be removed. But more than that the tax system will be public; someone can look and see how much tax you paid (not what you earned). Tax fraud is treated much more seriously than today, in terms of detection (hence public visibility of taxation), conviction and punishment. 

In more detail (but… treat the numbers with caution), the highest rate of income tax might kick in at or around $10 million and would be at around 70%. Because wealth inequality is even higher than income equality, wealth will be directly taxed; people with more than $3m of assets pay 2% of their excess, with forfeiture of undeclared assets. Land Value Tax would be introduced and generate a high percentage of tax revenue (it would replace local taxes); this tax discourages high rents for tenants and encourages inner city redevelopment. In parallel with LVT, land subsidies (a system that pays owners to just own land today) would be eliminated. Inheritance tax would be made higher for the very wealthy; a billionaire’s heirs will only get a fraction of that fortune.

We would introduce an ecotax on sales that helps the poor by exempting all ecologically sound primary products (e.g. most food, public transport, repairs) from tax – or even subsidizes those products and services. At the same time environmentally dubious products – private planes, high performance cars, SUVs – would be more highly taxed. The ecotax would encourage manufacturers to reduce or eliminate packaging and also to design long lifetime, repairable products.  

6. Encourage ecological local food production and selling. 

We will retarget agricultural subsidies from big agro-business to small, ecological producers and local resellers. Small farmers are guaranteed a minimum price (e.g. for wheat, fruit, chicken, eggs, cheese, veggies etc) selling to an approved cooperative. Cooperatives sell such products with no packaging, possibly with a delivery service to help working families get the food conveniently; the food is sold at low prices, possibly via a negative ecotax rating or via a local currency. Farmers are given basic insurance for weather events (e.g. flooding, storms). Investment in water recovery and conservation (e.g. drip irrigation) schemes. Families should be able to eat healthy food much more cheaply than today; it’s part of reducing the basic cost of living and helping the economically disadvantaged. 

7. Radical programme to encourage equality. 

There are many hidden barriers to equality of opportunity and the goal here is to break down as many of them as possible, largely by exposing them. All companies must produce anonymous salary data (e.g. broken down by gender or race) and this data is public – discrimination is much easier to spot and prosecute. Unpaid internships and other systems used to reserve jobs for those from families with money are banned. All top schools (Harvard, l’ENA, Oxford etc) have to publish their admission criteria and also their anonymous historical data (with gender, race, education, legacy and financial contributions); they are liable to lose government support – e.g. charity status – and be sued for discrimination. Modest one time grants allow youngsters to launch their careers (e.g. start a gardening business). University costs reduced or eliminated for economically useful degrees (a progressive tax system makes this economically sensible). Companies have to publish financial information that identifies CEO reward with a possibility of higher taxation when it exceeds a certain average worker reward ratio.

8. Upgrade homes to be carbon neutral. 

Give substantial grants and other aids for people to improve insulation and add solar panels with battery, so that electricity bills are almost a thing of the past. Run a radical programme to cool cities – e.g. paint roofs and car-parks white, plant more trees, start farms in towns. Volunteers work in those programmes.

9. No population growth incentives

Most governments actively support population growth by subsidizing families having many children through tax breaks, child allowance, free education etc. This might have made historical sense (e.g. repopulating a country after the second world war), but it makes no sense now. These financial incentives should be eliminated or even reversed after the second child; for example, there is no tax break or child allowance for the third child and ‘negative’ benefits after a 4th child. Family planning clinics and education should be freely available to the population, with a full set of services, including contraception and abortion.

10. Corporate control, not welfare. 

No fossil fuel subsidies. Polluter pays applied to all industries. Companies have to pay their taxes where they receive income; companies that avoid doing so – e.g. high-technology companies – can be fined. Companies that use tactics to inhibit competitors – e.g. aggressive use of patents, buying up start-up competitors – can be fined. Zero hour contracts restricted (e.g. must pay 1 day per week as a minimum). Compensation to those that lose their jobs to automation, because it is likely those individuals will struggle to work again. Companies that don’t obey the law can be banned – e.g. no longer able to use the internet to sell their products or services.

11. Plan for Government Carbon Footprint

We’ve already seen that the US government’s carbon footprint  – i.e. the footprint of all the public services it provides – is so great that, when it is divided over all its citizens, it’s impossible for individual citizens to have a personal carbon footprint that is sustainable. Governments need to measure their own carbon footprint, report on it and make it reasonable.

12. Metrics and Accountability

The government should publish data and metrics that allow its citizens to see the result of these policies and, where they aren’t working, action should be taken. For example, we want to reduce the cost of healthy, local food to families; that can be measured and published. If it isn’t working in a specific town, maybe the local food cooperative should lose its subsidy or have its manager changed. Another example might be the availability of pools of electric vehicles to the population; this ought to be high and increasing, and if it isn’t – either country wide or in a specific location – action should be taken. Another example is making homes carbon neutral – data on average electricity bills should be available to measure the success of this programme. Progress on improving public transport is another example.

Right now, a country’s economy is principally measured by its GDP and the success of the government by its GDP growth. These are completely inappropriate metrics in for a Modern Society. We need to develop new metrics that take into account carbon footprint, sustainability and the cost of living. For example, PPP could be used instead of GDP and then be reduced by a high fictional carbon tax where the personal carbon footprint exceeds 2.5 tonnes of CO2 per person per year (the limit considered sustainable). Or dividing a country’s GDP by a measure of “how many earths” it needs (if this is over 1); in the case of France in 2018, it would have to divide its GDP by 2.8 This would be a much more reasonable way for a government to report its progress in a Modern Society.

Implementing the Action Plan

There are things we have to do in implementing the above action plan. 

Make good options available before discouraging bad ones

For example, make good, free (or cheap) public transport available before increasing the cost of fuel.

Implement early but painlessly

For example, implementing a 4 day work-week should be done immediately; it’s important to make progress quickly. For those earning more than the minimum wage, they will lose income, so the fifth day might be paid more generously for those people during a transition period. Where a change will negatively affect people – e.g. eliminating child allowance after the second child – the change should be phased in over a long period (and maybe not affect any children already born). 

Improved spending power for the disadvantaged

Reduced taxation, more energy efficient homes, free (or cheap) public transport and cheaper food should increase the spending power of the lowest 60% of the population in terms of income. For those in the top 10% or so, their income will be reduced. For those in between these limits, the changes should be broadly neutral.

Financially Sustainable

The government finances have to make sense. Running a budget deficit should be an emergency tool of government, especially when you aren’t trying to grow the economy. Obviously we are increasing government spending with better public services, better transport, paying the fifth day, subsiding local food production etc; but we are drawing in more taxes from the wealthy and saving money by not paying unemployment benefit and big agricultural subsidies. The government needs to balance these changes with existing services – e.g. the military – in a responsible way.

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